Head for the Hills, Erin Hills that is

Head for the Hills, Erin Hills that is

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<strong>19th hole:</strong> Quirky Erin Hills has an extra par-3, the Bye Hole, that could be put into play during a championship.
Paul Hundley

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.