Erin Hills’ Par-3 Switcheroo

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This year’s U.S. Open course has a short but fascinating history that is coming to life. Included in that story is the death of its most unique par-3 among the rise of another.

The bell is more symbolic now than anything. It really serves no function yet the powers that be left it there because, well, it has a story to tell.

Supported by ironwork that inspired a logo and wooden posts about 10 feet high, it hangs just before the start of the seventh fairway. Golfers will walk by it after hitting their tee shots on the par-5 and might wonder about its meaning, not realizing the answer is just to their left.

In person, the depression is just a mix of long grasses, like many spots on the vast Kettle Moraine property. But through the wonders of Google Maps and satellite imagery, life appears in this graveyard of sorts.

Look closely enough from high above and the faint outline of an oblong putting surface comes into focus at the said location. What was once a central talking point on a golf course created by Mother Nature – for all intents and purposes – now exists only as a ghost

This is a short story of the death of the signature par-3 at Erin Hills and the rise of another with the thoughts of three central figures that created them.

Blind Ambition

Would a par-3 hole to blind green work at a U.S. Open?

That was the question posed to Erin Hills designers Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten at U.S. Open Preview Day on May 17. This year’s national championship will feature a course that offers blind shots in several spots but not the one specifically being asked about.

When Erin Hills opened in 2006 it was lauded for its natural design. Little dirt was moved and many of the putting surface grades were left alone. The holes were simply laid upon the wonderfully hilly terrain, and as a nod to the Dell Hole at famous Lahinch in Ireland, old No. 7 was a par-3 that played to a completely blind green.

The hole could play from 139 to 229 yards. A white rock at the top of a hill was moved each day to give golfers the line to the pin. On the other side of the hill the punchbowl-like green – much wider than it was deep (only about 18 yards) – sat at the base of a natural fold. That created suspense for golfers not knowing exactly where their ball ended up until reaching the top of the hill.

The design of the hole also created the possibility for a poorer shot to roll down the bank and onto or near the green. “As long as you got that ball over the white rock, you were on the green,” summed up Hurdzan.

Old No. 7 also set up a quirky concept that featured contrasting back-to-back par-3s on the front nine. Hole No. 6, which ran in the opposite direction, set up as an uphill one-shotter to seemingly infinite green (about 50 yards long in reality) set against the horizon.

Whitten recalls several different routings to the green site at old No. 7, some coming from different directions and not all par-3s. As a student and historian of golf course architecture stemming from his role at Golf Digest as its architectural editor, Whitten was fond of the blind par-3 and what it added to Erin Hills’ character. The idea stuck – at least initially with original owner Bob Lang and Whitten’s design colleagues.

The Dell Hole was probably the most-talked about at Erin Hills in the early years but reviews of it were mixed at best. Part of its drawback as the second of two intriguing par-3s was the concern that it would cause slow play with golfers having to wait to hit their tee shots (Note: Erin Hills is walking only and routinely takes five hours to play).

And remember that bell? Golfers were asked to give it a ring after departing old No. 7 to signal to the next group on the tee that the green was all clear.

With three designers and the passionate Lang there were debates and conflicting philosophies through construction and later changes at Erin Hills. But really, any charm associated with the “Dell Hole” never really grabbed a mass audience.

“Most North Americans are not fond of blind shots,” said Hurdzan.

Added Whitten: “Golfers simply like to watch the ball land. And while I’m the kind of guy that loves to hit something into a blind hole and then run over the hill to see where it went, most golfers, if they make a hole-in-one, they want to see it go in the hole. So, there were a lot of comments that it was the weakest hole on the course, that it was the least favorite.”

Concluded Fry: “Some of the blind shots I did like and there still are some blind shots on this golf course. But to me, we probably just had too many of them. I didn’t mind the Dell Hole but the problem I had with it was I think it was causing us to miss the greatest hole on the whole property that wasn’t going to count on the scorecard and that I did have a problem with.”

Saying Hello to the “Bye” and Goodbye to the Dell

By the end of this year’s U.S. Open, the golfing world, if not the U.S. Open participants, may come to love the short but perilous par-3 ninth hole (expected at 135-150 yards). It plays downhill to one of the course’s smallest greens, surrounded by seven amoebic bunkers, some truer hazards than others. No hole on the course may be more affected by the wind, making club selection a dicey proposition.

In the beginning, however, the ninth had no number associated with it. Part of Erin Hills early routing was that it played as a “bye” or betting hole in between nines, effectively creating a 19-hole course. Golfers had the option of playing it before heading to the tee at No. 10 and most did because it was so enchanting. Fry was and still is among its biggest supporters.

“I tell people it’s been my favorite hole even when it was a ‘bye’ hole and didn’t count on the scorecard,” he said. “I think it will become one of the iconic short holes in golf because with the wind blowing, it is one of the hardest shots you’ll ever see in your life. When you get a left-to-right wind, you almost have to hit a draw with a wedge to hold the green. If you have any left-to-right spin, the ball is off the green.”

The joke around Erin Hills is that No. 9 is “a great little par-5” because of all the double bogeys and worse the caddies witness from the daily golfers. Even so, it has the memorability factor, not only as a great hole but also because it sits in a great setting close the 18th green and the original clubhouse.

The positive feedback from golfers about the bye hole led to a “natural progression” according to Hurdzan of eliminating the blind par-3 seventh. There was also the factor that the United States Golf Association (USGA) had interest in Erin Hills as a possible site for a U.S. Open, which was Lang’s ultimate dream. When the USGA conducted the 2008 U.S. Amateur Women’s Public Links at Erin Hills they used the bye hole as the ninth and skipped the Dell Hole.

“Once that happened, it became very popular,” said Whitten. “Everyone fell in love with the ninth hole and when you stand on that tee, everybody loves a par three where you can knock it off the tee and watch it sail down to the green. That pretty much sealed (the Dell Hole’s) fate.”

Indeed, the 2008 golf season in Wisconsin would be the last for the Dell Hole. Erin Hills delayed the start of their 2009 season for more extensive renovation projects spearheaded by Lang. Included were new tee boxes on what was the old No. 8 (the current No. 7 without the Dell Hole), making it a par-5. Said Fry of the new starting spot, “(It’s) one of the best and most demanding tee shots on the golf course.”

Erin Hills therefore played as a Par 73 in 2009 with the change. The bye hole became the new ninth hole. Shortly after, the current Par 72 was established when No. 10 was shortened to a par-4 with the construction of a new green. The original green on No. 10 was maybe the most-talked about on the course. It was Biarritz style, nearly 80 yards long at the top of a hill. From the back tees, the hole played 672 yards.

Despite the changes – which also included tree removal and bunkers filled and added – Erin Hills remains largely true to its roots. The blind shot at the Dell Hole may only exist in stories, but there are blind shots or landing areas on several other holes.

So, back to the original question – Would a par-3 with a blind green work at a U.S. Open?

Whitten paused, and then answered with this:

“Well, we’re going to see if a blind hole will fit in a U.S. Open because our 16th hole, which is about a 200-yard shot, at (USGA executive director) Mike Davis’ suggestion a couple years ago, a new tee was built just off the 15th green well to the left of the other tees. And from that tee, you see the flag and nothing else,” he said, referring to a hillside which runs the left side of the hole to a long, narrow kettle hole.

“If Mike actually (uses that tee) at the U.S. Open during any round, we’re going to see how the best players in the world react to a blind shot to a par-3.”

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Matt Tevsh is a contributor to Midwest Golfing Magazine. He also is a contributor to The Packer Report.

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