Understanding Erin Hills, Host of the 2017 U.S. Open

To understand Erin Hills for those who have yet to see it, you must start with what it is not. “It’s not parkland, it’s not heathland, it’s not linksland,” says John Morrissett, the competitions director at the Wisconsin course, which will host the U.S. Open this month. “It is really a mixture of elements.”

“It reminds me in some ways of Shinnecock Hills,” says Mike Davis, Executive Director at the USGA. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Erin Hills is the equal of Shinnecock. I’m not. But in some places, there are similarities.”

“It’s just Erin Hills,” course owner Andy Ziegler told the Chicago Tribune.

In its 11 short years as a completed golf course, Erin Hills has been universally praised as a remarkable piece of land, lauded for the minimalist design of the architects, and admired for the care and feeding of the course by the present owner.

Yet, there are plenty of questions: Will Erin Hills play bouncy as it was designed and as the USGA hopes? Will the breezes blow and how will it hold up in case of rain? How will the best players in the world fare? How will the public and the cognoscenti receive it?

We begin with a brief geology lesson. Erin Hills sits on the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin, about 35 miles from Milwaukee. The Moraine was formed 18,000 years ago in the Ice Age when two glaciers collided at right angles. When the earth warmed and the glaciers receded, they left behind land that rolled, heaved, and swelled. In other words, perfect for a golf course the likes of which has rarely been seen.

Bob Lang, who was a non-golfer at the time, bought the property with a golf course and a big tournament in mind. He put out a Request For Proposal to course architects and wound up awarding the project in 2000 to the highly regarded firm of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, who were joined by Ron Whitten, the longtime architecture editor at Golf Digest.

Davis visited the site at the behest of Whitten, who had sent Davis an e-mail a year earlier, during the week of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. “I remember driving out to the site, and when you get outside Milwaukee, it’s very rural, like Heartland U.S.A.,” says Davis, who, at the time, was director of competitions at the USGA.

“All of a sudden you get to this property and it’s all this rolling dunesland. As I drove down this country road, I thought this looked like Shinnecock Hills. They had done a routing and staked the tees and center lines. I remember thinking that this was going to be a spectacular golf course.”

A return visit to Erin Hills after construction finally commenced led Davis to recommend to then-Executive Director David Fay, “We have to look at it.”

Hurdzan, Fry, and Whitten made it their chief goal to move as little dirt as possible. They did multiple routings before settling on the present one. It was the routing that most showcased the geological features of the property.

“The land is really the star of the golf course and the architects made certain of that,” says Morrissett, who came to Erin Hills in 2010 after 17 years at the USGA. “It’s safe to say that the golf holes were found rather than built.”

The USGA awarded the 2008 U.S. Women’s Public Links to Erin Hills and, three years later, the U.S. Amateur was played there, two years after Lang sold Erin Hills to Ziegler. It wasn’t exactly a tournament for the best players in the world but it did host the best amateurs in the world and, at the time, that was enough for Davis.

“That was a big moment in time,” he says. “What we learned is how the golf course played in a big competition. Because it’s a minimalist design, it has some unique features. It has some semi-blind shots, has plenty of risk-reward holes.

“There have been some changes to the course since 2011, but I’m happy to say that most of them have been about making it better for the recreational player. But there were also changes to make it better for a championship. I think the course just keeps getting better and better.”

If you’ve heard this story before, you’re not wrong. Two years ago, the U.S. Open went to untested Chambers Bay in Washington where the course conditions became an issue. Like Erin Hills, Chambers Bay had fine fescue fairways but the greens were also fine fescue, and over the course of a long, hot week they wilted, drawing criticism from a number of players and journalists.

“No doubt,” Davis says when asked if staging the national championship at an untested site would be a big risk. “I wouldn’t call it a significant risk but there’s a risk. When we pick sites, we always start with the golf course. We ask ourselves if this is one of the truly great courses in the U.S., knowing that we have 45 percent of the world’s golf courses so we have quite a lot from which to choose.

“It’s a big country and has incredible diversity of architecture. We think we need to celebrate that diversity. What all those courses have in common is the ability to hold what we think is the ultimate test in golf.”

Agronomically, Erin Hills officials are determined not to lose control of the conditions. Under Ziegler’s ownership, the course underwent an aggressive top-dressing program in hopes that the fine fescue grasses will thrive under any condition and the playing characteristics will be firm and fast. And unlike Chambers Bay, the greens are bentgrass.

Since the course is at the mercy of the elements, Morrissett says that there is usually no prevailing wind direction during the time of the U.S. Open. Owing to the weather, Davis said the fairways are likely to be “30 to 50 percent wider” than a typical Open setup.

The course starts and finishes with bookend par-five holes, the first of which is listed at 560 yards. But the USGA has room behind that first tee and can stretch the opening hole to 630 yards, which can be a daunting start to a round. The 3rd through the 5th will be a difficult stretch, as the par-four 3rd is 508 yards and the par-four 5th is 505 yards.

The front nine closes with a par three that will play from 135 to 150 yards. It’s a small push-up green and can be difficult to hit, especially in the wind. Players who miss that green will find trouble from the surrounding erosion bunkers.

The incoming nine starts with a 504-yard par four that can be set up at 524 yards, depending on the conditions. The 12th hole, a par four of 464 yards, is one of the most dramatic on the course; the fairway bends, rises, and falls to a green at the bottom of a big hill. The par-four 15th is listed at 357 yards although the USGA is also considering tees that would make it play at 288 or even 252 yards. But the green is perched up in the side of a hill and there are problematic fairway and greenside bunkers.

The finisher is a 637-yard par five that can be stretched to a mammoth 675 yards, making a bunker in the middle of the fairway come into play at 120 yards from the green. The course could play as long as 7,693 yards to a par of 72. But if the fairways run out as is hoped, it will play much shorter than its yardage. Which means that this could be a wide-open Open.

Regardless of who holds the trophy, those connected with Erin Hills hope the Open will have the golf world talking—about what it is rather than what it’s not.

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