With just a few days before the first shot is played in the 117th U.S. Open, the men responsible for the design and layout of Erin Hills agree on one crucial detail: the course was destined to host this championship.
“I got a beautifully written email from Ron Whitten,” said USGA CEO and Executive Director Mike Davis. “Ron wrote, ‘There is this piece of property in Wisconsin and we would love for you to see it.’ ”
Thirteen years later, Davis is on that very property taking part in a forum on the creation of Erin Hills with architects and designers Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Whitten. In a lively, 45-minute discussion, moderated by Adam Barr, director of the USGA Golf Museum, the foursome discussed the impact that Erin Hills can have on modern golf course design, a commitment to environmental sustainability and the state that is hosting its first U.S. Open.
“I came out to see it in 2004, when the PGA Championship was at Whistling Straits,” said Davis. “There was a routing, it was mown and there were stakes in the ground. But right then and there, I saw it – this big piece of property with amazing, natural vistas and all the room we’d need to stage a U.S. Open.”
The panel, open to media members and USGA members and guests, shared insights and ideas about what they might see throughout the week:
“The Best Short Par 5”: The 135-yard, par-3 ninth hole has earned the lion’s share of pre-championship attention – with good reason, since more players walk off the green with a five on their scorecared than a three. “This is by far my favorite hole on the course,” said Fry. “I sincerely believe it will one day be among the iconic short holes in golf. It will be exciting during play because, if you miss the green, the second shot could be impossible to hold on the green, especially if you have to play it with the wind.”
Some drives will be out of sight: “On virtually all of the tee shots, there will be some element of blindness,” said Hurdzan. “The players will have to rely on being precise with their tee shots and getting used to the roll of the land.”
Not all fescue is created equal: Some of the tall fescue on the course is thicker than the rest. “We painstakingly laid out the irrigation heads,” said Whitten. “But no matter how we tried, when the course gets watered, the wind creates a mist and some fescue gets watered more than we’d like.” Hurdzan agreed, adding that “5 to 8 percent of the fescue will be thicker than the rest of the wispy fescue.”
These aren’t your father’s U.S. Open fairways: “The fairways here are nothing like we’ve seen in the U.S. Open before,” Davis said. “They were designed to be wider; most are 50 percent wider than any in the past – and some are more than 2 ½ times wider. You could fit three Winged Foot fairways in the 10th fairway.”
A good walk. Really: Whitten said Erin Hills’ evolution as a walking-only course was the result of the land they had to work with. “We never anticipated that it would be no carts, but we found that cart usage was too hard on the turf. It was an amazing decision by Andy Ziegler to commit to being a walking-only course.”
Sustainable sensibility: “This was a great collaboration with the USGA,” Hurdzan said. “Their research helped us find the turfgrass that is best suited for our climate, requires less water and allows us to truly follow a model of sustainability.”
True hazards: Whitten was unyielding about the challenging Erin Hills bunkers. “They are supposed to be hazards,” he said. “There will be tough lies and awkward stances. Golf is not a fair game and bunkers should be hard.”
On a roll: Davis said players will face a variety of challenges, and spectators could see some remarkable shots, because, based on the conditions, he expects a good bit of runout. “A shot’s landing is not the end of the shot. Players will see shots follow the contour of the land. A 178-yard shot might have to be played like a 159-yard shot.”
Something in the air: “The wind mostly comes from the west and southwest,” Davis said. “So we will lay out the course thoughtfully to accommodate the wind conditions.
The constant: The par-4 12th was here to stay. “It’s the only hole that, no matter how many routings we went through, we never changed,” Fry said. “It was just as God left it.” Still, it wasn’t without a potential re-routing scare. “They wanted to put the clubhouse out there by the 12th tee, which would have made it the first hole,” Whitten said. “Fortunately, they changed their minds because that would have ruined it. It needs to be out there where it can be part of the action.”
David Chmiel is manager of member content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.