HARTFORD, Wis. -- Perhaps the passage of time will give Erin Hills its due as a U.S. Open venue.
True, the facts that fuel critics will never disappear: The pros lit up the Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry/Ron Whitten design in 2017. Champion Brooks Koepka shot 16-under-par, which tied for the lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history (his 272 total tied for third for the lowest 72-hole score in tournament history). The third-round 63 by Justin Thomas at Erin Hills was the lowest single round to par (9-under) in U.S. Open history.
Was Erin Hills too easy in benign conditions to host our nation's premier golf tournament? Hardly. Just ask any of the legion of golfers who have played it before or after. After all, Koepka, now with four majors, has proven to be a worthy champion. That validates Erin Hills. Plus, the parade of USGA events isn't done by any means with the 2022 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and the 2025 U.S. Women's Open on tap.
Erin Hills - one of six public courses to host a U.S. Open and one of 32 to host a major - is still basking in the spotlight of its crowning achievement, and at the same time, moving forward. Sandwiched between Sand Valley, Mike Keiser's heralded new 53-hole resort in Nekoosa, and Kohler's 72-hole American Club, host of the 2020 Ryder Cup, Erin Hills faces competition on all sides. With only one course, Erin Hills must be more creative to entice golfers to play and especially spend the night. There's enough new in these glacial hills northwest of Milwaukee since the U.S. Open to put Erin Hills squarely on your to-do list.
Abbreviated routing, half-par holes on the Kettle Loop
The Kettle Loop was introduced in 2018 for guests who arrive too late for nine or 18 holes. For $45, they can play a five-hole loop that introduces the characteristics of the course without revealing the actual holes. Several new tees have been built within the routing to create new looks and intriguing angles. For example, a new first tee turns the par-5 first into a par 4 1/2. Yes, there are two par 4 1/2s and two par 3 1/2s in this quick and enjoyable loop.
The caddie barn
The caddie barn, one of the property's original structures, might be the coolest resort hang in golf. It's been decked out with adult toys - a ping pong table, bar shuffleboard, a Golden Tee video game, a pool table, TVs, couches and most important, drink service after dinner. The Irish Pub serves great food and has a nice patio with fire pits, but when the mosquitoes invade or the evening chill sets in, the caddie barn is where the fun's at.
Drumlin putting course
The new Drumlin putting course, designed by Fry and his new partner, Jason Straka, should open by August, weather-permitting. When I visited in June, the 60,000-square-foot green was being watered and grown in from seed. It will be lit for nighttime play and free for everybody. How many holes it will have, or the format of play, is yet to be determined.
The rest of the resort
I first played Erin Hills in 2010 before its first big test for the men, the 2011 U.S. Amateur. The course was still in transition. Gone was the blind par 3 with the bell, a hole I wish I would have seen before passing judgment if it belonged.
The walk this time around wasn't as demanding as I remembered, although I wisely took a caddie instead of carrying my own bag. My fitbit counted more than 16,000 steps, roughly 7.5 miles.
The course is as gigantic and as intimidating as ever. I've never broken 90 here and probably never will. The wide fairways are forgiving, but I guarantee you'll find the fescue off the fairway at least once. I did twice unfortunately, and paid the price with bogeys or worse.
Every par 4 feels 420 yards long thanks to mostly elevated greens, even though the scorecard would often read 380 yards or less from the 6,462-yard combo tees I was playing. The scale of the place is disorienting. The front nine plays like a slugfest. You better come out swinging or the course will knock you out. The back nine requires a little more finesse and strategy. There's lots of memorable holes among the final 10 - starting with the downhill par-3 ninth. The 12th tends to be a fan favorite with a blind tee shot and great downhill approach to the green. The only real water in play guards the par-3 13th green. The short 15th - do you layup or go for it? - requires perhaps the toughest decision of the day off the tee. It had a hand in determining the champion for the both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open.
The other resort amenities are top class. Both times, I've stayed in the dormie rooms in the lodge above the Irish Pub. They're cozy and well-appointed. The five newer cottages set up on the ridge overlooking the property are ideal for groups, outfitted with antique furnishings, Egyptian linens and a fireplace.
You won't have a bad meal, either at the clubhouse on the hill or the pub. There's Wisconsin beef, cheese and dairy to fill you up. Don't worry how much you eat or drink, either. If you're playing any or all of Whistling Straits, Sand Valley and Erin Hills in a tour around Wisconsin, you'll walk it off.