News & Opinion

Best hole at Erin Hills? It won’t ring a bell

The most memorable hole at Erin Hills won’t be as controversial during the U.S. Open next week as I thought it would.

That’s because it no longer exists.

You won’t see the original No. 7, the late, great Dell hole, on your Erin Hills scorecard. It was a par 3 with a blind tee shot and was a dead ringer for the similarly named fifth hole at Ireland’s Lahinch. At the top of the hill in the background, the hole featured a white aiming rock that moved with each day’s pin position. You rang a bell attached to a pole upon exiting to alert players on the tee that the green was clear.

Some Erin Hills players loved it. Others hated it. The Dell hole wasn’t used when Erin Hills hosted the 2007 Women’s Amateur Public Links, and it was bulldozed in 2009, before the 2011 U.S. Amateur was played there. A 19th hole that had been built, a par 3 known as the Bye hole, replaced it. 

When Erin Hills opened for play in 2006, the Dell was the one hole that people talked about.

“The Dell fit in because it was quirky,” said Jim Lombardo, Erin Hills head pro. “There were a lot of quirky holes initially. We had a blind third shot to a par 5, a Biarritz green, a 19th hole and the Dell. People used the word quirky to describe our course, always in a fun way.”

The first time I visited Erin Hills, more than a decade ago, owner Robert Lang drove me around for a look. He jumped out of the cart at the seventh hole and enthusiastically instructed me to stand with him on the green, some 30 feet below a hill in a kind of mini-canyon. “Gary, you just feel different here,” he said. I did, indeed, feel different. I felt enveloped. 

From the tee, only a slight rise was visible. The Dell played 149 yards from the gold tees, 184 from the blues and 223 all the way back, which no one in his right mind did at Erin Hills, which could stretch to more than 8,000 yards. I played the Dell three times, probably from the gold, and had birdie putts of 12 feet or less each time, not necessarily through my own skill. Whether short or long, a lucky carom off the front hillside or the rock wall behind was possible. 

Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and championships, had walked Erin Hills but never played the Dell hole but said that blind shots at Oakmont were discussed during a production meeting with Fox Sports at last year’s U.S. Open. Said Hall: “Paul Azinger told me, ‘Well, it’s only a blind shot the first time you play it. From that point on, you should know what you’re doing.’ A blind par 3 would be the same for everybody. But the best players in the world like to see where they’re going.”

I wrote several Erin Hills pieces that Sports Illustrated never ran in which USGA executive director Mike Davis said his reaction to the Dell was, “I really like this, but Vijay Singh is going to hate it.” 

Would the USGA have used a blind par 3 in the Open? We never got the chance to find out. In his zeal to do whatever it took to land the Open, Lang flattened the landform with a bulldozer without telling anyone, according to course co-designer Ron Whitten in a piece he wrote for a recent issue of Golf Digest. Lang created a par 5 that played over the old Dell green’s location to what had been the eighth green. Destroying a unique landform like that, I later told Lang, was a crime against nature. He blamed the USGA.

Financial problems forced Lang to sell Erin Hills before he could land the Open that he so badly wanted. New owner Andrew Ziegler, a Milwaukee financier, later completed the task. Now the U.S. Open is at Erin Hills. The Dell hole isn’t.  

“It was a fun hole,” Lombardo said. “We’ve still got the bell and lasting memories. The Dell hole lives on.”

Meet me in the pub during the Open, Jim, and we’ll drink to that.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle