Erin Hills Golf Course Review
Teacher’s Comments: Other worldly. Unlike any course I have played.
When the US Open arrives at Erin Hills in 2017, players and viewers are in for a treat.
At first glance, Erin Hills looks like a links-style layout. Erin Hills has brilliant green islands adrift in a sea of long golden, blowing fescue. There are just six trees on the course, and only two small ponds, neither of which should come into play. Under a flattening camera lens, Erin Hills looks like a course where a golfer should learn to play a knock-down, a pitch and a bump-and-run.
It does not, however, play like I imagine a links course should. With shots from elevated tee boxes, to elevated greens, over hill crests and down into small canyons, Erin Hills is as hilly as the name suggests.
Erin Hills runs across some 632 acres of land in the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin. Carved some 20,000 years ago by glaciers, the irregular terrain is quite striking.
The highest elevation at Erin Hills is a ridge which runs between the fairways on holes eight and twelve and stands at 1, 012 feet above sea level. The lowest is near the green on 17, which stands at 952. The difference of 54 feet doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that’s the height of a five story building.
The elevation change from fairway to the eighth green is some two and a half stories. The drop from the ninth tee to green also is two stories. From the fifteenth tee to the fairway, the drop is just over four stories.
And so it goes, uphill and down. Every hole required some thought about how many clubs to add or to subtract. The calculations are further complicated by the fact that the fairways run hard and fast — exactly what the USGA will demand for the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills.
On the scorecard, Erin Hills stretches to 7,800 yards from the tips. I was told that the USGA could push that to over 8,000 for the 2017 US Open. Tees are also set at 7, 147; 6,754; 6, 233; and 5, 082. The longest tees play as a 77.9/145 — an extraordinarily difficult course. I played from 6, 233 yard, which is rated as a 75.5/131.
Erin Hills has quite a bit of toss and turn in the fairways. Fairways tilt from side to side; waves rise, crest and fall. It was perhaps just my bad luck, but every other shot seemed to be on a slope of some sort.
Between the hills, ridges, swales and mounding, a great many of the shots at Erin Hills are blind. I counted ten partially or completely blind tee shots. Thanks to the elevated greens, a great many of the approach shots also are swing-and-pray affairs — affairs, especially on a first play. Some landing areas for second shots on the par fives also were uncertain.
Many of the holes had forecaddies stationed in strategic locations, watching for balls and helping to speed up play.
As befits a US Open course, shots off the fairway at Erin Hills are in a lot of trouble. Unless you get lucky with a lie, the best bet is to take a wedge and try to get back sideways to the fairway. I was playing with some pretty powerful golfers (hitting it more than 300 off the tee — seriously), and they had trouble advancing the ball.
The greens at Erin Hills average 6, 650 square feet. By way of comparison, the average PGA TOUR course averages somewhere around 6,000 square feet. I found that the greens behaved as my caddy predicted.
It all adds up to a terrific playing experience. Tough, but enjoyable. I ran up a high score, but felt that if I had not been previously struggling with finding the bottom of my clubs, I would have played much better.
Conditions on the day I played Erin Hills were what you would expect from a top rated golf course. The greens are smooth and true; fairways are completely grown in and evenly mowed; tee boxes are well-maintained; sand is clean. At the same time, Erin Hills has a rough-hewn look. Fescue fairways and rough, with irregular edges along bunkers and waste areas could makes it seem unkempt to a casual eye. The look is no accident; minimalism is what the architects wanted and the course maintains. Still, I could not help but chuckle a bit when I spotted a large crew of local teens weeding the tall fescue between holes. The natural look apparently takes some work.
With so many memorable holes at Erin Hills, I find it hard to pinpoint one as my favorite. I like the first, a par five which one of the flattest holes on the course. It wraps around a marsh left, and is defined by a ridge line on the right. I like courses that open and close with par fives. Erin Hills manages this feat.
Another favorite at Erin Hills is the par four third. I loved the view from the elevated tee, and it is one of the few holes where absolutely everything is in front of the player. There’s plenty of danger from two bunker complexes on the sides, and the rolling, pitching fairway can funnel a ball to unexpected places.
For the sheer joy of the shot, however, I think I liked the twelfth. The tee shot needs to carry to the distant ridge, from whence the hole sweeps downward like a ski run to the green.
Playing at Erin Hills is a memorable and enjoyable experience, not only for the course, but also for the “pure golf” experience. Erin Hills is a “walking-only” course, and even push carts are forbidden. Your only options are to carry your bag, or to hire a caddy. I highly recommend a caddy. The walk is strenuous, and the course is tough enough without worrying about muscle fatigue or strain. The total price for a caddy, including tips, is around $110.
The pure golf experience at Erin Hills can be extended with a stay in their lodge, or one of the cottages on site. The lodge has single and double rooms, as well as two and three bedroom suites. The cottages, rustic though they may seem on the outside, offer four bedrooms, private baths, wet bars and other four-star amenities.
The food and drink at Erin Hills’ clubhouse was superb; I did not get a chance to try the Irish Pub at the Lodge. I did have the chance to stay on-site, but it has to be an incredible experience to spend the lingering summer evening on the porch of the clubhouse, or outside the Irish Pub, sipping one of their bourbon and rum “Erin Storm” cocktails, and smoking a cigar (there actually is a “cigar menu.”
Note that there are no pools, spas or other distractions at Erin Hills. There is a golf course, food, and some lodging. That’s it. Pure golf.
I do not know how much land Erin Hills owns, but I would not be surprised to see the facility add a second course and more lodging. It could very well be a sort of Wisconsin Bandon — a golf retreat without distractions.
I really enjoyed playing Erin Hills, and came away convinced that it will provide a more than worthy test for the US Open in 2017. It is bucket list worthy golf.
The Erin Hills golf course review was first published August 1, 2016, from a round played July 18, 2016.
More photos of Erin Hills follow: