Monday, July 06, 2009

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Erin Hills

While I experience some level of anticipation before every round of golf, there are some places before which I have actually felt butterflies in the gut. Rounds at such courses as Bethpage Black, Pinehurst #2, Doral's Blue Course, Arcadia Bluffs, and, of course, Bandon Dunes have all been precipitated by that same feeling of excitement, hope, and trepidation that I am bringing anything less than my best game to the course. Erin Hills fits into this category.

Not more than a 2.5 hour drive from downtown Chicago, the Erin Hills golf course sits on surprisingly rugged land smack in the middle of Wisconsin. As you approach from the east on Holy Hill Rd. take note of the Basilica of Holy Hill perched atop what I have to call a mountain peak relative to the otherwise pancake-flatness of the Midwest. You can see this Basilica from almost anywhere on the nearby Erin Hills course.

Beware as you approach the entrance of the course. You will shortly discover that Erin Hills golf is minimalist in every way...almost to the point of secrecy. As you approach from the east, you will cross highway 83, past the Subway on your left, and drive for 1.1 miles. Keep your eyes peeled on the left side of the road you might catch a glimpse of the front entrance as noted by the tiny sign saying Erin Hills golf course (see below).


Drive up to the small parking lot where staying on the paved lot is apparently optional as several cars were simply parked on the grass. We guessed that those were likely the staff's vehicles so that golfers could use the small lot. The service right off the bat was outstanding. The driving range sits adjacent to the small lot, so we left our clubs with them and headed over to the clubhouse to pay, and hopefully grab a bite to eat before our Noon tee time.

Entering the clubhouse felt a bit like breaking and entering into someone's country cottage, though admittedly we did enter through a side door rather than by the (front?) deck area near the putting green and pro shop. We checked in and paid a very friendly and loquacious fellow for our round. I purchased a logo ball as well because I collect logo balls for all the courses I play. The logo ball simply has Erin Hills in their branded script...minimalist, I like it.

We took a seat at the bar in the small dining area and ordered a quick lunch. My burger was very good, Brad claims his chicken sandwich was as well, but the best part were the delicious fries. What else should we have expected from a little piece of Ireland in Wisconsin? During our meal we even got to catch about 20 minutes of the 5th set of the Federer/Roddick Wimbledon Final. It was tied up at 10-10 when we had to scoot out to the range to warm up.

Our clubs were waiting for us, and we had about 15 minutes to bang on some Titleist NXTs at the range while warming up our swings after the 2.5 hour car ride. After getting some feel for the greens (firm and fast), we were greeted by a most helpful starter who escorted us to the first tee. Our first dilemma before even hitting a shot came next - what tees to play?

Don't get overwhelmed by the six tee options when you arrive. First of all, the "Back Black" tees which stretch the course to over 8,000 yards and include 5 holes well over 600 yards in length aren't even available to play right now. The course is still under quite extensive construction, something I will touch on later. We opted for the Green tees playing at something like 6,500 yards on the card, but as I mentioned, the course was still under extensive construction, so that is just an approximation. I would take one step back and play the Blue tees next time as a 9 handicap, but anyone playing over a 10 handicap should probably swallow their ego, and play the Green tees...at least the first time there.

The important thing to remember is that this course was modeled after true links courses in Ireland, and I have to admit, I was surprised how much like a true links course it played. The entire course is very firm and very fast. Low running shots are definitely the best way to play this course, and the yardage is long because it has to be. Between the firm ground and the significant changes in elevation, it plays much shorter than the yardage would indicate.

So, on the first tee listen to the starter, or your caddies should you choose to take them. While I am at it, let me suggest you take at minimum a forecaddy for your group, if only to navigate you from hole to hole. There are blind shots everywhere on this course, and often you would actually need to walk 200 yards ahead just to see what direction you want to go. The Par 5 first hole, while not "blind" is no exception. The tee shot plays much longer than it appears due to undulations all over the fairway, and you do not want to go left on any shot through this entire hole. This might be the first hole I would like to replay. Hit a good drive to the middle of the fairway, and you will be left with a decision to lay up or go for the green. I hit my drive about 295 yards down the center of the fairway and was left with 220 to the green. Instead of risking the disaster area on the left side, I grabbed my 8-iron and hit a very solid shot down the middle of the fairway. Ah, but that 8-iron hit hard and ran much farther than I expected, leaving me only 75 yards from the green running away from me. Next time, I would hit a 5-iron or 4-iron down along the same line and let the course bring the ball down to the green for a chance at an eagle chip or putt.

The second hole is a blind Par 4 with a ridiculous green that falls away on every side. My advice is to hit driver off the tee and get as close to the green as you can on your first shot. It might take a chip or three to get the ball to stay on the green, so aim for the middle of the green regardless of where the pin is. Don't let the hole placement even enter your mind until you are holding a putter and marking your ball.

