Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Life - by ron whit­ten

IN JUNE, ERIN HILLS, the mammoth rum­pled blan­ket of a golf course in tiny Erin, Wis­con­sin, will host the first of what will be many US Opens. I say that with con­fi­dence, be­cause it’s the right course in the right place at the right time. ▶ Erin Hills is a pri­vately owned pub­lic golf course, be­fit­ting the USGA’s pop­ulist de­sire to grow the game, in an un­tapped mar­ket. The course sits on 264 hectares, an ex­panse un­prece­dented in cham­pi­onship golf. There’s enough room to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery money-mak­ing sky­box, hos­pi­tal­ity palace and mer­chan­dise tent imag­in­able. There’s room for 100 000 spec­ta­tors, if the USGA wanted that many. It doesn’t. Ticket sales were capped at 35 000, ev­i­dently to avoid traf­fic snarls. ▶ The course will be a gen­uine test. Yes, it’s ridicu­lously long from its back tees at 7 633 me­tres, but it isn’t in­tended to ever be played at that length. For the Open, it’ll of­fi­cially mea­sure 7 035 me­tres but will be shorter on any given day be­cause each hole

has enor­mous flex­i­bil­ity. It’s a par 72, first for a US Open since Peb­ble Beach in 1992, and at least a cou­ple of par 5s could force even big hit­ters to use a fair­way wood to reach those greens in two.

Agreed, it’s not a gen­uine links where one can bounce ev­ery shot into ev­ery tar­get.There are some el­e­vated fair­ways and el­e­vated greens, and that’s by de­sign.The wind blows a con­sid­er­able amount of the time at Erin Hills, and one of its tests is han­dling aerial shots in the wind. Fair­ways pitch and heave, dip and tum­ble, with few level lies any­where. Its bunkers are real haz­ards where re­cov­ery is of­ten se­condary to es­cape.The greens are pure bent­grass, the first time in a US Open in for­ever, slick and smooth sur­faces on which there will be plenty of birdie putts made.

Yes, I’m an un­abashed cheer­leader for Erin Hills. I have a right to be, for I was in­volved in its cre­ation. Or rather, its ex­ca­va­tion. Erin Hills ex­isted within the glacial folds of Wis­con­sin’s ket­tle-mo­raine to­pog­ra­phy for eons.We just had to un­earth it.

Let me set the record straight: I was a co-de­signer of Erin Hills with Hur­dzan and Fry.We jointly bid on the project in 2000 and won the job over com­pe­ti­tion that in­cluded the de­sign firms of Jack Nick­laus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Doak. I was not brought in at a later date by Mike and Dana to peek over their shoul­ders and write lauda­tory com­men­tary. I was not hired as a de­sign con­sul­tant to stop by a cou­ple of times for arm-wav­ing photo op­por­tu­ni­ties.And I was cer­tainly not, to quote the phrase Doak once used, there to sim­ply “fill the tal­ent deficit of Dr Mike.” (Leave it to Tom to pat a guy on the back and end up slap­ping an­other in the face.)

Mike and Dana needed no ad­di­tive. They are two of the most tal­ented, imag­i­na­tive, knowl­edge­able and en­thu­si­as­tic golf ar­chi­tects I’ve known.Their works speak

to that. Calusa Pines and Naples Na­tional, both in Naples, Florida, and highly ranked by Golf Di­gest, are as dif­fer­ent as yin and yang. Like­wise, Devil’s Pul­pit and Devil’s Paint­brush, Golf Di­gest’s first Best New Cana­dian Cour­ses in the early 1990s, sit side by side yet don’t re­sem­ble one an­other in the slight­est. But be­cause me­dia cov­er­age of golf ar­chi­tec­ture is mostly fan-boy wor­ship, Mike and Dana have never got the at­ten­tion they de­serve. They were never the cool kids in school. The In­ter­net is full of pun­dits who say Erin Hills would be so much bet­ter if only one of the Golden Boys had de­signed it. Chew on this for a mo­ment. Mike and Dana were one of five fi­nal­ist firms for the Cham­bers Bay job, the course that hosted the 2015 US Open. Had things gone just a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, they’d now have two cour­ses host­ing US Opens in a three-year span.

