Erin Hills vs. Whistling Straits: Which one is right for you?

Wednesday May 31st, 2017
3:16 | Tour & News
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U.S. Open venue Erin Hills is basking in white-hot limelight these days. That got us wondering, is it truly the equal of—or could it possibly surpass—tournament titan Whistling Straits? We pit the two public-access heavyweights head-to-head in 11 categories in the Battle of the Badger State. 

Rankings

Erin Hills cracked our U.S. Top 100 list at Number 96 in 2013, but exited just as quickly in 2015. It ranks Number 3 in our Wisconsin public-access course listing in 2016. Whistling Straits ranks Number among our 2016 Top 100 U.S. Courses You Can Play, Number 27 in the U.S. for all courses and Number 52 in the World for all courses.

Edge: Whistling Straits

Challenge

From the Championship Black tees, Erin Hills runs exactly 7,800 yards on the scorecard, with a par of 72, rating of 77.9 and a slope of 145. Whistling Straits’ Blacks go 7,790—just 10 yards shorter—with a par of 72, rating of 77.2 and a slope of 152. From the next set of tees, Erin Hills goes 7,174 yards, rating of 75.0, slope 139. Whistling Straits is 7,142 yards, 74.2, 145. It’s known to many that Erin Hills can be stretched to better than 8,200 yards if it needs to. If you’re straying and it’s breezy, our experience says Whistling Straits is tougher because there’s so much brutal trouble on the sides of every hole. At Erin Hills, you can find trouble merely hitting it down the middle, because of the chaotically sloping terrain from tee to green. Both courses will beat you up. 

Edge: Even

Check them out yourself, but be warned. Both Whistling (left) and Erin are difficult tests.
LC Lambrecht (left) / Paul Hundley (right)

Variety

While there’s no gigantic body of water in play or in view at Erin Hills, the routing, the variety of uphill, downhill, this way and that way holes, as well as the variety of lies and stances available on the wildly tumbling terrain make for a memorable experience. There are nice variations in the hole lengths and directions as well, which allows for the wind to have maximum effect. At times, the overall look is of one vast, rolling field, with ribbons of fairway grass cut through the fescue, but ultimately, there are a sufficient number of individually inspiring holes to satisfy in this department. 
As for Whistling Straits, variety is one area where critics have harped a bit. As great-looking and strong-playing as the individual holes are, there is a certain sameness to them, with bunker- and rough-strewn slopes framing nearly every one. Even the holes along Lake Michigan, while spectacular, can seem like mirror images of each other. As with many Scottish links, you mostly have holes that run parallel to one another. Make no mistake—they’re outstanding holes, but the back-and-forth nature means less variety.

Edge: Erin Hills

Value

Both courses get lumped in the “special occasion” category. Erin Hills will run you $280 in 2017, and will rise to $295 in 2018. Caddies, at $55, aren’t required, but because pull carts aren’t permitted, you almost have to go with a caddie. Whistling Straits’ green fees “start at $410,” according to the course website, along with a required caddie fee of $65…plus recommended tip of $50. Yes, it’s much pricier to play the Straits course at Whistling Straits than it is to play Erin Hills, but for the extra money, you get the higher-ranked course, the lake views and many more major championship memories.

Edge: Even

Bunkering

Both courses are infamous—or will be—for their bunkers. Erin Hills features some of the most penal bunkers the pros will have faced in years, and they’re of all shapes, depths and sizes, from pot bunkers, to Blow-Outs to Erosion-style. Whistling Straits legendarily serves up roughly 1,000 bunkers, many of them formal, many of them of the “waste” variety. Sometimes, the two look very much alike, which likely cost Dustin Johnson the 2010 PGA Championship, when he grounded his club in what turned out to be a formal bunker.

Edge: Even

Greens

Whatever links-like characteristics both courses share, the putting surfaces aren’t among them. Both courses sport All-American bentgrass beauties. Each course dishes out a handful of greens that will have players howling, from their size, shape or contour, but for the most part, they’re pretty tame on both courses and putt extremely true.

