Monday Morning Golf Course Architect: Erin Hills No. 4

The most frequent complaint I hear from those who visit Erin Hills for the first time: “It’s long for the sake of being long.” The solution to this problem is fairly simple: Just play from shorter tees. Guys who play from the tips at Local Golf & Country Club shouldn’t be playing the tips at a 7,800 course, much less one designed with the U.S. Open in mind. Consider the length differences from the Black to the Green (6,750 yards) on No. 14, my favorite hole at Erin Hills…106 yards, down from 613 to 507. It’s intended to be a risk/reward hole. If you don’t think about going for it after a solid drive, you’re playing from the wrong tees. Guys who average 295, hitting downhill, can do that. You cannot.

That rant aside, we turn to a hole that actually gave the pros trouble, despite its relative lack of length: No. 4.

Playing at just 440 yards from the Black tees, the hole played as the second-most difficult during the 2017 U.S. Open. It trailed only No. 3 for score-above-par, adding a quarter to the average player’s scorecard.

I enjoyed playing it, even if the pros didn’t. But it could be better. And I aim to do so, as part of “Monday Morning Golf Course Architect.”

Centerline bunkers are frequent defenders at Erin Hills. (Photo Cred: BPBM)

First, let’s start with what I love about this hole.

Much of it ties to my shameless adoration of Lion’s Mouth bunkers, the MacRaynor concept featuring a bunker that juts into the front-center of the green, requiring the player to find the correct side of the fairway for the safest angle of entry.

My personal complaint, if any, against Erin Hills is its recycling of defense concepts upon approach, especially on the front nine. If you’re familiar with the notorious tale of Erin’s creation, you know developer Bob Lang was hellbent on a U.S. Open. The USGA’s take on run-up approaches is ambivalent at best, hence the abundance of centerline bunkers protecting greens (which are already uphill from the one approaching). Five of the holes on the front nine feature such a defense, but only one of those holes is a true “Lion’s Mouth” (clarification forthcoming). Traditionally, these bunkers take a circular shape (more information also forthcoming), but Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten take no such tack here.

The result is what I call the “Lion’s Tongue,” a bunker that begins conventionally, tucking into the green’s front, before slithering 30 yards down the fairway into a sinister “S.” The result is a green/hazard combo much more in line with that of “Hole O’Cross,” the St. Andrews rendition, than Raynor’s infamous Lion’s Mouth hole at the Country Club of Charleston for example.

The “Lion’s Mouth” is both a bunker and not a bunker at St. Andrews; there is in fact a “Lion’s Mouth” bunker, but it’s 40 yards out from the green, guarding a narrow strip of fairway running between large swathes of gorse. The idea behind such a feature is to prevent overly long run-ups. That’s hardly necessary at St. Andrews however because another patch of gorse sits in front of, and cuts into, the massive green. Although Macdonald took the bunker’s name (the gorse patch never received one, alas), this patch functions as the true “Lion’s Mouth” for our understanding…preventing running shots almost altogether. It also extends outward a touch, albeit not as far as Hurdzan et al’s rendition. What those greens truly share is an outcropping of green that extends a few yards out along the hazard on the left side. Flags here are a sucker-pin supreme.

Hole O’ Cross (Photo Cred: St. Andrews Links)
Bless Erin Hills’ heart for offering two yardage books…the pretty one and the caddie one. I bought the AWESOME one. (Photo Cred: Erin Hills)

Side note: I was fortunate to find this flag exactly where I hoped it would be when I visited Erin. We’ll come back to the Lion’s Mouth in a minute.

The closer the pin gets to the front at St. Andrews, the more dangerous an attack becomes. Better to take a long two-putt than risk the fronting hazards. Unlike St. Andrews, Erin’s green is rather thin, just 20 yards deep across the majority of the putting sirface. Going over the green rolls into a collection area, creating a tough up-and-down to a green tilting away.

The Lion’s Tongue laps at a touch putting position. (Photo Cred: BPBM)

Most flags here are not birdie opportunities for everyday players; between the penalty for coming up short when attacking the green, and the potentially worse penalty for flying the green, landing anywhere on the putting surface is a good result during this uphill approach. Coming out of the hole unscathed requires a solid tee shot down the middle, followed by an accurately-measured approach. Sounds like a solid hole, and it is, but there’s significant room to make the hole more about strategy than survival.

Let’s start from the tee, looking at current options, versus could-be options.

First, there are opportunities to score when the flag is at the right, or even right-center. The strategic risk-reward play is to challenge the bunker along the right side, creating an approach angle unobscured by the two centerline bunkers (you could also lay up short of it for a longer, equally-straight approach). The risk, of course, is ending up in that bunker. A more conservative tee shot will be dead center (and then take-what-you-can-get upon approach). You won’t hit the first, larger centerline bunker from the tee, I promise.

