Sculpted by the Ice Age for Open breakthrough

AS the spiritual home of the US Open, the storied Pebble Beach Golf Links seemed perhaps an incongruous place to announce the destination of a new venue on the circuit for the 2017 tournament.

Yet the United States Golf Association’s decision to send their national championship to the still freshly-minted Erin Hills Golf Course in seven years time reflects an increasing commitment by golf’s powerbrokers to the midwestern state of Wisconsin.

Time was that what made Milwaukee famous, made a loser out of Rod Stewart and many others besides but America’s brewing capital is developing into something of a base camp for major championship golf.

The 2010 US PGA Championship this week heads back to Whistling Straits, around 57 miles due north of Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan, following a successful 2004 debut with the PGA of America having already decided to send their tournament back there in 2015 as well as the Ryder Cup five years later.

The links-style Straits course, designed by renowned golf course architect Pete Dye and opened only in 1998, has also found its way onto the radar of the USGA, which staged the 2007 US Senior Open there and the game’s rule-makers have other plans for Erin Hills, some 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

The USGA awarded the 2008 Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship to Erin Hills before it had even opened and aside from the 2017 US Open, it will return there in 2011 for the men’s US Amateur next August.

“Erin Hills is a special place, a public golf course, predominantly fine fescue grasses, although bent grass putting greens, the course is very open and natural and has much topographical movement,” USGA championship committee chairman Tom O’Toole said back at Pebble Beach in June when announcing the 2017 site.

“Andy Ziegler, the Erin Hills owner, has contributed significant resources recently to not only the golf course, but the infrastructure for these championships.

“The USGA is confident Andy is committed to making Erin Hills a world class golf facility, the type of facility the USGA will be proud to conduct our National Open Championship.”

When Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck drove through this part of the world in 1960 with his pet poodle for his travelogue “Travels With Charley: in search of America” he described the terrain as “weird country sculpted by the Ice Age, a strange gleaming country of water and carved rock” and Erin Hills lives up to that description.

According to local history, the area around the course was settled by Irish immigrants in the 1840s who were reminded of the rolling terrain of their homeland and course architects Mike Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten did their utmost to evoke the feel of an Irish or Scottish course, beginning construction in 2004 and opening for business as a public course in 2006, a year later being named best new course by Golf Magazine.

Currently measuring 7,766 yards from the back tees and with room to stretch to 8,000, it costs $160 to play the walking-only Erin Hills, which was purchased outright by Ziegler last October

Only four years old, the infant Erin Hills appeared to be down the pecking order for 2017, up against the established Cog Hill near Chicago and five or six others.

Yet former owner Bob Lang had the USGA onside from the outset, inviting Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions and US Open set-up man, to view Erin Hills two years before it opened. He was instantly impressed.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was as good a property as you can find for a golf course in America, outside of sand dunes on the ocean,” Davis said.

“It probably has the best infrastructure — the space between holes, the space around holes — of any course we go to for the US Open. It will be a spectacular test of golf. It will give us so much flexibility in how we set up the course.”

With space around the course to accommodate up to 50,000 spectators daily and with areas purposely set aside in the design for commercial and hospitality compounds, Erin Hills appears tailor made for the event, although there are still reservations, not least concerns about the lack of hotel rooms in the surrounding area and the access roads in the immediate vicinity.

Those are worries that hold no truck at Erin Hills.

“That’s hogwash,” Hurdzan told the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal. “If Sheboygan (the county containing this week’s PGA venue at Whistling Straits) can pull it off we can pull it off.”

Erin Hills is closer to Milwaukee’s hotel rooms than Whistling Straits, and considerably more convenient than accommodations for the 2004 and ‘05 US Opens at Pinehurst in North Carolina and Shinnecock Hills on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island, where the majority of spectators were staying two hours away, while the USGA has long since abandoned the idea of offering public parking close to tournament sites.

All in all, they are very comfortable with the idea of sending a US Open to Wisconsin for the first time.

“This is going to be a home run for us,” USGA president Jim Hyler said.

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