ERIN HILLS: A BEAU­TI­FUL BRUTE

Don’t be fooled by the sweet-sound­ing name, Erin Hills is a rav­en­ous mon­ster whose spec­tac­u­lar lay­out will de­vour plenty of way­ward shots dur­ing the 117th US Open Cham­pi­onship.

Golf Australia - - NEWS - WORDS PAUL PREN­DER­GAST PHOTOGRAPHY GETTY IM­AGES & USGA

Paul Pren­der­gast pre­views the mon­strous host course of the US Open as it makes its ma­jor cham­pi­onship de­but.

This year’s United States Open Cham­pi­onship will again pro­vide an­other con­trast to the time hon­oured, tra­di­tional venues of US Opens past when the United States Golf As­so­ci­a­tion (USGA) hosts its blue riband event at the largely un­known (to the out­side world) Erin Hills course in ru­ral Wis­con­sin.

Amer­ica’s 30th state is no stranger to ma­jor cham­pi­onship golf in the mod­ern era with three PGA Cham­pi­onships staged at Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michi­gan, in 2004, 2010 and most re­cently in 2015, when Aus­tralian Ja­son Day held o‚ the mighty chal­lenge of Jor­dan Spi­eth to cap­ture his first ma­jor. Wis­con­sin was also host to a PGA Cham­pi­onship way back in 1933 when as a match­play event, Gene Sarazen cap­tured his third ti­tle with a 5 and 4 tri­umph over Wil­lie Gog­gin.

So far as US Opens are con­cerned how­ever, this will be a highly-an­tic­i­pated first stag­ing of the na­tional cham­pi­onship in the state and ex­cite­ment has been build­ing since the venue was an­nounced as host back in 2010.

“Erin Hills is in the Ket­tle Mo­raine re­gion of south­ern Wis­con­sin which is a nice rolling, topsy-turvy piece of to­pog­ra­phy carved out by glaciers 10,000 years ago,” Erin Hills Com­pe­ti­tion Di­rec­tor John Mor­ris­set said.

“We’re about 35 miles north­west of down­town Mil­wau­kee so we have the best of both worlds in that when you’re out here, you feel like you’re in the mid­dle of nowhere in ru­ral Wis­con­sin but in re­al­ity you’re not far from a very big city.” The com­par­isons with the USGA’s most re­cent foray into un­char­tered Open ter­ri­tory – the cham­pi­onship at Cham­bers Bay in 2015 – are eerily sim­i­lar.

The Open’s stag­ing in Wash­ing­ton and Wis­con­sin were each state’s first, with both cour­ses hav­ing hosted a US Ama­teur Cham­pi­onship as a ‘test’ event in ad­vance – Erin Hills in 2011 when Kelly Kraft de­feated Pa­trick Cant­lay in the fi­nal.

Both venues are open to the pub­lic and are fairly re­cent cre­ations with Erin Hills open­ing for play in just 2006, a year be­fore Cham­bers Bay. Each of the cour­ses are lo­cated on im­mense prop­er­ties, fea­ture rolling el­e­va­tion changes (con­sid­er­ably more se­vere in Cham­bers Bay’s case) and have ex­pan­sive ‘open plan’ de­signs that can be at the mercy of the el­e­ments and stretched to 8,000 yards in length at a sadist’s whim.

Both cour­ses are vir­tu­ally tree-less, have fes­cue grass (more on this later) as their core play­ing sur­face with only the gen­eral out­look of each lay­out – Cham­bers’ Puget Sound vis­tas will con­trast with a ru­ral, farm­land ‘Ir­ish’ Wis­con­sin land­scape – pro­vid­ing the pri­mary visual point of di‚er­ence.

The crit­i­cisms of the fes­cue play­ing sur­faces and in par­tic­u­lar, the burnt out, bumpy greens that drew the ire of many at Cham­bers Bay, have been well an­tic­i­pated in the metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tions that have been ob­served to ready Erin Hills for the scru­tiny of the golf­ing world from June 15 to 18.

In an al­most un­prece­dented move for all but the most ex­clu­sive pri­vate clubs, Erin Hills has been closed to all pub­lic play thus far in 2017. Even con­firmed US Open play­ers were not per­mit­ted to visit the course to con­duct any pre­lim­i­nary scout­ing prepa­ra­tions un­til well into May.

“We closed in early Oc­to­ber 2016 and will not open for gen­eral play un­til af­ter the

cham­pi­onship.” Mor­ris­sett said.

“That ac­com­plishes a lot for us. It greatly re­duces wear and tear on the golf course; it al­lows our main­te­nance sta to do ev­ery­thing they would like to do with­out hav­ing to worry about get­ting in the way of play; and also, peo­ple build­ing all the in­fra­struc­ture – the grand­stands, me­dia cen­tre, TV com­pound and tow­ers – can go about their busi­ness with­out hav­ing to worry about golfers.”

