The golf gods had not always been to kind to me during my Top 100 Golf Course Tour. They certainly during the past two days while I played at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. The weather gods on the other hand had been exceedingly kind. I had played every course under beautiful weather conditions. On the morning of July 12th, it looked like this was about to change. I awoke early for my 6:36 am tee time at the Erin Hills Golf Club. The rain was coming down very hard as I drove from Brown Deer to Erin. The closer I got to the course, the heavier the rain got. It looked like I would have my first rain out.
By the time I pulled up to the bag drop just outside the large natural colored barn at Erin Hills, the rain had subsided some, but the clouds were still thick and dark. I checked in at the pro shop. I asked the assistant what the weather looked like on the radar. He said, “we are still planning the send your group off at 6:36. The three guys that I had been paired with walked in just I was turned to walk away from the counter. Rob, Jerrod, and Steve introduced themselves to me asked, “are you the guy joining our threesome?” “Yes,” I responded. We looked at each other with some bewilderment as we were not sure whether any golf would be played. Neither of us seemed excited about the prospect of playing in the current conditions. We all purchased rain gloves. It was a good idea at the time given the conditions.
As our tee time approached, the rain not only intensified, but now we could hear the accompanying thunder. The radar showed that the weather had suddenly intensified. With lightening now in the picture, all preparations for a 6:36 tee time were halted. The starter announced that we were probably looking at a delay of at least two hours due to the intense storms that just seemed to continue to form to the northwest of the course. Rob, Jarrett, Steve and I walked out the Pro Shop and through the foyer to the restaurant in the same building. We spent the next three hours learning about each other’s families and lives as we sat around the table and ate breakfast.
Rob said, “I have a manufacturing company that makes parts for equipment used in mining, Jerrod is one of my suppliers. He makes parts for my customers.” Jarrod owned a small manufacturing company that designed the parts for customers and that were manufactured by Rob’s company. Steve worked with Jerrod. Jerrod said, “Steve and I worked together earlier in our careers for another company.” Jerrod left that company to start his company. He invited Steve to join him after he also later left the company. I told them about my career with ExxonMobil. As I listened to them, I thought - these are the types of people you hear about, that help make America, the strong country that it is. They were small business owners. These were people who took on the responsibility of providing the jobs and the paychecks that many families and communities depend upon. We each also talked about our families. It’s people like this that I meet along the way while playing America’s 100 Grestest Courses that give me the confidence that America is still linked. These types of interactions are an integral part of my journey.
I know that some wonder why I don’t always play with friends on my tour. I wanted to make my tour about more than just playing golf. I wanted to also spend time exploring our vast and beautiful country meeting the people that are woven into the fabric of what makes America such a great country. During my tour, I will play with old friends, new friends, and friends to be. There are 31 states with at least one course of the Golf Digest 2017-18 Americas Greatest 100 Courses. I will unite with existing friends in most and make a new friend in each while I also enjoy the beautiful scenery across this diverse country.
While Rob, Jerrod, Steve and I talked, the bad weather continued and the delay lengthened. We were however, given an outlook of a 10:00 tee time. I hadn’t been looking forward to that 6:36 am tee time. Now it looked like perfect planning since as the first group, we would still be the first to go off the tee once the weather cleared.
The outlook for play to begin at 10:00, was a good. As that hour approached, we headed to the driving range to warm up. Our caddies met us there. Mike, a seasoned caddie was on my bag. He had worked at several resorts across the country. As the day unfolded I was very happy to have such a seasoned looper on my bag.
We decided to play from the green tees. They measured almost 6800 yards, a little longer than my preferred length. At that length making par after a bad drive can be very difficult. Driving the ball is the weakest and most inconsistent part of my game. Bad drives are likely leave me with a long iron into the green at best, even on some third shots. In some cases, that third shot can require a hybrid or even a fairway wood. It is rare to find a weekend warrior who is accurate enough with those clubs to get within one putt range on a shots to the greens with those clubs. While I’m on that subject, one of the things that amuses me about my golf game, is that I can miss a 40 to 50 yard wide fairway on a drive, but still try to hit the next shot through that three foot gap in the trees that are 30 yards in front of me. More amusing is that about one out of 5 times, I make the shot. And what’s even more amusing is that the next time the situation comes up, it is the one time I made the shot that I remember; not the four times I hit the trees. That’s the mindset of a dreamer.
Erin Hills opens with a 536 yard par 5. I hit my drive on the first hole to the middle of the fairway, 270 yards from the middle of the green.
The hole doglegs to the left. I hit my lay up to first cut of rough on the right side of the fairway. This gave me a nice angle to a back middle pin. My approach shot landed to the left of the flag and rolled 20 feet to the back of the green. I two putted to open my round with a par.
I hit a pop up on my drive on the very short second hole. It was playing 315 yards. My ball traveled about 150 yards. I hit a very good 6 iron for my approach shot, but misunderstood the instructions from Mike, my caddie, and hit the ball on the wrong line. I ended up in the fescue to the right of the green. I then pitched into the bunker that was guarding the right side of the green. A sand shot and two putts later I was wrote a double bogey on my scorecard.
