- Associated Press - Thursday, August 25, 2011

ERIN, WIS. (AP) - There wasn’t even a golf course on this rolling piece of land before 2006. Now Erin Hills is ticketed for stardom.

Set in the glacier-molded landscape of southeast Wisconsin, the 7,660-yard, par-72 course is hosting the U.S. Amateur this week and bigger things are coming down the road. In many respects, this week’s tournament is a dress rehearsal for the 2017 U.S. Open.

Earlier this week, USGA executive director Mike Davis mentioned Erin Hills’ potential to emulate elite venues such as Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Oakmont.

“We’ve known that for quite a while, but to hear it publicly is really good,” said Dana Fry, one of the course architects. “But then to hear some of the comments Mike Davis said about the potential this course has in the future to become one of the great championship courses ever _ his words, not mine _ he’s putting it up with the Pebble Beaches and the Shinnecock Hills, that’s real high praise.”

Although the course only opened in 2006, it already has been through an ownership change and extensive renovation.

“The common denominator is the piece of land,” Fry said. “And the land is that special.”

Although the course is located in Wisconsin’s scenic Kettle Moraine forest region, it’s largely treeless and looks every bit like a links-style course _ except for its lack of proximity to water.

Its defining characteristic is its length.

“I love this place,” said Cranston, R.I.-based amateur Bobby Leopold. “My caddie was like, ‘It’s 7,800 yards, it doesn’t really suit your game that much.’ I said I really like it. I love this style of golf. I mean, this golf course is, I think, one of the best I’ve played. It’s really, really good. Conditions are awesome. If you hit your driver well, you get rewarded. That’s how it should be.”

Leopold grew up in England, so he has some idea of what it’s like to play in windy conditions. Still, he was surprised at just how much the wind factored in at Erin Hills.

“It’s long,” Leopold said. “When the wind blew yesterday, some of those holes were just brutal. But at the same time, it’s like playing links golf. Once the winds turn around, once you get the holes downwind, you can take advantage. You’ve kind of just got to survive the ones going into the wind, and take advantage of the ones downwind.”

Michael Hurdzan, another architect who helped design the course, said he was happy to hear players, officials and fans back up what he has felt about Erin Hills all along.

“This golf course is a wonderful golf course, even if it didn’t have this kind of a tournament,” Hurdzan said. “This tournament validates the fact that it is a great (course). It can test the best _ and it can be a lot of fun for the average person to play as well.”

Hurdzan said he talked to players who were eliminated after stroke play earlier this week, and even they didn’t complain.

“Not one person had one bad thing to say about it,” Hurdzan said. “Of all the people that could have grumbled were the guys that didn’t make it. They didn’t. ‘It was a fair test, and I didn’t make it,’ that was their attitude. So I think that’s another validation.”

The course also is trying to win over area fans, and isn’t charging admission to this week’s tournament.

The free admission enticed Brad Ricker to make the hour-and-a-half drive from Madison with his son-in-law, Kyle Perry.

“I think this is a great course to watch golf,” Ricker said. “It’s a great venue for spectating because of the terrain. I was at Whistling Straits for the 2004 PGA Championship. This doesn’t have Lake Michigan by it but it’s gorgeous.”

The approximately hour-long drive from Milwaukee to the course winds past the majestic Holy Hill basilica, and the scenery doesn’t disappoint once fans are on the property.

“It’s outstanding,” said Dick Bird of Monches, Wis., a volunteer working a crosswalk below the first tee. “This is what’s left over after the glaciers rolled through here ten thousand years ago. So there’s a natural contour to the land. You can’t beat it.”

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