ERIN, WISCONSIN | After making a left at the U-Pick Sunflower stand onto Highway O, continue past Holy Hill Basilica and the BP station selling pumpkins for $2, $4 and $6. It’s here in a remote cricket-chirping patch of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine about 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee where Erin Hills, the 2017 U.S. Open site with a fascinating history, resides.
The brawny course sprawled across unassuming heartland is arguably the biggest underdog story in USGA history. It was owned by Bob Lang – a former greeting card and calendar publisher who had no prior history of playing golf or building a course – until Lang fell into an exorbitant amount of debt, which stemmed from his obsession of bringing a U.S. Open to the course. He was forced to sell to Milwaukee-based money manager Andy Ziegler in 2009, but Lang still has his fingerprints over the very DNA of the property.
When Erin Hills did get its U.S. Open, torrential rain softened the course and took away the firmness it relies upon. The wind, which can come in quite strong off of Lake Michigan 25 miles to the east, didn’t play a dominant factor. Its generous fairways were hit at a high rate and its tremendous length couldn’t prevent Brooks Koepka from overpowering the layout with a 16-under total.
The finish featured less drama than a blimp crash that took place near the property during the first round. It all led to mixed reviews of a course that has the aesthetics of Shinnecock Hills without the same bite, although it’s quickly forgotten to the sands of time that the cut fell at 1-over and many players struggled mightily during the championship.
“That was my first (U.S.) Open,” Stewart Hagestad said. “It was tough to compare it to what an Open should look like. I thought it was tough. Brooks didn’t, but I did.”
Last week, the U.S. Mid-Amateur returned to Erin Hills for the first national championship since the U.S. Open. Ungodly amounts of rain peppered the property once again, but not all was the same around the course.
“It's a U.S. Open test. ... It's difficult. You have to have your sight lines right and you've got to putt it, and if you miss a green, you're in trouble.”
For starters, the par-5 first hole has been fundamentally altered. A new 63,000-square foot putting course called the Drumlin was put in just behind the rustic clubhouse three years ago – it is well lit so putting competitions can take place after hours – eliminating some of the tee space on that first hole. The opener is now a beefy par-4 with a decidedly awkward tee shot.
But an even bigger difference is the turf change. Erin Hills had long struggled with its fine fescue tees and fairways, which stood in stark contrast to its exceptionally smooth bentgrass greens. The fescue originally had been installed by the triumvirate of architects Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, but the Wisconsin climate never allowed the proper conditions for the grass to flourish. In the summer of 2020, a project started to convert those surfaces to bentgrass. It quickly made for more consistency, especially when it came to short-game shots that used the natural terrain, and it’s clear that the stellar playing conditions have pushed the course forward.
While it wasn’t overly punishing on the whole, Erin Hills received nearly unanimous praise from the playing field. The rough was thick and the native fescue, although much thinner than it can be earlier in the year, wreaked havoc on those who missed fairways and greens. If you did get the ball in the fairway, the receptive greens allowed for a lot of birdies to be made.
“It's a U.S. Open test,” Brad Nurski said. “Obviously you guys could move the tees back if you wanted, but I'm glad that you didn't. It's difficult. You have to have your sight lines right and you've got to putt it, and if you miss a green, you're in trouble.”
Since the U.S. Open was played, Erin Hills has been packed on a consistent basis. Scheduling a tee time requires a good deal of planning. Shortly after the U.S. Mid-Am ended on Saturday, public play resumed in full force. It helps that Sand Valley and Whistling Straits resorts, among others, are not too far away.
Walking around the land that was uniquely formed by a glacial lobe some 20,000 years ago, the venue certainly felt like the place where a USGA championship should take place. It’s not Winged Foot or Oakmont – the types of courses that get joy out of endless torture – but Erin Hills has its place. With blind tee shots, an interesting mix of holes in the closing stretch and dramatic slopes around the greens, the course is a different challenge.
Some believe the women’s game is a better fit on the layout than the men’s game. Thankfully, we will find out when the 2025 U.S. Women’s Open takes place. The course is ready. Cups, scorecards and napkins have the Women’s Open listed. In the clubhouse locker room, a plaque sits empty waiting for the event’s final leaderboard to be posted.
Superintendent crews at both U.S. Mid-Am venues – Erin Hills and Blue Mound Golf & Country Club – didn’t get much sleep during the early stages of the tournament last week.
In fact, the nasty weather necessitated rallying the troops from local courses wanting to help.
The struggles started during what was meant to be the second round of stroke play. Incessant rains and a dreadful forecast postponed play for the day early that morning. The poor conditions lingered for the following morning, too, as play would not resume until lunchtime on Monday.
Erin Hills received a stunning 4.2 inches of rain during that span, although the course is built on sandy soil and is known for excellent drainage. Zach Reineking, the director of course maintenance, had his staff of 18 pumping water off the course at 2 a.m. as the crew worked tirelessly to get the course playable.
However, their efforts were somewhat overshadowed by what took place 45 minutes away in the outskirts of Milwaukee. Blue Mound superintendent Alex Beson-Crone’s team of 19 needed to enlist the help of staffers from nine local courses as everyone involved moved at a furious pace to get standing water off the course. There had been a staggering 5.3 inches of rain at Blue Mound, which is a course that doesn’t tolerate heavy rains as well as Erin Hills. A symphony of 20 pumps were running just to get water out of bunkers and low-lying areas.
Beson-Crone sent out a text at 3:15 a.m. that day to state “there is zero chance we are playing golf today.” Lo and behold, the teamwork pulled off a near-miracle. Blue Mound did host golf that afternoon, finishing its hosting duties on Tuesday morning.
Ultimately there were 13 players who withdrew from the tournament, most of them citing the delays. The bulk of those players had recorded high scores on day one and needed to return to work.
It was something of Murphy’s Law that the Mid-Am had a 17-for-12 playoff on Tuesday afternoon to get into the match-play bracket after such a lengthy weather delay had pushed back the proceedings to a scheduled Saturday finish that would, thankfully, conclude on time. Tuesday is normally reserved for the round-of-32 match play, so officials were racing to get the playoff finished.
Some contestants finished up their rounds at Blue Mound and had to drive 45 minutes to Erin Hills for the 1:30 p.m. playoff. It ultimately took about 2½ hours and four holes to complete, but the 12 qualifiers finally were identified.
Starting on the par-4 10th, the convoy went off in four groups and got cut down to an 11. Then it was three groups going down the par-4 11th, which would reduce it to nine players. The par-4 12th produced three birdies and a pair of bogeys, so only four players remained vying for the last three spots.
It looked like that foursome could be going on longer, but former Notre Dame golfer Max Scodro missed a 4-foot par putt to excuse himself.
It’s almost a given that a few high seeds will do damage in the Mid-Am, but this year was a rare exception. Of the 12 players who made it through the playoff, somehow 11 of them lost in the first round. The lone survivor, Colorado resident Chris Thayer, bowed out in the round of 32.
For much of the proceedings, it seemed as if Hagestad was heading for a third U.S. Mid-Am championship. A victory would have tied him with Jay Sigel and put him one back of Nathan Smith in terms of all-time Mid-Am wins. He also would have received an exemption into next year’s U.S. Open, taking place in his native Southern California.
Hagestad raced out with an opening 64 to start stroke play and went on to win his first two matches. He wasn’t consistently sharp throughout the week, however, and it came back to bite him when he lost, 1 down, to Josh Persons of Fargo, North Dakota. Hagestad erased a late 2-down deficit to tie the match, but a bogey on the par-5 18th ended his tournament.
In reflection of his year – one that included a U.S. Open made cut, a Coleman Invitational win and a quarterfinal appearance in the U.S. Amateur – Hagestad took a decidedly disappointed tone. He outlined how his lofty expectations weren’t met.
“I totally understand how that's unrealistic and how a lot of people may see that differently, and that's fine,” Hagestad said. “That's just the standard I have for myself. It stings, and I'm bummed.
“I'm going to go have a handful of Spotted Cows,” he said jokingly, referring to the popular beer available only in Wisconsin.
Hagestad has been transparent in saying that he is trying to make the 2023 Walker Cup team, and it’s reasonable to think this could be his last opportunity as a player. He is still 53 World Amateur Golf Ranking spots ahead of the next closest American mid-am.
“If you told me right now that, hey, that stinks you lost, but you only helped your candidacy, that would make it sting a little less,” Hagestad said. “But I didn't make the World Am team; I came up one short. Obviously you want to win every USGA event you play in. (Making the Walker Cup) is really kind of my only goal left.”
No, world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler wasn’t on property last week at Erin Hills. He did have a close connection in the field, however.
Andrew Paysse of Temple, Texas, is married to Scheffler’s older sister, Callie, making him a brother-in-law of the Masters champion. The 27-year-old Paysse played golf at Texas A&M (as did Callie Scheffler) and is now an account executive for his family’s insurance company. Callie was on the bag for Scottie when he made his PGA Tour debut at the 2014 AT&T Byron Nelson.
“She doesn't have near the player now that she used to,” Paysse said jokingly. “I’ll admit to that.”
Paysse had reached the round of 32 in last year’s U.S. Mid-Am, and he went on a magical run in Wisconsin this time around. In his first three matches, Paysse won by 1-up scores to reach the quarterfinals. He then had a 1-up lead with two holes to play against Bryce Hanstad of Edina, Minnesota, but Paysse lost the 17th hole with a bogey, tied the 18th hole with a bogey and then lost the first extra hole with a double bogey for a heartbreaking loss.
How did he prepare for the championship? Work, mowing grass, going to football games and raising a 3-month-old child were involved – not in that order, of course.
“I’ve been busy at work in the office, and we've just been having so much fun with our little 3-month-old,” Paysse said. “My priorities have kind of been the baby and being in the office.
“I like to cut my yard. I've got a greens mower that I like to cut my yard with, and sometimes I'd rather be cutting my yard than playing golf, but I find a way to get practice here and there. I also enjoy playing with my two brothers and my dad and Callie on the weekends. We'll go to College Station for the (Texas A&M) football games and play The Traditions Club and just have fun with it. That's my preparation, I guess, to answer your question.”