Head for the Hills, Erin Hills that is
On July 2, when the U.S. Senior Open unofficially kicked off with practice rounds at scenic Whistling Straits on the western shore of Lake Michigan, USGA executive director David Fay was busy inspecting a magnificent major championship site.
No, not that magnificent major championship site. Fay was touring Erin Hills, about 60 miles southwest of the Straits in the tiny (pop. 673) village of Erin, snuggled in the rolling countryside north of Milwaukee. Erin Hills had been awarded the 2008 Women's Public Links before it even opened last fall, believed to be a first for the traditionally cautious USGA. A men's or a women's amateur is expected to follow (in 2011, but you didn't hear that from us), but the real buzz last week was that Erin Hills is also considered a lock to land the big one the U.S. Open probably in 2017.
Wisconsin went 71 years between major championships from the 1933 PGA Championship won by Gene Sarazen at Blue Mound Country Club near Milwaukee, to the 2004 PGA won in a playoff by Vijay Singh at Whistling Straits. Suddenly, like a long-childless woman who has twins, the golf-mad state has two venues poised to step into the major rota. The Straits has two more PGAs (2010 and '15) and a Ryder Cup ('20) already scheduled.
"Wisconsin has gone from not even being on the radar screen to being so high on the radar," Fay says. "I'd never have guessed that you'd have multiple major championship sites within 60 miles of each other in Wisconsin. The only other place that could happen for us is New York. Talk about how quickly things can change."
Erin Hills is the pet project of 62-year-old multimillionaire Bob Lang, who made his fortune in the greeting-card business. Ask the bespectacled Lang about an Open at Erin Hills, and he smiles knowingly but says only, "It's an honor for us simply to be considered."
A public course with a $150 greens fee, Erin Hills is Openworthy for a number of reasons, but primarily because of its size (640 acres plenty of room for corporate tents, TV trucks and spectators), its minimalist design (by Mike Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten) and its location (35 miles from Milwaukee, 100 from Chicago).
Erin Hills was constructed on rolling terrain with ridges and hollows, all naturally carved from the earth during the last Ice Age.
"While Whistling Straits is a creation of man," says Fay, "Erin Hills is nature dealing with land the way we deal with lint. The ice sort of threw everything around."
The course, which can be stretched to 8,200 yards from the tips, also has some controversial quirks. There are back-to-back par-3s on the front side; the second par-3, the 201-yard 7th, has a blind tee shot.
The 10th green is 78 yards long with a deep swale, while the short (351 yards) par-4 2nd hole has a tiny green of 1,800 square feet. Originally, there were several houses near the entrance to Erin Hills, but because they were visible from the course, Lang bought and demolished them. Look east and in the distance you'll see Holy Hill, a Catholic monastery atop the highest point in the area and a renowned landmark.
"Erin Hills reminds me of Sand Hills in Nebraska," Fay says. "The difference is that Sand Hills is remote, while Erin Hills only feels remote. I'm really juiced about its future."
Golf fans in the Badger State will lift a brew to that.