Erin Hills is an improbable monument to minimalism. Carved into wildly heaving Wisconsin farmland, the course is spread across a gargantuan 652 acres, three times the size of a typical 18-hole canvas. Founder Bob Lang and his three handpicked architects—Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten—initially intended Erin Hills to be the nation's greatest $50 public course. To keep costs down, little earth was moved in creating its holes. The routing is draped atop the southern end of Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine, where, with the coaxing of Lang and company, undulating vestiges of eons-ago glacier activity yielded chaotically rumpled fairways and dramatically contoured greens complexes. Minimalist, yes—but with a maximally thrilling variety of holes, lies and stances.
Ridges, dunes, tawny fescue grasses, penal bunkers and 20 mph gusts lend an Irish links feel to Erin Hills, especially with almost no trees and with fairways that run firm and fast. Of course, no Emerald Isle track plays to 7,693 yards. As with four-time U.S. Open venue Shinnecock Hills, Erin Hills looks and plays like a links without being a links.
So what is it? The architects call it a "heartland" course. It's an upper-Midwest, prairie-style layout with traits of both seaside links and parkland tracks. "We want to make that distinction," Hurdzan says. "It's not a links course."
Perhaps not, but its many disconcerting blind or semi-blind drives will remind you of a links. Fry thinks the pros will struggle most with determining lines and angles off the tee shots. "Committing to the line of attack can be difficult here," he says, "especially at holes 2, 8, 10, 11 and 12. Your eyes and mind are telling you one thing, when in reality the spot you're supposed to hit it to is dramatically different."
The best—and toughest—hole on the course is the par-3 ninth, slated to play 135 yards for the Open. It's Pebble's seventh without the ocean, a terrifying downhiller to a tiny, slender green framed by the nastiest collection of traps this side of Oakmont. "The hardest shot at Erin Hills is the second shot at the ninth if you've missed the green," Fry says.
Bud Jackson—the half-brother of Ben Crenshaw's legendary bagman Carl Jackson and a veteran caddie at both Augusta National and Erin Hills—reads the same trouble at the ninth green. "I don't call "em bunkers, I call "em traps," he says. "You get in "em, sometimes you got to hit it backwards. It's crazy."
Another standout is the 464-yard, par-4 12th. Known as "the heart of Erin Hills," it's the most natural hole on the course, one whose semi-blind drive poses all the strategic and course management questions that Erin Hills asks. Can you hit with controlled power? If so, a long, well-placed drive will carry a crest, find a downslope and run within wedge distance of the green. Are you sufficiently accurate to keep it out of the rough and fescue that brackets the fairways? Can you work the ball both ways? The proper driving line is tough to discern. Right-handers will need to cut it off the tee or start a draw off the left edge of the big natural dune on the right, where the tall grass meets the rough line. Perhaps the biggest question is, Do you have vision and courage? The golfer who risks the bold play and executes with a blend of power, finesse, patience and creativity will thrive at Erin Hills.
Hurdzan sums up the vexing virtues of the full 18. "There's no O.B., no water, no true forced carries," he says. "The three elements that provide the challenge are, one, understanding what the slope of the land is going to do to your ball; two, coping with the most penal bunkers many of the pros will have ever seen; and three, dealing with the wind, which can and will change everything."
Sounds like a tough test. Sounds like a U.S. Open.