We agreed to team up on the Erin Hills bid be­cause Mike and I have been friends since the mid-1970s. In the late 1990s, as I was ap­proach­ing 50 and feel­ing life was pass­ing me by, I de­cided to get in­volved in some course de­signs. Mike and Dana took a chance on me with­out hes­i­ta­tion. It was sim­ple luck that the project we de­cided to chase to­gether was a course that has ended up host­ing a US Open. But then again, as I’ll ex­plain, you make your own luck.

I say all this to ex­plain why I can’t be ob­jec­tive when talk­ing about Erin Hills. I made over 100 vis­its to that site. I staked out ev­ery hole and then some. I hand-dug bunkers, floated out some greens. I ag­o­nised over big is­sues and tiny de­tails. Of course, I’m bi­ased and highly emo­tional on the sub­ject. My DNA is in that de­sign.

our phi­los­o­phy

Idon’t care how much money you spend,” Dana says.“You can’t outdo God.”That sums up our ap­proach to Erin Hills. For bet­ter or worse, our ob­jec­tive was to prove that Mother Na­ture is the best golf course ar­chi­tect of all time.

When Mike and I first saw the land, in June 2000 (Dana made his first visit in 2001), it was an over­grown, rolling pas­ture with sev­eral sec­tions cov­ered in dense trees.Yet we could see, even then, its glo­ri­ous nat­u­ral con­tours.This was our opportunity to em­u­late Sand Hills Golf Club, the bril­liant min­i­mal­ist lay­out by Bill Coore and Ben Cren­shaw in cen­tral Ne­braska, eas­ily the most nat­u­ral course in Amer­ica.We wanted to move as lit­tle earth as pos­si­ble, make it mem­o­rable, walk­a­ble, with holes no one had ever seen or played be­fore. (Some would say we went over­board in that last re­gard.)

We were also de­ter­mined to build it ef­fi­ciently and in­ex­pen­sively, and we did. Erin Hills was built for less than $3 mil­lion, about a third of that de­voted to ir­ri­ga­tion.A ton of money was sub­se­quently spent on other as­pects of Erin Hills, but the course it­self was two point nine eight.

Once we fi­nally set­tled on our rout­ing – 18 holes plus a bonus, a par-3 Bye hole – Mike sug­gested min­i­mally in­va­sive con­struc­tion.We mowed down ex­ist­ing grasses, sprayed the stub­ble with her­bi­cide, slit in ir­ri­ga­tion and seeded right into the mat of dead veg­e­ta­tion, pre­serv­ing nearly ev­ery ridge, wrin­kle, hump and hol­low. We cored out ar­eas for greens, which were con­structed of pure sand, and hauled the soil off for use else­where, mostly in cre­at­ing land­forms for tees.We used a bull­dozer spar­ingly, mainly to carve away small por­tions of four holes.

it took a vil­lage

What I learned from the ex­pe­ri­ence is that golf ar­chi­tects re­ally get too much credit.Ar­chi­tects de­velop con­cepts, but it takes a lot of peo­ple to build a golf course.At Erin Hills, we had con­trac­tor Bill Kubly, a Wis­con­sin na­tive whose firm is con­sid­ered among the best in the busi­ness. (Coin­ci­den­tally, the barn from his great-grand­mother’s nearby farm was re­assem­bled next to the prac­tice range and now serves as a cad­die shack.) Kubly’s group in­cluded project man­ager Curt Grieser, con­struc­tion chief Steve Posler (who taught me plenty; sadly, he died in 2014 at 47), Paul Kiekhae­fer, Chris White, in­tern Bren­dan Dolan and about a dozen labour­ers, mostly green-card Gu­atemalans. There was also Hur­dzan/Fry as­so­ci­ate Ja­son Straka, who was in­stru­men­tal in sev­eral early rout­ings.There was Jeff Rot­tier, the orig­i­nal su­per­in­ten­dent, and his as­sis­tant (now head su­per­in­ten­dent) Zach Reinek­ing, both lured from world-class Whistling Straits to grow in a fes­cue-based golf course on a mi­nus­cule bud­get.

