Cornfields stretch as far as the eye can see when you exit U.S. I-41 to get to Erin Hills Golf Course. Red barns and grain silos dot the landscape on Wisconsin’s 167 less than 50 miles from downtown Milwaukee, and you begin to realize that this U.S. Open venue will be different than any other.
You could almost miss the golf course as it blends into the rolling hills carved by the ancient glaciers that created the surrounding Kettle Moraine and the Great Lakes. In late March, the native fescues that surround the playing surface are still a dormant brown, which blend seamlessly into the broken corn stalks that sit untouched since last year’s harvest. If not for the bentgrass greens starting to show some color as a result of more than 10 acres of tarps used this winter, it would be hard to tell there is a golf course there at all. It is majestic in its minimalism, and the first thing you notice is the acreage around this place.
Erin Hills Golf Course sits on 650 acres in Erin, Wisconsin. The golf course maintenance staff manages 280 acres, including 4.5 acres of A4 bentgrass greens and 40 acres of Chewing’s and hard fescues in the fairways. “You can fit five Merions inside of this property,” says Zachery Reineking, CGCS, director of golf course maintenance. “And it is really maintenance intensive; 138 bunkers need hand raked every day; tee times start at 6:36 every day during the season and golfers play until dusk. But management has a clear vision of what we are trying to do here, so we have the resources to make it happen.”
That sprawling property will allow the USGA to make 35,000 tickets available each day for the U.S. Open. “One thing that will be on display is the vast acreage of unmowed fescues that are such a prominent part of the golf course,” says Darin Bevard, USGA Championship Agronomist.
The golf course stays connected to its agriculture roots by turning into a farming operation for a few weeks in the fall. The maintenance staff harvests more than 5,000 bales of the more than 140 varieties of native fescues, and local farmers pick them up to use on farms in the community.
“Erin Hills benefits because the mowed grass is actually removed, which is beneficial for the quality of these unmowed areas, and all of that plant material does not go to waste,” Bevard says. “It’s not always just conserving water or using less fertilizer. There are many ways to foster sustainability.”
The sustainable vision of the golf course began at the architecture phase and is embedded into the culture here. Reineking talks about water management, fertility and chemical plans with a passion impossible to feign. He cares deeply for the golf course, the minimalistic statement it makes and the community around it. This is home for him. He grew up in Sheboygan and caddied at Pine Hills Country Club, a golden-age course designed by Harry Smead and Bob Lohmann in 1928. He earned his degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and interned at Black Wolf Run, a Kohler destination by Pete Dye that was named the best new public course when it opened in 1988. When Reineking graduated in 2004, there were a lot of eyes on another Kohler, Wisconsin, destination: Whistling Straights was hosting the PGA Championship.
But the full attention in the area wasn’t solely focused on Pete Dye’s masterpieces that were hosting major tournaments. Additionally, “there was a lot of buzz about this place called Erin Hills,” Reineking says. So much so, the USGA awarded Erin Hills the 2008 U.S. Women’s PubLinks before construction began. They hadn’t broken ground, and they were already on the clock.
Erin Hills had just hired grow-in superintendent Jeff Rottier (now at the Janesville Country Club) away from Whistling Straights, and he was building a crew. “It was appealing to me because there weren’t a lot of golf courses being built at that time (2004), so the chance to do a grow-in was something unusual,” Reineking says. “I graduated in December, took the job in February, showed up in June and started planting grass in August.”
Reineking earned the head superintendent job in 2009 during a management shakeup. Wisconsin businessman Andrew Ziegler bought the course in 2009 and brought with him a badly needed cash infusion that would transform the already noteworthy course into a championship-caliber layout. Architects Dana Fry and Michael Hurdzan, original architects along with Ron Whitten (see story p. 20), embarked on a $2.1 million renovation project that added bunkers, moved a green and altered a couple “quirky” holes.
Shortly after the renovation was complete, the USGA named Erin Hills the site for this year’s U.S. Open. They’ve been on the clock since 2010, but given the course’s history, the maintenance team is accustomed to this kind of pressure. There is a buzz around the shop as the clock ticks down each day. “This has been seven years in the making for us,” says associate superintendent John Jacques. “We all have a passion for Erin Hills, and the U.S. Open is extra incentive that makes the extra work rewarding. We love it.”
That hard work is easy for the USGA to see.
“The conditioning of the golf course is excellent,” USGA’s Bevard says. “One of the unique agronomic strategies that has been employed is to incorporate perennial ryegrass into fairway areas where fine fescue did not perform well. Areas of high traffic or poor drainage quickly thinned-out with fescue alone. Fine fescue performs better in well-drained soils. Perennial ryegrass and fine fescue perform very well together. Zach was very wise to use a grass that performed well in high traffic and persistently moist areas. The fairways are still dominated by fine fescue, but incorporating perennial ryegrass in these difficult-to-manage areas provides better playability than a monostand of fine fescue would. This was a smart, practical decision.”
The maintenance staff has the benefit of a strong owner that enables them to excel. This is a place that is all about the golf. There is no pool, no tennis courts and no golf carts. This is a golf destination, or at least it will be after the Open. The course has been closed since October, and it won’t open again until after the tournament. That dedication to the Open allows the staff to manage the golf course without worrying about customers. They aerated last fall, laid out 10 acres of tarps, made player paths, and there is no rush to get the golf course ready until the world’s best descend in June.
And then there is the money. Erin Hills’ maintenance budget on an average year is about $1.4 million. This year it is more like $1.8 million. Jacques and assistant superintendents Alex Benson-Crone and Adam Ayers were “doing all the little things” that come with hosting the tournament on a chilly day in March. That included not just overseeing the first mow on the freshly untarped greens and the course’s irrigation audit. There is also the ancillary tournament prep, like grading areas for hospitality tents and running water lines for potable water to tents and concession stands throughout the property. With all that acreage, there will be no shortage of concessions.
Reineking knows how important his team is to the level of perfection the golf-only facility is trying to make. “Superintendents get credit for the attributes of the turf, but it really starts with building a great staff, and workers are harder to find, including interns and assistants. We are fortunate to have the people we do.”
The continuity of the staff has made a big difference as well. The team has traveled to the past five U.S. Opens to see how other golf courses have prepared and executed the country’s championship. They’ve been keeping track of every detail, including how to treat the 120 volunteers that will supplement the course’s 55-strong maintenance staff.
“We are going the extra mile to provide more things for the volunteers to do in their down time,” Jacques says. “We’re creating a lounge area that will be fully catered. People will be able to watch golf, play arcade games or get a nap in the sleep lounge. We want to highlight Erin Hills for those 120 guys and want them to have a good time.”
That final detail for the supers is consistent with the vision that began with the original blueprints and sustained through its renovations and preparations. Every person on this property seems to believe that they are all pulling in one direction to highlight this very special property.
“Everything has been leading up to this,” Reineking says. “I sat down with Andy when he bought the golf course and laid out my five-year plan, and that relationship has grown, and now we really have something special because he has given the course the resources it needed to take it to where it is now. We’ve been shut down since October. Our owner has made a financial commitment, and we are going to deliver on it. You only get once chance at a first impression, and on a stage with 20 million people watching we are going to have this place as close to perfect as possible.”