My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

After our round, it was off to the lodge for some cocktails around the fire pit, and then over to the clubhouse for a terrific dinner.  Frankly, the 19th hole and beyond was a bit more enjoyable than the golf.  Don't get me wrong, this is an incredible piece of land and a very good golf course, but it's just very unforgiving and quite penal.  Moreover, I found some of the penal nature of the course to be a bit hit-of-miss.  Balls missed in one spot might be lost or completely dead, while balls hit a foot away could be fine.  A bit of a luck-of-the-draw course I thought.  Balls hit off-line run the risk of being lost in the native grasses, or found in bunkers that are true penalties as well.  In fact, there are some bunkers with spots where the player can't even make a swing to get out.  I understand the concept of bunkers as penalties, but at Erin Hills they border on gimmicky and a bit unfair in spots.  Maybe I'm just not used to the style of bunkers where hitting out sideways, backwards, or needing to take an unplayable lie are your three options.  The majority of the bunkers at Erin Hills are fine, but there are a few that require some changes, in the writer's opinion.  I'd also argue that the native grass needs some attention, to be a bit more consistent.  There are multiple instances where I faced a difficult bunker shot, tried to hit a recovery shot that ended up burrowing into the native grass on that bunker's face, and was lost forever....multiple instances.

In short, I think Erin Hills is really close to being a wonderful course.  The land is world class.  The design is varied, fun, and interesting.  However, there are a few finishing touches that I think need to be addressed before I can say it's a world class destination.  Additionally, the course has veered away from being somewhat affordable when it opened.  Lang originally intended to keep the greens fees in the mid $100's.  However, today, with the US Open premium, it's $280 to carry your bag around these 650 acres.  The US Open is so important to Erin Hills' business model that they're taking no chances in 2017.  The course won't even open for play in advance of the US Open, with public play not allowed until July 1.  Let's hope for all of the cost, time, and effort put into making this a viable US Open site, that it all goes well.  Like Chambers Bay, crowds will have a very difficult time getting around, and it's awfully far away from civilization too.  Will it look good on TV?  YES.  Will they have ample real estate for all of the US Open staging requirements?  YES, and then some!  As far as being an attractive US Open site for the players and fans, I'm skeptical.  In five months, we'll know.

#7, Par 5, 551 Yards

"Pick a club for your second shot that positions you 100 yards from the green.  Third shot is to a green that plays to a high plateau left, flowing to a lower level on the right."

Don't be short on the approach to the green as it's all carry up the hill.

#1, Par 5, 536 Yards

"Favor the right side for the entire length of the hole.  Shots left of fairway could find wetland.  Third shot to the green is best played by landing short of the putting surface."

As it says above, left is bad the entire way.  Keep it up on the shelf that the fairway lays on.  Coming in from the right, the right portion of the green will allow for a run-up shot if necessary, and ample space lays to the right of the green to catch a bail-out shot on the approach.  A right-to-left slope dominates the right edge of the green, and shots bailed out to the right may even run onto the green.  From the tee, the line of our first tee shot would be at the left edge of the right fairway bunker.  Definitely a hole that can get the player off to a good start.  

#2, Par 4, 316 Yards

"Ideal tee shot is left of the fairway bunkers for a view of the green.  Tee shots short of the fairway bunkers will leave a blind second shot into the smallest green on the course."

It doesn't take long for Erin Hills to deliver a fun short par four--a style of hole that has become very popular to players and spectators alike.  It presents a plausible birdie for the average player, and will create loads of fun in watching the pros try to drive the green.  As with any short par four, there needs to be sufficient trouble around the green to make the player think before simply playing a "bombs-away" strategy.  At this hole, the difficulty lies in a significantly raised green with substantial slopes cut to fairway height all around, and one deep bunker to catch balls on the right side.  For as small as this green is, it used to be even smaller.  It was enlarged by 40% in recent years.  It will be interesting to see if pros prefer a flip wedge from the left side of the fairway to a more-difficult pitch shot from around the green.  I'm sure birdies will be made both ways.

