Dustin Johnson shot 82 in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach to turn a three-shot lead into a T8 finish, but that wasn’t the story of the weekend for me. Neither was Graeme McDowell bringing the U.S. Open trophy to Europe for the first time in four decades. Amidst the backdrop of Carmel Bay, the USGA announced that the host of the 2017 U.S. Open would be Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
Being a lifelong Chicago resident, I had two reactions: excited to have another major championship in the Midwest, and bewildered because, like most, I had no idea why a 4-year-old course in Middle Of Nowhere, Wis., was selected. I live about 10 miles from Medinah Country Club and had been spoiled by the opportunity to attend the U.S. Open in 1990 (Hale Irwin) and the PGA Championship in 1999 and 2006 (Tiger, Tiger) without much travel or planning. We were still two years away from the Ryder Cup, now referred to as the Miracle at Medinah, and I had hoped that Medinah would be back in the U.S. Open rotation someday, because I was 11 years old in 1990 and didn’t get to absorb the magic as an adult.
Never could I have imagined that I would experience the beauty of Erin Hills through the eyes of my 7-year-old son, Jonathan.
Allow me to preface this story by saying that my son is not normal for his age. He’s very tall and a complete golf junkie. He knows almost all the players, and he plays in the weekly Book family fantasy golf draft with me and my father… and he’s destroying us. Total nerd. Plus, he has a better swing than I do. I was more excited to see his reaction to the tournament than anything else.
We chose gallery tickets for Friday’s round because in the unlikely event that some of his favorite players – Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy – missed the cut (yikes) we would miss them if we didn’t attend one of the first two days. Jonathan didn’t sleep much Thursday night, and I slept less.
Our journey began about 5 a.m., and after a quick stop at McDonald’s to get breakfast for the road, we hit the highway. The USGA did a wonderful job making our parking location perfectly clear, and we arrived in the Blue lot in Oconomowoc by 7:45 a.m. The line to get through security was hundreds of people deep, but the process was incredibly efficient.
Yes, the security line was in the remote parking lot, 20 miles south of Erin Hills, as there was no on-site parking for guests. Major airports and TSA could have gone to school off this setup, as the workers were friendly and security performed their job without incident. Again, we had been made aware ahead of time what we could carry along and what to leave behind, so my pocket holdings of cell phone and sunscreen presented no obstacles.
We boarded one of dozens of buses lined up to shuttle guests to the action, and bubbled with excitement for the entire 30-minute ride. The bus trip ended very near the front gate, and a volunteer was passing out junior tickets, a welcomed site as to avoid the will call window. We hadn’t been on the grounds for 15 minutes when a gentleman handed my son a U.S. Open hat that he had been given… Jonathan had scored his first souvenir and I hadn’t touched my wallet!
Immediately inside the gate began our morning of sensory overload. We spent quite a bit of time at the USGA Golf Innovation Experience, where Jonathan beamed while hitting balls into a simulator screen set to holes at Erin Hills. He also took a crack at trying to win his father a new car in the Lexus Performance Experience; we drove home in my Toyota. Following a quick stop in the merchandise tent to purchase lanyards for our tickets, it was time to hit the course.
We caught a glimpse of the group of Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia on the first tee as they made the turn after starting on the 10th hole. Jonathan wanted to get ahead of Rory McIlory’s group, so we trudged through the tallgrass toward the second green and stopped at a barren spot in the right rough just short of the putting surface. Four more solid groups came through, including shots from Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Thomas and Paul Casey before Rory arrived with Justin Rose and Jason Day. We had no idea at that point that all three of these superstars would miss the cut; they seemed larger than life in person.
After more time navigating the slick fescue and the steep hills, we decided to hike back to the main concession stand near the front gate. After my gluttonous trip to Las Vegas a few weeks back, I was pleased to see the food prices at Erin Hills weren’t outrageous. My biggest fear from our lunch was that my son may have developed an addiction to cheese curds. We each had a hot dog, and a bottle of water, and we shared the curds and a bottle of Gatorade. Damage? Less than $30. Merchandise tent stop No. 2 was more painful on the bank account…
The afternoon added another layer to the wonderful memories we had already built. Standing along the ropes on the eighth tee, star after star blasted shots down the fairway. Once the group of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Martin Kaymer vacated the tee box, the millions of fans surrounding us followed. As we contemplated our next move, a group including Stephan Jaeger prepared to tackle No. 8. Jaeger walked in our direction and handed his gently-used ProV1 to my son, who was speechless. It was more than just another free souvenir – he was holding the golf ball of a professional from the U.S. Open.
While the temperature rose, we discovered several spots with great sightlines and little congestion, and watched groups try to tame the 12th green and the par-3 13th. Several hours and a dozen water bottles later, we finally settled in at the 18th green for the final few hours to observe the last eight groups. Dustin Johnson arrived at 18 with a score of 4 over, and with the cut sitting three shots better, he needed to hole his second shot, an impossible task on a par 5 measuring nearly 700 yards. Amazingly, he hit his second shot through the green, missing a chance to play the weekend but impressing everyone in the stands with his pure power.
As the sun hid behind threatening clouds, our viewing time came to a close, and after a whole bunch of picture stops and a final run through the merchandise tent, we jumped on a waiting shuttle and arrived 30 minutes later at our lonely car – the nearly empty parking lot was quite a different scene from 13 hours earlier. As my house sits less than 30 miles from both O’Hare and Midway Airports, the sound of a plane-free sky on a beautiful Wisconsin evening was serene.
My observations were plentiful:
- Erin Hills was a wonderful host. Genuine Wisconsin hospitality shined brightly, as the volunteers were polite and helpful, and conversations with locals always produced a smile. Even the mobile phone police conducted their business in a friendly manner. It helped having a handsome 7-year-old with me, but the experience was much more delightful than other tournaments I have attended.
- Though the course was fantastic, I can see how some didn’t care for the layout. The 650-acre landscape was difficult to navigate at times due to the slippery grass and voluminous hills, but with careful movement and no clocks to become slave to, the land wasn’t a major issue for us. The lack of trees meant many points at which viewing multiple holes was possible, and the course was in pristine condition. Some 25,000 steps later, my FitBit thought it had been stolen by a fitness nut.
At the end of the day, my little buddy was depleted. He hung in for the entire round, and after a quick Happy Meal in the car (yep, McDonald’s twice in one day… kid was pumped) to start the two-hour ride home, he spent the final 90 minutes dreaming of the day gone by and snoring like a pro. May all of you find someone in your life who shares an interest and wants to be with you to make a memory. Last week, mine happened to be a second-grader.
Walking to the car, Jonathan told me it was the best day of his life, which completed my dream day with my boy. Brooks Koepka may have held the trophy high on Sunday, but I won the U.S. Open on Friday.