Number three is a Par 4 that looks harmless enough, and plays off an elevated tee. Hitting the fairway isn't the challenge here, but getting your approach shot onto the correct tier of the green is crucial. If the pin is on the bottom tier, and you are up high...good luck, a 3-putt is likely in your future.

Another harmless looking Par 4 awaits on the 4th. Get that drive down there to have as short an iron coming in as you can. I would also advise staying left on this one. This might be the most difficult green to hit on the course, especially if that pin is on the right side. The day we played it, I would call it borderline unfair, but that's the breaks, right?

Assuming you can find the tees, the Par 4 5th hole is a great chance for you to hit one of the biggest drives of your life. Hit a solid draw up the right side (even to where it appears to be too far right) and your ball will carry almost all the way down to the green some 390 yards away. This is a big green with only minimal trickiness so great chance for birdie.

The next hole is the first Par 3; a hole with no real hazards save a 50 yard deep green. Just check the pin placement and hit the club that the yardage calls for as the wind will likely help offset the uphill shot. Depending on the wind and pin, you might be able to hit any club in the bag on this hole! Aside from being enormous, the green is relatively docile once you get there.


The seventh hole is possibly the one most impacted by the ongoing construction. A Par 5, but playing well under 500 yards, this is an excellent chance for birdie. Hit a solid driver in the fairway, and at most it will be hybrid or long iron to the uphill, but large green.

Number 8 demands a forecaddy...or print this review and bring it along. This Par 4 is not long, and a good chance for par assuming you know where to hit your drive. From the tee it suggests a slight dogleg left, but you can go much more left than it appears. Go ahead and hit your driver over the top of the hill on left of the fairway and you will end up in a great position. Don't do what I did and aim down the middle, then hit a big slice down by the trees right of the fairway. Even if you find your ball (I didn't), you will be looking at a long uphill shot from some decent rough.

The Par 3 ninth plays short from the elevated tees, but protects the pin very well with a multitude of wild and deep bunkers and a very fast green with a crazy depressed area on the middle right side. Though you will likely be hitting no more than a short iron here, you should be most pleased with a par.

Grab a quick snack at the quaint halfway house; you don't want to play the back nine on an empty stomach. Oh, and now would be a good time to find that forecaddy because the 10th hole is a mystery. A long Par 5 on the card, the first riddle to solve is where to aim the tee shot. It's anyone's guess, so we aimed down the middle of the visible fairway at a tall tree in the distance. Directly at that tree or 35 yards right of it is all good, left of that tree isn't disaster, but it makes the hole significantly more difficult. Next comes the conundrum; where is the green? The left side is fairly well defined by a series of deep bunkers edged by brown scrub grass. Stay right of those, and the hole will open up for you. The green is amazing and ridiculous, shaped like a saddle flipped upside down, and measuring something like 75 yards long. I'm not a fan of the 10th hole.

The Par 4 11th is another birdie opportunity. Not too much off the tee, just hit it to your favorite yardage, get on the green close, and make that putt. The green slopes very hard from left to right, but will roll true.

Number 12 is another Par 4 with a completely blind tee shot. This time, aim off the right side of the fairway, and hit it hard. If you can execute that shot, your ball should funnel down to a low area of the fairway, from where you can hit a solid approach to another undulating green. Take your par if you played it right, then move along.

The Par 3 13th features the only water hazards on the course, though they really shouldn't come into play. You will suddenly feel out of place on this hole, though it is the one hole that is most similar to the actual landscape surrounding you in south central Wisconsin. The shot calls for a mid to long iron from the tee, and the green is plenty big. Don't get cute with this shot, just hit it hard and take your par.

Here is where I felt like the course really geared up for the finish. On number 14, you are looking at another reachable Par 5 with a very difficult green. Hit a solid drive, and again you may be reaching for an iron to get home. Chances are you will miss just a little short and right of the green and funnel down to an area some 25 feet below the putting surface. Getting up and down from here will be very difficult, so unless you can get onto that green in two, walk away pleased with par.

The Par 4 15th begs you to hit driver as it is barely over 300 yards from the Green tees. Don't give in! This green is another diabolical one with crazy breaks, and a patchwork of sodded grass right now...hardly ideal for delicate downhill putts. Hit to your favorite distance off the tee again to make sure you get on in two...a 3-putt is a very real possibility here.

The sixteenth might be my favorite hole on the course. A medium length Par 3, the green is protected by bunkers on all sides that run right into the edges of the green. This hole reminded me a lot of Pacific Dunes in Bandon, and probably reminds others of some of the classic courses in Ireland. The green slopes hard from back to front, so stay below the hole if you can.