There was our pri­mary shaper, Rod Whit­man. Rod is an out­stand­ing golf ar­chi­tect (Cabot Links in Nova Sco­tia be­ing his mas­ter­work) who was be­tween jobs in 2005.An artist on a bull­dozer, he made sure our greens tied into sur­round­ing grades and our ar­ti­fi­cial tee boxes looked like glacial for­ma­tions. He also trained our util­ity in­fielder, Robert Ortega, into be­com­ing an ef­fi­cient dozer op­er­a­tor. I shouldn’t leave out free­lancer Chris Hunt, who ran a mini-ex­ca­va­tor, a tiny steamshovel-like con­trap­tion, dig­ging most of our bunkers.

There was also our gen­eral man­ager-to-be, who looked like ev­ery mousy ac­coun­tant ever por­trayed in the movies. He had quit his job as a soft­ware pro­gram­mer to pur­sue a dream of run­ning a golf

course. He’d lo­cated the land and talked a busi­ness­man into buy­ing it, lob­bied to have Doak de­sign it, and when we got the job, be­came our cham­pion. He shep­herded ev­ery reg­u­la­tory per­mit to a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion, par­tic­i­pated in most dis­cus­sions about de­sign and made sure every­one got paid on time. He was ea­ger to run the club once it opened, un­til, on the cusp of com­ple­tion, he went home one night and, for rea­sons unknown, killed his wife. He sub­se­quently pleaded no con­test to a charge of reck­less homi­cide and is now serv­ing a lengthy term in a Wis­con­sin prison. I men­tion him here be­cause he was es­sen­tial in the cre­ation of Erin Hills, but de­cline to state his name out of re­spect for his chil­dren, who are now adults.

Fi­nally, and most im­por­tant, there was the guy who hired us, Bob Lang, who had cre­ated a small busi­ness em­pire pro­duc­ing greet­ing cards, cal­en­dars and gift-shop col­lectibles. His Lang Com­pa­nies was based in De­lafield, 30 kilo­me­tres south of Erin. Bob had re­built its down­town into a charm­ing 19th-cen­tury re­treat, a Wis­con­sin ver­sion of Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg.The day we first met, he proudly pointed out spe­cific build­ing de­tails, such as hand-planed floor planks se­cured by square nails. His of­fice con­tained valu­able Civil War relics, an in­cred­i­ble col­lec­tion of Abe Lin­coln por­traits and the framed au­to­graphs of the first 12 pres­i­dents of the United States.

care and feed­ing

Bob was a less-than-avid golfer whose vision for the project was the lush, green, tree-lined Brown Deer Golf Course in Mil­wau­kee.Though there’s noth­ing wrong with Brown Deer, it was not what our site was of­fer­ing. Mike and Dana left it to me to ed­u­cate Bob, so I took him to Prairie Dunes in Kansas, then sent him on to Sand Hills. Bob didn’t like what he saw. Sand Hills had no trees, and both cour­ses were more brown than green.“I want Ire­land,” he said,“I want emer­ald green.”

“Ire­land is 40 shades of green,” I told him. It took a while, but it even­tu­ally sank in. Bob would later launch an Erin Hills me­dia cam­paign that boasted Forty Shades of Green.

Bob knew just enough golf to be dan­ger­ous. He wanted a par-73 course, with six par 5s.We ex­plained to him that par would end up be­ing what­ever the land al­lowed us to build, but six 5s were at least two too many, un­less he wanted six-hour rounds. His so­lu­tion was 15-minute tee times.We ex­plained it would be hard to make money with only four four­balls per hour.

He also wanted to own the long­est golf course in the world and wasn’t happy when I told him that was an in­di­ca­tion of phal­lic envy.We in­for­mally lasered the course from stake to stake and found it to be 7 234 me­tres from the pro­posed cham­pi­onship “black tee” mark­ers. Bob wanted more. He wanted a set of “back black” tees to reach his goal of 8 000 me­tres.We fi­nally caved, found him some lo­ca­tions and ran ir­ri­ga­tion to them, but ex­plained they were for use 30 years or more down the road.We made him pledge to us that he wouldn’t put mark­ers on them or list


them on the score­card.

