Did you play in the 2011 U.S. Amateur? If not (and we’re assuming you didn’t), then you probably don’t know much about Erin Hills, which becomes a big-boy course this week as the site for the 117th U.S. Open. To get you up-to-speed on this first-time U.S. Open venue, here are a dozen things you should know.
If you call Erin Hills a “links” course, you will get your hand slapped and be denied bratwurst, cheese and Old Milwaukee beer for the rest of the week. So please, don’t say it. Don’t even think it. The three course architects are very adamant on this topic. They want you to call Erin Hills a “heartland” course.
“We want to make sure that distinction is made,” Dana Fry told usopen.com. “A heartland course is in between a parkland course and a links.”
The USGA is backing them up on this. Here’s Executive Director Mike Davis: “Folks, it’s not a links course … Yes, there are fescues out there. Yes, it’s windy. Yes, there aren’t a lot of trees. But that’s where it stops.”
Shinnecock Hills is the links-style course on Long Island, New York, that has hosted the U.S. Open four times, and will be the host course next year for a fifth time (and also a sixth time in 2026). Evidently, it’s the course that Erin Hills most favorably compares to, according to people who should know – like Wisconsin native Steve Stricker. “A lot of the holes remind me of Shinnecock,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “Some holes just have that U.S. Open look. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in our state.”
Even Davis said he thought of Shinnecock Hills the first time he visited the Erin Hills site in 2004 – two months after the U.S. Open, which was played at, yes, Shinnecock Hills. He told the Journal-Sentinel that he recalled thinking, “This is spectacular. This looks like Shinnecock Hills on steroids.” In a heartland type of way, of course.
Of the first 116 U.S. Opens, 65 were held in the Great Lakes region – 18 in New York, 17 in Pennsylvania, 13 in Illinois, seven in Ohio, six in Michigan and four in Minnesota. This will be the first U.S. Open held in Wisconsin, a state that boasts of 700,000 golfers among its 5.7 million residents. “They’ve waited a long time for this chance,” said USGA president Diana Murphy.
Wisconsin has hosted 13 other USGA championships, including the aforementioned 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills won by Kelly Kraft.
After this week, Indiana will be the only Great Lakes state to not host a U.S. Open – although it has hosted a Women’s Open and a Senior Open.
If you aren’t already familiar with this term, then get ready – you’ll likely hear it referenced multiple times this week. It’s the region in Wisconsin where Erin Hills is located.
The USGA’s educational video on the topic, with multiple geoscience professors describing the action, defines Moraine as an “irregular mass of unstratified glacial drift” and Kettle is a “deep kettle-shaped depression in a glacial drift.” The Green Bay Lobe glacier collided with the Lake Michigan Lobe glacial 30,000 years ago, then receded to eventually form the rolling, undulating terrain with the small depressions on which Erin Hills was built.
It’s all very science-y and a bit challenging to understand, but you’ll feel smarter just knowing the term.
Hey, someone snuck in a couple of extra par 5s when we weren’t looking. For the first time in 25 years – and just the ninth time since World War II — the U.S. Open scorecard is at par 72. The last time came at Pebble Beach in 1992, when the 502-yard second hole was still played as a par 5. Since then, the U.S. Open has generally been played at par 70, with Pebble Beach adjusted to par 71 the last two times it hosted the event.
Erin Hills actually played to a par-73 in 2009 after some alterations to the course but switched back to par 72 the next year. The USGA’s Davis said the organization never contemplated reducing that number at Erin Hills, noting that to change any of the par 5s to par 4s “would really compromise the great architecture” of those holes.
There are 138 of them. Unlike bunkers at most courses, there are almost no flat bottoms. “Relative to most U.S. Opens,” said Davis, “these are really hazards.” TOUR pros who normally don’t mind finding bunkers if they miss a green will now have to suffer the consequences of a endless variety of uphill, downhill and sidehill lies.
“You’re going to see shots this year out of the bunker that you’ve never seen before, and comments from pros that you’ve never heard before either – some of which won’t be complimentary,” Michael Hurdzan, one of Erin Hills’ architects, told usopen.com.
He added that players may face a restricted backswing or be unable to go at the pin from the bunker, instead having to choose a long iron to play sideways. The par-3 ninth has the toughest set of bunkers, including one with a narrow curlicue. If a ball winds up there, players may not even have a shot at the green, much less the pin. “Lots of nooks and crannies where a ball could get where you’re uncomfortable,” Davis said.
