Major opportunity: Erin Hills to host state's first US Open

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Jim Leute
Sunday, June 22, 2014

ERIN—Wisconsin is a golf-crazy state, once known for its annual PGA Tour stop in Milwaukee but now more well known as a destination for championship golf.

That's the opinion of two of the men organizing the 2017 U.S. Open that will be played at Erin Hills outside of Milwaukee.

“The region is becoming the No. 1 destination for championship golf,” Jim Reinhart, general chairman of Erin Hills and president of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, said during a recent media day at the course.

“Things are getting better and better for golf in the state of Wisconsin, and that's very exciting.”

The championship run started in 1998, when Blackwolf Run near Kohler hosted the U.S. Women's Open.

It's newer Kohler sibling, Whistling Straits, was the venue for the 2004 and 2010 PGA championships and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open.

The Straits will again host the PGA Championship next summer and will draw international attention with the Ryder Cup in 2020.

Sandwiched in between is the Open at Erin Hills, which also hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship.

“The state has just taken off in terms of golf,” said John Morrissett, competitions director.

Erin Hills opened in 2006 and has been evolving ever since with the intention of hosting the national championship.

Confirming what was one of golf's worst-kept secrets, the United States Golf Association announced in 2010 that the course would host the open in 2017.

“Erin Hills is not a one-and-done opportunity,” Reinhart said. “It is a key site in the USGA's mind for many years to come.”

Erin Hills is a remarkable test of golf that wanders—at least on the scorecard—from 6,400 yards to 7,800 yards through 650 acres of rolling moraines.

Morrissett said the Open likely will be played at 7,800 yards, although the course does have tees that could add an additional 400 yards.

Pinehurst No. 2, which hosted this year's men's and women's Opens, measured on the card at about 7,500 yards for the men. Rumor has it that next year's Open venue, Chambers Bay in Washington state, could stretch to 7,900 yards, making it the longest Open in history.

Morrissett said Erin Hills and Pinehurst are similar in many ways.

Both have adopted the USGA's motto that “brown is the new green,” meaning that a commitment to water conservancy dries out areas of the course and provides a firm and fast track.

Both venues are removed from metro areas, he said, noting that Pinehurst is about 60 miles from Raleigh-Durham and Erin Hills is about 35 miles from downtown Milwaukee.

“When you're out here, you feel like you're hundreds of miles from anything,” he said. “But we're only 35 miles from downtown Milwaukee, so there's no need for us to build a 400-room hotel out here.

“Actually, we're pretty similar to others in terms of convenience.”

Morrissett said he expects 40,000 fans each day for the championship. Many of them will stay outside of Milwaukee in hotels to the west in Madison or to the north near Fond du Lac.

He said he wouldn't be surprised if some fans stay as far as 70 miles away in Janesville, where room prices might not be as steep as they will be closer to the course.

Morrissett said because Erin Hills is in a remote rural area, traffic patterns and parking will be more easily controlled.

And the fact that the course sits on 650 acres will allow a wide variety of corporate hospitality opportunities.

When Erin Hills hosted the U.S. Amateur, it did so with about 800 volunteers.

For the Open, that number will balloon to 5,000, he said.

“We have an enthusiastic base to draw from here, an experienced base,” he said, noting that volunteer registration likely will open in 2015.

Two USGA staffers will move to Wisconsin this winter to start preparations for the event, and ticket sales will start in 2016.

The economic impact for the region is expected to be somewhere between $140 million and $160 million.

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