In addition to its latter-day inception in 2006, there is at least one other aspect of Erin Hills Golf Course that is sure to captivate superintendents throughout the 117th U.S. Open. At 652 acres, the venue, located 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, is as huge as it is new.
“Think about that,” Dana Fry, one of the three course architects, says about the acreage. “Nobody has ever confirmed this, but I find it hard not to believe: It has to be the largest single site with just one golf course on it to ever host any of the major championships. That is just an unbelievable amount of land for just one golf course and no other development. I think, from a superintendent’s perspective, they’d be interested in that fact.”
Interested is one thing; envious would be another. Superintendent Zach Reineking has faced and overcome extraordinary obstacles, according to Fry and fellow course architects Mike Hurdzan and Ron Whitten.
“When you look at the total acreage of fairways and greens and natural areas and tees and things that Zach’s got to maintain, it’s a good thing he’s a young man,” Hurdzan says, “because I don’t know if an older one could stand that pace. He’s an unsung hero.”
Fry adds, “I mean, can you imagine? Basically, it was his first head superintendent’s job (from assistant superintendent in 2009), and he’s going to host the national open. Obviously, saying it’s the career highlight for him would be an understatement, as it is for Mike, Ron and I from another perspective.”
While quick to credit the house superintendent, the trio of Erin Hills architects reluctantly accepts praise over their collective design of the par-72 public course.
“We feel like we’re an elite company,” Hurdzan says, “but we certainly acknowledge the fact that we’ve been very fortunate to have the right piece of ground, and the right owners, and the right place and time in the game, with the right philosophy at the USGA.
A lot of pieces fell into place here.”
‘Minimalist all the way’
The concept of Erin Hills originated in late 1999, Hurdzan says, when owner Bob Lang began purchasing parcels of land to accommodate a nine-hole course for his friends and employees. Over the next three years, the design discussion was “stop and go” based on Lang’s personal economics, Hurdzan says. Until that time, none of the three architects had entertained thoughts of a U.S. Open coming to Wisconsin for the first time.
“Bob will tell you that, in the back of his mind, he sort of hoped that he could host a major championship someday,” Whitten says. “It was in 2003 that we first discussed it with him, and he became very enthusiastic.”
USGA Executive Director/CEO Mike Davis, then the U.S. Open director, in 2004 accepted Lang’s invitation to visit Erin Hills and walk the property. Impressed, he nonetheless said USGA needed to see a course before it could commit to a U.S. Open. However, later that same year, Davis returned to Erin Hills with then-USGA Executive Director David Fay, who, to everyone’s surprise, offered Lang the 2008 U.S. Women’s PubLinks despite the lack of a course.
“All we’d done is mowed it out and stuck in some broomsticks as flags. We hadn’t done any construction,” Whitten says. “Yeah, we had the permitting done, but we had no construction budget, and Bob was still sort of waffling on whether he wanted to build this course or not. David Fay said, ‘I’d like to see how it plays in June. Would you like to host the U.S. Women’s Public Links?’ Bob jumped at the chance. We were flabbergasted because we hadn’t started building the course yet. The only other course I can think of that had that situation was the Ocean Course (at Kiawah Island Golf Resort), where they awarded the ’91 Ryder Cup before Pete Dye started building it.”
At that point, Whitten says, it became a matter of how he, Fry and Hurdzan could design Erin Hills inexpensively and minimalistically, yet still suit a major championship in terms of not only the challenge and character of each hole, but also ancillary issues that need be considered with major tournaments, such as traffic flow. Whitten says their design philosophy was simple and, in turn, cost effective: Try not to disturb too much earth. “The property was so beautiful – rolling Kettle Moraine glacial landscape that stretched, literally, for as far as the eye could see,” he says. “Our philosophy from the very beginning was just to try and find the best 18 holes we could find on that property and build it efficiently and inexpensively without moving a lot of earth.”
Hurdzan was already in the midst of completing a similar mission in Medora, North Dakota, where Bully Pulpit Golf Course would open in 2004 with a construction budget of less than $625,000. “That was a very, very minimalist golf course,” Hurdzan says.
With Erin Hills, the three architects committed to doing it the “Old Tom Morris way” by arranging the golf course around the land rather than vice versa. Frequently they had no choice – the glacial till was covered by only 6 inches of topsoil. “It was terrible stuff to work in,” Hurdzan says.
The architects hoped the minimalist strategy would parlay into cheap rounds of golf. “When we first started, Golf Digest had that ‘best public golf courses for under $50’ or something like that,” Hurdzan says. “And we said, ‘With this piece of ground, we’ve got to be able to do real well in that rating.’ So we were thinking minimalist all the way in the beginning.”
Construction started in 2004 and the course opened in 2006, accompanied by Fay’s commitment to deliver the U.S. Women’s PubLinks. An invitation to host the 2011 U.S. Amateur would soon follow, as would the monumental 2010 announcement that the 2017 U.S. Open would be coming to Erin Hills.