There’s lot of early consternation from players about the high fescue (check out Kevin Na’s Twitter feed) but just a guess here — driving accuracy may be the least important stat this week. Davis said the fairways are considerably wider than most U.S. Open courses, thus marginalizing that fescue rough.
“If you were to pace off the width and compare it to, say, a Winged Foot or Pebble Beach or Oakmont, I dare say they’re 50 percent wider – and in some cases they’re easily double the width,” he said.
Davis noted that the fairway on the 10th could fit “three fairways at Winged Foot.”
Fairway undulations and slopes offer some defense; Davis said the fairways have a “lot of movement” to them. The key for players will not be finding the fairway, but finding the right spot in the fairway to set up the most advantageous angles for the second shots.
“I’ve played a lot of golf there with good players,” architect Dana Fry told usopen.com, “and they’ve consistently said that the hardest thing about the golf course is the lines and angles of tee shots.”
Thanks to all those glacier collisions, the course has a lot of bumps and mounds – enough to make it tough to see the pin flag or the putting surface or landing area on a fairly significant amount of shots. In fact, Davis noted that 14 of the 18 holes have “some element of blindness … it adds to the mystique of this golf course.”
He added: “There are a lot of semi-blind shots out there, at least shots where you don’t quite see where you’re hitting to, and sometimes there’s a completely blind tee shot where you cannot see where your ball is going to land. Other times you get a little peek. Sometimes you’re hitting into greens and you don’t see the whole green. [Or] you don’t see any of the green. Maybe you see the top half of a flagstick.”
Davis thinks the imagination of players will be tested, along with a knowledge of the course and a commitment on those blind shots.
A few days ago, the USGA noted the official yardage for Erin Hills – 7,741 yards. That would make it the longest in the tournament’s 117 years – if it’s played at that length. Davis said last month the scorecard yardage would be 7,692, and the length will definitely vary each round depending on the setup.
For now, the longest course played in the U.S. Open is Chambers Bay, which was set up in the second round two years ago at 7,695 yards. But even if Erin Hills surpasses that number or falls just short, the course may not necessarily seem that long, given that there are four par 5s (with upwards of 50-yard variances on each of those holes). Chambers Bay had just two par 5s.
Said Davis: “If you think taking 300 to 450 yards off that, now all of a sudden you actually get to a point – assuming this is a bouncy golf course – where I actually think Erin Hills will be a little bit shorter in terms of how it feels to a player than some of the Opens we go to.”
In addition, the par 3s are not outrageous at Erin Hills; the sixth hole could be set up at 236 yards, with none of the other three longer than 215. Last year at Oakmont, three of the par 3s were 250-plus yards.
Remember the good ol’ days when U.S. Open greens were diabolical, with Stimpmeter readings that rivaled Mach 1 numbers? It sounds like Erin Hills will offer more humane conditions.
The hybrid bentgrass greens are reported to be smoother than any recent U.S. Open, and the green sizes are also slightly larger and fairly void of significant contours. Plus, with closely mown surrounds at every green, players might have the choice of putter from off the green.
So … no turtle-back greens like Pinehurst, no tiny greens like Pebble Beach, and no lightning-fast greens like Oakmont. “We’re going to see a lot of putts made at this U.S. Open,” Davis said. “… When you hit a putt, if you get it on the right line, the right speed, it will go in here.”
Or as Fry said: “There are no goofy greens on this golf course.”
Erin Hills could play differently off the tee in each of the four rounds, thanks to the flexibility the architects embedded with their design.
Every hole except the par-4 11th has at least two different teeing grounds the USGA can choose from, with the par-5 18th with four grounds. Depending on the yardage, the drive zone may be different, and bunkers may come into play one round and be a non-factor in another. Plus, the par-4 15th will likely be drivable in at least one round (at 288 yards).
Davis said the USGA will “showcase” the flexibility in order to prevent having the same tee shot for all four rounds.
The last six holes on Sunday could provide a frantic finish. There are two par 5s (holes 14 and 18), two par 4s (15 and 17) and two par 3s (13 and 16). And as mentioned earlier, the USGA has the option of making the 15th drivable.
Par 72 courses such as TPC Sawgrass and Augusta National have shown that having two par 5s on the back side can produce fireworks down the stretch. The USGA hopes for the same thing.
“I think the story is really going to be these last five or six holes,” Davis said. “… You’re going to see some swings on the leaderboard.”