#3, Par 4, 401 Yards

"Favor the right side off the tee as the fairway slopes left.  There is more room than appears between the front bunker and the green."

The back tees of this hole make it play more as a cape hole, with the forward tees making it more straight-away.  If I remember correctly, the green used to be further up the hill, beyond where it lays today.  Here's the look from the back tees.  This hole is a perfect example of how the course can stretch if needed.  The back tees on the scorecard (which measure 7,800 yards) list the third hole at 476 yards.  However, there is a tee box at 508 yards too!

In the original design, the sixth and seventh holes were back-to-back par threes, with the seventh being a version of Lahinch's famous Dell Hole.  Like Lahinch, it featured a shot to a completely blind green.  The only thing remaining from this hole is the bell that was to be rung upon completing play to signal that the green was clear.  It's almost a historical artifact that shouts "we tried to make a fun and quirky course, but the US Open came calling, so we had to take it away."

#12, Par 4, 388 Yards

"Aim tee shots down the right side of the fairway to have a view of the green.  Approach shots should favor the left side as the hillside will feed balls into the saddle-shaped green."

To me, this is unquestionably the best hole on the course.  The natural rolling contours of the land are incredible, and built for a golf hole.  It's really cool walking to find your drive and having the hole reveal itself.  Even outside the borders of this hole, the rugged and extreme nature of the land surround this hole jumps out at you.  Bravo on this one!

#18, Par 5, 622 Yards

"The second shot is deceiving because the best play is farther right than it looks.  Take care not to miss the green short or left on your approach."

This is a really really long hole.  The Black Tees measure 663 yards, and they're not even the farthest tee box back.  They can get this one to extend to 680 yards or so if they desire.  If bends to the left at the end; someone the opposite of the 14th hole though this one is definitely a three-shot hole for all but the longest of the long hitters.  It's also the hole where I lost more than one ball in the face of a fairway bunker because the fescue was too thick.  However, what REALLY annoyed me is that this hole finishes over 200 yards from the clubhouse, which is also a substantial uphill hike.  After a very difficult walk in the first place, Erin Hill offers insult to injury by requiring another haul just to earn your post-round refreshments.  A shuttle would have been nice, but oh well.

Let's open up with course review with some facts:

  • Erin Hills has been open for play since 2006. 
  • In 2010, shortly after a transfer of ownership, Erin Hills became a walking-only facility.  However, seemingly every walk from a green to the next tee is uphill, contributing to the fact that it's a very difficult walk.
  • Native areas surround the golf course with tall fescue-style grass very close to the playing corridors, and even on bunker faces in some areas.  Finding a ball in these areas ranges from plausible to complete impossible.
  • The course is littered with countless bunkers, many of which are extremely penal, and difficult to escape from.  On the course's website, the quote Old Tom Morris, saying "Bunkers are not a place for pleasure. They are a place for punishment and repentance."  Indeed!
  • It is the first golf course to be awarded a USGA Championship (The 2008 Women's Amateur Public Links) before it even opened.
  • Erin Hills hosted the 2011 US Amateur Championship, and is set to host the 2017 US Open, the first US Open in the state of Wisconsin.  The US Open was awarded in the summer of 2010, one year after the transfer of ownership.
  • Playing right into the US Open's (more accurately, Mike Davis's) hands, nearly every hole can be expanded and contracted through the use of countless tee boxes, which offers a nearly infinitely flexible number of setup options that can change based on weather and the mood of the Mr. Davis.  If all the holes played from all the way back on the same day (they certainly won't), the course would measure over 8,000 yards.

