Erin Hills Golf Course, WI, USA
Given the mechanics of most people’s swings and their twitchy putting, one needs to be a dreamer to play the sport. Surely I will play better tomorrow! No doubt I’ll make the three-footer next time when it really matters. Though the expression ‘field of dreams’ is associated with another sport based on a popular movie, it applies equally well to golf. Just as people who play the sport are dreamers, so too need be people who get involved in bringing golf courses to fruition. One of the most interesting field of dreams projects to occur in America in recent times happened thirty-five miles north and west of downtown Milwaukee in Erin, Wisconsin.
Different dreams came to pass for those involved. There was the original developer (Bob Lang) of the gorgeously convoluted and pristine block of land who saw the land’s potential and wanted to put it to use in hosting big events. There were the dreams of America’s most prominent golf course critic (Ron Whitten) who determined that the time was right to push aside the keyboard and get some dirt under his nails. Also, the highly regarded design firm of Hurdzan & Fry with whom Whitten paired was thrilled with the prospects of working on their most inspired canvas to date. And finally, there were the aspirations of today’s owner of Erin Hills (Andy Ziegler). The long time resident of Wisconsin was keen to give back to his beloved home state and proudly wanted to be involved in showcasing his state to the world.
At the core of these dreams was a very special piece of property, 652-acres in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region that was shaped by receding glaciers 10,000 years ago. The rolling, and at times, tumbling site is full of eskers, kames, kettles and wetlands, all focused in a wonderfully random composition. One architect deemed it to be the best inland piece of property he had seen in America since Sand Hills. Primordial landforms surrounded by nothing but the sounds of nature provide the best, most intense connection to nature. Such land/opportunity rarely comes along. Lang, a non-golfer at the project’s start, knew the stakes were high so he issued a Request for Proposal. Whitten had long been at the center of golf course architecture. He was the co-author in 1981 of the cornerstone book on golf course architecture titled The Golf Course and had served full time as Golf Digest’s architecture editor since 1990, having started work there in 1985. He wasn’t an architect but people approached him anyway for design work. When Whitten turned fifty in 2000, he started thinking that he had waited too long and began looking for a special opportunity in which to become engrossed. Fortuitously, this coincided closely with when Lang issued his RFP. Whitten’s bid was noticed by his long-time friend Mike Hurdzan. Both gentlemen were interested in doing a course with friends and they went to visit Lang and tour the property jointly. Whitten was asked to join the bid effort of Hurdzan & Fry and, together, the project was awarded to them in late 2000.
Initially, they thought the land was so good, with so many natural landforms that they could build a course for a scant $1 million including irrigation. As Whitten says, their own challenge was to build the most natural course in America and prove that ‘Mother Nature is indeed the best architect.’ Whitten, Hurdzan and Fry spent over one year walking through the trees and came up with over a dozen routings that all deserved legitimate consideration. There were pros and cons to each. At one point, today’s tumbling twelfth hole was going to the opener but everyone felt that would bring too much congestion to that section of the property. Nobody wanted to see such fine land used for clubhouse/parking instead of golf. They refocused on keeping the course as pristine as possible so the clubhouse ended up well away from play.
September 11th occurred and, like many people, Bob Lang became less bullish. Construction had yet to commence and indeed none would until late 2004. Lang now needed comfort that this project would be a financial success before pressing ahead. Given his considerable pull within golf circles, Whitten was able to get the U.S. Open Championship director Mike Davis from the USGA. to come out in the summer of 2004. In preparation for his visit, Whitten and Lang mowed all eighteen playing corridors and tied cloth on poles to act as flags. Davis was intrigued though non-committal but thought enough of what he saw to return with David Fay, the then Executive Director of the USGA. Fay was visibly impressed with what he saw in October 2004 and shortly thereafter, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship was offered and accepted by Erin Hills.
