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Build It and They Will Come: The Inside Story of Erin Hills

April 25, 2017 By Joe Passov
Left to right: Course architects Dana Fry, Michael Hurdzan and Ron Whitten are eager to see Erin Hills host the U.S. Open

In a wide-ranging interview, Erin Hills’ trio of course architects — Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, formerly of Hurdzan-Fry Environmental Golf Design, and Ron Whitten — take readers through the design process at Erin Hills and why the venue is positioned to challenge the best players in the world. 

What was your first reaction upon seeing the land that became Erin Hills? Could you have imagined that it would host a U.S. Open, and so soon?
Hurdzan: As soon as you see the land, you’re just automatically, like, God, this is absolutely incredible. Did I think it would ever host a U.S. Open? No way. Up until the day the USGA announced it, I was skeptical. It had the potential, but I never thought it would go to a new golf course like that.

Whitten: When I realized it was mostly untouched pasture land, it was one of the best pieces of property that I’d ever seen, and I’d seen a lot. I was blown away. At that time, 1999, the U.S. Open was the furthest thing from my mind. We were trying to do the best $50 green-fee course in America.

Fry: I didn’t see the site until 2003, well after Mike and Ron. On my first or maybe second visit, [then USGA executive director] David Fay was there. I remember him saying that it was such a great tournament venue site. He wasn’t talking about the U.S. Open at that time — although that’s where your mind would go, just because of its sheer scale and size and magnitude, the way golf would fit down low and the people sitting up looking down. Just looking at it, it made you think it could host something.

Hurdzan: There is a big open section of land between what’s now holes 1, 2, 3, 6 and 18. Once we had an inkling Erin Hills had the potential for that kind of tournament, we said let’s leave this land open — it could be the tent city. And, in fact, those are all corporate areas now for the Open. So, once it occurred to us there might be that opportunity, we started planning a little differently.

How was it collaborating between the three of you? That’s more names atop the masthead than usual.
Hurdzan: I’ve known Ron since the early ’70s, and Dana and I had already worked together for 20-something years. So there was a mutual respect there. We were all good friends before, during and after. The other thing that I think was important was chemistry. We all stayed in a house on the property, so we spent the day together and we spent the evening together, when there wasn’t much else to do but talk about the project. We always came to a mutually acceptable decision — there was always give and take, and compromise.

What attributes make Erin Hills U.S. Open-worthy?
Whitten: [USGA executive director] Mike Davis told me that the attribute he really likes is its flexibility. We have many sets of tees, and he can set up holes any way he wants to play them depending on the wind and weather conditions. He can play the [par-5] 18th hole at 539 yards or 660 yards, and anywhere in between. And there are probably three potential drivable par 4s, too.

Fry: I’ve played a lot of golf there with good players, and they’ve consistently said that the hardest thing about the golf course is the lines and the angles of tee shots — even though, by U.S. Open standards, it has wider fairways than most host courses.

Whitten: The holes have generally wide fairways, but on most you have to hit to exact spots off the tee to have the right angle into that day’s hole location. The tee-shot angles are phenomenal. 

Hurdzan: Erin Hills has no out of bounds, no water hazards, no forced carries. The three elements that will make it so difficult are, one, the slope of the land and understanding what it is going to do to your ball. The second thing is the bunkers, which will be the most feared hazard these guys have faced, and that was the intent. The last element is the wind, which can and will change everything. Combined, they will always make it play to a championship quality. 

What will the spectators most enjoy?
Whitten: The USGA likes all the vantage points. There are five or six different places where you can see five or six different holes at once. And you can put 50,000 people or so on the 18th hole if you want to – I sort of a Phoenix Open with cheese curds.

Hurdzan: But natural, because they can all just sit on the slopes and now in the stands, too. It’s almost limitless how many people can fit out there, because it’s that big of a space.

With only five trees and fescue grass, many spectators will think Erin Hills is a links course.
Fry: We have purposely avoided using the word “links.” This is a heathland golf course. We want to make sure that distinction is made. A heathland course is in-between a parkland course and a links. It’s difficult to make comparisons [to past U.S. Open host sites] because most of the other courses have been parkland golf, except for Chambers Bay, which was a little more on the links side.

