Visiting the US Open at Erin Hills:
I was lucky enough to get media credentials from the USGA for the week at the 2017 US Open in Erin Hills. Knowing that I would be just one of perhaps hundreds of on- and off-site scribes reporting on the proceedings (writing the same “who’s ahead” stories with the same quotes and using same photos), I decided to take a different tack. Since the vast majority of golfers will never have the chance to attend a US Open, I thought I would provide a sense of what it was like to be there in person. Not for me the “inside the ropes” passes and watching the tournament on the jumbotron inside the air conditioned media tent. I would walk the course with the masses.
Visiting the US Open was fun and very rewarding. Being on course during a tournament is a total sensory experience: seeing the entire expanse from tee to green; the feel of the wind and air; the smell of the grass; the buzz of the crowds. A thunderous cheer or groans from a distant hole lets you know how things are progressing.
The icing on the cake, however, was that I had the chance to play Erin Hills on the day after the US Open ended.
I highly recommend attending at least one top level pro event in your golfing lifetime.
As with most of the big golf tournaments I have attended, parking is at remote lots, with shuttles moving fans to the front gates. The buses moved with regularity, transporting some 30,000 fans to the course each day. Before the tournament there had been some concern about whether the surrounding country roads would handle the traffic (I was among them after playing Erin Hills last summer), but I heard no fan complaints.
Just inside the entrance were several tents for guest services, “fan experience” tents from the USGA and Lexus, as well as a merchandise tent and a food area.
The merchandise was a sight to behold. Covering 41,000 square feet, the tent was largely divided into areas which featured apparel from individual manufacturers. An Adidas area was just to the right of the main door, adjacent to a Ralph Lauren area, and so forth. The merchandise tent also had lots of hats, cups, ball markers, bag tags, commemorative plates, sunglasses, towels and more. In my opinion, one of the best items were the commemorative posters, signed by artist Lee Wybranski.
Also in the immediate area were American Express and Lexus hospitality tents. A couple of American Express tents around the course offered phone rechargers and a break from the heat. American Express also had small radio earpieces through which fans could listen to PGA TOUR Radio play-by-play anywhere on the course.
The USGA had a “USGA Golf Innovation Experience” pavilion which had a golf simulator which let fans play several holes on the course, a faux play-by-play booth, and an area where fans could record commentary on the proposed rules changes. There also were several interactive exhibits. The Lexus tent had putting and Johnny Miller signing autographs.
The best part about the tents was that they were air conditioned. Saturday, in particular, was hot and muggy.
Nearby were food tents from the likes of Starbucks and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. There also was an area on a nearby hillside with large beanbags where people could collapse and just watch the action on a large screen tv. Very strange.
Past the tents, it was a short hike downhill to the course (photo at top). Lining the path were banners celebrating significant US Open venues and players.
One the course, there clearly were two classes of spectators: those who could afford a seat in one of the air conditioned, richly appointed viewing tents, and those who could not. One person I talked to said that a single seat for a single day in one of the fancy skyboxes ran around $800.
I am not sure that the corporate tents are all that good for golf fans though. If you had a seat in a box along the first hole, your viewing vantage point was rendered useless as soon as the last group played through — some five hours before the tournament’s end. If you were in a tent off the eighteenth, you had a good view of people finishing, but saw nothing of the contest up to that point. Other than the brief periods when player passed in front, a tent-bound fan had to rely on television to find out what was going on.
Perhaps the food and drink were enough to compensate.
One option for regular ticket holders was to arrive early and get a good position in one of the grandstands. Exposed to the sun like that, it likely was quite hot, and ultimately thirsty and hungry.
If (when?) the USGA returns to Erin Hills, I think they will need to add more grandstands. In particular, I think there is room for one behind the ninth tee, to the left of the eleventh green, and additional stands behind the fourteenth and fifteenth greens.
