August 9, 2007

Editor's Letter: Painted Rocks

Why blind holes show us the light

Chambers Bay (left) and Erin Hills are surprising new candidates to hold the U.S. Open.

Chambers Bay (left) and Erin Hills are surprising new candidates to hold the U.S. Open.

My favorite hole on the course I play at home is a blind par 4. After an uphill tee shot, I wheeze myself to the top of a plateau looking down on the flagstick--ahh, so there it is!--and then I walk back to play my second. Usually a 22-degree hybrid, which is the one club I hit with any predictability in flight. Aimed at a V in the distant tree line. Once it's airborne, I run up the hill to see where the ball finished.

That moment of hopeful anticipation is the epitome of golf. It transports you back in time to your youth, when scampering up a hill was something you did all the time, and golf was a wonder.

Who can forget playing those blind par 3s--like the Dell at Lahinch or the Himalayas at Prestwick? Or how about hitting a blind drive over the faux drying sheds at St. Andrews' Road Hole?

When Senior Editor of Architecture Ron Whitten helped build the course of his dreams, Erin Hills, in the linksy terrain northwest of Milwaukee, he stubbornly insisted on a blind par 3. His fellow designers, Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry, kept pooh-poohing the idea, but with every routing, Whitten held firm that his Dell hole stay. "There's now a white directional rock with my name painted on it to commemorate my stubbornness," says Whitten.

Erin Hills is featured in this issue along with Chambers Bay as two spectacular, new public courses that are being considered as U.S. Open venues (see "Erin Hills vs. Chambers Bay"). Says one highly placed USGA insider: "I'd be mightily disappointed if both were not Open sites by 2020 or 2021."

An Open might be the highest recognition Erin Hills is eligible for, because you won't see it as a contender in any of Golf Digest's rankings--not Best New Courses, 100 Greatest or even Best in State. Because of Whitten's involvement and the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, we've disqualified it.

The best thing you can say about a new golf course is that some day it might be considered great. Tom Fazio told me that once, but added most of his clients demand instant greatness. By many accounts, Erin Hills and Chambers Bay will some day be considered great.

Addendum: When the USGA's Mike Davis visited Erin Hills, he said he wasn't sure a blind par 3 would work in a U.S. Open, so an alternate, downhill bye hole to a nasty little, heavily bunkered green was built (pictured above). This new par 3 will be a substitute if Whitten's hole is deemed unfair for true professionals who must see everything and imagine nothing.

Not that I have a conflict of interest.