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2 Play the Tips played Erin Hills on Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Erin Hills Golf Course

Somewhere in the rolling hills of Erin, Wisconsin, there lies a monster…

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Courtesy of Erin Hills and Paul Hundley Photography
Courtesy of Erin Hills and Paul Hundley Photography
Courtesy of Erin Hills and Paul Hundley Photography
2011 US Amateur champion Kelly Kraft - Courtesy of the USGA
Courtesy of Erin Hills and Paul Hundley Photography

Welcome to Erin Hills Golf Course, where we lull you in to a wonderful state of chubby bliss with our feels-like-we-plucked-it-right-out-of-the-Irish-countryside clubhouse and our Wisconsin beer and grub (and charm), only to then kick you out and make you play in the backyard. Oh don’t worry, there’s nothing out there that will hurt you. …At least physically. You might want to watch out for the 8000 yard Boogie Man that lurks there, though, I hear he can get a little feisty…

Let’s hypothesize. You’re up in Wisconsin on a random Wednesday in August, 2010, watching some random professional golfers hit random shots all over some golf course that’s supposed to be some big deal - practicing for some tournament that’s supposed to be some big deal. Let’s say that the skies decide to open up and unleash an unholy torrent that simultaneously floods the grounds and washes away your plans for the day. Whatever should you do? Well, if you can hit the long ball and you like getting your ass kicked, get on your phone and pull out the GPS; it’s off to Erin Hills!

Once you finally find the road that leads to Erin Hills Golf Course, it seems as though you are headed into a private club. Or maybe a farm… I don’t know. A small parking lot sits adjacent to a barn that seems fit to house cattle, but instead houses caddies (speaking as former caddies, we would suggest never confusing the two. Ever.). The surrounding terrain and the buildings on the premises make you feel like you walked in to an eccentric billionaire Irish farmer’s version of Field of Dreams. It’s like someone got bored with herding cattle and decided to build a golf course (or maybe someone told him to…) and just got carried away. “If you build it, the USGA will come…”

While the Erin Hills Golf Course is a little excessive from the tips, we still had a great experience and played a great golf course. The thing that definitely set this course aside from other places that we’ve played was the staff. Speaking as walk-ons on a day with a full tee sheet and no spare caddies, we can attest to how polite, diligent, and accommodating the Erin Hills staff was. They toiled relentlessly in order to get us on the course, a feat they finally achieved at about 3 PM. On top of that, when they realized that there were no caddies left for the day, one of the assistant pros offered to carry our bags. Even though he had only caddied once before, he did an awesome job and provided an incredible amount of information about the golf course.

After being forced to dip into our ample reserves of charm and good looks in order to procure a tee time (a.k.a. - pretty much begging to be let out onto the course), we got squared away in the small but charming locker room that mirrored the feel of the rest of the clubhouse. We also decided to take advantage of the bar and grille, enjoying a few Spotted Cows on tap and some of the better clubhouse burgers and quesadillas we can recall in some time. Roughly an hour of chipping, plenty of water (it was about 100 degrees out), and many thanks later, we were on our way to the first tee.

"Nine and a half miles, and lots of bugs," said the starter. Our caddy/assistant pro nodded enthusiastically in compliance. Erin hills is the longest walk from the first tee to the 18th green that we've ever seen, and it could have been even longer had the real set of back tees been open to the public. We stand fairly certain that the 7900 plus yards we played from was plenty of golf course, if not a bit too much. Although it was certainly one of the most difficult courses we had ever played, the distance was obviously noticeable on only a few holes. The actual yardage of the course wasn't as frustrating as the distances from green-to-next-tee. The routing of the course made it so that if you were playing the back tees you would be forced to walk a considerable distance, as well as an occasional steep grade, in the opposite direction of the hole in order to get back to your tee. If one were playing the men's tees, however, the walks are shorter and less taxing on one's legs (and lungs). The constant walking back to the next tee was one of the few complaints during our round at Erin Hills.

