Texas native Kelly Kraft played college golf in the decidedly urban atmosphere of Big D, five miles from downtown at Southern Methodist.
Not surprisingly, his first trip to next week’s isolated U.S. Open venue nearly required a pith helmet, Sherpa and guide rope.
Erin Hills might not be situated in the middle of nowhere, but it’s in the same ZIP code. More like the edge of nowhere, really.
“You're way out in the country,” said Kraft, who lives in Dallas. “The first time I remember going, I was driving and I'm like, Are we lost here? What are we doing? It’s just fields everywhere.
“You’ve just got to keep going a little further, and it's out there.”
Kraft had a far-out time during his visit to the first-time Open venue six years ago, winning the U.S. Amateur Championship in what amounted to a test run before next week’s national championship.
Kraft, now 28, held off fellow college hotshot Patrick Cantley to win the biggest event staged on the comparatively unknown, untested venue. Fitting that in the so-called Dairy State, a dude named Kraft was crowned Big Cheese.
Kraft, who today is entered in an Open sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, might be more qualified than anybody to render a scouting report on the massive property. Erin Hills is spread over 652 acres of a failed former cattle farm carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. The plan was to use nary a bulldozer to reshape the rolling, existing topography in the course design. Of course, adjustments were required, resulting in two major renovations. Heaven knows what setup tricks the host U.S. Golf Association will have up the sleeve of its collective blue blazer this week.
Given his win in 2011, as the Open has drawn closer, Kraft has been peppered with questions about Erin Hills, because few of his professional peers have laid eyes on the place. Most of them ask about the daunting number on the course scorecard – nearly 8,000 yards from all the way back.
Located 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, Erin Hills played at 7,760 yards during Kraft’s victory. The USGA anticipates using a similar yardage next week, which would represent the longest venue in Open history. In the second round two years ago, Chambers Bay played at a record 7,695 yards.
“I tell people that on paper, it looks a lot harder than it really is,” Kraft said. “You can look at it on paper and say, ‘Man, this thing is 7,900, 8,000 yards. When do you ever play a golf course that is that long?’
“Not every day do you play one that is so firm like that, and the ball can roll forever. You can catch some of these hills, and I was hitting some massive drives out there that week. I [normally] hit the ball 300 yards, and when you're getting them out there a little downwind, and you land on a sideslope and they're going 380, it's a different game.”
It’s a unique place, for sure. The property is so large and barren, it has a linksy look and can accommodate 50,000 fans. Put another way, there’s plenty of room for parking.
“It’s a big golf course,” said native son Steve Stricker, who lives in Madison. “Really, really big.”
For laughs, Stricker played nine holes from the back tees at Erin Hills a few years back and said he hit a hybrid or fairway wood into four greens. If the fairways are wet, the USGA will need to make some serious adjustments to the tee markers.
“It's got some really long holes to play, with a lot of different options, varieties for tee boxes they can move around,” Kraft said. “I remember playing a bunch of different tee boxes on a lot of different holes throughout the course of the U.S. Amateur.”
Similar to 2015 at Chambers Bay, another first-time Open venue that wasn’t met with universal acclaim, to say the least, Erin Hills’ design allows players to hit several types of shots around the putting surfaces.
“The greens are big, a lot of slopes on them. You can putt it from a lot of places off the green,” Kraft said. “I think it will play well for the U.S. Open, because they can get it as firm and fast as they want to have it. The greens during the U.S. Amateur were perfect, so I don't see that being any different this time around, either.”
Well, except that the Milwaukee area already has received 17 inches of rain in 2017 – four inches above average.
As far as what players themselves can control, contenders usually display firm command of all 14 clubs at an Open, but next week, the short stick could prove to be paramount on the venue’s mammoth bentgrass greens, Kraft said.
“I remember lag putting was huge out there, because you may have some 80-footers, a lot of 50-, 40-footers,” he said. “They can catch a ridge and kind of roll down the wrong way. I putted really well that week, so I think the winner's going to have to putt great.”
For those in the gallery, the course features some peccadilloes. There are several long walks between greens and tees, and spectators can expect to be buzzed by dive-bombing mosquitos the size of vampire bats. Stricker said a popular bumper sticker throughout the Badger State features a caricature and a few half-serious words.
“There’s a drawing of a huge mosquito,” Stricker said, “and next to it, it says, ‘State bird of Wisconsin.’”
If the course doesn’t draw blood, the wildlife probably will.
– Alex Miceli contributed