US Open 2017: Erin Hills ready for its major moment
RIN, Wis. (AP) — The roots of the golf course that will host the U.S. Open in Wisconsin stretch all the way back to the Ice Age. Retreating glaciers carved out the rolling terrain on the picturesque property that would become known as Erin Hills.
A tournament thousands of years in the making has finally arrived — Erin Hills makes its major championship debut when the 2017 U.S. Open tees off on Thursday.
All eyes will focus on how the roughly 7,700-yard, par-72 course will test the world's best golfers in its inaugural major appearance.
"The good thing is that hardly anyone ... maybe a handful of guys, maybe less — but everyone's kind of new to the golf course," Jason Day said after playing the Memorial.
The sightlines at Erin Hills are striking. In late afternoon, right about at the time when the last groups should be playing the final holes on Sunday, the fading light from the setting sun drapes the undulating course and creates breathtaking views.
The architects of the 652-acre public course made it a point to make minimal alterations to the land. Usually, course designers move tons of soil.
"Inside the golf corridors, I would say 90 percent of the land is literally exactly the way it existed when we first set foot on the property," said Dana Fry, one of the three architects. "To have a piece of land that is that natural and such a great amphitheater in a setting for golf ... just a tremendous piece of land."
The road to a major is a bit more winding.
Bob Lang, the course's original owner, bought the former cattle pasture in 1999. The course didn't open until 2006.
In between, there were grand designs to bring a major to Erin.
Ron Whitten, another course architect, emailed USGA executive Mike Davis in 2003 to invite him for a look. Davis visited the following year during a trip to Whistling Straits, in Sheboygan, where the PGA Championship was being held that year.
They walked Erin for more than four hours. Davis was impressed.
"For anybody who likes golf course architecture, you'd salivate seeing this property in its raw form," Davis, now the USGA's executive director, recalled at U.S. Open media day in May.
"I mean, it's not up against an ocean, but it's about as good a land as you can find to build a golf course," he added.
The U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship was held in 2008. In 2009, Lang sold the property to business executive Andy Ziegler.
The following year, Erin Hills was awarded the 2017 U.S. Open. The U.S. Amateur Championship was played there in 2011, an unofficial dress rehearsal for the major. By that time, the course had already undergone extensive renovation along with the ownership change.
"I've even heard it described as a 'build it and they will come,'" said Davis, recalling a line from the movie, "Field of Dreams."
The fairways will be wide, in some cases double the width of those at Winged Foot, Pebble Beach or Oakmont. The predominantly fescue fairways will be bouncy, Davis said.
The rolling terrain will also create what USGA officials called some blind or "semi-blind" shots .
"Sometimes you're hitting into greens and you don't see the whole green. You don't see any of the green. Maybe you see the top half of a flagstick," Davis said.
Big hitters like defending U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson might have an edge, though wind should be a factor. Fry said that afternoon winds at this time of year should generally be between 10 and 24 mph.
"So, a longer hitter that can get the ball out on the fairway, play from that point, having a shorter club in, can certainly be an advantage," said Jeff Hall, managing director of rules and open championships for the USGA.
But when the wind is blowing, "the longer the ball is in the air, that very silent hazard of the wind can come into play," Hall added.
This is where the importance of doing homework on a new course comes in for players. After missing the cut at the Memorial, Johnson made a quick trip to Erin Hills to get a look.
"Had a good couple of practice rounds at Erin Hills and really like the course," the world's top-ranked golfer said on Twitter. "Looking forward to defending next week."