Lang, however, wasn’t there to celebrate the news. In October 2009, he sold the property to Andrew Ziegler after the financial commitment to bring the U.S. Open to Erin Hills became overwhelming – a scenario that had made life difficult for everyone.
“Zach really battled through some tough times because the financial resources weren’t there to get the course in the condition that it needed to be,” Fry says. “He didn’t have the equipment – the money – to do things properly. He stuck it out, and then when the new owner bought the golf course, the financial resource situation changed.”
‘Nobody is perfect, not even Mother Nature’
Renovations occurred at Erin Hills following the women’s amateur tournament in 2008 and again in 2013. All three architects continued to play roles in the changes despite simultaneous transitions during their careers.
Fry and Hurdzan were partners at Columbus, Ohio-based Hurdzan/Fry Environmental Golf Design until 2012, when they formed their own namesake firms – Fry Straka Global Golf Design and Hurdzan Golf Design.
“My father and my son are obviously the two most important male figures in my life,” Fry says, “but Mike is right there with them. He’s like a second father to me, and without him, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“Dana was a magic ingredient for our company,” Hurdzan says. “Being creative and being an artist are two different things, and Dana had skills that our company didn’t have. That’s why Hurdzan/Fry had so many wonderful projects for 20-plus years.”
Whitten, the architecture design editor with Golf Digest, had joined Fry and Hurdzan in 2000, when he turned 50. “I announced that I was going to try and dabble in golf design because that was my midlife crisis,” he says. “Mike and Dana graciously let me team up with them on a project, and it was just my luck that it was Erin Hills.”
In 2008, Whitten temporarily left the design team after having a fallout with Lang. “Because I’m such a passionate, argumentative guy, and because Bob Lang had a limited window in which he wanted to get things changed, he asked me to stay away. So I stayed away. And then after Andy Ziegler took over, Dana and Mike invited me to discuss all the potential changes.”
The most prominent of those USGA-influenced amendments involved the relocation of several greens and the elimination of a blind par-3. “The line I always use is, ‘I’m a writer, I get edited all the time,'” Whitten says. “I can’t think of a championship course that hasn’t been remodeled – Augusta, Pebble Beach, even St. Andrews. Nobody is perfect, not even Mother Nature. Things have to be adjusted.”
Collaboratively, Hurdzan wouldn’t change a thing. “When you get three guys together, trying to decide something like that, you have to have a lot of mutual respect in order to be able to make it happen,” he says. “I think that’s what this golf course is: a testament to a true collaborative effort.”
‘Model of sustainability’
Erin Hills is the 51st venue to host the U.S. Open, but only the sixth public facility to do so. Each of those six courses has hosted the event during the last 10 years, starting with Torrey Pines (’08) and including Bethpage (’09), Pebble Beach (’10), Pinehurst (’14) and Chambers Bay (’15). Return engagements are scheduled for Pebble Beach (’19) and Torrey Pines (’21).
Only Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, which opened in 2007, are not considered traditional courses. Fry, in fact, is quick to note how rare it is for a designer to live long enough to see his course selected to host a U.S. Open.
“One of the goals of the USGA is sustainability, and Erin Hills is, in lots of ways, a model of sustainability that the USGA is looking for,” Hurdzan says. “So not only can they showcase a public golf course, they can showcase a golf course that was designed and built and maintained with sustainability as one of the hallmarks.
“We tried to preserve as much of the natural as we could. We used grasses that needed less water, fertilizer, pesticide and energy sources to maintain them. We limited the irrigation to just the fairway areas, either one or two rows. We tried to preserve a lot of the native grass areas that were outside of the golf course. Those are the sorts of things that we’re talking about. The big one is just trying to build a golf course that needs less water or fertilizer, pesticide and fossil fuels,” he says.
Fry cuts to the chase: “We’ve never had a U.S. Open on a golf course like what they’re going to encounter” at Erin Hills.
“There is an American mentality of wall-to-wall green and uniform lies and perfection in turf that is going to take time to overcome,” Whitten says. “When you go up to Erin Hills, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the playing conditions of that golf course. It just isn’t as lush and emerald green as the Northeast courses or the Northwest courses.”
As confident as the Erin Hills architects are, they remember the growing pains and criticisms that Chambers Bay endured just two years ago. “The comments early in the week are going to be, for the three of us, very nerve-racking because we all think the comments are going to be very positive. The concern among the players will be, ‘Are we getting into another Chambers Bay?'” Fry says. “But the turf conditions and the financial resources behind [Erin Hills] and the golf course design itself are completely polar opposite from what they had at Chambers Bay.”
Fry expects a second U.S. Open to come to Erin Hills in the near future. “I think there’s a very real chance,” he says, adding that anything less would be disappointing.
“I went through withdrawal pains after the course opened [in 2006],” Whitten says. “We spent six years planning that course and plotting that course and walking that property over and over again, and debating what were the best 18 holes that we could find. We found so many holes out there. I’m proud of what we accomplished because the one thing we did set out to do was let nature dictate the routing. And I think when you go out there, you would say, ‘Boy, this thing flows really naturally. It’s almost effortless.'”