How's this for a duffer's dream? Having lunch with renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. on a veranda overlooking a championship course, then playing a round with an old friend and making a new one who just happens to be a former USGA Vice-President. That's how I spent my Monday, playing hooky was never more fun.
On the day after Justin Rose withstood Merion to win the 113th U.S. Open Championship, a media event was held at the site of the 2017 Open, Erin Hills. Nestled at the southern end of a glacial surge that created dramatic, rolling terrain 10,000 years ago, Erin Hills opened just 6 years ago but in 2010, was awarded 117th national championship. It was built on property where barely a shovel of earth was moved and with the idea of landing a presigous, if not major championship in the future. An ownership change brought about two reconstruction projects and the course is now more than ready to hit the big time.
The local championship team is in place, led by James Reinhart of Milwaukee. The former USGA VP and rules chair was named Monday as the General Chairman for the 2017 Open. Andy Bush is the General Manager at Erin Hills and John Morrissett is the Competitions Director. Morrissett spent time Monday detailing the logistical hurdles that lie in wait over the next couple of years. Thinks like having the Wisconsin Department of Transportation upgrade the roadway access to the course, located just south of Hartford, 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, a mile west of highway 83 and a long entrance drive off a county trunk. Outside of a visible barn or two, there is no development anywhere near the 625 acre site. Morrissett says in the coming years, volunteer recruitment will begin, they'll need between four and five thousand. Ticket sales and distribution will come a year in front of the event and Morrissette says the USGA is thinking about up to 45,000 tickets per day but the course has so many open spaces for excellent viewing, galleries could easly go well beyond that. They'll also need to house the visitor's, not to mention the participants. Recent building on site offers a small variety of rooms, cottages and suites. Hotel space will lean on nearby Milwaukee or even Madison, an hour to the west. Erin Hills has already conducted USGA events, the 2008 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship and the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championships.
A conversation with Jim Reinhart
As for the golf, I was paired with Reinhart, along with an old friend, Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Lee Murphy of Crain's Chicago Business. Our two caddies, Don and Julius (who spends his summers in Wisconsin and winters at Augusta National), were terrific. Superintendent Zach Reineking wanted to give the media hacks a real taste of U.S. Open conditions, leaving a strip of first cut rough before you find knee high fescue everywhere else. The greens were double cut and rolled, driving the stimp to 11 or 12 according to our caddies. It took several holes for me to adjust to the speed, three putting three of the first four, including the opening par five which I reached in regulation. By mid-round, I had parred five of eight holes. The weather was great, around 80, a bit on the breezy side which toughened up the upwind holes and a single rain cloud moved overhead on the back nine. The timing wasn't kind. After tracing a four iron uphill to the 15th green leaving me my best look at birdie, the skies emptied and the heavy rain led to a lip out. My goal was to break 90 playing the green tees, measuring 6756 yards and I was in good shape heading to the menacing 620 yard, par five finishing hole. I managed the double dog leg great on the first two shots but stumbled home for a double, but still beating the goal with an 89. Even better, played the same Titleist 3 all the way around despite a couple of brushes with the fescue.
The local tournament officials collectively blink when they see the list of upcoming U.S Open sites, off to Pinehurst # 2 next year, followed by another new course, Chambers Bay, then Oakmont, Erin Hills, Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach and Winged Foot. They admit it's pretty impressive company. After meeting the team, understanding their determination and most importantly, playing the course, there's little doubt the still young Erin Hills has grown up fast and is more than ready to belong. 2017 can't come fast enough.
Photos: The Third Hole at Erin Hills, General Chairman Jim Reinhart.