Erin Hills was de­signed by the es­teemed trio of Dr Michael Hur­dzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whit­ten, who em­ployed a min­i­mal­ist ap­proach to earth move­ment in the con­struc­tion of the golf course.

Apart from a few de­sign tweaks, the course laid out over this glacially-carved land has seen the lay­out con­sis­tently ranked in­side Amer­ica’s Top 100 cour­ses and the top-10 in Amer­ica’s Best Pub­lic Cour­ses since its in­cep­tion.

“From the USGA’s per­spec­tive there are sev­eral things about Erin Hills that they are ex­cited about,” Mor­ris­sett con­tin­ued.

“One of which is the fact we have fine fes­cue fair­ways, which Mother Na­ture per­mit­ting, will pro­vide firm and fast play­ing sur­faces. Un­like Cham­bers Bay how­ever, the greens are bent­grass so they are more tra­di­tional and more like play­ers will be used to in terms of how balls will re­act.

“An­other of the things the USGA like is the great flex­i­bil­ity that the golf course pro­vides. We have mul­ti­ple tee lo­ca­tions which can mean the course can play any­thing from 5,000 to 8,000 yards. That al­lows great flex­i­bil­ity on a daily ba­sis to ad­just to what the weather con­di­tions are.

“In mid-June, the winds have not yet set­tled into the reg­u­lar pat­tern we get in the sum­mer when it blows gen­er­ally from the west. In mid-June, you could get the wind blow­ing from any di­rec­tion so the week of the cham­pi­onship could see play from two or three di er­ent wind di­rec­tions.

“In gen­eral, I would say our greens are av­er­age in size but there are a few larger ones out there and two or three very small ones. The 2nd green for ex­am­ple is un­der 4,000 square feet and our largest green is 9,000, so we have some va­ri­ety.

“Most of our greens will be sur­rounded by closely mown turf which will present the play­ers with a good num­ber of re­cov­ery op­tions

UN­LIKE CHAM­BERS BAY HOW­EVER, THE GREENS ARE BENT­GRASS SO THEY ARE MORE TRA­DI­TIONAL AND MORE LIKE PLAY­ERS WILL BE USED TO IN TERMS OF HOW BALLS WILL RE­ACT. – COM­PE­TI­TION DI­REC­TOR JOHN MOR­RIS­SET

when they miss a green.

“There is good va­ri­ety in the rout­ing and, es­pe­cially it be­ing an open piece of prop­erty where we have just five in­te­rior trees on the course, there are a num­ber of changes in di­rec­tion. In the stretch from holes 6 through to 14 in the mid­dle of the course, no two holes play in the same di­rec­tion so you’re al­ways hav­ing to make ad­just­ments for the wind.”

De­spite the crit­i­cisms of cer­tain el­e­ments of the cham­pi­onship in 2015, what could not be faulted was the over­whelm­ing sup­port for the event from the broader Seat­tle com­mu­nity at large. The cham­pi­onship was blessed with per­fect weather and the pub­lic re­sponded with mas­sive and ex­citable gal­leries in at­ten­dance each day. I spoke with many at Cham­bers Bay, who had trav­elled hun­dreds of miles from all di­rec­tions for the op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness golf of this cal­i­bre in their back­yard. There was pre­vail­ing sense of ‘I can’t be­lieve the U.S. Open is here’ and Mor­ris­sett agreed that the sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion from Wis­con­sin na­tives has mir­rored that.

“Golf in Wis­con­sin has just ex­ploded in the past 25 years and res­i­dents here have re­ally em­braced it. The USGA are lim­it­ing ticket sales to 35,000 for each day and it’s safe to say they will get that each day,” he said. “The re­al­ity is we’re also only about two hours from the Chicago area, which is a huge mar­ket and close enough for peo­ple to make a day trip of it.

“The com­mu­nity are very ex­cited about this cham­pi­onship and to give you an ex­am­ple, when the USGA opened the vol­un­teer reg­is­tra­tion process in 2015, af­ter four weeks they had to set up a wait list be­cause 4,300 peo­ple had al­ready vol­un­teered to as­sist.

“With­out ex­ag­ger­at­ing, the course does not re­mind you of any other golf course. I know it’s an overused word but the golf course is cer­tainly ‘unique’, start­ing with the nat­u­ral beauty of the prop­erty it­self but even the sur­round­ings.

“The beauty of the golf course, the chal­lenge of the course and the hos­pi­tal­ity and warmth of the peo­ple of Wis­con­sin – I think these will be the main things peo­ple will take away from this cham­pi­onship.”

The view from be­hind the green of the dif­fi­cult to hit 215-yard par-3 13th hole.

The down­hill 165-yard par-3, 9th hole with the green of the 663-yard par-5 18th hole ly­ing beyond.

The 616-yard 14th is a risk-an­dreward par-5 where for­tune will favour the brave.

Co-de­sign­ers Ron Whit­ten, Dr Michael Hur­dzan and Dana Fry with the US Open tro­phy.

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