In early August 2018 I had the opportunity to play both Erin Hills and Whistling Straits. Before reading this analysis, understand that I am a 9 handicap that hits his driver about 230-240 yards. So, which one is better? Erin Hills or Whistling Straits?
Both courses have hosted major championships in the past and will likely host more in the future. Erin Hills was the home of the 2017 U.S. Open that was won by Brooks Koepka. Whistling Straits will forever be known as the “Dustin Johnson grounding the club in the bunker” PGA Championship. While Jason Day hit 350 yard drive after 350 yard driver in 2015 to beat Jordan Spieth in the PGA Championship, the 2010 DJ debacle will be remembered the most. Did you know that Martin Kaymer actually beat Bubba Watson in a playoff to win the 2015 PGA Championship? I digress.
Erin Hills is truly “farm golf”. You drive about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee on back roads and end up in a huge field that looks like nothing more than a wheat field. In fact, it is very easy to miss the entrance as there is not a lot of signage. Once you enter the grounds, you know you are in a special place. You will likely see the “cart barn” first, which is an actual barn. The clubhouse is set up in a hill and there are a few lodging opportunities. That’s it. Nothing else. There are no houses. No signs. Nothing. A huge field, a barn, a clubhouse and 18 holes of golf.
The driving range is behind the cart barn and is what you would expect of a farm driving range. It serves its purpose but is not the most beautiful driving range I’ve been to. The caddies find you on the driving range, you shoot the shit and you head off to the starter’s shack beside the practice putting and chipping green. The practice putting green is very nice and will allow you to get ready for your round. You can chip on it. In fact, you have the opportunity to hit some chips of 20 or 30 yards.
You walk with the starter to the first tee box and you are off. If you aren’t a stud golfer, I suggest playing the whites. It will make for a better day as it seems the entire front 9 is straight into the wind.
I won’t go into details about all the holes, but the front 9 is significantly harder than the back 9. It seemed to play super long and there were several uphill shots into greens. When you make the turn for the back 9 you get to stop at a small shack that sells bratwurst and other Wisconsin style food. You can grab a quick snack or a bottle water if you want to stay healthy.
The back 9 is the much easier 9. In fact, I had three or four very good birdie opportunities on the back and only one on the front. You will also be able to hit less than driver on a handful of the par 4s on the back. In fact, you may want to hit less than driver on the first par 5 on the back as well.
The highlight of the course is hole #18 which is where Justin Thomas hit a 305 yard 3 wood that carried all the way to the green. It took my seven shots to get to the green, so it is clear I have a lot of work to do.
Overall, Erin Hills is great for the common golfer that doesn’t like forced carries and enjoys seeing everything in front of them. There were no blind greens and all the fairways were easily accessible from the tee box. Even if you only hit a driver 200 yards, you will still be in the fairway and have an opportunity to advance the ball towards the green.
After the round, it is suggested you eat on the deck of the clubhouse. The food was fantastic. In fact, it was one of the best meals I had in Wisconsin the entire time I was there.
I would rate Erin Hills a 9/10 when it comes o the overall experience. The only reason it is not a 10/10 is my lack of course and green knowledge.
So, how does Whistling Straits stack up to Erin Hills? Understand that Whistling Straits is a very different type of experience. It is very clear that Herb Kohler knows how to make money on a golf vacation. You have to book a “Kohler experience” to get a tee time on Whistling Straits. This means you can’t call up and book a tee time like you can at Erin Hills.
The “Kohler experience” also forces you to play two other courses own by Mr. Kohler. We played The River Course at Blackwolf Run and The Irish at Whistling Straits. This comparison will only discuss the Straits Cours at Whistling Straits.
When you get to Whistling Straits, which is about 15 minutes North of Kohler on Lake Michigan, you notice that it is much more “corporate”. There are many more people at Whistling Straights than Erin Hills. There are carts and caddies everywhere. When you walk into the clubhouse you will likely see a line of five to 10 people. There are dozens of people on the back patio eating, drinking and watching people come down hole #18. It feels much busier than Erin Hills.
With the “Kohler experience” you also get a 30 minute free golf lesson at the driving range. This is nothing more than getting a second opinion on something that is bothering you about your swing. This is not a coach and they are not going to fix your banana slice or duck hooks. They will look at your setup and ask what you need assistance on. You get about 15-20 swings and then you are off to go play.
In my opinion, getting this “lesson” before your round on a championship golf course is a terrible idea. I can attest to that as I had swing thoughts in my mind the entire time and struggled to hit the ball the way I normally do.
The driving range at Whistling Straits is below average, at best. It is quite clear the range gets used by hundreds of golfers every single day. You might as well not even try to hit irons as there is very little grass. The practice putting greens are above average but nothing special. After hitting a few putts your caddies will get you ready and you are off.
It is very clear that Whistling Straits wants to get you on the course and off the course as quickly as possible. The caddies are given a GPS device to make certain you keep up with pace of play. No standing around and taking pictures of Lake Michigan out here boys!
From the first tee to the last green, Whistling Straits is a demanding course. There are several blind shots and greens that are almost impossible to hit. If you miss some greens, you shoot off the side of the green complex and down onto the beach or into a waste area. There is even a green that is basically split in half by a bunker. If you are too far on one side, you cannot putt at the hole.
For the common 9-10 handicap golfer, Whistling Straits is hard as hell. You are left trusting your caddie on where to hit it and even if you hit your spot, you may still not be in the fairway or near the green. There can be plenty of wind and there are a few forced carries that can get into your mind. Remember, if you miss the green, you could be 50 feet below the green.
I shot a million at Whistling Straits as I could not get my head straight. I had a fantastic time walking the course and appreciated the design.
After completing the round we ate upstairs at the bar and the food and service could not have been worse. It was honestly one of the worst post round meals I’ve had at a nice course. I would not suggest that anyone go up to the bar after a round at Whistling Straits. To make matters worse, it was the weekend of the PGA Championship and the TVs were 24 inch old flat panel TVs. It was a very poor experience to watch golf. This was at a course that has hosted major championships and will host the 2020 Ryder Cup.
Which is better Erin Hills or Whistling Straits?
In my opinion, Erin Hills is a much better experience for golfers that enjoy the private country club experience. If you like a course that has a lot of traffic and hundreds of golfers around, Whistling Straits is the better option.
I would say the greens are comparable. The demands off the tee box are higher at Whistling Straits meaning it is easier to hit drives at Erin Hills. Missed shots are much more penalized at Whistling Straits.
Go to both golf courses and enjoy 18 holes walking with a caddie. Let me know your experience and which course you like better.