They now had the small task of actually building the course! Excluding holes 1,8, 10 and 14, construction was straightforward: after tree clearing, they basically just sprayed Round-Up three times for the fairway areas, then staked out and installed irrigation and finally seeded with fescue. More earthwork was required on the other four holes and with the five par 3s, Whitten says ‘We sprayed Roundup on the (five) par 3s, too, as we simply excavated green basins, hauled off the soil, filled the holes with greensmix sand and graded back to tie into existing grades.’ No doubt, the three men had been true to their vision of adhering as closely to nature as possible. Helping them as the primary shaper was Canadian Rod Whitman. Few are better at moving dirt and yet making it look like nothing was ever touched. Hence, Whitman’s skills were particularly well suited to this project. Several of the tee complexes were benched into hills (e.g. the first, eighth, and eighteenth) that Whitman successfully created to look like natural pieces of the property. According to Whitten, ‘Rod also did a fantastic job in tying in green contours into existing surrounds with the eleventh and twelfth green complexes being fine examples.’
The course opened for play in late 2006. Expectations were sky high. Yet, the fescue fairways hadn’t been given a proper chance to knit together. The retail golfer grumbled. While there was much to like, there were unusual features too that were a lighting rod for criticism. The fact that the turf wasn’t ready for play only exacerbated the negative sentiment toward the design. The typical American golfer was taken back by several of the more pronounced design features, including a Dell par three, an elevated Biarritz green at the end of long par five and blind shots played from the first and seventeenth fairways. To the author, these sound like intriguing features! Yet, all along, Lang had been angling for a big event including a U.S. Open. Bottomline: these classic design features, as steeped in history as they may be, were a hindrance to a) the popularity of the course from green fee paying customers, b) the pace of play and c) Lang’s chance of getting a U.S. Open.
Over the next few years, these features were eradicated. The project complete, Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten left the site but Lang continued to tinker with it. Lang’s enthusiasm for the project had grown to the point where he wasn’t able to leave well enough alone. The ‘less is more’ doctrine adapted by Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten didn’t resonate. He built bunkers here and there and a handsome – but expensive – clubhouse. Money went out faster than it came in and Lang reached the point where he needed to take on a partner or sell the course. At stake was Erin Hills’ ability to provide suitable infrastructure to host the 2011 U.S. Amateur which they had been granted after the Public Links. At this point in its life, the course had strayed from its original vision of closely adhering to nature. For instance, when it opened the course had sixty bunkers and now it had double that. Some were in goofy spots too, as in blind over the crest of hills. Again, the retail golfer grumbled.
In October 2009, Lang sold Erin Hills to Milwaukee based businessman Andy Ziegler. A low profile, high quality person, his immediate involvement ensured that all goals would be met. This great property was now matched with an owner who would take good care of it. The course had the financial stability of which most clubs can only dream. The short-term work required for the U.S. Amateur occured and the long-term goals of seeing this wonderful property put to great use would be realized. USGA stalwart and past Vice-President Jim Reinhart suggested to Ziegler that Hurdzan & Fry be invited back. The course was closed for seven months as Dana Fry went to work softening features and removing unneeded bunkers. The course re-opened in August 2010. According to those involved, Ziegler looked at purchasing Erin Hills almost as a philanthropic endeavor, hoping to bring the first U.S. Open to Wisconsin and provide a venue that would support and celebrate amateur golf as well in his native sports-crazy state. His desire to remain in the background and to let Erin Hills speak for itself is refreshing in this age of self-promotion. Both Lang and Ziegler’s dream of bringing a great event to Wisconsin was realized when in 2010 the USGA awarded the U.S. Open to Erin Hills for 2017.
