Erin Hills could become longest course in US Open’s history

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staff, Gazette
Thursday, June 20, 2013

— I stood on the first tee at Erin Hills and did my best to disguise my nervousness by making small talk with Clayton, my caddie for Monday’s round.

Fescue grass—a thick, unforgiving, golf-ball-eating monster—loomed to the right; wetlands and even more of the deep natural grass stared me down on the left.

“Your line is that right bunker,” Clayton said nonchalantly, leaving me to think to myself, “Easy for him to say.”

I stepped up to the tee with my recently unpredictable driver and launched a drive right on the line he had asked for. Then I exhaled for what seemed like the first time in about five minutes.

Two decent iron shots, a forgettable putt from just off the green, two official putts and a 539-yard stroll later, I had bogeyed the first hole I’d ever played on a U.S. Open course.

Clayton filled me in on the impending hike we were about to make—between 6.5 miles and 8 miles, depending on how straight we hit the ball. If the daunting numbers on the scorecard hadn’t already told the story, it quickly became clear that this beast was much different than Merion Golf Club.

Merion had just wrapped up its duties as host of the Open on Sunday. Erin Hills will host the prestigious tournament June 15-18, 2017.

“It’s interesting comparing and contrasting Merion and Erin Hills,” Competitions Director John Morrissett told a couple dozen media members prior to the round, which was part of the Open’s first media day. “Different challenges, but at the end of the day, the best player will still win.”

Length dominated the discussion at Merion, which measured less than 7,000 yards and had many believing the champion would finish with a score perhaps 10 strokes under par. Instead, Justin Rose won on Sunday after playing four rounds at 1-over.

The exact length of Erin Hills for the 2017 U.S. Open has yet to be determined, but it played at 7,760 yards for the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship. It could wind up being the longest U.S. Open course in history.

And Erin Hills, plopped in the middle of nowhere 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, covers about six times as much acreage as Merion, which is tucked into the suburbs of Philadelphia.

The difference in expanses goes far beyond just how long the course plays.

“The USGA limited ticket sales at the U.S. Open this year to 25,000 per day,” Morrissett said. “(Normally) there are about 35,000 spectators per day. In preliminary discussions with the USGA … it sounds like we’ll probably have about 45,000 per day in terms of ticket sales.”

Tickets won’t likely go on sale until 2016. The tournament will also require 4,000 to 5,000 volunteers. Registration is expected to take place for volunteering beginning in 2015.

But the site’s country setting has also led to early questions regarding lodging, parking and traffic.

Morrissett and General Chairman James E. Reinhart did their best to dispel those worries.

“In terms of lodging for the U.S. Open, it’s not out of the question at all for spectators, media, players, officials to stay 30 to 60 minutes away,” Morrissett said. “In fact, last week at Merion, I stayed at the host hotel for media, which was an hour’s bus ride away from the golf course.”

As a result, Rock and Walworth counties could become lodging destinations for some spectators hoping to catch a glimpse of the world’s top men’s players. The drive from Janesville took me about 80 minutes, and the trek would be of similar length from Lake Geneva.

While we’re still four years away, planning has long been underway. And Monday’s round allowed players to experience true U.S. Open conditions.

“Each year going forward, all of our maintenance practices will be geared toward this one week in June,” Morrissett said. “It allows players to see what conditions will be like as well as what it will take to have the course ready in different conditions.”

With Kohler’s Whistling Straits hosting the PGA Championship in 2015, the state of Wisconsin remains a major player on the professional golf scene.

Erin Hills is no Merion, but expect similar drama to unfold amid the fescue in June 2017.

Last updated: 7:51 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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