The first thing he did af­ter the course opened was to hold a highly pub­li­cised Back Black Chal­lenge, in­volv­ing lo­cal pros and am­a­teurs.The course mea­sured 7 600 me­tres, par 75 (in­clud­ing the Bye hole), and the win­ning score was 81. I told him that was the worst sort of PR he could give to a new pub­lic golf course. But he per­sisted. He was soon sell­ing hats in the club­house with the in­scrip­tion Erin Hills . . . Not for the Faint of Heart.

Bob made some gen­uine con­tri­bu­tions to the de­sign. He dis­cov­ered the par-3 sixth hole, play­ing up­hill to a hori­zon green, which al­lowed us to play an­other par 3 in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, to a wide but shal­low sunken green.This was our orig­i­nal sev­enth, the Dell hole (named af­ter the Dell at Lahinch in Ire­land), a blind par 3 where every­one aimed for a big white rock (on which Bob had painted Whit­ten) that was moved each day to in­di­cate the cor­rect line to the hid­den flag. Critic Brad Klein, call­ing our course “Er­rant Hills,” scoffed at the hole, la­belling it “a vast taco shell.” I al­ways thought that was the per­fect de­scrip­tion.

Bob also lob­bied hard to lo­cate the 16th hole in a spot we thought was sim­ply too dis­tant from the club­house to re­turn with­out cre­at­ing a cou­ple of out­ra­geously long back-to-back par 5s. (Bob’s so­lu­tion was to cre­ate a par 6. Se­ri­ously.) But one day I hu­moured him, and we walked out to the meadow.We dis­cov­ered a hill­top re­cently cleared of trees with a unique ket­tle hole atop it that we calledTheVol­cano.That be­came the green site for our short par-4 15th. By aban­don­ing a par 3 ear­lier in the nine and cre­at­ing a new par-3 16th to a won­der­fully nat­u­ral punch­bowl green (more of a gravy boat), we made it work, avoid­ing back-to-back par 5s to con­clude the round.

show me the money

Bob was a hands-on owner who kept a tight grip on his money. He con­tin­u­ally de­clined to ap­prove a con­struc­tion bud­get. “I’m not go­ing to sell half my com­pany to build a golf course,” he said.“Find me a part­ner.” So I wrote to Low­ell Schul­man, founder of the pri­vate At­lantic Golf Club on New York’s Long Is­land, and Herb Kohler, owner of Black­wolf Run and Whistling Straits in Wis­con­sin. I made vis­its to each, pitch­ing the idea of be-

com­ing mi­nor­ity in­vestors.They po­litely de­clined. My frus­tra­tion was ev­i­dent in a May 28, 2002 email:“For­give me, Bob, but I must make this ob­ser­va­tion. I’m out here beat­ing bushes try­ing to find fi­nanc­ing for con­struc­tion of the course, while you’re in the field knock­ing down trees and ap­par­ently cre­at­ing golf holes. Some­how, it ought to be the other way around.”

That sum­mer, a dock strike em­bar­goed a lot of his com­pany’s prod­ucts, and Bob told us he was prob­a­bly go­ing to aban­don the course. I met with Hur­dzan and sug­gested we dan­gle a US Open in front of Bob.

“The USGA is never go­ing to take the US Open to a re­mote pub­lic course in the mid­dle of Wis­con­sin,” Mike said.

“You know that, and I know that,” I said,“but Bob doesn’t know that.”

With Mike’s bless­ing, I met with Bob and told him we thought Erin Hills would be a fan­tas­tic place to host a US Open, if only he’d let us build the course. Bob now says we played right into his hands, be­cause a US Open had been his dream ever since he first saw the prop­erty in 1997. Mike, Dana and I can­not re­call him ever ex­press­ing that dream to any of us, but Bob in­sists he told oth­ers about it as far back as 2001.

We got his go-ahead to fi­nalise the rout­ing, but still no con­struc­tion bud­get. The fi­nal gov­ern­ment per­mit al­low­ing us to build the course was is­sued in June 2003, but Bob wanted as­sur­ances. So on July 24, 2003, I wrote to Mike Davis, then di­rec­tor of the US Open, to­day ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and CEO of the USGA, and brazenly told him that Erin Hills “will ul­ti­mately be a bet­ter Open site than the Straits Course at Whistling Straits.”The only catch, I ca­su­ally added, “. . . our course is not yet con­structed.” I in­vited Davis to tour the site with us and of­fer his sug­ges­tions on how to make Erin Hills cham­pi­onship-wor­thy. I also en­closed a few photos of the site.

