ERIN, Wis. – Dana Fry, who along with Mike Hurdzan and lawyer-turned-writer-turned-golf architect Ron Whitten, designed 11-year old Erin Hills, site of the 117th U.S. Open, recently said in an interview, “It’s unprecedented for the USGA to host the tournament at a venue this new.”
He’s close to being correct. It’s actually only the second “new,” modern-era course since 1970 to host the US. Open. The first was Chambers Bay, just two short years ago, only eight years old at the time it held the 2015 Open.
Interestingly, in 1970 the host course, Hazeltine National, was also just eight years old at the time. Back then Chaska, Minn. was so remote that to find the course you had to stop and ask a cow what farm they were playing. The same is true at Erin Hills, 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, but in this case, you’d have to stop and ask a woolly mammoth which moraine we are playing.
Erin Hills is not 11 years old. It’s 11,000 years old. When players and fans arrive at Erin Hills Golf Course in Wisconsin for the U.S. Open, they will gaze with wonder upon a landscape that predates the arrival of man in North America. All Fry, Hurdzan and Whitten had to do was did was mow a few greens and tee boxes, carve out bunkers and shape a few fairways. The real architect was ice: thousands of years old, hundreds of feet high.
Few golf courses on Earth can claim their genesis from a major planetary geological event, but Erin Hills was formed by the cataclysmic power of the receding Wisconsin Glacation, the weight of which scarred gargantuan swaths across the landscape when it receded. As the ice withdrew it carved a galaxy of fascinating landforms: kettle lakes 100 feet deep or more, stratified terraces called kames shaped by the meltwater and eskers - enormous winding terraces snaking across the landscape.
Throughout golf history we’ve known that nature is the best golf course architect, and with over 650 acres of this wild, rugged landscape to choose from, Fry, Hurdzan and Whitten, among the highest of the High Priests of the Holy Church of Minimalism, selected the best 300 acres, and simply designed holes across, around, and over the most fascinating landforms.
"90 percent of the golf corridor (tees, greens, fairways, primary rough, bunkers, etc.) remains in its 'natural state' and that is by design," wrote Hurdzan. "Even with some revisions, we only moved about 20 percent of the terrain compared to what you would see at other modern golf courses."
The average golf course moves about 200,000-250,000 cubic yards of earth. Doing the math, that means the trio moved a mere 40-50,000 cubic yards at Erin Hills. The architects moved earth on only four holes, and even that was adding make-up rather than performing plastic surgery. They knocked the top off a hill or two, they smoothed a landing zone here and there, they shaped and sculpted a few more places, but that was it. Everything else is as the architects found it.
The property was so impressive, so exquisite, that in 2004 they invited USGA Executive Director Mike Davis to see it even before construction had begun with an eye towards attracting the Open. In anticipation of Davis’s arrival, all they did was plant flags for green sites and mow a few tee boxes.
Davis was floored. Astounded at the massive expanse – 652 glorious primordial acres, more than enough to fit the downright colossal footprint of the U.S Open – Davis called it one of the greatest tournament venue sites he had seen in the world and immediately offered them the 2008 Women’s Am Public Links. An offer for the 2011 U.S. Amateur soon followed.
At that time, the man who owned the course was Bob Lang. He made his fortune in greeting cards, and he lost it tinkering with this golf course when Ron Whitten’s back was turned.
Was Bob Lang the worst golf course owner of the modern era? No, in many eyes that ignominy belongs to Alfred Park, (see Crestwood Golf Club in Marcy, N.Y.). But Lang might well have been the biggest pain in the ass. According to Whitten’s Golf Digest preview, look at this list of atrocities he tried to inflict upon Whitten, Hurdzan and Fry:
- He wanted a par-73 golf course;
- He wanted a par-6 hole;
- He wanted clusters of trees in the middle of fairways as a hazard to play around;
- He wanted it 8,800 yards long -- “phallic envy” as Whitten described it;
- He wanted a set of “Back Black tees” so he could host a “Back Black Challenge” where no one could break 80. (He held it. They didn’t);
- He added 100 more bunkers when Whitten was away from the project, putting them in places without any architectural purpose (perhaps more phallic envy, this time of Whistling Straits?); and
- His idea of a great golf course was Brown Deer Park in Milwaukee (I’ll wait till you’re done laughing…)
To remedy all this, Whitten sent him on a dream trip to Prairie Dunes and Sand Hills. Prairie Dunes and Sand Hills, people! If there’s any golf course in the Western Hemisphere that can claim an earlier genesis than Erin Hills it’s Sand Hills. That part of Nebraska was the bottom of the ocean during the Mesozoic Era. That’s about 66 million-99 million years ago.
Lang told Whitten he didn’t like Sand Hills…there weren’t enough trees.
Ron Whitten sent him to Sand Hills, and he didn’t like it? That’s like Zeus inviting you up for a tour of Olympus, then casually mentioning that Neptune is retiring and asking, “Would you like the job?,” and you saying no, you don’t like sushi.
Then, finally, in the worst insult of all, Lang had Whitten banished from Erin Hills, because he knew Ron would try to talk him out of his lunkhead ideas. (Also because by throwing Whitten off the project, it meant Golf Digest, for whom Whitten worked, could begin to consider Erin Hills for top 100 lists.)
Happily for Erin Hills, it was the incessant meddling that did Lang in. One day out of the blue he announced he was selling. He had spent pretty much everything he had bunkering the golf course, and suddenly, that was it; he couldn’t afford the course any more. Let this be a warning to would-be owners who want to play golf architect. You have to study the craft before you start to dig in the dirt.
In stepped Andy Zeigler, who knew exactly what the rule is: When you’re the money, you may remain so ling as you remain silent. Pay attention, and you’ll learn how genius creates a legend.
“Bob Lang was the parent who provided the DNA, Andy Zeigler was the guardian angel who brought up the child,” Hurdzan said kindly, and he’s right. Without Lang, there would be no Erin Hills. Still, the best story of all may be Whitten’s.
Here’s a guy who was a successful prosecuting attorney in Kansas, but he quits in 1985 to critique golf courses for Golf Digest. Whitten is the Grande Dame of U.S. golf course critics and a published author of a well-respected book on architecture. Most people don’t know this, but back in 1992 he was actually offered the job of designing Bandon Dunes by developer Mike Kaiser, but turned it down, leaving it to David McLay Kidd.
Whitten had designing on his mind all along – any good golf course design writer has the yearning - it just took a few more years to for Whitten to get around to the digging. Erin Hills was the right site at the right time. All he really wanted to do was build a truly great golf course. What he got was a U.S. Open.
In the biggest way ever, Whitten talked the talk, and then he walked the walk. It’s one of the most unlikely stories in golf design history, but a feel-good one as well. Best of all, he gave every ordinary guy who dreams about designing a golf course hope. That’s as great a gift to golf as Erin Hills.
ON THE COURSE
Erin Hills is long – all four par 5s are over 607 yards, including the ludicrously enormous 663-yard 18th. But even so, Whitten thinks they can all be reached in two, albeit with fairway metals in many cases. The scorecard reads 7,741 yards, but with Davis’s flex tees it will never play that long on any given day. Moreover, it’s a par-72, a rarity at a U.S. Open, the last being Pebble Beach in 1992.
Players can get off to a good start because the opening hole is the shortest of the par 5s and is followed by a drivable par 4, a mere 350 yards, but to a green surrounded by a fall-off on all sides and guarded by two bunkers: one center-line off the tee, the other directly in front of the green.
Players will also have birdie opps at 14 and 15. No. 14 can play either 607 yards or 507 yards, the latter distance making the hole play like a tempting “par 4.5.” The fairway is shaped like a reversed question mark, the negative space being thick fescue and a river, while the thin sliver of green has fall-offs front and back.
No. 15 is another drivable par-4, but with the bunker-encircled green atop a knob, the tees will have to be moved up from the 370 yards marked on the card. The green also has a spine running longitudinally through its middle, and with a back left shelf as well, it’s effectively three little, well-defended greens in one.
Still, over those four holes, players have the chance to go as low as 6 under. With all these par 5s, if the course is soft and if the wind is down, the score-to-par record of 16 under (Rory McIlroy in 2011 at Congressional) could be broken.
If the wind blows, however, and the USGA gets the fast and firm conditions they want, forget that. Stout par 4s, several of which are 490 yards or longer, and par 3s with small, wildly contoured greens will balance out the course and keep scores looking more like a U.S. Open and less like a Greater Milwaukee Open. The shorter par 4s, like Nos. 3 and 4, feature shallow, well-guarded greens and cunningly placed fairway bunkers. The longer par 4s, Nos. 5 and 8 for example, use the wondrous natural contours of the Kettle Moraine landscape to defend par. The fifth features a valley in the fairway that looks like it was designed by a Golden Age master, while the reverse camber of the eighth fairway recalls the glorious natural defenses you find at Olympic Club’s fabled Lake Course.
Erin Hills is so young, it’s tough to get a pulse on who might have an advantage. Only those who also competed in the 2011 U.S. Amateur will have any tournament experience under their belt. That year Kelly Kraft held off Patrick Cantlay 2-up, but among the alumni of that tournament include Jordan Speith -- who is starting to rally after a bit of a slump -- followed by young gun Harris English, Russell Henley and Bryson DeChambeau.
With its look and feel of an inland U.K. links, many European players might feel at home, including Louis Oosthuizen, who tends to play his best in the majors. Henrik Stenson broke or tied not only several Open Championship records last year but several major championship records as well (63 to close and 20under for the tournament). And of course if Rory McIlroy can stay healthy he can run away from the field when he’s playing his best.
On the American side of the draw, favor the long hitters. Dustin Johnson says he’s recovered from the freak accident where he injured his back falling down the stairs the night before the Masters.
“Bro! I can’t believe I just did that!” he whimpered as everyone gathered around to help him. Neither could we, Dustin, but then again it’s always a wild ride with you, though, isn’t it? Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas also have the requisite combination of length and short game to play well at Erin Hills as well.
Perhaps the only thing that might rival the excitement of the tournament itself is the electricity of the Wisconsin golf fans. It was no less a personage than Pete Dye himself who praised them for their joyous love of golf.
“They were jumping up and down and shouting and throwin’ their arms in the air...Hey, Allie! Allie!” he said, calling to his wife. “What was that those fans were doing in Whistling Straits?”
His wife Alice called back from the other room. “They were doing 'The Wave.'”
“Well I don’t know what that is, but it looked like some good, clean Midwestern fun!” Pete confirmed energetically.
That was 2004, and Wisconsin fans were so excited to have a major golf championship back in their state for the first time since Gene Sarazen won the 1933 PGA Championship at Blue Mound that they were, indeed, doing the Wave around the 17th green. But now that the U.S. Open is returning to the Cheese state, fans are flat-out bugging. For the first time in 117 august years, they will host the National Championship. And finally, the USGA might have solved their pesky problem of finding a Midwest venue they could reliably return to over and over again.