Edge: Even

A looks at two of the greens, and bunkering, at Whistling Straits (left) and Erin Hills.
Paul Hundley (left) / Getty Images (right)

Tournament Pedigree

No contest here—but ask again in late June. Erin Hills has played host to the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, and the 2011 U.S. Amateur—and except for a few college tournaments, that’s it on the big stage. Whistling Straits’ Straits course has been home to three memorable PGA Championships, with Vijay Singh a playoff winner in 2004, Martin Kaymer a playoff winner over Bubba Watson in 2010 and Jason Day outdueling Jordan Spieth in 2015. It also proved a wild and windy host to the 2007 U.S. Senior Open. While Erin Hills get its U.S. Open this year, Whistling Straits comes right back with the 2020 Ryder Cup.

Edge: Whistling Straits

Scenery

Erin Hills is a lovely picture of what the architects call “Heartland” golf, with heaving land forms topped by swaying, wind-blown fescues. There are links-like aspects to hit, from the tumbling ground to the absence of trees, but this is certainly not a seaside course. Whistling Straits is completely artificial, but you wouldn’t know it because of the superior job the architect and shapers did in recreating a wild Irish links, complete with massive sand hills and bunkers that looked like they had merely evolved, rather been sculpted at the hand of man. Put this design next to massive, gorgeous Lake Michigan (or “the Sea of Wisconsin,” as Whistling Straits’ caddies call it) and the canvas is quite striking.

Edge: Whistling Straits

Both courses provide breathtaking views, but you only get the water at Whistling Straits (left).
Getty Images (left), USGA/Fred Vuich (right)

Natural Terrain

On August 10, 2004, the USGA’s Mike Davis stopped by Erin Hills before a single teaspoon of dirt had been moved in the construction of the course. What he saw astonished him. “This is one of the best pieces of land I’ve ever seen for a golf course,” said Davis. The terrain rolled and tumbled and pitched, randomly and chaotically, the result of eons-ago glacier activity. In that regard, it resembled the best linksland of Scotland and Ireland. There were so many natural fairways and green sites that major earthmoving only had to be done on three holes. Whistling Straits, on the other hand, couldn’t have been less promising—except for the elevation change and staggering lake views. Before Herb Kohler and Pete Dye converted it into a golf course, the property was an old army base, which required the removal of concrete bunkers, an airstrip, and underground fuel storage tanks, along with toxic waste that had accumulated over the years. Credit master magician Dye with an incredible transformation, but if you’re a fan of the real thing, you’ll prefer the massive scale yet minimalist design of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten.

Edge: Erin Hills

Walkability

Both Erin Hills and Whistling Straits are big-time fitness challenges. Tee to green, and then to the next tee, Erin Hills is the tougher workout. There’s just so much climbing to do. Whistling Straits is the bigger brute if you stray, and are forced to climb up into the rough and bunkers that populate the framing slopes. We’re talking easy ankle sprain territory, as a fistful of unfortunate spectators have shown during the three PGAs.

Edge: Even

Truest resemblance to an authentic links

Props to Erin Hills for its fine fescue fairways, pretty much what you see in Scotland and Ireland, which encourages interesting ground game opportunities. The breeze-fueled, billowy terrain, naturally formed bunkers, endless sea of fescues and lack of trees lend a true links-like feel to the proceedings. Again, however, there is no sea nearby, the greens are pure Midwestern bentgrass and the architects insist it’s not a links. Whistling Straits has plenty of the requisite elements as well—and has the sea in view and in play.

Edge: Whistling Straits

And the winner isWhistling Straits captures this head-to-head battle 6.5 to 4.5. It has more tournament history, more scenery and more thrills. Still, let’s reevaluate after the U.S. Open and see if our minds have changed. Sand Valley, you’re next up.

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