Regardless of the three versions (i.e., the original design as it opened, the one that Lang tinkered with, and the one today), the most important thing is how does today’s course play? That answer is unequivocally very well. There are lots and lots of holes to admire, many are one-off befitting this unique site. The worst holes or weak links are hard to identify. The overall texture and fabric of the course have come together beautifully. Green Keeper Zach Reineking, who has been here since the start, has the fine fescue fairways and bent putting greens both fast and firm. The turf quality is of a uniform high standard throughout – Fry called the playing conditions ‘phenomenal’ after a tour in September 2013 and can’t praise Reineking’s work enough. Trees are gone and the fescue waves proudly in the wind, leaving no doubt that the course has settled on its identity. Erin Hills has joined a small, select group of uniquely American prairie courses where one feels that a large body of water must surely be over the next ridge.
While, with its tall fescues, the first look at Erin Hills from the clubhouse gives golfers the impression that the course must occupy a sandy site similar to that at Sand Hills, the reality is that the property has a hodge-podge of soils termed “glacial till,” the churned up result of the receding glaciers 10,000 years ago. Some parts of the property have the desired sandy soil; some have heavy, dense soil; some even have the dreaded clay and others even had gravel and large boulders remaining. The result is that proper conditioning requires more effort than at uniform sites blessed with sandy soil throughout.
To complicate matters, Hurdzan was adamant on fine fescue for the fairways (as well as the rough) to ensure that the course played fast, to allow the natural topography to be highlighted, and to allow for a variety of recovery shots around the greens (note: the greens are A4 bentgrass). He had seen how well the fescue grassing scheme paid off at their Devil’s Paintbrush design north of Toronto and knew that bent fairways would ultimately require too much water and fertilizer to achieve the objective of molten fairways and bouncy-bounce golf. Hurdzan was wise to push for fescue as only in this manner can the course play as well as it looks. Rye and other grasses are too sticky to let the ground contours have their proper say in how the holes play. To help the fine fescue, Reineking initiated an aggressive top-dressing program after the course changed ownership in 2009.
The addition of 1200 tons of sand (!) on the fairways each year has benefited both the fine fescue and the overall drainage. While the battle against invasive grasses such as poa annua, bentgrass and ryegrass is never truly over, Erin Hills has achieved a comfort and confidence with the fine fescue that bodes well for a firm and fast 2017 U.S. Open. Think about it – how often can American courses realistically reach and maintain that state in mid-June?
This is not to say that Erin Hills bills itself as a pure fine fescue course. Areas consisting of heavy soils or clay with limited drainage require the use of different species of grass such as rye, which can tolerate these extremes. The goal is certainly to reduce if not completely eliminate the 15 – 20% of fairway turf still consisting of invasive grasses, and the ability to do so will continue to improve with each top-dressing.
The look and feel of Erin Hills and the quality of the turf present an enticing prospect. How about the holes themselves – how well did the architects do? Let’s go for a tour to see if the golfing quality is as appealing as the aesthetics.
Holes to Note
(Please note: Set over an expansive piece of property, Erin Hills can easily stretch over 7,800 (!) yards. The distances cited below are from the green tees of 6,755 yards.)
First hole, 540 yards; Once despised by many golfers with its tree in an awkward location along the edge of the wetland and the lack of visibility of the second-shot landing area, this three-shotter has matured into a well regarded opener. The hole’s best features lie in its final 60 yards, with the fairway flowing into the green that juts out into the wetland. A player hitting a long shot into the green needs to skirt past a final set of bunkers some 50 yards short of the green and watch his ball take the nine degree sloping land and trundle onto the open green. The fact that bunkers so far removed from a putting surface influence play to such a high degree is the first indication that this course represents a brand of golf different to what the golfer may be accustomed.
Second hole, 320 yards; Perhaps the most fun hole on the course, the second not coincidentally offers the most strategic tee shot on the course. The player who trusts his knowledge that the fairway swings wide left beyond the hill is rewarded with a view of the target for his pitch, while the golfer who cannot conjure up the nerve to hit his ball out of sight beyond the left hill and instead steers his tee shot towards the portion of the fairway that is visible straight ahead will be left with a blind pitch with a pot bunker threatening from the right. The tiger can do better and consider blasting his tee shot over the bunkers towards the hole itself. Some may even play 3-wood off the tee to leave a full pitch to this elusive target. At 2,700 square feet, the green is the smallest on the course, although it is now twice the size of the original as additional hole locations were needed. As Whitten notes, ‘Originally, we just leveled off a knob and voilà, there was the green measuring 1,300 square feet.’ The green resembles the proverbial upturned saucer and runs deceptively away from the player, making even the low marker content with a 15-footer for a 3.
