Erin Hills welcomes its third USGA championship since 2008, becomes second youngest course to host a U.S. Open
Lawrence, Kan. (June 13, 2017) -- Wisconsin has hosted six major championships since 1998, all at the Kohler properties of Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. The state will get its most notable addition this week when Erin Hills hosts the 2017 U.S. Open, an occasion that 35-year-old Zach Reineking readily admits he didn’t foresee.
“I’m passionate about our state. I was born here. I went to school here. I follow all of the sports teams here,” the 14-year member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) told Scott Hollister, editor-in-chief of Golf Course Management magazine, the association’s flagship publication. “But all of this is something that I couldn’t imagine.”
Erin Hills in Erin Hills, Wis., will be just 11 years old when the U.S. Open tees off, but the venue has been among America’s top courses since it opened. It hosted the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and the 2011 U.S. Amateur. And it’s undergone game-changing renovations intended to fortify the property for major championship golf while still maintaining the wild, natural flow envisioned by architects Michael Hurdzan, Ph.D., Dana Fry and Ron Whitten.
“I compare Erin Hills to some of the great U.S. Open sites, like Shinnecock, like Pebble Beach, like Oakmont,” says USGA executive director Mike Davis. “This stands up with all of them.”
That Reineking is the man leading preparations for this Open is a story unto itself. An Evans Scholar from his days caddying at Pine Hills in Gresham, Wis., Reineking originally went to the University of Wisconsin to pursue a career in landscape architecture.
But after two years of spending way more time at the drafting table than in the field, a frustrated Reineking was at a crossroads – enter Wayne Kussow, Ph.D., the longtime head of Wisconsin’s soil science and turfgrass management programs.
“We talked about what I was passionate about and what some of my frustrations were with what I was doing,” Reineking says. “And within 45 minutes, he had changed all my classes, got me on a path where I could still graduate in a reasonable amount of time, just set me in a new direction toward a career in golf.”
One of Reineking’s first steps on his new career route was finding an internship in golf course management. That opportunity came close to home, at the River Course at Blackwolf Run.
“Within the first two months, I just fell in love with the industry, fell in love with what I was doing,” Reineking says. “I said to myself, ‘This is what I’m going to do for my career. This is my passion, and I’m going to pursue this and stay on this track.’”
Two springs later, former Whistling Straits assistant Jeff Rottier was hired as the head superintendent at Erin Hills. Before Reineking knew it, Rottier extended him an offer to join the team at Erin Hills, and he leapt at the opportunity.
Following the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, the USGA suggested the course consider some changes to soften a few of the quirks in the original layout, such as blind tee shots and blind approach shots into holes. The ownership obliged, adding bunkers and new teeing grounds, as well as relocating some greens.
But those weren’t the only changes at Erin Hills. There was also a change at the top of the maintenance department, leaving Reineking in charge and suddenly thrust into his first head superintendent position.
Nearly a year later, a renewed and refreshed Erin Hills reopened for play. “It was really a second chance for us to make a first impression,” Reineking says.
But if golfers didn’t get to Erin Hills between the reopening in 2010 and October 2016, they missed their chance to play until after the U.S. Open. The course has been completely closed to play since last October.
Reineking says the strategy behind that decision was clear: “It gave us the chance to do aggressive cultural practices, and do them early,” he explains. “Instead of waiting until the end of the season to do aerification, we aerified greens in the first week of October. We aerified tees. We did all our usual fall practices, but we did them three weeks earlier, which allowed the turf to heal nicely before we put the course to bed for winter.”
Having a seasoned maintenance team handling those duties has been a boost to Erin Hills. In season, the club boasts a staff of nearly 50 employees, and during the week of the U.S. Open, Reineking expects to have another 120 volunteers at his disposal.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important our entire staff has been to everything we’ve done around here,” Reineking says. “I’m really fortunate the same handful of guys have been with us for the last five or six years. They’ve all made a huge commitment to Erin Hills and to preparing for this U.S. Open.”
And Reineking, a kid from Sheboygan Falls, plans to lead that group and bring home a winner for his native Wisconsin.
The full article by Scott Hollister is available in the June issue of GCM.