Number 17 is a little boring, actually, after the ride this course has taken you on. Another blind tee shot on this Par 4, so keep your drive left to allow it to funnel down to the middle of the fairway. The green is big, but very firm, and long low shots will likely run off the back to a landing area. Get on the green and close to the pin to make your par with a well rolled putt.

Finally, the closing hole! Number 18 appears as though you will never get home, but don't let that distance spook you. With the prevailing wind at your back, just stay out of the bunkers which are very well placed to catch any but the longest of wayward drives. Land in the bunkers, and par becomes a chore, but hit the fairway, and you may be surprised how far your ball rolled. Can you hit your 3-wood far enough to get home for glory? If you don't know by now, than you haven't been paying attention. Just don't go left into the minefield of bunkers that may have actually been dug by WWI soldiers, and you will at least be chipping for the eagle. A layup is fine, but watch that green sloping hard away from the clubhouse. Miss that chance for glory, and a par to close is always nice.

We were greeted at the eighteenth by a kind gentleman with a extended cart to drive us back to the clubhouse, and after a rugged walk, it was welcomed. Once at the clubhouse, I would recommend a shower in the locker rooms downstairs. You will be surprised how dirty you got, even if you avoided to omnipresent sand all day. Remember to tip your caddies, and perhaps order a drink and relax on the outside deck for a while to discuss the round (or not).

Sounds great, doesn't it? Not so fast!

Erin Hills opened 3 years ago to rave reviews. One of the three course designers is Ron Whitten who happens to write for Golf Digest magazine; the same publication that ranked Erin Hills the best new public course the year they opened. Erin Hills was also the first course to be awarded the U.S. Amateur tournament before anyone had even played a round of golf there. It is widely speculated that they are going to be awarded to 2017 U.S. Open as well (yup, before Cog Hill gets it!). So, why, if it was so good, are they doing some rather massive reconstruction of the course after only three seasons? They must have known they were going to try for the Open, so why not build it that way to start with?

We were told before coming up that the rates were reduced because it was their re-opening week, so they were offering a special rate (still $100). It was not advertised that virtually the entire course was still under construction making an enormous amount of the course unplayable, assuming you don't play down the middle of the fairway all day long. At best, the course looked extremely terrible, at worst it played that way. In several places, even on the fairways and greens you encounter fresh laid turf and a patchwork of grasses. They claim to serve up a rough style of golf on their website, but this is extreme, and disappointing to say the least.

And minimalist is cool, but please...a little help. At the starter station, we were offered a complementary bottle of water, but never saw water again until one of our foursome spotted a small cooler of the stuff hidden next to the ladies tee on #14. There is not a single large cooler or dispenser on the course, and if you buy that same bottle of water from the beverage cart it will cost you $2. Not cool, and not environmentally friendly either.

Read my earlier posts, and you will know that I believe in walking a course, especially a links style course like this. Hey, Erin Hills, how about some signs? We managed to find our way around, but it took some navigation and more than a few shortcuts were missed along the way as the cart paths were usually our only lifesaver. Don't force me to purchase a forecaddy (yes, I did recommend them) just to find the holes. And as for all those blind shots, I am just not a fan. You may be modeled after Ireland, but you are in America, and therefore will be compared with courses like Bandon Dunes and Arcadia Bluffs among only a handful of others...they don't have blind shots! Blind shots are boring and for me, take away from the enjoyment of a course.

So, in the end, Erin Hills Golf Course was really a mixed bag for me and my companions. The course concept is outstanding, and when they are finished building it, I am sure it will be consistently rated in the Top 50 public courses in the country. I feel somewhat deceived, however, by the fact that they re-opened under pretense of construction being complete which it most definitely was not. I will be back, but perhaps not until 2011...playing in the U.S. Amateur, perhaps? One can always dream!

Fairways and Greens!

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1 comment:

Paul said...

I am the golf course photographer who has done all of the photography to date (you can see it at: http://thepaulhundleygallery.com/site/#/gallery/erin-hills/) at Erin Hills, so I know the place very well. You are spot on and correct to be critical of the course condition last year, but I wanted to let you know, if you don't already, that there is a new owner who has made course condition his #1 priority. Erin Hills will not open until late this summer, it will be walking-only when it does open, and even maintenance will be cartpath only this summer. (90 degree rule if they absolutely MUST drive on the turf.) In addition, the maintenance staff has been increased and the maintenance equipment fleet has been upgraded. In short, the legitimate complaints from people such as yourself have been heard and are being addressed -- agressively. Erin Hills will be a much different place this fall than you saw last summer. Hope you get the chance to check it out. Swing well. Paul Hundley

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