Turn-of-the-20th-century clubs dominate the list of U.S.
Open venues: Shinnecock Hills (established in 1891),
Pinehurst (1895), Oakmont (1903).
Then there’s Erin Hills. It wasn’t even a golf course
when the calendar flipped to 2000. But don’t let the
newness fool you. This infant already has undergone a
lifetime’s worth of facelifts.
“A lot of history,” said Jim Reinhart, a Milwaukee-area
investment manager and key figure in the intriguing
tale, “in a short period of time.”
Start in 2001 with a transaction. Developer and
greeting-card magnate Bob Lang purchases a 437-acre
Wisconsin cattle farm, later supplementing with 215 more
acres. The crumpled and contoured land, formed by
receding glaciers from the Ice Age with natural
mounding, is perfect for golf.
USGA executive director Mike Davis describes it now as
“a magical piece of property.”
Lang, who doesn’t play golf, envisions a jumbo,
tree-filled course with blind shots, dozens of bunkers,
a par-6 hole and a par-3 “Bye” hole to settle bets. The
total length: 8,800 yards.
Hmmmm … is Lang trying to service all those customers
who long to play a six-hour round and shoot three times
He hires Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Golf Digest
architecture critic Ron Whitten, bypassing celebrated
architects such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Their design theme is minimalism, moving little dirt at
little cost to create a course with a $50 green fee.
But Lang is now dreaming bigger, aiming to build a
course to land the U.S. Open. While those around him try
to stifle their laughter, Lang asks his friend Reinhart
to introduce him to Davis at the 2004 U.S. Open at
“It was such a casual introduction,” Reinhart recalled
in a telephone interview. “Bob had a portfolio and
pictures under his arm. We’re at the USGA hospitality
tent, and Mike looks at Bob’s pictures and his eyes
widen. He says: ‘Wow. This place looks fantastic. Keep
me apprised of how this project goes, and if I get the
chance, I’ll come out and see it.’
“It was one of those one-in-a-million sort of things. I
didn’t think it would lead to a U.S. Open in 2017 by any
means. But it did.”
Lang butts heads with the architects. He digs out
bunkers by hand. He is consumed. He borrows millions to
make changes he thinks he will appeal to the USGA.
Finally, the money runs out. And there’s a deadline to
get the course in championship condition — the USGA
wants Erin Hills to host the 2011 U.S. Amateur, a
precursor to landing a U.S. Open.
Erin Hills needs a savior to avoid losing the Amateur
and any shot at an Open. Reinhart, a former USGA vice
president, tries to entice Herb Kohler (Whistling
Straits), Mike Keiser (Bandon Dunes) and Phil Mickelson
to buy the club, according to the Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel’s Gary D’Amato.
Finally Reinhart convinces Andy Ziegler, a golf partner
from Milwaukee Country Club, to shell out $10.5 million.
Ziegler hires top-notch people, builds a magnificent
clubhouse and modern maintenance facility, bans
motorized carts to improve conditioning and oversees the
removal of hundreds of trees.
In short, he does everything to transform Erin Hills
into a world-class facility — one worthy of holding our
Here are nine more things to know about Erin
The property is ginormous. Erin Hills is spread over
652 acres, about four times more land than a standard
American course. Davis said the walk can be “exhausting
… a physical test.” It’s about six miles, up and down
hills, and because of the lack of trees, there’s very
little shade. At 7,693 yards, it will officially measure
as the second-longest U.S. Open course, two yards shy of
Chambers Bay. But from the back, back, back tees, Erin
Hills is 8,348 yards.
The wind will blow, especially in the afternoon. Or so
the USGA hopes, with Davis calling wind “the invisible
hazard.” Length, bunkers, fescue and wind are Erin
Hills’ only true defenses. If it doesn’t blow, players
will go low.
But it’s not a prevailing wind. It varies. Fry studied
the last five years of wind from June 12 to 18. He found
it generally averages 3 to 5 mph in the morning and 16
mph in the afternoon, with surges of 24 to 28 mph. The
wind has come from every direction but the south.
■ Erin Hills welcomes your business. It’s a public course
with a $280 green fee, caddie not included. And don’t
ask for a motorized cart; they’re not permitted. Erin
Hills ranks 44th on Golf Digest’s list of America’s top
courses and ninth among public tracks. Ziegler ordered
the course closed since Oct. 2, forfeiting tons of
revenue with the goal of having ideal conditioning for
■ The USGA wanted to stop dissing the Midwest. As Davis
told the Tribune: “There’s no doubt we have been weak in
terms of the middle of America.” This will be the first
U.S. Open in the Midwest since Olympia Fields hosted in
2003, and from 2018 to 2026, the championship will make
three stops in New York, three in California and one
apiece in Massachusetts, North Carolina and
Pennsylvania. Erin Hills officials hope to secure the
next unclaimed Open in 2027.
Only a handful of trees remain. And as Davis joked,
“the ones out there are probably nervous.” Lang loved
many of the trees and grew attached to a giant oak
guarding the corner of the dogleg on No. 1. But the USGA
and Fry pushed for its removal to make the second shot
The course opens and closes with par-5s. There are four
par-5s at Erin Hills, which is newsworthy because the
last U.S. Open to play to a par of 72 was in 1992 at
Pebble Beach. The first (560 to 608 yards) and 18th (622
to 675) will be reachable depending on the wind and
which tee box the USGA chooses. If the wind howls from
the west, guys such as Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm could
bomb it 400 yards on No. 18.
The most intriguing hole might be No. 15. It will be a
drivable par-4 on some days. The USGA set the tee at 252
yards for the 2011 U.S. Amateur final, daring players to
drive it to a small, elevated green. Patrick Cantlay
instead teed off with an 8-iron, found a fairway bunker
and made a bogey en route to losing 2 down.
Once there was a “Dell” hole. Modeled after the famed
fifth at Lahinch in Ireland, Erin Hills’ version was a
blind par-3 to a downhill green measuring between 139
and 201 yards. Golfers launched tee shots at an “aiming
rock,” hoped for the best as they approached the green
and then rang a bell after putting out so the group
behind them knew when to tee off. The hole was removed
because of a routing issue and American golfers’ lack of
tolerance for blind shots.