11th hole at Erin Hills Golf Course (courtesy Erin Hills)
ERIN, Wis. – Whistling Straits is a manufactured beauty.
Erin Hills is a natural one.
Whistling Straits is a golf course striking in its brilliant contrivance on the shores of Lake Michigan, so much so that you can’t help feeling the unnaturalness of it. There’s wonder in it, absolutely, but the wonder is something closer to what you feel walking into Disney World than a national park.
Erin Hills is striking in how naturally it unfolds in front of you. The wonder in Erin Hills is how it feels like God’s hand shaped the twists and turns as much as any man’s hand. It’s a mesmerizing collaboration through glacial dunes and a sea of fescue grasses.
With the PGA Championship being played at Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, Wis., last week, a quick side trip allowed this golf writer a chance to check out one of Wisconsin’s newest gems and home to next year's U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open.
Erin Hills, 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, is a stern test, whether you’re playing it from the black tees at a staggering 7,820 yards or the white tees at 6,423. Stray shots are gobbled and lost in the thick, unforgiving fescue, but there’s actually adequate room to drive the ball.
This isn’t a claustrophobic test. If you’re off your game, though, bring lots of balls. The bunkering is visually striking, the greens aesthetically so. It’s a mesmerizing walk, but a long one, among the longest this player’s ever ventured over 18 holes.
It’s nine miles from first tee to 18th green, a hike that’s harder on your caddie than it is on you. And though you don’t have to have a caddie, you’ll need one to avoid getting lost in search of some of these tee boxes.
There are a few steep climbs to the tees, but the extra work’s worth it, with vistas that show off how glacial rivers shaped the rolling contours of this land. At the 15th tee, you can see farmhouses on the horizon that look like something you would see in paintings. There’s the silhouette of Holy Hill in the distance behind you, with its church steeples making it look like Snow White’s Castle. The view from more than one tee box will make you want to stop to soak in the moment.
If you’re wondering, summer green fees are $160 with another $50 required to reserve a caddie, plus gratuities.
Erin Hills has had its challenges since the first shovel was put in the ground in its construction in 2004 and the first shot was struck there in ’06. They’ve been well documented. The owners are dealing with a hard summer of rain this year, which damaged patches of fairway grasses here and there, though nothing nearly severe enough to keep you from enjoying the golf experience. Because it really is a unique experience.
The clubhouse, with its white stone configuration, radiates Irish charm. So do the elegant old barns that serve as the caddie shack and maintenance buildings.
Some folks might wonder about the remoteness of the course, especially with the daily trek required from Milwaukee area hotels during a U.S. Open, but it’s the remoteness that adds to the charm and appeal. It’s so quiet and serene out there that it takes a few holes for the buzz of city life to leave your ears.
Really, the feeling that you’ve escaped is part of the adventure of playing Erin Hills.