Erin Hills Golf Course, WI , USA

Ninth hole, 145 yards; The shortest hole at Erin Hills is far from the easiest. In fact, this downhill, exposed one-shotter was the sixth most difficult hole during the stroke-play portion of the 2011 U.S. Amateur. The left bunkers are some of the meanest on the course and often leave a player hoping to card a bogey. Given how it meets all infrastructure requirements, Erin Hills is primed to host countless televised events going forward. The ninth may not be that well known today but with time, the author will be shocked if this doesn’t become recognized as one of the great/notorious one shotters in American golf, right up there with its prairie cousins like the second at Prairie Dunes and the seventeenth at Sand Hills.

The 9th: Hit the green – or else!

Unlike the eighth, the pushed up ninth green is a hit it or else proposition. When the wind kicks up, this little hole becomes daunting.

This bunker behind the 9th green is not visible from the tee and has led to several ugly surprises for players who thought they had hit good tee shots. Note how narrow the left part becomes.

The bunker behind the ninth green is not visible from the tee and has led to several ugly surprises for players who thought they had hit good tee shots. Note the bunker’s superbly wicked narrow left finger which is barely big enough for ‘an angry man and his niblick.’ This photograph also captures a key element of the short hole’s defense which is that the shoulders of the green slope away on both sides toward gathering bunkers.

Tenth hole, 450 yards; Lang shrewdly purchased two different blocks of property to create the expansive chunk that is Erin Hills today. What a pity it would have been if the architecture was cramped in any manner. Happily, it isn’t with this hole being a prime example of the broad-shouldered nature of the place. From a design point, the tenth green complex also shows how a course can work for all level of golfers. The tiger will enjoy attempting to carry the largest greenside bunker on the course while the less accomplished player is given plenty of room left of the green from where he can tack in on his third for an up and in par.

One of the author's favorite tee shots is the uphill blind one at the tenth. A course over such rambunctious land should feature at least one such tee ball.

One of the author’s favorite tee shots is this uphill blind one at the tenth. A course over such rambunctious land should feature at least one such tee ball.

The sixty-five yard wide fairway is one of the widest on the course. Look at the beautiful land movement captured within the fairway!

The beautiful landforms were brilliantly employed within the confines of the 65 yard wide fairway. Strategy abounds, as tee shots down the right find the downslope, giving players an additional ~30 yards of roll.

Eleventh hole, 315 yards; Great land is irrelevant if its contours aren’t brought directly into play. At the eleventh, a hillside was captured by the architects in the fairway and serves as a sideboard for tee balls played down the right of the fairway. Technically, this is the narrowest fairway on the course but it doesn’t play that way thanks to this sideboard. The fairway’s strong right to left slopes are contrast intriguingly with the dominant left to right slope found around and within the green. After the demanding prior three holes, the eleventh provides a welcome change of pace that signals the varied/interesting holes that lie ahead.

As seen from behind the eleventh green, the diverse natural slopes that dictate play are evident. A lot of trees were removed, but little earth was moved in creating this hole.

 

Twelfth hole; 390 yards; The twelfth hole uses the best topography of the course to full effect. Whitten says, ‘What marvelous landforms to use for golf. You would never build a hole like it but since it is there, we would have been crazy not to take advantage of it.’ Unless the hole is into the wind, the player can try to knock his tee shot down the far hill, leaving himself a short-iron to the green (which is hidden if he drives left but visible if he braves the right side). If he lays back to the top of the hill, he faces an invigorating approach down the hill – one of the few downhill approaches on the course. The green is deceptive, with its ridge across the center that leaves the back half of the green running away from the player. This is a prime example of what people mean when they write about a well routed hole over great land. Courses over more mundane land can’t compete with drama so deeply rooted in nature.

If the drive is over the hill, the approach from the left is blind, encouraging players to hug the right side.

If the drive is over the hill, the approach from the left is blind, encouraging players to hug the right side.