Davis didn’t re­spond un­til Septem­ber 30.“If I can make a visit, I will be happy to,” he wrote.“I do need to go to Whistling Straits at some point, so could per­haps tie the two in. I am also mak­ing pe­ri­odic trips to Chicago GC for the set-up of the ’05 Walker Cup.” I re­sponded by say­ing that Bob was ea­ger to show him the site in Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber. It didn’t hap­pen, but in early Novem­ber, Bob told us he’d closed on a busi­ness deal and now had clear ti­tle to all the land for Erin Hills. (I hadn’t known he hadn’t owned the land.) But he still needed con­struc­tion cap­i­tal.

We spent the spring and sum­mer of 2004 de­bat­ing our fi­nal rout­ing and quib­bling over a fi­nal bud­get.

Mike and Dana wanted to hire Coore & Cren­shaw bunker guru Jeff Bradley, who had worked with them on their fine Shel­ter Har­bor de­sign in Rhode Is­land, to im­part his dis­tinc­tive bunker style upon Erin Hills. I talked them out of that, in part be­cause Bradley was an ex­pen­sive line item, but mainly be­cause I thought Bradley was so as­so­ci­ated with Coore & Cren­shaw that pun­dits would in­sist we’d copied their bunker style. I ar­gued that Erin Hills was unique and de­served its own bunker style.

A year later, when we fi­nally started build­ing bunkers, we did three va­ri­eties. We had a few small pot bunkers, which I called Ket­tle Hole bunkers.We had BlowOut bunkers, most of them flagged out by Dana to look like wind had carved out pits from tall sand dunes. (Some, like a big one left of the 14th fair­way, were in­deed na­tive sand; when we dug out oth­ers, we hit glacial rock, so we carted in sand.) And af­ter study­ing wa­ter ero­sion pat­terns in the Kansas Flint Hills, I sketched out what I called “ero­sion bunkers,” with nar­row fin­gers spread­ing down­hill and widen­ing into ir­reg­u­lar bot­toms of dif­fer­ent lev­els. Th­ese be­came the most preva­lent type of bunkers on the course.

the dream be­comes re­al­ity

In July 2004, Davis wrote to me say­ing he’d stop by Erin Hills dur­ing the week of the PGA Cham­pi­onship at Whistling Straits. In ad­vance of that visit, Bob and I took turns on a trac­tor mow­ing the tall prairie grasses to in­di­cate the pro­posed tee, fair­way and green of each hole.We then tied flags to broom­sticks and pounded them into the cen­tre of our greens.With­out mov­ing a sin­gle shov­el­ful of earth, it looked like a golf course.

Davis vis­ited on Au­gust 10, with then-USGA agron­o­mist Tim Mor­aghan. They spent 4½ hours walk­ing the en­tire 18 with us, answering our ques­tions, of­fer­ing sug­ges­tions: keep the greens small; no se­vere slopes that gob­ble up hole lo­ca­tions; save room for tee ex­pan­sion; con­sider traf­fic flow through the prop­erty for ser­vice ve­hi­cles; use grasses that will pro­vide fir­mand-fast con­di­tions.

When we reached the pro­posed 10th green, atop a hill, Davis no­ticed a steep hol­low be­yond it, and a plateau be­yond that.“Would you look at that,” he said. “That looks like a nat­u­ral Biar­ritz green.” The fol­low­ing day, I went back to 10 and stud­ied it.Why hadn’t I no­ticed that? It was in­deed a nat­u­ral Biar­ritz, so I mowed it down and staked it out. Mike and Dana loved it, so we even­tu­ally built it, a 70-me­tre-long green, with a deep trench

across its mid­dle, on the top of a hill at the end of a 615-me­tre par 5.What were we think­ing?

A lit­tle over a week af­ter the USGA visit, Bob wrote to us all, say­ing he’d lo­cated the con­struc­tion money:“It’s time to be­gin the next phase of our jour­ney to build Erin Hills.”