Third hole, 420 yards; During Mike Davis’s initial walk around the property (i.e., before construction), he made a sage observation to both Lang and Whitten. Knowing Lang’s expressed desire to hold big events here, Davis remarked that he appreciated the potential fairway widths of forty to sixty yards but the fairways would need to be narrowed for certain USGA events. Specifically, he made the point that he hated to see bunkers separated from fairways by a ten or fifteen yard band of rough. Such bunkers were essentially meaningless. Davis stressed the need to make sure that bunkers protrude well into fairways and the architects heeded that advice through construction.
Fourth hole, 385 yards; Surprising for a hole of this length, the fourth consistently plays as one of the five hardest holes during events. The fairway is one of the narrowest and is even more vexing to find as many golfers make the mistake of believing that there is more fairway to the left out of view. The approach demands precision, with a mean front bunker in the center, false front on the right and a drop-off to a wetland beyond the green. The challenge is further enhanced by the interior contours of the green that are more severe than first seems. Fry in particular likes the variety of hole locations. A false front and false back highlight how short grass is used as a real menace on approach shots played to right hole locations while left ones must contend with bunkers. Aesthetically, one of Fry’s favorite moments on the course occurs walking from the tee to the fairway on this downhill hole as a glorious long view slowly unfolds.
Fifth hole, 405 yards; Not every hole should scream for the golfer’s attention. Otherwise, the golfer’s senses eventually become dulled. The fifth in many ways captures the essence of the place with the architects disturbing the rolling land to the bare minimum. Just how different the holes can play was on prime display during the U.S. Amateur. From the back markers, golfers who hit into the upslope off the tee would be left with approach shots in the 200 yard range. Fry saw one golfer in particular though whose tee ball flew the hill and received a huge kick forward, leaving him but 80 yards from the green on a day when the hole measured near 500 yards! Holes at traditional parkland course never play so wildly different. Watching the range of how these holes play over a four day event will be ceaselessly entertaining. Though subdued in appearance compared to the approaches into the twelfth or fifteenth greens for instance, the one at the fifth is highly rewarding. Options abound, including bouncing a ball in to the left of the greenside bunker and seeing it feed right across the putting surface. While the fifth may feel like a connector hole because of the long walk to its tee and the parallel seventh fairway, its golf qualities are decidedly first rate.
Sixth hole, 190 yards; Somewhat reminiscent of the thirteenth green at Machrihainsh with its challenging combination of a false front followed by a front-to-back pitch, the sixth green provides an ample target but a tough one to find a reasonable birdie putt. Parenthetically, the following hole was a par 3 Dell hole from 2006-2009. Though not ideal, the fact that back to back par 3’s existed highlighted the architects’ desire to find the best holes as provided by nature, regardless of how they fell on the scorecard.
Eighth hole, 410 yards; With its right-to-left sweep around a hill, the eighth is one of the course’s few true dog-legs. Depending on the tees and the direction and strength of the wind, the golfer has to decide how much of the left hill he should attempt to bite off. The landing area is appropriately wide for a hole of this length and type, while the approach is almost shockingly demanding, with a mid-iron across a valley to an elevated green guarded by bunkers in front. Whitten credits Tom Doak with helping to shape his thinking on such holes. As Whitten explains, ‘Apart from the putter, every club in the bag is intended to help get the ball airborne. Landing shots twenty yards short of a green and having it run on is fun but so too is using internal contours on or beside the green to work balls to certain hole locations. We focused on getting all the ripples in and around the elevated eighth green just right so that the thinking golfer can use slopes to his playing advantage.’