News & Opinion

Idleness gives Erin Hills its awesomeness

Something unusual is going to happen today at Erin Hills golf course in Wisconsin. 

Golf will be played.

It is officially known as Preview Day. Assembled media members and U.S. Golf Association members will converge on tiny Erin, Wis., about 45 minutes west of Milwaukee, to get a sneak preview of Erin Hills, site of next month’s U.S. Open. Some of those on hand, including media hacks, will walk the course and play.

What’s unusual about playing golf at a golf course? Erin Hills closed for public play Oct. 3 and will not reopen until July 1, after the Open. Having such a long downtime for the sake of the course’s health never has been done before. Well, probably never.

“Never is a long time,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and golf championships. “It shows a heck of a commitment by the club. It was solely their decision, and we were most appreciative.”

The key perk from halting public play isn’t just the wear and tear. It’s the chance for Erin Hills’ crack grounds-crew members to get their work done on the course without being interrupted by golfers.

“I don’t think the public would make divots or ruin the tees from where we’re going to play,” Hall said. “At Erin Hills, they were able to work without ducking in and out of golfers. It really made a difference. The course came through the winter beautifully.”

There may be a few more rounds later in the week. Because the USGA already will be assembled onsite, its board will meet at the course Tuesday, and its Rules of Golf committee later in the week. The Fox Sports broadcast team comes in the following Monday to film some of its preview packages.

Wisconsin had a milder-than-usual winter, and Erin Hills shows it.

“They’re anticipating greens speeds next week at 11 or 11.5 [on the Stimpmeter], without pushing the greens at all,” Hall said. 

The U.S. Open is barely a month away, by the way.

“Once you close Open entries April 26, the Open becomes a whole lot more real,” Hall said. “It’s happening. There’s certainly an energy back in the office with everyone preparing.”

Erin Hills hosted a Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship [2008, won by Tiffany Joh] and a U.S. Amateur [2011, won by Kelly Kraft], but most viewers will not be familiar with the course. This will be its first big close-up. 

In a startling bit of trivia, Erin Hills is the first par-72 course to host the Open since Pebble Beach in 1992. The course has tees that can stretch the course beyond 8,000 yards, although the Open won’t get that extreme. 

“It’s a strong collection of holes,” Hall said. “I think the ninth is intriguing, maybe because of the state of my game. I hit it so short that I can hear the darned ball land. The ninth can play 135 yards to 160. The green is well-guarded, with a slightly elevated tee. Any breeze at all, it’s hitting the ball the moment it comes off the clubface, and that green is a pretty small target. Even though they’ll have a scoring club in their hands, like a wedge, 12 strokes on that hole for the week wouldn’t be horrible.”

The course sprawls over 640-plus acres of rolling terrain left by retreating glaciers and is a tough walk.

“The guys at the elite level are all in excellent condition, but they’re on a mental rollercoaster, too,” Hall said. “That wears on you. By the end of the week, they’ll feel it.”

When Erin Hills reopens for play a few weeks after the Open, you’ll be able to feel their pain for yourself.

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