Some of the facts above indicate that this course had to have been built exclusively to host a US Open.  The course insists that it wasn't, but in this writer's opinion, both arguments are correct.  It's probably true that the original owner built the course with purer intentions.  However, when ownership transferred from Bob Lang to Andrew Ziegler in 2009, it appears pretty obvious that the business model includes the strategy of hosting major golf tournaments to be able to lure more players to the fairly remote site, and charge higher green fees in the process.  In fact, there were changes in the routing of the course and many tweaks made, both before and after the US Amateur, with the US Open in mind.  A few interesting quirks were removed to make it a better tournament setup (allegedly), but took away a bit of the fun and architectural intrigue.  There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but a person considering playing Erin Hills should know it going in--this is a course set up to host a US Open, not to be enjoyed by the average player.  More on that later.

From the yardage book:

"Long before the first golf ball was struck at Erin Hills, nature carved out ideal golfing terrain.  As the Ice Age came to an end over 10,000 years ago in the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin (35 miles northwest of downtown Milwaukee), rivers from the melting glaciers shaped the rough contours of the land.  Rolling hills here, a broad plain there--it is as if the property was destined to become a special place in the world of golf.

Inspired by the classic courses built by horse-drawn plows, Erin Hills was created in harmony with the land.  As the property experienced little human alteration in its previous life, the architects of Erin Hills--Michael Hurdzan, Dany Fry and Ron Whitten--revealed, rather than built, the best holes they could find on the expansive property.  Work began in 2004, and the first golf was played in 2006.  Erin Hills became the first course to be awarded a USGA championship (the 2008 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, won by Tiffany Joh) before it even opened for play.  The course went on to host the 2011 U.S. Amateur (won by Kelly Kraft) and to be selected to host the 2017 U.S. Open.

Natural, undulating terrain; firm and fast fairways; a variety of green sites; and a uniquely natural championship test highlight Erin Hills.  Specimen trees accent the course without inhibiting play or obstructing the expansive vistas.

Erin Hills is single-minded in its emphasis on golf in its traditional form.  There is no spa, no swimming pool, no tennis courses--Erin Hills is devoted to golf and the camaraderie associated with it, whether on the course, over a meal or in the comfortable yet simple accommodations."

When I embarked on the challenge of playing the Top 100, I knew there would be adversity.  Whether it be bad weather, travel issues, or other unforeseen issues, there was no way I'd zip through the lists without a few hitches.  One of the hitches I assumed would also occur one of these days was an injury that threatened a round here or there.  Erin Hills was the first time I had to fight through something that really impacted my golf game, and it was a frustratingly small, yet influential nick.  The issue came when I was picking dried spackle off of a putty knife, and the knife slid under the thumbnail of my left hand, on the right-most corner of the nail.  It hurt right off the bat, but wasn't the end of the world.  However, a couple days later that corner of my thumb felt worse, where any pressure on it was quite painful.  I didn't expect it to be a big deal when I simulated my grip and golf swing without a club.  However, once I started hitting balls, I realized how critical that exact digit is to creating power--at least it is in my swing.   

My day at Erin Hills was to be a 36-hole adventure, during which I'd be carrying my own bag the whole way.  The club has a strong caddy program, but I decided to hoof it myself to see how bad a walk it really was...the conventional wisdom said it was pretty bad.  Add to that the fact that I was playing with a bum left thumb, and it was going to be a test of survival!  The round would start off fine, but my thumb would get worse by the hole, to the point where I would start playing with a nine-finger grip where my left thumb was hanging off of the club.  Try it removes a great deal of power and makes your swing largely a right-handed wave at the ball.

