U.S. Open favorite Erin Hills defies tired golf conventions
HARTFORD, Wis. - How do you feel about blind shot par-3 holes? Intriguing, ingenious or absolutely annoying? The answer to this question likely will determine whether you love or hate Erin Hills golf course.
The favorite to host the 2017 U.S. Open, Erin Hills still brings more than its share of detractors out to this farmland in the long shadow of Milwaukee. If you can't stand quirky, if you're more rigid with your golf than Don Cheney is when it comes to enemy combatants, Erin Hills just might not be for you.
If you do embrace the unusual, if you're the type of guy who doesn't want to be wearing the same exact dress shirt as the bloke one floor down in accounting, Erin Hills will quickly emerge as one of your favorite golf courses, though.
For this place takes golf convention and knocks it into another dimension. There is nothing cookie cutter about Erin Hills. You'll have trouble finding a single hole that reminds you of another golf course, let alone a string of them.
No one's going to love every eccentricity. I hated the 655-yard par 5 first that curves up to a separate higher ridge 40 feet above the original fairway, finding it both confusing and a needlessly Herculean tough start. Yet I loved the blind par-3 seventh, the hole where you're shooting straight up over a steep, steep hill down to a green that you cannot even catch a glimpse of. On a par 3.
This is a hole where you have to ring a big bell after you've putted out so the group behind you knows its safe to hit.
And No. 7 is the second of back-to-back par 3s, a stretch which runs to three par 3s in five holes if you include Erin Hills' 165-yard Bye Hole - a straight downhill, short, fun par 3 that everyone plays in between No. 9 and No. 10.
Don't worry. When you get to the 672-yard uphill par-5 10th (yes, a nearly 700-yard uphill hole), you'll be happy you had those par 3s. Of course you might also be cursing the mad design sense of No. 10.
"Not every golfer who comes here is going to love the course," Erin Hills owner Bob Lang said. "I understand and respect that. The fact that we've had golfers from 40 different states play it this year speaks to how many do truly enjoy the course though."
That's one of the refreshing things about Erin Hills. Led by Lang - a very hands on, yet low-key individual owner - the staff doesn't try to convince anyone how great everything is. Instead they just deliver first-class service in one of the most distinct settings in American golf.
It doesn't matter whether you love the design from the team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Golf Digest course architecture critic Ron Whitten or hate it, you'll fall for the setting if you're a fan of traditional Irish golf clubs.
The first thing you see when you pull into Erin Hills' parking lot is a gigantic barn. It's a cart barn that's a real barn. The second thing you see is the stone building clubhouse that looks like a new version of an Irish clubhouse - though without the Paris in the desert over-the-top Las Vegas fakeness.
Then, all you see is the wide-open links style course rolling into the distance. Lang was so obsessive about having a building-view-free golf experience that he bought up a few farm houses off property just so he could tear them down.
You'll be thankful for this when it's just your group and the 360-degree views. Golf feels like a special escape at Erin Hills. You have to make a day of it to enjoy this course that's 35 minutes from downtown Milwaukee on single-lane roads. As a result of this and the setting, you might find yourself slowing down at Erin Hills.
Groups tend to linger over some hearty meals and beers in the clubhouse pub after a round. At Erin Hills, the world suddenly doesn't feel like it's in such a rush.
Unless you're in a frantic search to find your golf ball. You're going to lose several the first time you play Erin Hills. Off the fairway here means you're in some serious trouble. There's towering stalks of tall grass, bushes and vegetation that looks like it's been growing for a good century or more.
Don't be mislead. While Erin Hills fairways are in good shape, this is a rugged golf course. Forget those images of the perfectly fake manicuring of resort golf. You'll be getting those golf shoes muddy and leaving with plenty of stories to go with the clumps. They do a great job of cleaning Erin Hills of lost balls though.
In four hours of battling the course walking - and trudging into plenty of grass up to my waist - I found only one ball that didn't belong to me. It's sort of eerie.
Erin Hills is anything but cramped together, too. If you walk - the best way to play it - you'll get in nine miles on your feet. This is a vast golf landscape.
In fact, there's so much room at Erin Hills that there's more than enough space for a second course that Lang says will be built "in an ideal world."
The current course takes you out there as is. You don't come back to the clubhouse after nine and the Bye Hole. Instead, there's a snack shack near the Bye Hole.
You'll want to steady yourself for a back nine that includes the toughest hole you may ever play (that monster uphill No. 10), maybe the second hardest hole in Wisconsin (an 18 closer that stretches as far as 669 yards and still comes in at 614 yards from the third set of tees and includes blind pot bunkers you cannot see from the tee in the middle of the fairway) and one of the coolest holes you'll play anywhere (the 372-yard, par-4 15th hole).
"It's a wonderful course," first-time Erin Hills player Mike York said. "It can blow you away. It's unusual, though."
Like a UFO landing in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
The verdict on Erin Hills Golf Course
Erin Hills golf course is going through a USGA-blessed renovation that will take away some of the quirkiness. When the course reopens, the postage stamp sized green on No. 2 will be much larger, allowing for more pin placements in a championship situation, and the uphill tee shot won't be quite as severe on No. 10 for example.
It still isn't going to be your ordinary round of golf though. Erin Hills will never be just another day on the course.
This golfer believes that's a blessing. In fact, you almost worry that the revamp might cut back too much on the wackiness of a rare one of a kind.
If you find yourself anywhere near Wisconsin, you'll want to get to Erin Hills just to experience the setting as much as the course, though.
"I just wanted to play it before it doubles in price after the U.S. Open is announced and becomes $300 like Whistling Straits," Chicago golfer Jim Pfordresher said.
Well, there is that too.
November 4, 2008