Looking for insights on the first Wisconsin golf course to host a U.S. Open? Look no farther than Gary D’Amato, who wrote the book on Erin Hills – literally.
D’Amato, a 30-year golf writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal who has attended 75 golf majors (men’s and women’s), will cover the 117th Open this week and, in his spare time, autograph copies of his new book “Erin Hills: Host of the 2017 U.S. Open Championship” at the merchandise tent. D’Amato also wrote a seven-part series for his newspaper on the golf course, built in 2006 by original owner Bob Lang for the express purpose of hosting the Open.
“The book doesn’t have all the early history of the course; it’s mostly a coffee-table book with lots of pictures,” D’Amato said in full-disclosure mode. “It doesn’t have the gritty back story; the (current) owners didn’t want that, and they were my employers on that.”
Still, if anyone knows that “gritty back story,” it’s D’Amato. For his series, the Wisconsin native interviewed Lang, current owner Andy Ziegler and architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, who’s also Golf Digest’s architecture writer.
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Lang made his fortune in the calendar business before being approached in 1999 by computer programmer Steve Trattner, a former caddie with a dream of building a world-class course in Wisconsin (the state’s other standout course, Whistling Straits, has hosted three PGA Championships). Trattner, serving a prison term for murdering his wife in 2006, showed Lang the 650-acre property that became Erin Hills and infected him with the dream.
“Bob went to the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach and said, ‘It’s beautiful, but my land is better. Why can’t we get an Open?’ ” D’Amato said. “He had a mutual friend of (USGA executive director) Mike Davis, who saw pictures of the land and said, ‘Boy, Bob, that’s spectacular ground. Keep me apprised.’ ”
Davis later visited and called it “one of the best sites for a golf course I’ve ever seen” – perfect as a Midwest host for an Open. Erin Hills hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur, but by then, Lang had overspent on the course and had been forced to sell to Ziegler.
Unlike Whistling Straits, built along Lake Michigan by Pete Dye, Erin Hills is a links-style “heartland” course with rolling terrain, elevation changes, just five trees and no water, but more than 100 bunkers. At about 7,700 yards – Lang built it to extend to nearly 8,800 – the course will favor players who drive long and straight to avoid deep fescue rough.
Players such as defending champion Dustin Johnson, in other words. “I think (Johnson) gets a reward for driving it long, and he’s one of the straighter players,” D’Amato said. “(Wisconsin native and PGA Tour veteran) Steve Stricker says he sees Dustin as a factor there.
“(Johnson) is a really good player who became a great player when he dialed in his wedges. His putting is iffy at times, but Erin Hills’ greens are huge but not tricky like Augusta’s. If Dustin hits it close, I see lots of putts being made on those greens.”
D’Amato also likes long-hitting Rory McIlroy, the 2011 Open winner, “if his back is good. And Sergio (Garcia, the 2017 Masters’ champion), too; he’s a great irons player, plus he has confidence and is pressing less.
“I don’t think it’ll be a short-hitting surprise winner,” D’Amato said. And who would know better about that?
2017 U.S. Open
Where: Erin Hills, Wisconsin (Par 72, 7,741 yards)
Defending champ: Dustin Johnson
TV: Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (FS1), 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (FOX); Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (FOX); Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (FOX)