Ballybunion? Cruden Bay? No, the roller-coaster twelfth at Erin Hills.

Ballybunion? Cruden Bay? No, the roller-coaster twelfth at Erin Hills.

Thirteenth hole, 170 yards; A sleeper of a hole, the thirteenth offers more than first meets the eye. With the sprawling bunker built into the left hillside, many golfers err to the right, leaving a recovery shot that encourages indecision from the closely mown area. Should I putt, chip or pitch the ball? With a shallow swale that runs across most of the center of the green and a front that does not allow balls to bounce onto the green, front hole locations are challenging to approach, especially downwind. This hole can provide tremendous variety to those who play the course on multiple days, as one day the hole may call for an 8-iron to a front hole and the next day a 4-iron to a back hole location.

Sand left and grass right: Which way to err?

Sand left and grass right: Which way to err? Also, note the clean lines and how nothing distracts the eye from the surrounding beauty.

 

Bunkers come in all shapes and sizes at Erin Hills.  On the 13th this small pit is paired with a sprawling erosion bunker.

Bunkers come in all shapes and sizes at Erin Hills. On the thirteenth this small pit is paired with a sprawling erosion bunker.

Fourteenth hole, 505 yards; This serpentine hole plays straight as a gambling two-shot hole, with the tee shot over the two bunkers on the left side and the second across an expansive native area to a green that steps down from left to right and features an extreme false front. As a three-shotter (whether into the wind or from a back tee), the second shot is far from a throwaway, as the farther up the fairway it is played, the more of the green is visible. The player is then left with an intriguing pitch as, because of the angle, the two levels run away from the player. As uncluttered as this hole appears, Whitten is quick to note that nature isn’t (always) perfect and that sometimes you have to help her along in such matters as drainage. Take here for instance. Whitten notes, ‘Rod Whitman was important in reshaping the fourteenth fairway, which had been a bean field.  He extended from the existing esker on the left a low ridge diagonally across the fairway and subtly shaped it to both drain yet keep balls from bounding right into the wet rough next to the river.  Rod’s handiwork looks so natural that no one could ever tell it was once a dead flat bean field and yet it was instrumental to ensure that the fourteenth fairway would drain properly for decades to come.’

From the 15th tee, the question posed by the second shot to the 14th is clear: go for the green or lay up well to the golfer’s left.

As seen from the fifteenth tee, the question posed by the second shot to the fourteenth is clear: go for the elevated green or lay up well to the golfer’s left.

Fifteenth hole, 345 yards; The tee shot is more straightforward than it first appears, with a number of bunkers inside the fairway. The play is just to stay short of the first bunker and then pitch up to a green that offers three quite different hole locations – in a bowl on the left, dangerously close to the front edge and along the right side and the sharp drop-off (and truly frightening bunkers) on that side. A spine (which has been softened) splits the left and right sides of the green, making a player unlikely to make 4 if his approach is not within 30 feet of the hole.

The volcano green complex didn’t jump out to the architects until many walks around the property as it was shrouded underneath trees.

 

When he was one up, Patrick Cantlay hit 8-iron into this bunker from the forward tee on the 33rd hole of the final of the 2011 U.S. Amateur, made 5, and lost the hole (as well as the sixteenth and the match).

When he was one up, Patrick Cantlay hit 8-iron into this bunker from the forward tee on the 33rd hole of the final of the 2011 U.S. Amateur, made 5, and lost the hole (as well as the sixteenth and the match).

Sixteenth hole, 165 yards; This two tiered green was perfectly tucked into a fold between a tall dune left and a smaller dune right.  Looks are deceiving as the hillside on the left is not the golfer’s friend. Balls hit into it will find one of several bunkers at its base that are hidden from view from the tee. Also, not all of the putting surface is visible from the tee either and the uncertainty that creates is an admirable design feature.

One of the most handsome holes on the course was perfectly tucked into a fold between a tall dune left and a smaller dune right.

Despite the unfortunate placement of the foot path, the sixteenth is one of the most handsome holes on the course.

