Born This Way: Erin Hills Possesses Championship DNA

By Tom Mackin

| Sep 11, 2022

Born This Way: Erin Hills Possesses Championship DNA

The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

41st U.S. Mid-Amateur Home

As co-founder of an investment management firm, Andy Ziegler has made many deals and walked away from many others. He did the latter, more than once, in 2008 when asked to purchase Erin Hills, 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, Wis. But when no other buyers materialized, Ziegler, knowing the course was scheduled to host the 2011 U.S. Amateur, eventually closed the deal a year later. In September, the property he and his team have elevated to new heights will be on display during the 2022 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.

“I was able to buy it at a price that made sense for what had to be done,” said Ziegler. “The course wasn’t quite finished and needed some renovations. The infrastructure didn’t exist. There was no clubhouse or maintenance facility. You don’t get rich running golf courses but it’s a good business for us, and for me it’s been a lot of fun.”

So has hosting USGA championships, including the 2017 U.S. Open, and this year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur, with the 2025 U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica on the horizon.

“We view it as part of the identity of Erin Hills to host championships,” said Ziegler. “The first reason we do it sounds hokey, but it’s to give back to the game. Second, we’re a public-play venue and many championships are hosted by private clubs. Championships are part of why people get on airplanes to play Erin Hills.”

Once they arrive, pros and amateurs alike have been mesmerized by the sheer size of this treeless course, which can play up to 7,731 yards spread across a heaving landscape created by ancient receding glaciers.

“If you look at the yardage on the scorecard, you think this place is overwhelming,” said Bill McCarthy, USGA championship director for the U.S. Mid-Amateur. “But the beauty of this design is that it gives us flexibility with hole locations and teeing grounds to challenge any player and provide different looks.”

That capability to expand or contract yardages will come in especially handy during the Mid-Am’s match-play rounds. “The three par 5s can be three-shotters, two-and-a-half shotters, or we can make them reasonable two-shotters,” said McCarthy. “It’s similar with the par 3s, other than the ninth being short (165 yards). But with the other threes, we can move the tees to present a different challenge every day.”

For all its size, Erin Hills is subtle in spots. “It’s all got to do with firmness,” said McCarthy. “The design (by Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten) emphasizes the ground game and makes use of the natural terrain. There are bunkers at 300 to 340 yards, but when we have the fairway speed and firmness we want, that’s the subtlety players have to think about. Downhill and downwind may mean a 3-wood off the tee instead of driver.”

In addition, several greens slope away from the fairway, something not altogether apparent at first glance – such as on the second hole, a short par 4 with Erin Hills’ smallest green. “Players hit pitch shots in but are initially perplexed as to why the shot doesn’t grab that well,” said John Morrissett, competitions and marketing director at Erin Hills and a former U.S. Mid-Amateur championship director. The same goes for the downhill par-3 ninth, where the green runs away from the tee. “A back-left hole location there brings perhaps the nastiest bunker on the course in play, and there’s usually a crosswind,” he added. “Often a ball will land near the hole and then roll into that bunker. Players walk away with a 5 thinking they didn’t hit a bad shot. You have to land it short and let the natural slope take the ball to the hole.”

One of Erin Hills’ strengths is the pacing of the back nine. “The 14th hole is a risk-reward par 5 with big decisions to make off the tee and on the second shot,” said Morrissett. “No. 15 is a short par 4 where tees can be moved to make it drivable or shifted back to require a lay-up short of the pot bunker in the fairway. On those two holes, a player can easily go birdie-birdie or make double bogeys.”

The 2019 addition of the 63,000-square-foot Drumlin putting course brought about the lone significant change to the layout since the 2017 U.S. Open. That project eliminated the back tee on the first hole, changing what was a par 5 into a par 4, albeit one that can play up to 490 yards.

Stewart Hagestad, the defending U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who played here in the 2017 U.S. Open, knows one skill at which the winner will likely excel. “You have to drive it very well,” he said. “That’s what Brooks (Koepka) did in 2017. That’s what (Patrick) Cantlay did when he got to the final in 2011 (where Kelly Kraft defeated him, 2 up). It’s fairly open off the tee. If you drive it well, it sets everything else up.”

For Ziegler, the 13 years since his purchase have passed so quickly he describes the journey as a sprint. “We bought it in the fall of 2009, and we were hosting the U.S. Amateur less than two years later,” he said. “We came up for air after that, and then the U.S. Open came in 2017. Now we have the U.S. Mid-Am, which is kind of a hidden treasure in the USGA’s lineup of championships. All that keeps you moving, but it’s fun.”

Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA publications, including Golf Journal.