For my part, I enjoyed walking the course. I would follow a group for while, then either jump ahead to see a group ahead, or linger for the one following. The USGA phone app had a neat feature where you could easily see which groups were on any particular hole. The app also told you where any player was on the course. Therefore, by keeping an eye on scoreboards, fans could quickly locate the position of leaders or hot players and make a beeline to good viewing positions. Knowing that I would be back Sunday, I scouted out good positions to see the action around the course.
Sight lines for regular ticket holders were adequate. While the width of fairways and the expanse of the course kept spectators further away than at Oakland Hills, Colonial, or Warwick Hills (other pro tournament venues I have attended), elevations offered more stadium-like seating. I could not always get close, but I nearly always had a view of some sort. That’s actually better than my experience at the PGA at Oakland Hills, where rows of spectators in front made me wish I had brought a periscope. Even as Brooks Koepka finished up on 18 on Sunday, I was able to find a knoll from which to observe the play. I was about midway down the par five, but with the assistance of the aforementioned American Express radio, it still was a good experience. I saw him finish out; the radio let me know how close the ball was and how it moved.
Upon reflection, visiting the US Open at Erin Hills was a bit like attending a baseball or football game. From elevated points, I could clearly see all the action, but the players looked small. I certainly had a better view than I had when I attended a University of Michigan football game last fall.
It would be wise, I think, to bring binoculars to this, or any tournament. And a periscope.
Food and drink on the course were pricey, as you might expect from a sporting venue. A hot dog was $5.50; a Pepsi, $4.00. Curiously, in a state known for its love of beer and brats, there were no brats. Further, the only beer choices were Miller Lite, Leinenkuegel Summer Shandy and Blue Moon. Surely a tournament in Wisconsin could do better. Where were the cheese curds?
Apparently, spectators could have the opportunity to purchase better food if they paid double for a ticket and got access to a particular tent near the entrance to the tournament. Media were not allowed in there, though, so I can’t confirm.
Saturday was a scorcher, so I went through several bottles of water, even while completely soaking my hat with sweat. Fortunately, if all you wanted was water, free hydration stations were available.
Restroom facilities were of the standard porta-john type, discreetly clustered in villages away from the cameras.
One thing that stuck me was that — in the digital, 21st Century, the USGA still was using old fashioned scoreboards. Volunteers behind the board were filling out names and numbers as they were called in by radio. The small scoreboard to the left indicated who currently was on the green. Behind the boards, the volunteers were filling out the updated scores upside down, so that as new players approached, the boards were simply flipped.
Volunteers at the US Open deserve special mention. The US Open at Erin Hills had some 5,300 volunteers to keep things running smoothly. Volunteers manned parking lots, tee boxes, grandstands, concessions, and other on-course facilities. They directed fans, spotted balls, carried score signs, untiringly waved “quiet” and “no photography” signs and generally did anything that needed doing.
Strangely, to be a volunteer, you had to be able to afford $175 to purchase two official golf shirts, windbreaker and hat. So, poor people need not apply. Volunteers did receive meal vouchers for work shifts and admission as spectators during non-working hours. Volunteers served four, four hour shifts during the US Open and attended training sessions prior to the tournament.
A significant amount of on-course volunteer energy was expended to keep fans from taking photographs. Even in stands up and away from greens fans were being told “No photography. Please put the phone away.”
The USGA’s obsession with preventing photography seemed to me to be a relic of the past. Everyone has a camera these days in the form of a phone, and few paid any attention to the No Photography Police. As soon as the volunteers were looking away, the phones came back out. For a great many, photos that can be shared via social media now are a part of any experience.
I think the camera prohibition may reflect the day when cameras had actual shutters that clicked. Or perhaps the ban is the result of the USGA trying to control the images of the tournament. I ran into a spot of trouble myself when I was told that the USGA doesn’t grant photography privileges to online publications. They’re going to need to amend that archaic policy. In a few years, ALL golf publications will be exclusively online. The venerable Golf World now is exclusively online. Others will follow.
Obviously, I was able to talk them into letting me take photos. More photos from Saturday at the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills follow: