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Len Ziehm On Golf

It’s not too early to start planning for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills

The 117th playing of the U.S. Open is still eight months away, I realize that. Still, it’s not too early to so some planning around it. After all, U.S. Opens don’t come our way very often.

Next year’s will be June 15-18 at Erin Hills, a public-access venue located in a little town northwest of Milwaukee. I’m considering this a “Chicago’’ U.S. Open, though I admit that’s somewhat of a stretch. Erin Hills can be handled as a driving trip – without the need for overnight lodging – from most areas north and west of Chicago. For me it’s less than a two-hour drive from the northern suburbs.

This is a U.S. Open that should be embraced by Chicago golfers because – most unfortunately — there won’t be another one anywhere near our area for a long, long, long time. The next possibility is in 2027, and that’s remote one at best.

The last U.S. Open in the Chicago area was in 2003, when Jim Furyk emerged the champion at Olympia Fields. Prior to that the last Chicago U.S. Open was in 1990 at Medinah – one made historically special by Hale Irwin’s playoff victory over Mike Donald. That was the first U.S. Open title decided in sudden death. A U.S. Open playoff is traditionally over 18 holes on Monday, but the Irwin-Donald battle needed an extra hole before a champion could be crowned.

As for the future, no U.S. Opens are scheduled even remotely close to Chicago except for next year’s at Erin Hills – the first ever to be played in Wisconsin. The announced future sites after that are Shinnecock Hills in New York (2018), Pebble Beach in California (2019), Winged Foot in New York (2020), Torrey Pines in California (2021), The Country Club in Massachusetts (2022), Los Angeles Country Club (2023) and Pinehurst in North Carolina (2024).

The U.S. Golf Association hasn’t confirmed the next two years, but it’s a reasonably safe assumption that Oakmont, in Pennsylvania, will host in 2025 and the tourney will return to Shinnecock in 2026. Well-informed speculators have projected sites through 2030, and none of their possibilities are even remotely near the Midwest.

So, let’s savor what’s coming to Erin Hills. The course hasn’t hosted much in the way of big tournaments, only the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and the 2011 U.S. Amateur. The course hasn’t changed much since that last one, but the USGA still held a media preview last month to show off what the next U.S. Open will be like.

The first thing you notice is the scorecard. The official yardage for Erin Hills at the 2017 U.S. Open is a whopping 7,693 yards. That may make it the longest course in tournament history, though USGA staffers on site weren’t ready to confirm that.

“But don’t be alarmed by that,’’ said USGA managing director Jeff Hall. “This will be the first time we’ve played a par-72 course in the U.S. Open since 1992. Tour players aren’t accustomed to having four par-5s at a U.S. Open but they’ll get that opportunity at Erin Hills.’’

The par-5s are No. 1, which is listed at 560 yards but could play as long as 608; No.7, listed at 607 but could play as short as 576 or as long as 619; No. 14, listed at 594 but could play as long as 650; and No. 18, listed at 637 but could play as long as 675.

Both course superintendent Zach Reineking and the architectural team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten were on hand for the preview day. They joined Hall and the media contingent on the tour of the course, which opened in 2006.

Erin Hills was built by Bob Lang, the original owner from 1999 to 2009. Andy Ziegler has been the owner since then. Erin Hills is already a special place but it will be more special after becoming the 52nd course to host a U.S. Open and the sixth public access course to do it, following Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Torrey Pines, New York’s Bethpage Black and Oregon’s Chambers Bay.

A walking-only venue, Erin Hills will be open for public play through Oct. 6, then the public won’t be able to play until after next year’s big event.

Hall said the greens would be in the 13 to 13 ½ range for the Open, slower than the surfaces this year at Oakmont. Hall lauded the “wonderful bentgrass putting surfaces’’ and said they are “much more accustomed to what the players have seen.’’

Some other tidbits on the Erin Hills Open:

Few changes have been made since Erin Hills hosted the U.S. Amateur five years ago. The only notable one is at No. 3, and that wasn’t a major thing.

Reineking said 385 trees have been taken down in recent years and only six are left. None come into play except perhaps the only one at No. 15 – and the future of that tree is in doubt.

The USGA estimates the economic impact of the 2017 U.S. Open on the Milwaukee area at between $120 and $135 million.

Community support has been outstanding. The USGA needed about 5,000 volunteers and received applications from 7,956. More than half of the volunteers were from Wisconsin and 52 were from foreign countries.

Though the planning remains a work in progress, tentative plans call for two spectator parking lots, both free to those using them. Though Erin Hills was built on 652 acres, galleries will be limited to 35,000 each day to assure a more pleasant spectator experience.

The USGA opened its merchandise online shop on Sept. 8 and ticket sales were launched in June. They’re continuing on the USGA website (usga.org). Though tickets are still available for the seven days of tournament week (gates open for practice on Monday, June 12), tickets to the four tournament rounds figure to be gone soon. Those four rounds have been sellouts for the last 29 years.

Lodging, for those who need it, should also be addressed well in advance. Erin Hills has only 37 beds on its property and they’ll be taken by tournament staffers. Hotels in an around Milwaukee may be hard-pressed to fill the needs of U.S. Open visitors.