Eighteenth hole, 620 yards; The fact that the course begins and ends with par fives is noteworthy. What world class course can you think of that does the same? No cheating saying Baltustol Lower either! More important though is the quality of the two holes, with this one fitting the classic definition of a three shotter. Each shot gets progressively demanding with it all played out against the backdrop of Erin Hills’ Lodge and the basilica of Holy Hill in the distance. While the shape of the hole is a mirror image of the fourteenth, except with a freakish wind or a freakish golfer, the eighteenth always plays as a three-shotter, and a stout one at that. With his second the golfer must be disciplined enough to aim well to the right from the visible flagstick. The third is the most precise iron the player is asked to play all day, thanks to the cluster of bunkers on the left, false front on the right and dramatically severe closely mown fall-off back-left.

From the spires of the distant basilica at Holy Hill to the chimneys of the Lodge, there are many prospective aiming points, depending on the shot and ambition.

As seen looking across the seventh green, there are many prospective aiming points while playing the eighteenth from the spires of the distant basilica at Holy Hill to the chimneys of the Lodge.

 

With the second shot on the long 18th, players need to decide whether to lay up short of this bunker (120 yards from the green), go left or right of it or try to blast it over the bunker.

With the second shot on the long eighteenth, players need to decide whether to lay up short of this bunker (120 yards from the green), go left, right or blast over it. The brain needs to stay sharp to the very end at Erin Hills. A pitch with too much spin just short of today’s hole location can come back off the green’s false front and roll well away.

There you have it – a tour of a singular course over uncommon land.

The blessing – and curse – of great land is that it gives the architect scores of permutations in how to layout a golf course. The abundance of natural features create a plethora of design options that don’t exist on more commonplace sites. As such, the opportunity for both success and failure are elevated. If the architect is worth his salt, great holes ensue. So too can holes that he wants to try because the opportunity is so unique. Erin Hills went through a trial and error process in the first ten years of its life. An example of an admirable hole that was built but that ultimately didn’t work was the Dell hole, the seventh hole on the original course. The envelope of land practically begged for such a time-honored hole. Yet, in the grand scheme of hosting major events, such an antiquated hole didn’t fit the course’s bigger purpose. Does that mean that the construction of the hole was folly? Not necessarily. A chance was taken to do something different, something that was entirely in keeping with the land. It didn’t work for the long haul purposes of the course and that’s O.K. The key thing is to recognize the fact and take corrective action. That’s what happened at Erin Hills.

Erin Hills will be over ten years old when it hosts the U.S. Open. It enjoys ~200 acres for village tents, parking, media, and handles with ease the other space requirements for staging a big event. Its climate makes it ideal for hosting events during the dreaded months of June through August where so much of the country suffers through high humidity and high evening temperatures. Copious natural high vantage points make it a dream spectator course as well. The high right side of the first and eighteenth alone could hold 50,000 spectators, all with great views! Seeing tee balls run out sixty or eighty yards is refreshing in America. Given the stamp of approval placed on Erin Hills by organizations taking their prized events there, this type of bouncy-bounce golf will hopefully gain a foothold in America and act as a beacon for the way forward.

From its quixotic beginnings to now, much has transpired. There is every reason to believe the best has yet to come.  Only time can confer upon Erin Hills the status that it should obtain given the superlative property upon which it was built. It is of the ilk of Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No.2, The Ocean Course at Kiawah, and Bethpage Black  in that the average golfer has access to it, can have a blast playing it, and is likely to fall under its spell. In addition, every five to ten years, he can delight in watching it on television and compare his results to the tiger golfer who might well be playing a course ~1000 yards (!) longer.

Thanks to all the hard work both above and below ground since its inception, the author believes that Erin Hills is now charted on the proper path to become deeply embedded in the American golf culture.

A field of dreams indeed! Looking across the eighteenth fairway to the ninth green with the tenth fairway stretching away in the distance.

The End