Erin Hills' secrets revealed: Quirky golf course lets you sleep above the clubhouse
HARTFORD, Wis. - So, you know that you want to play Erin Hills Golf Course, the track that looks like it's a transplanted piece of wide-open Irish countryside in the middle of Wisconsin.
That conclusion isn't hard to reach. This golf course carries more buzz in the cheese state right now than just about anything in Wisconsin sports - except those Brett Favre regrets. Erin Hills is considered a virtual lock to get a future U.S. Open (most likely in 2017). It carries more than its fair share of mystique and aura, too, being out in remote farmland surroundings that are only 50 minutes from downtown Milwaukee but can feel like 500 miles.
Which is where the questions start to come in.
You know you want to play Erin Hills. You're not alone there. Golfers from more than 40 states played it in 2008. Many of those made a special trip. Not every golf course has a huge barn and no houses with rolling fairways stretching out as far as the eye can see.
Where do you stay, though? Back in downtown Milwaukee, which isn't going to remind anyone of Chicago? In one of the cookie-cutter chain hotels along interstate 94? How do you make Erin Hills into a real getaway experience with your golf buds?
It turns out the answer is pretty easy: You sleep right at Erin Hills. In a guest room above the clubhouse.
You wanted unique? It's hard to imagine anything much more unique in America than staying in the clubhouse of a place with a pub and well ... nothing else except a sense of near complete isolation. If you think you see a bunch of lights as you look out your bedroom window at Erin Hills, either aliens have landed or you're hallucinating.
"It really does get dark here at night," Erin Hills owner Bob Lang said, laughing. "We've had guests comment that they haven't seen a night this dark in forever."
Heck, it gets dark just in Erin Hills' pub when it's late afternoon and the sun hasn't even set yet. They don't believe in bright lighting here. Or much of any lighting. It's about as authentic an Irish pub experience you'll have without breaking out the passport.
Guest rooms at Erin Hills
That goes for the seven guest rooms above, too. Many United Kingdom clubs have had dormy rooms above the clubhouse as a cheap, serviceable lodging alternative. Of course, those dormy rooms don't have Egyptian linens, down comforters and flat screen TVs like Erin Hills' upstairs digs. The price tag doesn't typically begin at $195 per night either.
Hey, you're a grown, successful golfer. You don't want to really go back to school. There's a good reason everyone wants to move out of the dorms after freshmen year.
At Erin Hills' still understated but comfortable setup, you'll be looked after by the same people who checked you in for golf - and served you your pints in the pub.
Everyone at Erin Hills doesn't wear two hats ... it's more like two dozen. Including Head Golf Professional Kent Instefjord.
"Our head pros do dishes," Lang said. "I'm not kidding. All our pros have pitched in and washed some dishes. Brought bags up to the rooms. Cleaned a toilet. We have a small staff, and they're the ones who are going to be here with you at night.
"They do it because they love Erin Hills and what we're trying to do here."
Staying at Erin Hills is like staying at a golf-obsessed bed-and-breakfast, only you're not stuck in the house of a really old couple attempting awkward conversation. Instead, you're with a hip staff (most young, some older) that includes a chef who churns out casual food that makes you almost ashamed to just call it that.
The ribs doused in a kitchen-made Jack Daniels whiskey sauce were the most tender ribs this traveler has ever had. And Heidi - a blonde bartender - kept drinks and laughs flowing. As a White Sox game played on the sharp picture TV hanging in the corner, you could see why no one would be in a rush to leave Erin Hills.
It was enough to make a group of guys who'd driven up from the Chicago suburbs for the day get a little jealous of the group whose bags were being brought up to their rooms.
"We should have stayed here and gotten properly drunk," golfer Kevin McCarthy said.
Erin Hills also promotes stays at the Delafield Hotel (www.TheDelafieldHotel.com), a 38-room luxury hotel in the little boutique downtown of Delafield (still a good 25-minutes plus from the golf course). The vibe is decidedly more upscale and formal at Delafield, and the showers with the three huge waterfall sprays are an experience (once you figure out how to use the controls). But if you're a bunch of golfers interested in that pure golf getaway, you're better off trying to reserve one of Erin Hills' on-site rooms.
One of them is a three-bedroom suite with three separate bathrooms and a linked sitting area (this runs $695 per night), and the beds are anything but dorm tiny.
One of the great little joys in a golf trip is being able to wake up and walk downstairs for your tee time. At Erin Hills, it isn't even a long walk. This is as far from a sprawling, mammoth resort golf complex as you can get.
Everyone will know your name at Erin Hills. It's your choice whether you want to tell them what you shot on the four par 5s that measure more than 600 yards or the blind tee shot, straight-up-and-over-hill par-3 seventh.
Either way, it's going to be one of your more memorable golf trips.
Staying above Erin Hills' clubhouse can almost give you the sense of isolation you find on a Bandon Dunes trip. Only, you can be back in civilization in no time the next day.
May 5, 2009