Erin Hills great course, but very long and tough
BEFORE ERIN Hills Golf Course was opened, we did a story based strictly on the owner/developer’s vision. Now, in the first full year of operation, I played it and found it quite a challenge. Keep in mind, this is from an 8 handicapper who likes to play a lot (75-85 18-hole rounds a year).
If you’re going to walk the course as I did, choose a day that isn’t too hot and humid because it’s an awfully long haul, much longer than your typical course. In fact, the starter said it’s 8.5 miles to walk. And there are some considerable elevation changes. The typical course is just over 6 miles.
Wisconsin residents pay $132 to play the course located 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee. That includes a thick yardage book, scorecard, and pin sheet. And you get a complimentary fruit at the first tee and bottles of water all along the course, a very nice touch. If you’re not from Wisconsin or you take a cart, add $20-$50.
Your round will take at least five hours because there are 19 holes and because of all the stuff you’re given to read while playing. Also, anyone who has ever picked up a golf club will think they can play this course from a set of tees well beyond their capability. It’s the macho thing about golf and courses touted as US Open caliber.
Erin Hills was built to emulate the links courses of Scotland. Why everyone is so bent (pun intended, but in this case, it’s fescue) on trying to copy Scotland in Wisconsin is beyond me. I realize Scotland is the birthplace of golf, but it seems as hopeless as trying to make a new building look old. I’ve never played in Scotland so I couldn’t tell you how successful it is. My playing partner, who plays in Scotland quite a bit, calls it the best knockoff he’s seen.
True to links tradition
After we finished, my partner added that the course is much more true to links tradition than others in the U.S. It also was obviously built to host PGA and USGA events – about 8,400 yards from the tips with roller coaster-like greens. It definitely wasn’t built for the person who wants to enjoy a round a golf every weekend.
I counted nine of the 19 holes as having blind shots. One of the most satisfying things in golf is watching a well-struck ball fly – almost float – to its target and then softly land. In many cases at Erin Hills, you can only watch a well-struck ball disappear, not knowing whether it got to its target until you walk up to it. My playing partner called it “the randomness of the outcome.” The only blind shot I found to be blatantly unfair was the second shot on the 2nd hole. Not only was it blind, but it was to a small crowned green that sits on a pedestal. It’s more luck than skill to hit and hold that green.
And then there’s the entire 7th hole! There are 19 holes because the 7th hole – a par 3, 184 yards (blue) – is so difficult that a legitimate par 3, 157 yards (blue) was built between the nines as a substitute. Take your best score of the two. The 7th is goofy because you can’t see a thing – green or pin – from the tee. You’re supposed to aim at a small white rock about 110 yards from the tee. When you finish the hole, you ring a bell to let following players know you’re out of harm’s way.
On the other hand, the extra hole – or “bye” hole as it’s called – is a terrific par 3, one of the best I’ve ever played. You hit from an elevated tee to a kidney-shaped green that’s surrounded by traps. I give management credit for acknowledging the mistake and correcting it in an interesting and fun way
‘Punch bowl’ greens
The toughest part of the course is the greens. They are fast, but true, and I love fast greens. All you have to do at Erin Hills is look at the ball the wrong way and it starts rolling. They also are extremely undulating. As my playing partner said, they have “lots of dips and doodles.” The course brochure calls the greens “punch bowls” because of their shapes. Parts of the pin cannot be seen even when you’re standing just a few yards off several of the greens because of the severe slopes and contours.
Apparently this is how the USGA and PGA like greens for the majors. And that’s what course employees will tell you. On the 14th green, I felt as if I was at the carnival waiting in line for the next ride as I stood over a putt.
For the most part, the fairways are fair and generous. In spots the grass was still thin, but overall, they were nice to hit from. There were two holes, however, where the uneven lies in the fairways seemed unfair. On the 10th hole – a par 5, 597 yards (green) – a solid drive smack dab in the center of the fairway left me with such a steep downhill lie that I had little chance of getting the second shot into the air. I’m sure the pros could do it, but I couldn’t. All I could do was punch it about 175 yards.
I feel that someone who hits a good drive (250 yards) should have the opportunity to hit a decent second shot, particularly on a long hole. The same thing happened on the 12th hole – a par 4, 432 yards (blue). I played the tee shot exactly as the yardage book suggested – over the ridge – and still the ball ended up on such a steep downhill lie (155 yards from the green) that I had very little chance of keeping the second shot in the air long enough to reach the green.
The rough was fair throughout the course. I wasn’t in any of the many bunkers so I can’t tell you anything about them other than to say they looked awfully penal, which is what they should be. Attesting to the somewhat “hit and hope” nature of the course, my playing partner said, “I loved the bunkers and the challenge to both get out of them and allow something positive to happen on the greens afterward.”
I played various tees – green, blue, and black – and shot a 92, with four doubles and one triple. I’d like to play Erin Hills again because this is definitely a course that needs to be played a couple times to be able to know where in the heck you’re going. But based on how much I play annually, I think I’ll probably forgo another round and leave it to the PGA pros if and when the course gets a US Open.
While I think Erin Hills is a fine mental and physical test of golf, I’d rather play nearby Washington County (an Arthur Hills design) three times for the same amount of money.
(Erin Hills is on a 652-acre site in the small town of Erin 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee. In January Golf Magazine rated it the “best new course of the year.” Call 1-866-724-8822 or visit www.golfwisconsin.com.)
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