You may, however, hit that bunker if you miss the fairway from tee. You won’t be able to hit the green if you land in that right bunker. You can hack out along the right and look at a shorter third-shot approach, potentially saving for a par or scrambling for a bogey. But that’s assuming you’re in the bunker because you failed while making a strategic move. Many are not.

I don’t know the typical winds at Erin Hills, but a storm was approaching and wind speeds were in the mid-30s. What I’m getting at is the billion-yard-wide fairways didn’t play quite as open as I would have hoped. Average players, such as myself and Kevin Na, will manage to find ourselves off-target, either in that bunker or in the legendary fescue (see Na’s case). In the matchplay world (often the same as the solid-strategy world), you’ve lost a stroke by ending up in that mess. You now hack out, unable to reach the green, but at least positioning yourself to get up-and-down and save some face. That’s not really possible here, because of this massive bunker. The best approach distance you can get after playing out to the center of the fairway is realistically 110 yards. And, again, that’s across two huge bunkers. Even if you blast out of the fairway bunker/fescue to the right of the first centerline bunker, you’ll still need to cross both centerlines on your way to the green.

In short, that first centerline exists only to create additional punishment for those who missed the fairway in the first place (and those people are usually not scratch players). If the bunker was reachable from the tee, it would merit its placement. But it’s not, save some Bryson bruisers who can hit to 340. Scoring off a pipeline drive is still a challenge…but that’s thanks to the Lion’s Tongue. Those who want to attack the right side of the green are challenged appropriately by the fairway bunker. The foremost centerline bunker doesn’t decrease birdies…it only amplifies the number of shots lost during a bogey-plus campaign.

So let’s get back to my favorite pin position. The flag on this tongue of green should not be an easy score, but there could (and should) be a strategic method where a player can consider risks and execute. The leftward path around the centerline bunkers is skinnier than the right, and the final approach stretch is sandwiched between the Lion’s Tongue and a bunker of similar length along the left side. The way to score, as with the right side of the green, is to find the clearest angle of approach.

Good luck with that.

The left side of the hole’s front half is one of the property’s famous glacially-created, fescue-covered slopes. To carry the far end of the hill and get the ideal approach requires 314 yards from the green tees (and 340 from the pro tees)…through the air. At least low handicappers playing from the Black or Blue tees have a relatively straight line to that ideal landing spot. Green and White players would need to hit a hell of a tight draw, because of their teebox’s more leftward positioning.

We’re absolutely not about bulldozing down glacial moraines, but we’re willing to trim some fescue. If some fescue at the end were to be converted to fairway, a great opportunity for risk/reward opens up (see wonderful illustration below). Those who come up overly short or left still end up in the fescue because we’re not against punishing poor execution. Those who hit straight but not far enough will be bounced rightward by the slope toward the center of the fairway, essentially giving them the same approach, but longer, than those who aim down the pipe from the get-go. Hit straight and far enough, and get kicked in the correct direction, somewhat akin to Bryson’s Memorial Weekend hammer at No. 1.

Our humble suggestion (and apologies for not including the first half of the hole…binding in the way and all). (Photo Cred: Erin Hills)
A rough sketch of what the original No. 4 hole looked like. The current version: Much improved. (Photo cred: Erin Hills).

Now, we should take the time to note the centerline bunker that just took so much abuse is not a logical flaw on Hurdzan et al’s part. Our initial hunch was that Bob Lang added it when he feverishly began breeding bunkers,  but we contacted Erin Hills and got the real scoop.

John Morrisett, the director of competition at the resort, revealed the bunker had always existed…but the green had not. The initial rendition of the hole was an even shorter Par 4, doglegging slightly right to a green set into what is now the right fairway split (see our map below). Neither of the now centerline bunkers were centerline at all. The bigger of the two guarded the left side against those who teed off too conservatively, away from the right fairway bunker (which guarded the dogleg). This also explains the current positioning of the respective tee boxes: Middle-skill players had a straighter line at the green, while bigger hitters needed to negotiate a more skillful fade. The irony? The now-Lion’s Tongue was a long way out of play to the left of the green.

Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten made a great choice when the green moved back, incorporating the bunker as part of a Lion’s Mouth scheme and making it the hole’s focal point.

Erin Hills is young enough to still be a work in progress. Maybe the gang will be back for further tweaks. They can call me if they want any input…I’ll just be here in my armchair.

One thought on “Monday Morning Golf Course Architect: Erin Hills No. 4

  1. You have my vote to trim the fescue short and left. Because of the apparent width of the fairway over the top of that corner, from the tee box it appears there is a lot more room to the left than there is in reality. Hitting what appeared to be a good shot into the left side of the fairway and finding one’s ball in the particularly nasty fescue on the downslope of the moraine you cite is certainly a disappointment.

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