Whitten: We like to think that Erin Hills is original. That said, it’s an amalgamation of a lot of different concepts. It sort of looks like Shinnecock Hills in some places, but it’s not Shinnecock Hills. It has some tiny flat greens like Bethpage, but it also has some radical wild greens. I like to think it has two or three holes that no one has ever seen at the U.S. Open before, but that’s my conceit. We didn’t set out to copy anything. We set out to try to find green sites, and then we went backwards, and then we tried to link it all together.

Top: The par-4 5th hole at Erin Hills in 2003, before construction work began. Above: The completed 5th hole in 2006.

Back to Erin Hills’ bunkers. What’s unique about them?
Whitten: The ninth hole is our version of Pebble Beach’s seventh – a very short downhill par 3 with a tiny, narrow green. We didn’t have the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, so instead we decided to do the nastiest set of bunkers you could find in there. Last year, we had a site visit with Mike Davis and [Erin Hills owner] Andy Ziegler. I remember Andy pointing to a little curlicue in the bunker that had a finger maybe 10 inches wide and saying, “Is this fair? A player could find himself in this and not be able to hit toward the green — not just the flag, the green.” I explained that, you know, if you can’t hit a 130-yard shot on target then you should have to face potential penalty. If every bunker were like that it would be unfair, but on that hole we thought it was fair. Mike said, “Sounds good to me,” and Andy said, “Sounds good to me,” and we walked on. 

Hurdzan: We also didn’t do flat-bottom bunkers. You’re going to see shots this year out of the bunker that you’ve never seen before, and comments from pros that you’ve never heard before, either – some of which won’t be complimentary. A lot of times, you’re hitting off sidehill lies or downhill lies. You might have a restricted backswing or be unable to go at the hole. Pros aren’t used to that. They expect to be able to hit perfect shots all the time, both from fairway bunkers and greenside bunkers. Overseas, you might have to play out sideways from a sod-walled bunker, and nobody tends to complain. Here, they do. You’re going to hear grumbling from the pros about the fact that you may be fine hitting 3-iron from a bunker and, 5 feet away in it, may need to play sideways. The bunkers will be feared and talked about.

Fry: There will be blood.

What will competitors most enjoy about the course?
Fry: They will have room off the tee and a lot of variety of lies. Also, there are no goofy greens on this golf course. The most severely contoured greens for the most part are on reachable par 5s or where you’re hitting short shots into the green.

Hurdzan: They are going to like it because it’s cerebral. You cannot just go out and mechanically hit all the shots. You have to pick your spot and say, “I want to put the ball there in order to get that little bit of advantage to that hole over there.”  And the more you can read the land, and the more courage you have to get the ball down early and let it release as opposed to flying it in there, the more you’ll be rewarded. Players will like it because it is a shot-maker’s golf course.

Whitten: I’m a cynic. I feel like guys who play well will like it, and those who don’t play well, won’t. Pros judge everything around their own games, so that doesn’t worry me. I’ve always felt like what we really want is for the average paying customer to enjoy it, and I think the experience they get at Erin Hills is unparalleled.

Lastly, what does it mean to you to have built a U.S. Open course?
Whitten: It was a dream of mine from the time I was 17 years old to be involved in golf course design. I was able to turn a hobby into a profession, at least in terms of writing about and studying golf architecture. To then get involved in building what became a U.S. Open course was a fulfillment of a personal dream, and at my age… it’s one of the high points of my life.

Fry: It seems surreal. You know it’s happening, but you literally can’t believe it. It has changed my life. I’ve lost so many jobs because I’m not a “name.” This makes you not a no-name.

Hurdzan: I’ve been around golf architecture since the ’50s, and my first solo designs were in 1969. On the patios, Dana and I were considered B-level architects, even though our clients never thought that, and people who played our courses never thought that. To me, this is the validation of a career. My mom, who is 93 and still plays golf 4-5 times a week, is coming. And I know my dad, and my mentor, Jack Kidwell, are watching from heaven.