The US Open hits off this week at Wisconsin’s wonderful Erin Hills Golf Course. Linksland looks back on a recent visit to see what this relatively unknown US Open venue has to offer.
I love the Midwest. I was raised in Scotland but ended up in High School in Iowa (for some strange reason known only to my parents), spending most of my teenage years there. The people are uber-friendly, the beer tolerable and the green fees reasonable. You know where you are in this part of the world!
But I felt a bit lost driving to Erin Hills from the more familiar golf town of Kohler and Whistling Straits. It’s not a long drive, maybe a couple of hours heading east to west but as I passed through increasingly pastoral communities, it felt a world away from the international 'zing' that's found around Whistling Straits. The south-east section of the State is the thick end of Wisconsin Dairyland.‘Strange place to put a golf course!’ I thought, ‘especially one that’s going to host the US Open.’
Via GPS, I finally arrived at 'County Road O'! Yes! That's the address - 'County Road O'!
It doesn't get more rural! I pulled onto the Erin Hills property and found it nearly deserted. There were a couple of caddies hanging around a big barn they'd converted into a caddy-shack. I talked with them for a minute, spying into their den with big, worn-out settees and empty soft drink bottles. I found someone to check me into my ‘Ballybunion’ 4-bedroom cottage overlooking the course from on high. Feeling a bit supernumerary having the whole place to myself, I sat on the porch to survey the scene. The course before me reminded me of a huge shaggy dog or a grizzly bear, tall fescue wafting like prairie grass as far as the eye could see. ‘That’ll munch a few golf balls,’ I thought.
It was a glacier that first carved this golf course from Wisconsin's Pleistocene landscape 10,000 years ago leaving in its wake a wonderful, undulant domain pitted with 'kettle moraine', geological impressions of every dimension generated by football-pitch-sized ice deposits buried by the retreating glacier's debris and then through the millennia melting to leave their mark. Then the architectural trio of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten stepped in to finalise the job and fulfil the then rather lowly remit of crafting a ‘high-standard’ public course. Because of its intended market, expense 'was' spared leaving the land pretty much as it was resulting in a fairly 'organic' piece of golf real estate.
I played the course the next morning with PGA Pro and Director of Marketing for Erin Hills, Rich Tock along with two local fellahs. This is no seaside links but the strong swells and distinctive, diverse slopes make you feel you’re sailing the high seas. The ofttimes massive slopes give the impression of a skateboard park for Giants - only if you come off the rails here, you're going to do some serious damage. Those pervading acres of wafting fescue will not give up hostages without a major engagement. That's if you ever find your ball!
But Erin Hills' fairways are almost as wide the glacier that forged them. Honestly, you'd have to hit seriously delinquent drives not to find terra-firma here. The rough is pervasive but rarely an issue if you steer clear. Even I found it hard not to land in the middle as the middle was so commodious.
I was enjoying this new style of course though calling for a different approach. That's where Erin Hills will gain its cred this week. Whilst superfluously wide and wavy, the fairways are surprisingly fast and firm causing your ball to bound and scarper for miles further than you might expect. Pile in an overall length of7,741 yards - the longest in U.S. Open and major championship history and I foresee a whole new game going on at Erin Hills. You have to know where to place the ball but these firm surfaces combined with assorted slopes slanting up, down and sideways, have a marked effect on how and where the ball ends up.
And then there's the wind. Well, there wasn't any when we played on a benign summer's morning, hot but definitely not windy. If it picks up, this course will be a breeze for big hitters like Bubba Watson or Rory only if they and their bagmen do the math and work out with laser point precision where to land their drives. Because, here at Erin Hills, flight time is only half the consideration. What happens next, when the ball hits the deck is what will count. All of a sudden, those wafting seas of fescue become an issue.
And then there are the bunkers. I’ll use the American colloquialism here and call them 'sand traps' because once you get in some of these 'hellholes', you might never get out again. And I for one am glad to see that! Bunkers these days have become fluffy, down-filled duvets that tour players could take a nap in - because they know they'll get the ball up and down like a feather floating to the flag. The traps at Erin Hills have teeth, long, carnivorous canines that will chomp off that sort of contemptuous attitude. The architectural team seem to have recognised this flippant stand on sand and put the word 'hazard' back into bunkers. These are uncertain, precarious pits, no two the same with no sign of a flat lie among them. I really didn't like them but then that's the kind of respect a sand trap deserves. Well done Erin Hills for bringing bunkers back from the beauty parlour and rescuing the pro game from mediocrity.
That evening, I ate on my own in the clubhouse, the place still quite and spent another night in my Ballybunion bungalow before setting off south down Highway 83, heading for Milwaukee. The Kettle Moraine terrain grew ever more exaggerated following this route. There's a whole tourism industry built around this glacial aftermath. Looking back to my round, I really enjoyed Erin Hills just because it's so different from any other tour venue I've ever met with. Looking forward, I'm eager to see what such a distinctive, bold design will do to this year's US Open.