He has spent more than five decades working in golf. He has designed courses on five continents.
He is one of just five men - joining Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and Robert Trent Jones, Sr. - to be awarded the highest honors bestowed by the American Society of Golf Course Architects (the Donald Ross award), the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (the Old Tom Morris Award) and the Golf Course Builder’s Association of America (the Don A. Rossi award).
His crowning achievement is still to come. Dr. Michael Hurdzan will finally bag his first major. Hurdzan, along with former partner Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, golf architect editor at Golf Digest, all get design credits for the Erin Hills Golf Course, the site of the 2017 U.S. Open just outside Milwaukee.
Hurdzan currently practices golf course architecture with his son and business partner, Dr. Chris Hurdzan, from their 5,000-square-foot office in Columbus, Ohio, which serves to display one the largest private collections of golf antiquities in the Americas. Golf Advisor caught up with him by phone in March to talk about the excitement leading up to Wisconsin's first U.S. Open.
Jason Scott Deegan: What does it mean to land a U.S. Open?
Michael Hurdzan: It is a validation of a 50-year career for me and all the people and past clients who trusted us. That's what gave us the opportunity. Bob Lang (the former owner of Erin Hills) selected us. Dana and I were lucky to have Ron Whitten come along. There are not many architects who have lived to see an Open on their course.
JD: Dana Fry told me, you’re a real kind of underdog or rags-to-riches story with how you started in the industry to where you are today. Tell me why he would say that.
MH: We started out doing very minimalistic work, doing sound courses for farmers. They weren’t making money farming. We have built our career on that. Dana was a big part of that. This is sort of the crowning glory. Everybody has to have a breakthrough project. Our was Devil's Pulpit and Devil's Paintbrush (in Canada). They were that breakthrough where people noticed who we were. We have continued to build on that. I’m not sure that Erin Hills is higher quality than anywhere else. It was the confluence of the right owner and the right philosophy (of architecture) and the USGA going to public courses that show sustainability. It is a validation of what we have been doing right all along.
JD: How has becoming an architect good enough to design a major course impacted your career?
MH: The reality? I wish it had more of an impact. It is more of a name recognition. It is a validation we can do quality work that can host an Open. It isn’t like a record that goes to the top (of the music charts) and we are a booking tours everywhere. At least for me, it is more subtle than that. People, they hold us in a little more regard or respect.
JD: At the last public course to host a U.S. Open, Chambers Bay in 2015, there was some conflict about who deserved credit for the course. Why will we not see that at Erin Hills between you three?
MH: You have hit on a key element. It was a true collaboration. Dana and Ron and I have mutual respect for each other. We each have strengths. We have the understanding of teamwork. There will not be any contentiousness in this. We are good friends.
JD: Why did the course get three designer credits? What did each man contribute?
MH: Starting with Ron, he has a remarkable memory of holes and features and the things he has seen that work. We relied on the things that struck him as outstanding of what he has seen in his travels. For Dana and I, I think of myself as a creative guy and Dana as artistic, but I’m more technical. If I had to break it down, I more contributed on the overall approach and Dana on the details and Ron brought a lot of ideas. What we try to do, you hear about the clichés 'god made it'. It's trite. At Erin Hills, that was true. Our goal was to put a course together with the least amount of earth moved. We didn’t move a grade more than a foot anywhere. We tried to find the most natural collection of holes, not just individual holes but a flowing and meaningful test. Once we got the routing, then it was into the details with Dana and the technical with me and Ron.
JD: Your thoughts on how it will play?
MH: We are looking at a U.S. Open with no water features, no out of bounds, no forced carries, no trees. What makes this course such a good test, the slope of the land and the wind and the bunkering. The bunkering is going to be a major separator. The reasons I say that is, in general, we wanted to have a naturalized course. We decided to have bunkers that were not white sand, but bunkers that look like nature put them there. We have three kinds, an erosion bunker that looks like water eroded the vegetation away. Some of them are a few inches wide to a few feet wide. The second is called a blowout bunker, like the wind blew the sand out of a dune. The third kind was a combination bunker. It was a blowout bunker at the top but erosion at the bottom. They will not be anything they (the players) have seen before. They will have to make adjustments.
Reading the land and trusting your eye are going to be important things. If it is dry, you saw John Rahm hit a 420-yard drive on Tour this year. They might hit one 450 yards. If it's wet, it will be a different game. If it is dry, the ball will go a long way, but it has to go in the right spot.
JD: Were you surprised the course closed last fall to make conditioning as perfect as possible?
MH: It was magnanimous to want to present the first U.S. Open in Wisconsin with a pristine course for the pros. The fact of not having to play out of somebody else's divots or worn out areas, to see it that fresh, it's almost like a hot apple pie right out of the oven.
JD: What are you most interested in seeing in terms of how the pros play the course?
MH: On each hole, there is a different kind of shot I'd like to see how each guy adapts. There are so many options. It will be fun to see how each guy plays to his strength. If you want to muscle it, you can hit it a long way, but that might be the wrong spot. It is about golf course management and how much risk to take.
JD: What is most important to you: Positive feedback from the players, a course defending par like the USGA wants or a tournament and course praised well enough that it lands a second major?
MH: Getting a second Open at Erin Hills, for sure. Let me put at the top of list is the spectator quality and the excitement on TV and for the gallery. That's paramount. It is such a wonderful test of golf. We hope that everybody wants to see the very last shot on the very last hole and see that the best golfer that week win.
JD: What will you be doing that week?
MH: I will doing a lot of walking and talking to a lot of people. I am going to go the Sunday before and leave the Monday after. I'll have 20 or more family members there. I'll be there watching with my 93-year-old mom. She plays three or four times a week. She's still fit. She wants to go to the course. We will find a spot and try to introduce her to as many friends and colleagues as possible.
JD: Dana Fry told me he can't wait to play the course from the tips the Monday after the final round. Does that sound fun?
MH: (Hurdzan laughs). Dana is a good player. He’s been working on his game for the last year and a half. That will be fun to see. I’m not going to play. I might walk with Dana. I’m not the player (anymore). That’s the thing. I can’t relate to how they (the pros) play. We had some friends up there (recently). My friend is 83 (years old). The guy played from the senior tees and really enjoyed himself. That is a testament of a fine golf course.
JD: What are you working on these days?
MH: We are fortunate to have a number of projects that are near and dear to us. We are doing work on the Westfield Group Country Club. There are 36 holes being (re)done in phases over a three-year period, plus a huge teaching area. That’s the primary one. We still work with the NCR Country Club. At Naples National Golf Club, we are putting together an improvement plan. We redid the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club (recently). They are hosting the LPGA Canadian Open. We have two Opens (on our courses) this year. That's exciting. I would like to see how the ladies play it.