How does one label a golf course? Links courses are easy to identify, but how do you describe Pebble Beach? Parkland and Heathland courses are straightforward to identify and label, but is there a category for Sand Hills (other than "Excellent")? What about Erin Hills, near Milwaukee? Is there a label for courses routed over the kettle moraine areas left by glaciers? How do you describe the type of golf presented at Erin Hills, laid out over such terrain with a mix of traditional and innovative ideas and designed with the intent of hosting a major championship?
While Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have talked about the challenge of routing Sand Hills after having identified more than 100 golf holes that could be built, architects Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten had more difficulty at Erin Hills than one might initially expect from a site of 652 acres of rolling terrain formed by the glaciers. For starters, there are more wetlands than one would expect. Even after playing the course several times the golfer may not realize that the course is essentially surrounded by wetlands and a small river.
Also, while it may be tempting at first to compare the site to that of other wonderful natural sites such as Sand Hills and Ballyneal, Erin Hills, like Sutton Bay, was not blessed with uniformly sandy soil. Rather, its ground consists of glacial till of varied composition, which occasionally means small rock and some drainage concerns.
In an unconventional decision for a course in Wisconsin, the architects decided to use fine fescue for the fairways to emphasize the natural contours of the property. The fine fescue provides a firm playing surface that requires the player to think about where he wants the ball to land in order to finish at the target, as the two are refreshingly not always the same. The fine fescue fairways also mean that the course plays shorter than its length on the score card. The record length of 7,760 yards for the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills did not overly tax the players from a distance perspective.
While the driving game is primarily one of the ground, the approach shots present the more modern challenge of aerial golf. As the greens are bent grass, they will hold a well-struck approach shot, and, as so many are elevated, bouncing the approach shot into the green is rarely the best play.
The course was also designed to be able to accommodate the U.S. Open, in terms of both the challenge to the players and the logistics for handling more than 60,000 spectators and the related support structure. This mix of traditional and modern elements as well as a championship test over a unique piece of property will leave many golfers marveling at how they have never played anywhere like Erin Hills.
Not surprising given the books on the subject of golf course architecture written by Hurdzan and Whitten, the architects took care to get the practical aspects of the routing "right". For example, the opening holes do not play towards the east and the rising sun (the 5th is the first hole that does so), and the last three holes run to the east with the setting sun behind them. While it would have been tempting to route the holes through the valleys for both attractive holes and for the expected spectators as at Royal Birkdale, Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten routed the holes so that they attack the hills from all angles –along the sides (e.g., the 1st), between hills (e.g., the 17th) and up and over hills (e.g., the 12th).
As is the case with many great courses, Erin Hills was designed with the knowledge that it would be a work in progress, with refinements made after it was seen how the course actually played. Only arrogance and foolishness would have an architect believe that his work is beyond improvement before the course is even played. In its brief five years after opening, Erin Hills has been closed twice for significant work to the course. When Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten initially designed the course, they did so with the mindset of erring on the side of moving too little earth – a refreshing perspective after decades of heavy earth moving in the industry. While it is possible to return and push earth around, it is impossible to go back and return the ground to its natural state.
There were some bold ideas, such as the Dell Hole and the natural Biarritz-style 10th green, but actual play of the course showed some features to be quite unpopular and unwise. In the case of those two holes, the Dell Hole was eliminated (which was easy to do, as a "bye" hole had been built originally, and that hole became the 9th) and a new 10th green built. A new 4th green was built, going from one extreme to the other by eliminating a punchbowl-style green and building a new green beyond it on the brow of a ridge. Other changes have been less substantial in scope but quite noticeable in effect, such as the removal of a tree left of the 1st fairway and the shaving off of part of the top of the ridge crossing the 2nd fairway so that a player who properly plays down the left side is rewarded with a view of the green. Some central fairway bunkers (e.g., on the 18th tee shot) have been removed.
The result of all the work is a course that remains true to its original philosophy of minimal earth movement while being more readily accepted by the golfing world. While some might argue that a hole is not necessarily a bad one just because 80% of the players despise it (in fact, some cynics would say that is a sign of a great hole), it is difficult to stand by that approach when a daily-fee course becomes known for the holes that people dislike rather than for the holes players love and the course is to host the most significant championships in the world for amateurs and professionals.
When Andy Ziegler purchased Erin Hills in October 2009, he knew work had to be done immediately if Erin Hills were to host a successful U.S. Amateur in 2011 and land the prize of being awarded the U.S. Open. Ziegler appreciated that the golf course is the key to Erin Hills’ success. In addition to the architectural changes to the course, Ziegler also made the decision that Erin Hills would become a walking-only course, as the cart traffic was harmful to the fescue fairways and as Erin Hills should appeal to the serious golfer. A network of substantial asphalt roads was also built throughout the course for the maintenance equipment and to provide significant infrastructure for the hoped-for U.S. Open. All the work was rewarded when the United States Golf Association awarded the 2017 U.S. Open to Erin Hills in June 2010.
So, where to place Erin Hills among the world’s golf courses? It has both old-fashioned and modern elements. It was built both to test the very best players in the world and to accommodate comfortably the thousands and thousands of people who will watch them. It was built on topography ideally suited for golf but on soil that is not always ideal for golf. The bunkering includes small, traditional pots and the more fashionable free-form bunkers. Could it be the course of the future – a course that borrows the traditional aspects it likes and respects (e.g., the movement of so little earth in its design) and one that was built with many years of championship golf, in terms of both the challenges it presents to the players and its infrastructure, in mind?