HARTFORD, Wis. -- "How far do you hit your 3-wood?"
That's what my caddie Tim asked me as he was shooting the flagstick with his laser rangefinder.
I thought about piping up with the longest I've ever hit a 3-wood from the fairway without the assistance of a well-placed cart path. Then I thought the better of it and dropped about 20 yards.
"About 260?" I said, not entirely sure myself of how far I could hit it.
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Tim responded, "Then you're laying up."
I was incredulous.
"How far do I have left?"
Tim plainly delivered the news: "285."
My drive of 350 yards wasn't long enough to get the green light to go for the par-5 18th at Erin Hills Golf Course in two.
The finishing hole at the home of the 2017 U.S. Open measures 637 yards from the blue tees. It's a monster of a par 5 that, thankfully, usually plays downwind. The drive zone is guarded by a big bunker on the left and two imposing traps to the right. A solid draw off the right bunkers can open up a path of a lot of roll, as I found out when I hit what seemed like a solid, but not extremely long, drive to the last. My drive must have rolled some 80 yards, maybe 100, from where it landed to just past one of many ridges that are there to foil even further roll.
However, to reach the final green in two requires a second shot that's almost all carry, with a huge, deep bunker guarding the putting surface from the front and hundreds of yards of tall, wispy fescue in front of it. Even if the ball gets there -- good luck -- it would be almost impossible to hold the green coming in that hot. Any miss long or left will drop down into a collection area that bottoms out some 25 feet beneath the surface of the green.
So, it's a lay up to the right, and it's not an easy one. The landing zone is framed to the right by another big bunker, which proves a great aiming point for a draw to stay to the right of a large pot bunker situated about 115 yards from the green. I split the sand-rights and left about 120 yards to the hole with a slight downhill lie. The three-quarter pitching wedge I hit landed 10 feet short and ended 8 feet to the right, pin high.
After my playing partners had some trouble with the hole, I got my birdie crack. Right-middle. Drain-o. My only circle on the card.
Tim was surprised: "In six or seven years of caddying here, I've only seen someone birdie this hole seven or eight times."
That's the hole that will likely decide the Open in 2017, but it's not the only stunner on this track situated about an hour northwest of downtown Milwaukee. Erin Hills in really in the middle of nowhere, with the entrance appearing meekly with a sign that looks like it's a For Sale sign hung for yet another Midwest family farm. The drive back to the course winds briefly through the tall fescue that you'll familiarize yourself with more intimately later, ending up at a former barn, now for caddies not cattle, where the bag drop is.
The first look out is a stunner. It's pure golf. It's not links golf, but it is true American links golf. Not much earth was moved to make Erin Hills; the heavy machinery hit just four holes significantly. The old buildings on the farm are still there, now serving as a pub and a lodge and lodging. There are no carts, just walking golfers, traversing the vast course with caddies in tow. Golf as it was meant to be.
The present Erin Hills, which first opened in 2006, is, more or less, the third incarnation of the property. After the initial unveil, the USGA, which has been a partner form the get-go, suggested that, if it were going to host one of their championships, some big changes were needed. With that kind of carrot hanging over the course, the owners capitulated and made the investment.
Then, after it was sold in 2010, another renovation was done ahead of its biggest event to date: the 2011 U.S. Amateur. The biggest change to the property was shortening the course from a par 73 to a 72, reducing the lengthy 10th hole from a par 5 to a par 4 with a new green. Fairways and greens were reshaped, 300 trees were removed and bunkers were moved.
Length was never a question for Erin Hills. There's plenty of land for golf and U.S. Open infrastructure -- the hospitality tents, media center, grandstands and more. At its absolute longest, Erin Hills can play about 8,100 yards. There's no way it'll ever play that long for the Open -- it's likely going to be closer to 7,800 yards -- but the threat of a course that long has to inspire at least a little bit of fear in the world's best.
The course opens meekly, with a reverse-C-shaped par 5. The fairway, like most of the course, is generous, and leaves plenty of options for tee balls and approach shots. It's not always so black and white that there's a clear aggressive line and a bailout. Sometimes, the bailout is the better play to set up scoring, like at the first. Lay up to 150 yards and have the most clean look at the back-to-front-sloping, diagonally laid green.
Then switch gears for the short par-4 second, which could be a fascinating challenge for the pros. The green isn't visible from the tee, but the drive zone is, at least for a conservative shot. Ideally, a pro would drill driver in between the slopes of a near and far aiming mound, landing with just some 40-50 yards to the very small green. A missed approach here in 2017 stands to be penalized heavily.
The fourth hole was Tim's favorite, and I loved it, too. It can play some 425 yards but will likely play as a 285-yard drivable par-4 during one of the Open rounds. There is little incentive to go for the green from that short save for the fact that a layup would be tricky, bringing into play one of Erin's many fairway-bisecting bunkers and one of its many deep greenside bunkers that gobble up poorly executed approach shots.
While there are bunkers a plenty at Erin Hills, most of the greens have room to play on the ground. Unlike a links course, where the ground is often the preferred route, here it's more like a creative option to escape trouble.
The front nine finishes with two beauties that will be devilish for the Open.
The par-4 eighth, which played some 440 yards for me, will be 50 yards longer for the Open field and still invite most players to hit 3-wood off the tee. It's a somewhat blind tee shot, aiming with a slight draw off the clubhouse to a layup zone that actually slopes away and down from the player. The longer player can actually try to smash a fade ofer the blocking mounds, which, if pulled off, leads to a much easier uphill approach shot to a severely back-to-front sloping green. The hole will prove a menace.
The ninth, by contrast, is just 150 yards, and par there will be an incredible score. Like with the other shorter holes at Erin Hills, the green is very small, requiring short irons with control and shape. The shot on the downhill ninth is a draw, playing not only with the likely crosswind, but trying to avoid a big swale on the back right portion of the reverse Redan putting surface. On one day, a hole location has to be there, which will bring ace and triple bogey into play. Coming up short might mean finding one of the scariest looking lies ever.
The 12th hole was the best on the back, playing some 430 yards from the Blue box and going back another 35 yards for the Championship tees. It slopes severely from left to right, with a dogleg-shaped fairway following the topography. With a monster fade of a drive, a player could find a big downslope, but it will more than likely land on a plateau that opens up to a slightly hidden green on the approach. The green is bigger than it looks, and the green complex is somewhat reminiscent of the 10th at Chambers Bay.
In some sense, the par-5 14th is a mirror image of the 18th, albeit significantly shorter. A draw again works off the tee, but the player has less room before trouble, including a fairway bunker some 280 yards off the tee. From there, the layup is left, not right, and needs to remain short of an aiming bunker at the corner of the dogleg right to the green. A brave effort to go for the green in two must fly just to the right of a huge mound that will otherwise block the view of approach shots from outside 130 yards. The green complex slopes hard from left to right, making the approach one that requires a lot of precision or risk an easy three-jack.
It's hard not to fall in love with the 17th hole. It just fits. There's nothing fancy here at all, not even a bunker, but the hole is a 445-yard brute. Hit a draw off the big tree to the right and let it run up and down the many slopes in the fairway. The green sneakily slopes from left to right, which flies in the face of the look you get from the fairway, with your eye drawn to the bailout zone on the right, which you instantly think of drawing over. It's a fairly easy par with a good tee shot, but it's beautiful in its simplicity.
Then there's the finish. In simple terms, it's brutal to look at on the card, but so much fun to play. It's a hole where there is no throw-away shot, unlike so many true three-shot par 5s, where you can take a shot or two off before hitting the approach. Every shot matters on the 18th, and that birdie made me feel like a million bucks walking off the last green.
The natural comparisons will be to three-time PGA Championship host Whistling Straits, just a 90-minute traverse of county and country roads away, and 2015 U.S. Open site Chambers Bay.
Straits is a true Pete Dye golf course with a lot of visually stunning noise around it. It's still fundamentally target golf. Both are beauties in their own ways, but the Straits course has the advantage of overlooking Lake Michigan.
Erin Hills has what so many wish Chambers had: bentgrass tees and greens. It's a change that would bastardize Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s mission with Chambers, having seamless playing surfaces, but Erin is so much more playable and the putts so much truer with the different grasses. Again, Chambers has Puget Sound to augment the views, but it lacks clear sight lines.
The 2017 Open host has the edge over both if you have a discriminating taste for what the land was before it became a course. Erin Hills is basically the same farm land now shaped to grow fescue instead of corn. Most everything else is the same. Whistling Straits was once a military base, while Chambers Bay was once a mine. It's a matter of personal taste whether you consider the man-made reshaping of land more impressive than turning natural topography into a world-class golf course.
What makes Erin Hills masterful isn't any one particular thing. It isn't visual overload, but it's naturally gorgeous. It's scorecard long, but its length isn't completely overwhelming in playing it. There are ideal places to hit the ball, but the penalty for missing isn't so extreme that it ruins the impulse to play aggressive golf. Players and fans alike will love this open Open venue.
This was first published Aug. 25, 2015