Con­struc­tion fi­nally started on Septem­ber 15.The next month, Davis re­turned, this time with then-USGA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor David Fay.Af­ter walk­ing ev­ery cor­ri­dor, Fay said to Bob,“Let’s see how this will play in June” and of­fered him the 2007 US Women’s Ama­teur Pub­lic Links Cham­pi­onship. Bob im­me­di­ately ac­cepted and glee­fully called us.We pan­icked.That was less than three years away.We hadn’t even started con­struc­tion; one stretch of bad weather, and we’d never have the course ready in time.

Luck­ily, Fay soon phoned Bob and said he’d mis­spo­ken.They’d al­ready of­fered the 2007 event to Kear­ney Hill in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky.Would he host the 2008 event? Bob agreed, and we all re­laxed, just a lit­tle.

When we re­turned in the spring of 2005, con­struc­tion sput­tered.An ir­ri­ga­tion pond took longer to be dug than we’d an­tic­i­pated.Worse, we had no wa­ter to fill the pond be­cause well-drilling was de­layed.We fell be­hind dead­lines for seed­ing, and that ul­ti­mately spilled into spring 2006.

There were other com­pli­ca­tions. Al­though two years ear­lier Bob had hired lo­cal work­ers to clear-cut en­tire hill­sides, he now couldn’t bring him­self to cut down any more trees. Dana’s phi­los­o­phy was “nuke ’em all,” but Bob thought clus­ters of trees in the mid­dle of some fair­ways would be marvellous strate­gic el­e­ments. I ended up spend­ing months bar­ter­ing with him, tree re­moval on one hole in ex­change for re­tain­ing some trees on an­other. Erin Hills of­fi­cially opened for play in Au­gust 2006, too early for the turf con­di­tions, but Bob wanted to start gen­er­at­ing rev­enue. It re­ceived mixed reviews. Golf Mag­a­zine named it Best New Course of the year, but Wis­con­sin Golfer said award­ing it a USGA event “was like putting Miss Amer­ica’s crown on a new­born.”

Make that two crowns. In Fe­bru­ary 2008, the USGA an­nounced the 2011 US Ama­teur would be played at Erin Hills. Bob told me pri­vately that a US Open was also part of the deal but said the an­nounce­ment of that would not be made for a cou­ple of years. It was tough, as a writer, to sit on that scoop, but I’m glad I did, be­cause I’m no longer sure what Bob told me was ac­cu­rate.

things turn sour

The Women’s Publinks was played in June 2008. It rained for 15 straight days be­fore the tour­na­ment, and though the course drained well, the wa­ter ta­ble was so high that some low spots in the land­scape be­came de facto ponds.The blind par-3 sev­enth hole was not used; the down­hill Bye hole was sub­sti­tuted, as the ninth. Sev­eral golf writ­ers clucked about thin turf on the fair­ways. Of course they were thin.We’d had only one full grow­ing sea­son. It takes sev­eral years to fully grow in fes­cue turf.

I at­tended the event, but it wasn’t un­til I re­turned home that I read ac­counts from some re­porters that Bob was plan­ning many de­sign changes to Erin Hills, “en­hance­ments” re­quired by the USGA for the US Ama­teur.This “face-lift for a 2-year-old” was news to me. I con­tacted Davis, who as­sured me that he’d told Bob the Ama­teur would be a test run, and dis­cus­sion of any course changes should be post­poned un­til af­ter its con­clu­sion. To doc­u­ment that, Davis sent me a chain of emails from Bob, which showed Bob had copied Mike and Dana on his de­sired changes, but, for some rea­son, not me.

I called Hur­dzan, and he ad­mit­ted that they would soon start the re­mod­elling. “Bob asked me to tell you to stay away,” he said.“He just feels you’d be so op­posed to any changes that you’d just try to de­lay things.”

I was pissed. I’m a writer. I get edited all the time.That didn’t bother me. But I didn’t like be­ing benched.When I later talked to Dana, he said they weren’t sure the US Open was a done deal.“What­ever it takes to get the US Open, we’ll do,” he said.