The third hole at slightly over 400 yards, plays almost 100 yards longer than the second hole. It is a straight forward hole with a generous fairway, except at about 230 to 250 from the tee box. In that area, the fairway narrows as there are bunkers on the left and the right. I hit my drive into one of the bunkers on the right. I tried to go for the green from the bunker. My first shot hit the lip of the bunker. I got out on my second shot, but landed short of the green. I pitched on and two putted for a second double bogey.
While the hole was a journey for me, it was even more interesting for Jerrod. The shaft on his driver broke in half just as the club face contacted his ball. I’d seen drivers break at the point where the shaft is connected to the head, but never had I seen a driver break in the shaft itself.
On the fourth hole, a 400 yard par 4, I hit my drive into fescue. I pitched out to 110 yards, then hit my third shot into the greenside bunker. Another bunker shot and two putts for a double bogey. The double bogeys were really starting to add up now, I’d made three in row. It was time for me to focus.
The fifth hole was another long 400 plus par 4 hole that required a tee shot over the fescue into a very narrow fairway. I hit a 3 hybrid on a straight line to the left side of the green on my approach shot. I chipped on to 8 feet and made the putt for a brief respite from the double bogey train.
Reaching the green on the 190 yard par 3 sixth hole requires a 170 carry over the fescue and rough. I hit a 5 hybrid to just short of the green, pitched on and two putted for a bogey to remained off the double bogey train.
The par 5 seventh hole is the most challenging hole on the course. It plays 550 yards. Has a very narrow fairway and very little rough between the fairway and the thick fescue. There are also several bunkers off both sides of the fairway. I hit my drive into the fescue on the left side of the fairway. I took a drop, then hit my third shot to 190 yards out. My fourth shot landed left of the green. I pitched on and two putted to get back on the double bogey train.
I also hit my drive into the left fescue on the eighth hole and followed my normal routine for another double bogey.
On the 9th hole, the sun literally and figuratively shined on me. The ninth hole is the shortest of the four par 3’s on the course. It is all carry from the tee box to the green with nothing but fescue in between. The green is very long and narrow, protected on each side by a series of oddly shaped bunkers. I hit my tee shot to 15 feet left of the flag and finally made a putt. The birdie helped clean up some of the many double bogeys that I had on the previous holes and got my score to a 45 for the front nine. It also gave me hope that I could find my golf swing and the fairways on the back nine to perhaps break 90 on the last of the courses that I was playing in Wisconsin on this trip.
I kept that hope alive after my drive on the 10th hole, landed in the fairway. Mind you, the 10th hole has one of the most generous fairways on the course, but nevertheless, I was very happy to be in the short grass rather than trampling though the fescue looking for a ball with "Jimmie 2017" on it. The 10th hole is also the longest par 4 on the course, playing 455 yards. This might be why Larry, Curly and Moe made the fairway so wide. The three designers of Erin Hills Golf Course, obviously weren’t really Larry, Curley and Moe. They were Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry, and Ron Whitten, but my round on beautifully designed course was a comedy of errors like the plot of the Three Stooges movies that I would watch on a Saturday afternoon after shining shoes on Texas Avenure in Texas City, Texas when I was ten years old.
After my drive I was still 210 yards from the middle of the green. I hit my approach shot fat. The ball landed 70 yards short of the flag. I hit my third shot to within 12 feet of the flag. After making the 15 foot putt on the ninth hole, I was certain that I could sink a mere 12 footer. Michael provided me with another excellent read. And I could have sunk the putt if the cup had been cut just 5 inches closer to where my ball was. It was not. My 11 feet – 7 inch putt remained above ground and I settled for a bogey.
After playing the longest par 4 on the course, we stood on the tee box over looking the shortest par 4 on the course, the 315 yard, eleventh hole. From the green tees, the hole was not only short, but relatively easy. While the fairway was narrow, the right side of the fairway had first cut rough that was equally as wide. That made for an overall wide area between the fescue on the left and the fescue on the right. Michael advised that I leave the driver in the bag and hit a 200 yard club. I did just that and landed in the middle of the fairway. Unfortunately, I left my approach shot short and had to pitch on to the green. I then two putted for a bogey. I had now missed two good opportunities for par on the back nine.
On the twelfth hole, we returned to reality. It’s a 390 yard par 4 with a narrow fairway and lots of thick fescue on both the left and right sides of the fairway. By now, I had also noticed a pattern in with my drives. On holes where the tee boxes are lined up with the middle of the fairway, I usually hit my drive into the fairway or just into the first cut of rough. On holes where the alignment of the tee box is more obelic, I struggle with my alignment missed the fairway by several yards. This was the case on the twelfth hole where I again hit my drive into the fescue and made the obligatory double bogey as punishment.
The thirteen hole is ranked as the easiest hole on the course, and rightly so. It’s a 170 yard, par 3 with a green that is surrounded by a significant amount of short grass. There is a tiny bunker on the left front of the green, but no other protection beyond that. There is a large bunker on the left side of the green, but it is about 15 yards away. I would have to really hook the ball for it to come into play. My tee shot landed just right of the green. I chipped on to five feet, but missed the par putt. I had now squandered three makeable pars.
