Erin Hills, Wisconsin's other championship venue, is a stern test

Saturday August 14th, 2010
Paul Hundley

In case you haven't noticed, Wisconsin is turning into America's golf capital. This week's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits is the beginning of a decade of big-time events in the state: 2011 U.S. Amateur, '12 Women's U.S. Open, '15 PGA, '17 U.S. Open, '20 Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup and PGA will be here at Whistling Straits, the Women's Open at its sister course Blackwolf Run, both established tournament venues.

The Amateur and Open are to be played about 45 miles southwest of here at an intriguing new site, Erin Hills, that was born in 2006 and has been undergoing nips and tucks ever since. Earlier this week I journeyed to the course, ranked 35th on Golf Magazine's list of the Top 100 Courses You Can Play, for a sneak preview.

It's a lovely drive, through cornfields and no-stoplight hamlets. The arrival at Erin Hills is charmingly unpretentious: a big barn where the caddies hang out that doubles as a bag drop. A recent change in ownership has infused Erin Hills with more cash, and the course just reopened after a series of infrastructure improvements. New roadways and an inviting back patio to the clubhouse are complete, while a vast expansion of the driving range is ongoing. Fresh sod is being laid across the property. All of this has been done with the upcoming Amateur (and Open) in mind.

Erin Hills is landlocked and thus suffers from comparisons to the Strait's jaw-dropping vistas, but it is a pretty dramatic piece of ground. There are a half dozen wow-moments during the round, when you arrive on a tee or atop a crowned fairway and get a glimpse of the hole spread out before you. The heaving earth that was carved by receding glaciers eons ago and has been well utilized to create a number of risk-reward shots. A good example comes by way of the 12th hole, my favorite on the course. It's a long par-4 with a fairway that bends though a stunning natural canyon. Driving down the left side is a safe play, but if you take on a hill on the corner of the dogleg it's possible to catch a big downslope and get another 40 yards of roll.

The glacial dunes provide picturesque backdrops to the green complexes, which feature some of the purest putting surfaces in the state. The ragged-edged bunkering is gorgeous and fits perfectly with the landscape. There are parts of the course that remind me of Sand Hills and a few stretches that call to mind Shinnecock Hills — good company indeed. With every hole framed by golden fescue, Erin Hills is highly photogenic, and will be only more so in high-def.

I played the course with two colleagues from the 6,712-yard green tees, and we hit driver on every single hole save the par-3s. Whistling Straits is a strategic course that forces players to make decisions off the tee; Erin Hills is grip it and rip it. I like both styles of play, but there is a certain monotony to hitting the same club over and over, especially since four or five holes at Erin Hills feature similar-feeling, semi-blind drives over humped fairways. Without any water on the course it's hard to pick out a signature hole. (This may or may not be a good thing, as so often courses fetishize one hole at the expense of all the others.) Erin Hills is walking-only, which I like in theory, but the course is not set up for a leisurely stroll. There are many 100- to 200-yard hikes from green to tee, often across hill and dale. When the Open is on TV, none of the viewers at home will care about this inconvenience, but for everyday golfers it makes for a long, taxing round.

All in all, Erin Hills is a big, macho golf course that will provide a stern test for the world's best golfers. (From the tips it stretches to — yikes! — 7,820 yards.) A half hour's drive from west Milwaukee, it is much easier to get to than the Straits or Blackwolf Run. Erin Hills' pastoral, natural vibe will help differentiate it from the manufactured complexities of the Pete Dye venues to the north. A great golfing state has added another killer venue.

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