For a venue that will be hosting the world's best amateurs in just a years time (Erin Hills will host the U.S. Amateur in 2011), the golf course was not in the best of shape. This was understandable, since the course had just been reopened earlier in the month after considerable course modifications. As it is given time to heal, the course will return more and more to the naturally rolling, glacially carved terrain that originally dominated the Wisconsin countryside. During the drive to the course, the land seemed to scream "golf course"; from the gorgeous views of nothingness to the way the hills rolled and made you think of imaginary tee shots. Its big, bold, and naturally rolling terrain gave its designers a ton of room to work with and they used every bit of it to their advantage. Almost every bunker on the course looked very natural, almost as though deep, thousand-year-old cracks in the earth were gradually filled with the sands of time. The unique bunkering style may be quite aesthetically pleasing, but it proved to give up very few straight-forward stances due to jagged edges, substantial depth, and narrow width.

Erin Hills is officially listed at 7,820 yards with extra tees that can stretch the course to nearly 8200. Easily the longest course we've ever played, it didn't always seem to play as long as the listed yardage. At 493 yards and 236 yards, the par 4 5th and the par 3 6th serve as perfect examples of the course playing shorter than the scorecard. The 5th played downhill (from the most impressive elevated tee on the course) and allowed for iron shots to be rolled up to the green using the slope of the fairway - even from outside of 200 yards. The 6th appears to be uphill and is of considerable length at 236 yards, but well-hit shots would funnel forward toward a green that slopes from front to back, once again allowing players to use the ground to counteract the overall length of the hole.

Of course, there were a few holes that played exceptionally long and difficult - the par 4s 8th and 10th come immediately to mind. The 8th, a 487 yard par 4, played straight uphill the entire way and doglegged fairly hard to the left at about the 290 mark. Unless you absolutely bomb a drive over the hill on the left side of the fairway to a blind landing area, your approach shot will require a long iron at the very least. The thing that really made this hole difficult, and maybe even a little unfair, was the shaved down run-off area just behind and to the left of the green. As if it weren't hard enough to hold the green (which featured a bit of a "false back and left"), the run-off area led straight into 3 ft tall fescue. The 8th seemed like the kind of hole that could potentially get out of hand if the USGA chooses to show off.

When we stepped on to the second-from-back tee on the 10th hole, we were 504 yards from the hole. The 10th was straight into the wind on the day we played Erin Hills. The uphill tee shot is followed by a slightly downhill approach to a narrow green perched on a hill with a set of fairly deep bunkers short and right of the green (yeah, I know...). In another example of the course potentially playing much shorter than the listed yardage, though, a tee shot hit in the right spot while the course is dry would funnel down to a low spot in the fairway, yielding a much more manageable shot into the green. Into the wind, however, the hole required a huge tee shot followed by a huge 3 wood to carry the front greenside bunkers, and even then, the second shot couldn't hold the green.

The golf course is just hard; it can bite you with one bad swing. It doesn't matter if you're on the tee, laying up, or chipping - nearly every shot is difficult. The par 5s are difficult even for long hitters (not one par 5 under 600 yards) because often times, you are so far away that you feel the need to hit 3 wood just to get within striking distance. Scoring is definitely possible on this course, though, exhibited by a solid 9 holes in which we both broke 40 - Dave on the front, Jason on the back. While each of us was enjoying our very own 9 holes of fun, however, the other was merely trying to survive. Erin Hills gritted her teeth and dealt us the only round of golf we've played all year in which neither of us made a birdie. She had a way of making pars feel like birdies, but somehow we weren't quite as thrilled...

A golfer at the end of a round at Erin Hills is sure to feel more like a prize fighter at the end of a heavyweight bout. I literally walked until my feet bled. I'll save you the details. And the pictures. Our caddy/assistant pro succumbed to the heat and the terrain on the 16th hole after heat stroke set in. The man who's energy I first thought had no bounds wound up having to call for a ride in from the 18th tee. That goes to show you what this course can do to you if you aren't prepared. It also goes to show you that Erin Hills Golf Course is Ass-Kick Factor embodied. Hello precedent.

This place has the contours and the yardage (an extra 200 yards of tees) to play as difficult as anyone could imagine. On top of just the golf course, the property surrounding Erin Hills Golf Course is perfect for major championship golf. Wisconsin has already proven itself as an excellent host for the best players in the world, and Erin Hills should be no exception. In addition to the 2011 U.S. Amateur, the USGA will be making a trip to Erin, Wisconsin for the 2017 U.S. Open. We'll certainly be making that trip, as well. See you there.