Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Making of Erin Hills

In June, Erin Hills, the mammoth rumpled blanket of a golf course in tiny Erin, Wis., will host the first of what will be many U.S. 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 652 acres, 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 8,348 yards, but it isn't intended to ever be played at that length. For the Open, it'll officially measure 7,693 yards but will be shorter on any given day because each hole has enormous flexibility. It's a par 72, first for a U.S. 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 U.S. 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. (...)

When Mike and I first saw the land, in June 2000 (Dana made his first visit in the fall of 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. (...)

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 paychecks 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, 20 miles 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.

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 foursomes 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 7,911 yards from the proposed championship "black tee" markers. Bob wanted more. He wanted a set of "back black" tees to reach his goal of 8,800 yards. 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 publicized Back Black Challenge, involving local pros and amateurs. The course measured over 8,300 yards, 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.

by Ron Whitten, Golf Digest |  Read more:
Image: Dom Furore