When you're about to take on a ball-busting US Open course, there's always the ego-threatening question of which tees to play.  The Black Tees at Erin Hills are marked at 7,800 yards on the scorecard, with a par 72 rating and slope of 77.9 and 145.  Erin Hills plays firm and fast with fine fescue fairways, so 7,800 yards here is not like 7,800 yards on slow and spongy Bermuda grass, but it's still 7,800 yards of golf roughly at sea level.  So, no thanks!  In front of the Black Tees are the Blue Tees, which still measure a nasty 7,174 yards.  Those seemed a bit much for my group too.  It was a choice between the Green and White tees, as far as which set would produce the right mix of challenge and fun.  Greens are 6,754 yards and Whites are 6,233 yards.  The scorecard marks off a set of Blue/Green combo tees at 6,990 yards and also a set of combo tees between the Whites and Golds in front of them.  Strangely there was no Green/White combo, which might be more necessary for the average player.  Another example of how Erin Hills isn't set up for the AVERAGE player.  We decided we'd give the Greens a try in the morning and then re-evaluate--possibly play the whites in the afternoon as we'd start to get tired.  The Green Tees carry a still-nasty rating and slope of 73.2 and 135.  This is the third set of tee from the back, and an expert's score is still expected to be over one shot worse than par.  I'll quote the Green Tee yardages below, with the yardage book hole descriptions in italics.  If there's something for me to add, I'll do that below the yardage book's remarks:

#4, Par 4, 398 Yards

"A short iron will help hold this shallow green with trouble behind it."

I don't have a lot to say about this one.  The drive feels a bit awkward, but it's a fairly wide landing area.  Keeping it out of the sand and on the grass is the key here, as the bunkers are large and likely catch mis-hit shots.  One other point I'll make is a beverage cart camps out by this tee box, so feel free to indulge in some of the local flavor--New Glarus beers are only found in Wisconsin, so I always take the opportunity to enjoy a Spotted Cow, or other options while in the Badger State.

The Forward Tees--a totally different look:

#16, Par 3, 163 Yards

"This long and narrow two-tiered green guarded by bunkers slopes from back to front.  Club selection is key to landing on the correct tier."

 Like the ninth hole, this par three also has some island tendencies.  In this case, the green is a bit uphill, not downhill, but in both cases, the greens are surrounded by bunkers and native grass, and demand a do-or-die shot.  This one is a longer and tougher shot from the tee, but recovery chances are also a bit easier on this one, with the exception of a miss well left of the green where tall grass stands will catch a shot that drifts left of the bunkers.

#14, Par 5, 507 Yards

"Attacking this hole in two is best served with a tee shot over the center bunkers.  If you are playing for position on the 3rd shot, the best angle is from the left side of the fairway to a tiered green that slopes severely from left to right."

Another sideways two-tiered green with the left side higher than the right.  If you want to go for the green in two, it requires a heroic carry over native grasses all the way to the green.  Otherwise, you're hitting a fairly thoughtless layup shot out to the left and trying to leave a comfortable yardage into the green.  The hill behind this green will be another cool spot for spectators to stand and watch the pros try to get home in two...from 613 yards or more!

#10, Par 4, 455 Yards

"Stay left of the right bunker.  Longer tee shots down the right will benefit with additional roll from the downslope.  The shallow green steps down from right to left, with a backstope for the right half."

Those who begin the US Open on the back nine will face a more difficult opening tee shot than those who start on number one.  The shot is blind, and needs to carry over a hill on the correct line to stay in the fairway.  The bunker is definitely not an aiming point, but the edge of where you can hit it on the right side to stay safe.  You want to be well to the left of it.  Two-tiered greens that go side-to-side rather than front-to-back don't seem to be very common, so I thought this was a pretty cool feature.

Erin Hills

Erin, Wisconsin

Checked off the Bucket List August 30, 2017

Golf Magazine:
#23, Top 100 Courses You Can Play (2016-2017)
#3, Best Public Golf Courses in Wisconsin (2016-2017)

Golf Digest:

#8, America's 100 Greatest Public Courses (2015)

#44, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2017-2018)

#2, Best in the State of Wisconsin (2015-2016)

Remember how I mentioned that nearly every green-to-tee walk seems to be uphill?  Here's a good example.  Look at that path beyond the green that leads to the fourth tee.  Not many flat putts on this green.

