The Evolution of Erin Hills

Originally published in: Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective (Vol Four). Compiled & edited by Paul Daley. Pelican Publishing Company. 2008.

A tired and trite cliché used by golf-course architects since the early days of Old Tom Morris is: ‘God made the golf course and we only had to discover it’; but this was precisely the case at Erin Hills. Well almost. Actually, it was a receding glacier that laid down the Erin Hills site of a braided pattern of sand and gravel humps and hollows that geologists call kettle-moraine landforms. Since this is a completely random process that is a result of a melting ice sheet, the topography it leaves varies wildly in amplitude and frequency. Finding a parcel of ground with just the ‘right’ rhythm and flow perfectly suited for golf may be said to be guided by providence, or it just could be golfer’s intuition, or in the case of Erin Hills, a bit of Irish luck. Whatever the dynamic, a central Wisconsin businessman, Bob Lang, saw the land thirty minutes north and west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was for sale just as he was ready for his next entrepreneurial adventure, and took out an option to buy it.

Rumour has it that another designer had worked with a previous owner to put a golf course on the site, who saw the same golfing qualities in it that Bob did, but lacked the funds to make it work. At any rate, Lang decided to work with Hurdzan/Fry and our friend and golf writer, Ron Whitten, as his design team. And so began a process that was about as bumpy as the land itself.

Erin Hills Golf Course 3rd Green
Looking down the par-4, third fairway from the tee toward the third green. Accolades continue to be bestowed upon the club’s layout, including Golf Magazine’s Best New Course of 2007. The latest is its selection to host the 2011 US Amateur. (Photograph by Paul Hundley Photo/Graphics.)

Firstly, there was the on-again, off-again purchase of the land, and subsequent but incremental acquisitions and losses of adjacent parcels, so that no property boundary or routing plan ever seemed final. Then as that process ebbed, there came the inevitable and friendly but conflicting views of where the clubhouse should go; where the starting and finishing holes for golf should go. Just when it appeared that those issues were being amicably settled and a very solid routing was beginning to materialise, some engineering issues dictated an entirely new clubhouse location and the process started all over again. You get the idea … and most designers have been through the process, so it is suffice to say the notion of ‘discovery’ of the golf holes was more one of trial and error, repeated over and over, until we all finally agreed on a ‘best balance’ of engineering solutions, intelligent land use and exciting golf experience.

With a conceptual plan finally in hand, Whitten and Lang, in particular, spent many days walking the site trying to improve on the nuances of individual golf holes, until a small group of trees were mistakenly removed, necessitating some more substantial revi-sions to our ‘final’ routing. To make this rather long story short, basically the way the course is routed today is the result of intense planning and damage control.

In the intervening time-warp between getting a routing plan and starting construction, Bob Lang and a couple of employees ‘mowed’ out the fairway lines in the native meadow grasses, stuck in a couple of flags and tee markers, and it looked like a finished golf course. This validated that we had an awesome, yes awesome, routing plan. If the cow pasture version of the golf course looked good, then we all knew that the selected contractor, Landscapes Unlimited, would make it look extraordinary.

Erin Hills Golf Course 8th Green
A panoramic view from behind the par-4 eighth green, with the eighth fairway on the right, and the par-5 eighteenth fairway and green toward the clubhouse. The church is on Holy Hill, and the closing hole plays directly toward it. (Photograph by Paul Hundley Photo/Graphics.)

We attribute this success to the fact that our design goal was to locate tees, greens, and fairways in the manner of Old Tom Morris, so that little or no earthmoving was required to produce golf features and playing surfaces that could be maintained to a modern standard but looked completely natural. Noted Canadian shaper/designer Rod Whitman was recruited to tweak natural geologic formations into golf features. Whitman cored out all of the greens in about ten days with one small dozer, and then started levelling up areas for tees, and gouging out some bunkers that looked like erosions. Grade alteration was measured in inches, not feet, and rarely did it ever exceed one foot of change. Hogback green locations remained hogbacks, bowls stayed bowls, and slopes only become softer slopes to accommodate firm, fast putting surfaces.

Grade alteration was measured in inches, not feet, and rarely did it ever exceed one foot of change.

The green construction was California Concept over flat tile, planted to A-1/A-4 bentgrass and tees were native soil planted to either Penncross or fine fescues. Fairway areas were established through a no-till procedure of mowing native vegetation short, spraying with Round-Up® a couple of times, then slit seed a into the resulting dead mat layer blend of fine fescues.

Irrigation was a modest two-row system at the insistence of the design team to purposely and physically restrict any possibility of overwatering the turf. In the out-of-play areas, native grasses were protected from traffic and compaction, while invasive plants were removed to re-establish the low-grass prairie look that characterized this area after the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Non-native trees and shrubs were removed, and a return to native plant communities was encouraged elsewhere. A few modern houses on the property were relocated off-property, and an antique barn was moved in to serve as caddy shack and temporary clubhouse during construction of the traditional Irish Wisconsin farmhouse-style clubhouse, made of stone and wood.

But what makes Erin Hills so unique that it would motivate the United States Golf Association (USGA) to award it a national championship—the 2008 Ladies Publinx— before the course was built, and has strongly hinted that it may be in line for a USGA Amateur and, perhaps, a US Open? One contributing factor to its decision is that Erin Hills is closer to the massive Milwaukee/ Chicago golf market than Whistling Straits, and much easier to get to. Erin Hills was designed to provide lots of room for a tented village, or several, if so desired, in the middle of the property—a real positive. Another thing in Erin Hills’ favour: most golf holes were placed in valleys, leaving the higher and surrounding ground available for excellent viewing for the anticipated 100,000 – 150,000 daily spectators. But, as designers, we think one of the major attractions to the USGA is the golf course itself, which will provide a links-land look, feel, and challenge, allied to being a good test of smart golf-course management and excellent shotmaking to post a winning score.

Erin Hills 14th green
An image from behind the par-5, fourteenth green, with the fairway to the right and the wetland toward the ‘sun-spot’ that must be carried to reach the green in two shots. (Photograph by Paul Hundley Photo/Graphics.)

The practice range is in a massive bowl with the potential for tees to play in any of 360 directions, and provide easy viewing by golf fans. The golf course has extreme flexibility in length that could see it maximised to 8,400 yards. The funky, fast, firm fescue fairways—try to say that fast—will play more like an Open Championship in Britain, than a US Open and, thus, reward a highly cerebral and strategic style of golf-shot management. Picking a landing spot and then allowing for scores of yards of roll to reach position-A for the next shot, requires a specialised set of golfing skills. Since fairways and roughs are all planted to the same fescue blend, widths of landing-areas is just a matter of adjusting mowing lines. The native grass outer rough will actually be the proverbial ‘hay’ that severely punishes errant shots, and wind is always a factor across the near treeless site. Erin Hills can be made into a stern test with very little management change.

The enthusiasm and appreciation of Erin Hills has run from lavish praise to near malicious slander…

The enthusiasm and appreciation of Erin Hills has run from lavish praise to near malicious slander, and so it is expected some controversy will always be part of its heritage, like any other great championship venue. The real test, over the long haul, is whether golfers continue to pay a premium to play this daily-fee course, and how well it handles national championship activities. However, most of the golfers who have played it since its August 2006 opening have compared it favorably to other North American ‘links-like’ courses, such as Sand Hills, the Bandon Brothers, Whistling Straits, and the best of courses on eastern Long Island. For the designers of Erin Hills, that is the omnipotent compliment.