Editor's notebook: See you next July

Editor's notebook: See you next July

Imagine having eight distraction-free months to prepare your course for its biggest moment. The team at Erin Hills will experience the sensation beginning this week.

October 3, 2016
Guy Cipriano
The 10-day forecast for Erin, Wis., isn’t ideal. It’s not dour, either. A few partly cloudy days. Some sun. Perhaps a bit of rain. Highs ranging from 54 to 73 degrees.

A typical Wisconsin fall smorgasbord. Nothing suggests enthusiasts will suddenly stop dropping $260 to play a course Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth will roam next June.

Erin Hills, though, closes for the season Tuesday, Oct. 4. Dreamers and duffers won’t get their cracks at the soothing course until July 11, 2017.        

Owner Andy Ziegler decided to stop taking lucrative tee times in the spirit of agronomy. Erin Hills, the course Ziegler has owned since October 2009, hosts the U.S. Open next June. Stakes are high. The mega-event has never been staged in Wisconsin, and a successful week could send Erin Hills into bucket list stratosphere and convince USGA poohbahs to make a return visit.   

So Ziegler is giving superintendent Zach Reineking and his team eight distraction-free months to further perfect the course.

“Nobody that I know who owns a golf course can even fathom doing that,” says Dana Fry, who designed the course with Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Ron Whitten. “Andy isn’t doing this because he has a gigantic ego. He really has the commitment. He views it as it’s good for golf, it’s good for the state of Wisconsin and it’s the right thing to do. He wants this to be the best U.S. Open from a spectator standpoint ever, he wants this to be the best U.S. Open from the USGA’s perspective ever and he wants this to be the best the U.S. Open from the players’ perspective. Through his commitment and leadership, he’s driven that into Zach, and Zach has driven that into his team.”

Reineking, a calm and determined Wisconsin native who has guided Erin Hills’ through a decade in the agronomic spotlight, realizes he’s in a fortuitous spot. Closing in early October means his team can perform tasks such as aerification, executing spray applications and deflating 150 acres of native areas without worrying about ruining golfers’ experiences.

“All of those things we used to have to cram into a really tight period of time or decide, ‘We don’t have enough time to do this. Let’s postponed it until the spring,’” Reineking says. “Now all of these things we can do in the early part of October and give the golf course time to heal up from it.”

Besides seeing no golfers, the fall, winter and spring will be unusual because Erin Hills has completed all of its on-course modifications for the U.S. Open. A major renovation was conducted after Ziegler purchased the course, and projects and tweaking are reoccurring Erin Hills themes. When spring arrives, the only construction will include building infrastructure necessary to support a U.S. Open.

“It’s going to be pretty wild,” assistant superintendent Alex Beson-Crone says. “We are a big family here. We have done a lot, almost an absurd amount of in-house construction. That’s our favorite time of the year really to be able to crank out projects. It will be exciting just seeing the Open around the corner, with the tents and grandstands going up.”

Fine fescue fairways and steep, gnarly bunkers join the native areas as Erin Hills’ defining features. No play means Reineking can alter how the fairways and bunkers are maintained in the spring. Instead of mowing dew-covered fairways to stay ahead of play, Reineking says his team can perform “dry” mows in the spring. On a typical day, eight to 10 employees are needed to rake bunkers for customers. That labor will be allocated to other parts of the course.   

“It’s just so interesting that somebody would commit so much to not only not opening in May, but then closing early,” Reineking says. “I can’t tell how you great that is for us to set up the golf course a year in advance.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.