The fourteenth hole is a relatively short par 5, measuring 507 yards. On this hole, the tee box is aligned with the middle of the fairway. As I had discovered on the 12th hole, I am more likely to hit the fairway with this type of alignment. I did, but unfortunately there is a bunker in the middle of the fourteenth fairway. My drive landed in the bunker. My ball was far enough from the lip of the bunker for me to hit almost any club. I hit a three hybrid to 190 yards out. I hit my approach shot onto the green for a rare GIR. My putting woes continued, as I squandered yet another perfect par opportunity with a three putt.
On the fifteen hole, I hit my tee shot way left into the fescue. By now, I was really feeling sorry for Mike. He spent the afternoon tramping with my bag over hill and dale after my wayward drives.. But he did it without one single complaint, nor snide remark about my poor play. While we searched for my ball I said, “Mike I bet you have been wondering what happened to that guy you saw hitting straight balls and fades and draws on command on the driving range.” He smiled. I then said, “that’s the second golfer in my line-up. He only shows up on the range.” That got a laugh out of him. That second golfer also will decide to show up sometimes on the shot right after a really bad shot. We couldn’t find my ball, so for speed of play, we took a drop. Itried to hit back toward the fairway and but got a lesson on USGA Amateur Tournament play instead.
I hit my ball into a bunker in the middle of the fairway. Michael said, “you’ve hit into the famous Patrick Cantlay bunker.” During the 2011 US Amateur Championship Mr. Cantlay attempted to lay up with an iron on his drive and hit his ball into this bunker. He hit his next shot over the green and made bogey on the hole. He went on to make bogey on the next hole and lose the match 2 down. As a result, this bunker would forever be known as the Cantlay Bunker.
I attempted to help Mr. Cantlay out by taking two tries to get out of the bunker. But I was advised that it was unlikely that the bunker would be renamed, the Jimmie James Bunker. I went on to record my only triple bogey of the day. Maybe there is hope that they will name the entire hole after me.
As we walked toward the 16th tee box, Michael said, “we were about to enter “The Oven.” This was the only part of the course that was protected by trees. These trees apparently prevented this area from cooling. And yes, it was hot in the oven.
The 16th hole is a 165 yard par 3. Unlike the thirteenth hole, it is protected my several bunkers on the left and right sides of the green. The green is a narrow two tiered green. I hit my tee shot into the right greenside bunker, hit out and two putted for a bogey.
The seventeenth hole is a 435 yard par 4 with about 130 yards of carry to reach the start of another narrow fairway. If you hit the fairway with your drive, it becomes a very easy hole. There are no fairway bunkers and no bunkers protecting the green. It is one of the few holes on the course where you can run your ball upon the green from the fairway. My drive landed into the rough off the left side of the fairway, and then hopped into the fescue. I punched out to the middle of the fairway, put my third shot onto the green and two putted for a bogey.
The final hole at Erin hills is a long par 5. The eighteenth hole plays 675 yards from the tips. From the green tees, it plays 622 yards. Not only is it a long hole, the fairway is littered with bunkers. There is very little first cut rough. There are also bunkers that cut into the fescue on both sides of the fairway. All four of us hit the fairway with our drives. We also all drove the ball between 280 and 300 yards. It was easily my best drive of the round.
My second shot on the 18th hole wasn’t so great. Actually, it wasn’t a bad shot. I hit the ball about 200 yards on a straight line. I was just lined up to the left rather than toward the middle of the fairway. My ball landed in a bunker in the left fescue. I hit out of the bunker, back into the fairway. My fourth shot landed on the green, but rolled off the back of the green. I pitched on and one putted for a round ending bogey.
After adding up my score, I was surprised that it wasn’t worse. I recorded a 48 on the back nine. It seemed worse. I made two pars and a birdie on the front nine along with 5 double bogeys and 1 bogey. On the back nine I had a triple bogey and only one double bogey. The problem was that I didn’t make a single par on the back nine. I had several chances for a par, but squandered every one of them.
I’m not sure why Erin Hills looked so easy on television during the US Open. I think it is an easier course than BlackwoIf Run (River) and Whistling Straits, but it is not easy. The fairways are narrow and the fescue is brutal. Several of the holes are also quite long. The key is to hit the ball straight so that you can land in the narrow fairways. Should I play the course again, I would probably opt to use my 3 hybrid off the tee and play for bogeys. This would take double and triple bogeys off the table for most holes. I had eight holes with scores greater than a bogey and only three holes with par or better. I played the par 3’s at 2 over. That means that I played the remaining 14 holes at 19 over. I would only have had to eliminate half of the worse than bogey holes to break 90.
I’m not sure how well Rob, Jerrod, and Steve did on their rounds, but it had to be better than I did. I don’t recall their caddies tramping our hill and dale like Mike had to do. It was great meeting them and hearing about their lives. There are just three men who keep America being America.
Since we got a 3 ½ hour late start at Erin Hills, I had to take off immediately after the round to make the long drive Indianapolis, Indiana. I had a 10:00 am Tee Time at Crooked Stick with the Hicks brothers the next day.