#11, Par 4, 315 Yards

"Favor the right side of the fairway off the tee as it slopes from right to left.  This small green slopes from left to right."

Like the front nine, the back nine gives the player an opportunity to score with a short par four on its respective second hole.  While the second hole had a blind drive, the 11th is all right in front of the player, and I see no reason the pros won't try to drive this one....IF they use tee boxes that make it driveable.  The back tees extend to 403 yards, with another tee box another 50+ yards behind that.  The 11th is set up as a breather for the "retail" player, but will it be a breather for the pros if they stretch it over 450 yards?  To me, that's expandability for the sake of expandability that just keeps players off balanced without bringing anything to the table.  This is supposed to be a short par four and should be kept that way.  But, can the USGA leave well enough alone?

#15, Par 4, 346 Yards

"Avoiding the bunkers on this hole is the key.  The green's spine can leave treacherous putts from one side of the green to the other."

This hole is a lot of fun.  The bunkers in the potential landing area short of the green are not good places to be, with the dreaded long bunker shot to an uphill green required from any of them.  The back tees on this one are 370 yards.  I imagine the hill to the left of the hole, and whatever grandstands are built by them will be a highly sought after place to be for spectators who want to watch the pros bomb drives at the green that sits up on a shelf.

#13, Par 3, 170 Yards

"This plateau green has a swale on the left side that directs balls toward the bunker on the left.  The tee shot must carry onto the green, which gently runs away from the tee."

Depending on the hole location, it's critical to be on the correct portion of the green to avoid a sharply sloping putt.  The third picture below shows some of the green's contour.

#5, Par 4, 406 Yards

"A tee shot left of the right side fairway bunkers will produce the shortest route and a view of the green."

After back-tracking 150 yards or so from the fourth to the fifth, you arrive at a fairly straight forward tee shot.  This is the third straight hole that plays right around 400 yards from the Green Tees.  There is a little more variety in distance when playing numbers three through five from the tips.  With the nice natural amphitheater around the green (there are a number of these), this will be a nice spot for spectators to camp out at the US Open.

#9, Par 3, 143 Yards

"Pulling the correct club as you judge wind and elevation change is paramount.  Don't miss the green left of long!"

This hole wasn't even a part of the original routing, but instead served as a bet-settling 19th hole, or bye hole, as they're sometimes called.  While it's short, it's incredibly demanding, and due to the exposed nature of the land, very vulnerable to high winds.  Seven bunkers surround this pushed-up green.  One of the caddies in our group called the ninth an island green without the water, and he was completely right.  In fact, missing the green in some of these bunkers is nearly as bad to a player's score as hitting it in the water on other courses.  The only different is you'll find your ball!  

#8, Par 4, 415 Yards

"Aim your tee shot down the left side of the fairway.  Second shot is all carry into a green that slopes from back to front."

It looks like a pretty thin ribbon of fairway from the tee,  but the longer you hit it, the wider it gets, albeit doglegging to the left.  There are no bunkers on this hole on the drive, but three bunkers short of the green that need to be negotiated on your approach.

Here's one of the examples of a bunker I have problems with.  If your ball ends up in one of these little finger of the bunker, its debatable whether you can even make a swing.  Of course, there's always the person who pushes back with "then don't hit it there."  True.

#6, Par 3, 188 Yards

"The saddle-shaped green may seem clearly defined from the tee, but you are only seeing a third of it.  The remainder of the green is over the horizon, sloping to the rear."

#17, Par 4, 434 Yards

"Aim your tee shot down the right side for the best view of the green on your second shot.  if you miss the green right on your approach, the ball will funnel into a collection area."

The only hole on the course without any bunkers, but there is some contour to act as a hazard around the green even without the presence of a formal hazard.  Not the most exciting hole on the course, and as the 17th hole, I expected something a bit more demanding; on this one, the primary obstacle is length.