Inside Holy Hill, the sacred basilica overlooking Erin Hills

June 15, 2017

ERIN, Wis. – Erin Hills is vast, quirky and packed with local charm. There are oddly shaped bunkers and dozens of blind shots. Outside the gates the landscape is marked by towering silos, county roads named with letters and Irish-themed bars like the Tally Ho Pub and Grill.

Erin Hills also has an unusual aiming point for golfers seeking the 18th fairway.

It’s called Holy Hill, a towering Catholic basilica erected atop the tallest point in southeast Wisconsin, a 1,335-foot knoll three miles from the course. From the 18th tee, the twin spires are in full view, and this week they’re getting a close-up.

On Wednesday afternoon I wheeled out of Erin and up Holy Hill’s paved, tree-lined entrance. With 30 minutes to kill before 4 o’clock mass, I trekked to the top of one of the spires with Sports Illustrated photographer Kojo Kinno. It’s a taxing 178-step hike, though several platforms allow for respites along the way. (Thank God for those.)

At the top of the cupola, Kojo snapped pics through wrought-iron bars that cover open-air windows. The only sound was the fluttering wings of a blackbird that swooped by, a clump of straw clenched in its beak. Every now and then a few hyperventilating tourists joined us.

That’s one thing about the spire: You reach the top completely winded, only to look out the window and have your breath taken away once again. The views are outrageous. Acres and acres of verdant hills and trees. Due west you’ll spot the white tents on Erin Hills golf course, plus a few fairways, and 30 miles south, the silhouette of downtown Milwaukee. 

Sweaty and panting, I trudged down the steps and slipped into a wooden pew as mass began. There were 12 other parishioners. The stunning chapel has beige marble arches and stained-glass windows. Father Don Brick presided. His sermon wasn’t golf-themed, but it did focus on the importance of maintaining humility, which is something all golfers could benefit from.

“Sometimes we have a mentality of, ‘I want what I want when I want it,'” he said. “It makes us small and selfish.” Two days earlier I had grumbled to colleagues when my pub cheeseburger didn’t arrive in timely manner. This wasn’t the first time a Catholic sermon left me feeling guilty, though it was the first time I attended mass in soft-spike golf shoes. 

Among the churchgoers was Margaret Spence of Baca Raton, Fla., who sported a white golf visor with Erin Hills’ distinct shamrock logo. She’s attending the Open with her husband and brother-in-law, and before departing Florida a friend tipped her off to Holy Hill.

“This is an amazing church in the middle of nowhere,” she said, eyes widening. “Can you imagine how they built this? Hauling all those bricks?” The first log chapel on this site was completed in 1863. The twin spires took six years to erect and were finished in 1931. It’s incredible to imagine these structures going up during the height of the Depression.

After mass, I sat down with Father Don and Father Michael Berry in a small room adjacent to the chapel. Father Don immediately pointed to the Eccos on my feet.

“Those are the most comfortable shoes in the world!” he said. Only a golfer would know that, and indeed Father Don has been pegging it since he was 12. He plays Erin Hills once a year. His low score: 88. “I used a different strategy that day,” he said. “I didn’t go for the greens. I hit every shot short and chipped up. You have to stay out of those goofy bunkers.”

Father Don is the most golf-obsessed of his fellow Holy Hill Carmelites, a religious order that demands two hours of silent prayer each day, as well as vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He popped by an Erin Hills hospitality tent Monday night and plans to return to watch the third and fourth rounds. The priests have been giving some thought to how golf and spirituality intersect in preparation for a links-minded congregation.

“Golf has a solitude. You’re within yourself. Prayer is the same way,” Father Don said.

Added Father Berry, “There’s leisure required in both—a time and a patience. You can’t manipulate either one.”

A few tour pros have made the pilgrimage to Holy Hill this week. When Jamie Lovemark, the lanky 29-year-old with two wins on Tour, dropped by, Father Don said he gave the golfer a special blessing “to give him a mind and a focus.”

“It takes a lot of concentration to play that course,” Father Don said.

Daniel Chopra, who earned his spot in the field at sectional qualifying, has also stopped in. So have several Tour wives.

The church receives hundred of thousands of visitors each year, and this week curious members of the golf media have begun to swing through. Golf Channel has a piece in the works, and it’s not hard to imagine a Fox Sports feature during the national broadcast. The Fathers are embracing the chance to share their story.

“It’s fabulous for both of us: Holy Hill and Erin Hills,” Father Don said. “It’s all based on natural beauty.”

Amen to that.