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Renovation prepares Wisconsin's Erin Hills golf course for future U.S. Open

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
Manor House at Erin Hills Golf Course
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The Manor House at Erin Hills Golf Course serves as a clubhouse and offers 12 upstairs rooms of various sizes for overnight guests. (Jason Scott Deegan/TravelGolf)

HARTFORD, Wis. -- Erin Hills Golf Course, the darling of the United States Golf Association, might finally be ready to lose its braces and ditch its glasses to grow up into the next supermodel of the golf world.

It took a new owner and a major renovation to get there, but Erin Hills finally appears ready to emerge as the major championship venue the head brass at the USGA envisioned when it opened in a rural suburb 35 miles west of Milwaukee in 2006. The 7,820-yard course was awarded the 2017 U.S. Open in July, the ultimate prize to a state that has never hosted the nation's most prestigious golf championship.

New owner Andy Ziegler, who purchased Erin Hills in October 2009, revived the beleaguered layout with an ambitious renovation that took more than eight months. Players who have teed it up since its late July opening should overlook its shortcomings this year -- thin spots in a number of areas and fescue so thick it's virtually unplayable -- to see the big picture.

By the time the 2011 U.S. Amateur rolls around next August, the renovation work of original architects Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten should shine on national TV.

"The committed owner has been awesome," said Rich Tock, Erin Hills' new president. "He is a single-digit handicapper who is very successful in business (as the CEO of Artisan Partners, Wisconsin's largest wealth management firm) with golf and horses as his hobby. He has a great eye for detail. He is thrilled that we received the U.S. Open. He put every effort into making this destination enjoyable for anybody who shows up."

The Erin Hills redesign was staggering in scope. Only the sixth and 13th holes remain intact. Hundreds of trees, including a mammoth oak tree on the first hole, were removed to showcase the rolling hills carved by glaciers centuries ago. More than 125 acres of ball-gobbling, color-changing fescue was planted this spring. It is expected to thin with age and become more playable. For now, local rules promote a free lateral drop if you hit it in the hay, Tock said.

Many of the course changes are subtle -- the first hole was reshaped, the second green was enlarged, the fifth and 11th fairways were widened, a hump in the 15th green was softened, a new tee on No. 16, and so forth.

Dramatic changes at Erin Hills G.C.

Others changes, however, are dramatic. Erin Hills' 10th hole converted from a par 5 with several blind shots and an unforgiving saddle-back green that offered few pin placements to a difficult 504-yard par 4 with a blind tee shot and narrow elevated green. The 605-yard seventh hole, once a blind par 3 made to mimic the dell hole at Lahinch Golf Club in Ireland, is now a stout par 5.

The fairway of the spectacular 487-yard eighth hole was moved 15 yard left to provide a heroic line over a huge hill to cut the corner of the dogleg, rewarding a short approach to an elevated green. The 165-yard ninth hole is unchanged, except it used to be the golf course's 19th hole for settling bets.

In anticipation of the USGA events, a blacktop road circling the golf course's perimeter and one dissecting its midsection were laid down hidden from view. Trucks carrying course infrastructure, from TV gear to equipment to build concession stands and bleachers, can be moved with minimal damage to the grass. Even the gravel cart paths were scooped up, removed and seeded over to enhance aesthetics.

Tom Charon, a nearby resident, said Erin Hills seems much improved.

"There were a lot of blind shots before. They've done a nice job," he said.

The course, tinkered with almost constantly over the past five years, currently ranks as the 35th best public course in the country by Golf Magazine.

"It seems like it has always been in a state of repair," said Mike O'Connor, another local resident who played Erin Hills within a week of its opening. "There have been so many changes in a few years. It could be special if they let it mature."

Erin Hills' new policy as a walkers-only playground costing $160 a round mimics the high-end playing experience of the Chambers Bay golf course in University Place, Wash., another USGA stronghold that hosted this year's U.S. Amateur as a dry run for the 2015 U.S. Open. Like Chambers Bay, playing Erin Hills is an arduous walk best done with a caddie to navigate all those elevated tees and greens.

Visiting Erin Hills has the feel of sneaking a peek behind the gates of an exclusive private club. In true Wisconsin flavor, staff members who work out of a barn greet golfers as they pull up. They can transport your clubs to a new 360-degree range on 20 acres with a separate short-game area or to the putting green next to the charming Manor House that doubles as a clubhouse.

Tock said there are plans to finish off construction on three four-bedroom golf cottages for stay-and-play guests and a new clubhouse with locker rooms and a formal dining room for banquets by May 2011. The clubhouse will be similar in size to the current Manor House, which offers a pro shop and Irish-themed pub on the lower level and 12 cozy bedrooms and suites upstairs.

For better or worse, Erin Hills will always be compared to the first course that brought a men's major to Wisconsin -- the Straits Golf Course at Whistling Straits. Erin Hills might not have the gorgeous lakeside views, but with its blown-out bunkers and dramatic landscape, it's every bit the course as Herb Kohler's and Pete Dye's maniacal creation.

Tock said he hopes Erin Hills can piggyback on the popularity of The American Club to stave off its financial woes of the past. By 2020, The American Club will have hosted a Ryder Cup, three PGA Championships and two U.S. Women's Opens. Tock said guests come from all across the country to check off the major championship venues on their bucket list.

"You can come to the state and play three golf courses (Erin Hills, Whistling Straits and Kohler's Blackwolf Run) that have hosted six different major championships, all within 90 minutes of each other," Tock said. "That's quite a statement. I haven't done any research, but I'm not sure any place in the world can make that statement. Mostly, U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Opens are on private clubs. That's pretty neat."

Erin Hills Golf Course: The verdict

Considering it is just the sixth public course to host a U.S. Open -- joining Pinehurst No. 2, Bethpage Black, Pebble Beach Golf Links, Torrey Pines South and Chambers Bay -- Erin Hills is now a must-play for any golfer worth his or her stripes. It complements the four courses at The American Club to officially make Milwaukee a world-class golf destination. The course needs at least another year for its conditions to get up to USGA standards, but once it does, look for Erin Hills to be a major player on the tournament scene for years to come.

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Erin Hills Golf Course - No. 6 greenErin Hills Golf Course - No. 18 greenErin Hills Golf Course - No. 15

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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