The one change I dis­agree with was elim­i­na­tion of the Dell hole. Bob later told me he aban­doned it be­cause the USGA would never have used it in a US Open. But even to­day, Davis in­sists he was open-minded about a blind par 3 and

had wanted to see how play­ers would re­act to it dur­ing the Ama­teur. In an act that sealed its fate, Bob, with­out con­sult­ing Hur­dzan or Fry, had the hill­side in front of the Dell green bull­dozed away to cre­ate a new set of back tees for his new sev­enth hole, the old par-4 eighth length­ened into a par 5. Bob now had his par-73 course.

The old ninth be­came the eighth, and the Bye hole, a short, down­hill par 3 to a sliver of a green sur­rounded by nasty ero­sion bunkers, be­came the ninth hole. It’s now prob­a­bly the most pho­tographed hole on the course.

While re­con­struc­tion was hap­pen­ing, I no­ticed my name and bio had dis­ap­peared from the Erin Hills web­site. Then an Erin Hills spokesman con­tacted my boss, Jerry Tarde, and told him Ron Whit­ten was no longer in­volved with Erin Hills. I’d not just been benched, I’d been kicked off the team.And I re­alised why.

When I first in­ter­viewed for the job, I had ex­plained to Bob that I was in­volved with Golf Di­gest’s 100 Great­est Cour­ses rank­ings, and if I were to be in­volved in his de­sign, Erin Hills would not be el­i­gi­ble for any Golf Di­gest award.At the time, Bob didn’t care. But by 2008, he had ap­par­ently caught 100 Great­est fever. Tarde turned down the first over­tures but changed his mind in 2013, af­ter Erin Hills had been awarded the US Open, over­com­ing the ap­pear­ance of a con­flict of in­ter­est. Erin Hills made the list

44 among Amer­ica’s 100 Great­est and No 9 among Amer­ica’s 100 Great­est Pub­lic Cour­ses.

Mike and Dana thought they had com­pleted the re­mod­elling work by late 2008, but new ac­tiv­ity in spring 2009 post­poned the sea­son open­ing un­til July. Erin Hills was in an ex­tended drought that spring.The fes­cue fair­ways re­mained dor­mant, and I heard ru­mours that Erin Hills might not sur­vive the re­ces­sion that was upon us. So in late July 2009, over a year since my last visit, I drove to Erin Hills to see for my­self. Bob was not there.As I walked the course, I be­came de­pressed.The putting sur­faces were okay, but the fair­ways looked badly ne­glected. The na­tive rough, what Bob had al­ways called “sea of fes­cue,” was mostly weeds and this­tles. Crews were busy dig­ging more bunkers and adding new cart­paths in­stead of tend­ing to the course.

It was ap­par­ent that Bob, on his own, had added over 100 bunkers, be­cause they looked so am­a­teur­ish. (Twelve were filled in by Mike and Dana, and oth­ers were re­built.)

The morn­ing af­ter my visit, I re­ceived a brief email from Bob.“I know it must hurt to see some things,” he said.“Mike Davis says it’s fab­u­lous. He is the barom­e­ter.”

I wrote Bob a stern re­sponse. “Your self-in­dul­gence is jeop­ar­dis­ing the fu­ture of Erin Hills,” I said.“You had the tal­ents of Mike Hur­dzan and Dana Fry, yet most of the bunkers were done with­out their knowl­edge or guid­ance . . . . The course is a mess. It looks like it’s a year from be­ing ready to open for play.And yet you’re ac­cept­ing tee times on a painfully apolo­getic re­duced rate . . . . You have cre­ated more main­te­nance headaches with­out ad­dress­ing the main­te­nance bud­get or man­power needed . . . . Your con­tin­ued rip­ping up and re­fash­ion­ing of the course has put the 2011 US Ama­teur in jeop­ardy . . . . There is only one so­lu­tion, Bob . . . . You need to bring in a part­ner and re­lin­quish con­trol to that part­ner.”

Three months later, on Oc­to­ber 24, 2009, Bob Lang sur­prised many, in­clud­ing me, by sell­ing Erin Hills out­right to Andy Ziegler, a highly suc­cess­ful Mil­wau­kee in­vest­ment-fund man­ager. I didn’t hear the news from Bob. In­stead, I read about it on a news­pa­per web­site. Bob later gave de­tails to one of my Golf Di­gest col­leagues, telling him that af­ter all those course en­hance­ments, he’d run out of money.

Bob and I are friends again now. I feel bad that he lost the course, but I’m re­lieved – Ziegler took im­me­di­ate steps so that Erin Hills could, as he told a re­porter,“earn a sec­ond chance to make a good first im­pres­sion. ”With­out him, I think we would have lost the Ama­teur.

Ziegler had Mike and Dana build a new 10th green, short­en­ing the hole to a par 4, rid­ding the lay­out of its par 73 and our wacky Biar­ritz green.At Davis’ sug­ges­tion, Ziegler re­lo­cated the third green. He built a state-of-the-art main­te­nance fa­cil­ity (Bob had been con­tent with a metal build­ing with no run­ning wa­ter)

and in­creased the main­te­nance bud­get dra­mat­i­cally. He ex­panded the prac­tice fa­cil­ity, now one of the most elab­o­rate in the na­tion, built a new club­house and even­tu­ally added sev­eral overnight cot­tages pat­terned af­ter those at Pine Val­ley and Au­gusta Na­tional.

Most im­por­tant, Ziegler brought sta­bil­ity to Erin Hills. Soon af­ter the pur­chase, Davis of­fered a pub­lic voice of con­fi­dence in Ziegler’s lead­er­ship. At the 2010 US Open at Peb­ble Beach, it was for­mally an­nounced that Erin Hills would host the 2017 US Open. Hur­dzan and Fry were in at­ten­dance. Ziegler’s of­fice had in­vited me to at­tend, but I de­clined. Bob was there, in the shad­ows, lis­ten­ing through a crack in a door while the USGA made the an­nounce­ment. Hur­dzan later spoke with him that day and said Bob felt vin­di­cated.

ran­dom clos­ing thoughts

I’ll never live down the sus­pi­cion that Whit­ten screwed up Erin Hills so badly that Hur­dzan and Fry had to tear it up to re­pair his mis­takes. It’s still the same course we all built, just with three dif­fer­ent greens and a bunch of ex­tra bunkers. But I know oth­ers will view its his­tory dif­fer­ently.

In 2012, Hur­dzan and Fry dis­solved their part­ner­ship and formed ri­val firms. I’ve worked on a cou­ple of de­sign projects since Erin Hills, but the econ­omy has not been kind to any of us. Mike and Dana are still de­sign con­sul­tants for Erin Hills; they af­forded me in­put on re­cent changes.We’ve all re­mained friends and have jointly pro­moted Erin Hills in ad­vance of the Open. I’m proud of my in­volve­ment and my con­tri­bu­tions, and I’m pleased to have worked with them.

Mike and I liked Erin Hills more when it still had gi­ant spec­i­men trees along cer­tain hill­sides.They’re all pale green ghosts now, ex­cept for a mag­nif­i­cent red oak on the 15th hole, all chopped down un­der Dana’s di­rec­tion. Though I agree with him that their re­moval ex­panded long-range vis­tas, their ab­sence elim­i­nates a third di­men­sion to the course.Trees had once reached 30 me­tres or more in the air, far higher than the high­est dune. Now the ceil­ing has been dropped.

Over half a cen­tury ago, golf writer Her­bert War­ren Wind, my or­a­cle of course ar­chi­tec­ture, wrote,“If the greens, the bunker­ing and the fair­way con­tours ap­pear to have been built by na­ture and not by bull­doz­ers, the de­signer has cre­ated a suc­cess­ful course.” By that stan­dard, I con­sider Erin Hills an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess.We ac­com­plished what we set out to do: build a nat­u­ral course at a rea­son­able cost. It’s sim­ply a bonus that it’s host­ing the US Open. I do be­lieve there will be many more of those in its fu­ture.

I have in my files an email from Bob Lang dated June 3, 2006:“US Open 2017,” he wrote.“I’ll bet ev­ery­thing I own.”

In a very real sense, he did.

the bunker on the par-4 15th was seem­ingly formed by wa­ter ero­sion.

the 675-yard 18th (cen­tre) is a true three-shot par 5.

the green at erin hills’ par-3 ninth is sur­rounded by seven deep bunkers.

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