General Sports Columnist Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Author: “Erin Hills”
Gary D’Amato, 61, covered golf and the Olympic Games for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 25 years before being promoted to general sports columnist in 2015. He has covered more than 70 major championships and is a multiple-time winner in the Golf Writers Association of America annual writing contest. He is a three-time Wisconsin sportswriter of the year and in May was elected to the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame. He has written two books about golf, “The Proof is in the Putting” and “Erin Hills,” a coffee table book published by Classics of Golf and released in April.
THE D’AMATO STORY —
I grew up playing golf on municipal courses in Milwaukee and dreaming of becoming a good player. That never happened but I managed to win a pretty good consolation prize, covering golf for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 25 years.
My first assignment was the 1992 U.S. Open won by Tom Kite at Pebble Beach, and I have since covered more than 70 major championships, including 25 consecutive Masters Tournaments. I’ve been fortunate that my career has overlapped with those of Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly, J.P. Hayes, Skip Kendall and Mark Wilson — all of whom are from Wisconsin and all of whom had considerable success on the PGA Tour (23 combined victories).
MATT WARD: This year’s U.S. Open marks the first time the event is being played in the Badger State. What does that mean to golfers in Wisconsin?
GARY D’AMATO: Until the 2004 PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin hadn’t played host to a men’s major championship in 71 years. There was a huge pent-up demand. Three PGAs later — all at Whistling Straits, Wisconsinites have seen plenty of big-time golf. But this is the first U.S. Open in our state and there’s been a big buzz about it for weeks. I think golf fans understand this is the Super Bowl of golf.
MW: You authored a book on Erin Hills which outlines how the course came into being. What was the genesis for that?
GD: I thought that although the course was only a few years old, it had a fascinating history. Erin Hills really was built by glaciers during the Ice Age some 20,000 years ago and everyone who sees the natural site marvels at it. It lends itself perfectly to a coffee table book, filled with beautiful photographs taken by Paul Hundley. Plus, there was quite a bit of human dynamic with three architects and a hands-on owner in Bob Lang, who eventually ran out of money and had to sell the course.
MW: When was the first time you were on site for this year’s U.S. Open?
GD: Bob Lang, the original owner, invited me out to tour the land before the first shovel of dirt was turned. This was the summer of 2004, I believe. I remember standing on what would become the 12th hole and calling in to a radio show for a weekly spot I did. I told the guys in the studio that I was standing on the next great American golf course and they laughed at me.
MW: Did you ever think a U.S. Open would come to the state and that Erin Hills could be a worthy host?
GD: If you had asked me that question in the mid 1990s I would have said absolutely no chance. But after the PGA Championships were successful, I think the golf world saw that Wisconsin embraced major championship golf. Still, a U.S. Open was such a long shot because the Kohler Co. courses were aligned with the PGA of America. Once I heard that the U.S. Golf Association was interested in Erin Hills and was making site visits in 2004 and ’05, I started thinking it was at least a possibility.
MW: A number of younger tour players experienced the course during the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship. What do you think the feelings will be of the other players who see the course for the first time?
GD: Like virtually every course, there will be a minority of players who don’t like it for whatever reason — usually, after they’ve played poorly. But, I think the overall reaction will be positive because it is such a straightforward course with no gimmickry. There are a couple of blind or semi-blind shots but the pros should have them figured out after one or two practice rounds. Other than that, everything is right in front of you. The fairways will be wider than normal for the U.S. Open and the greens have subtle breaks but they’re not goofy. I think most players will find it to be a tough but fair test.
MW: Amazingly, Wisconsin has been making a strong case in hosting key events. Several PGA Championships have been played at Whistling Straits — the most recent coming in 2015. The Ryder Cup is planned for that venue in 2020 and there is much anticipation for the newest golf addition with the layouts coming to Sand Valley. The first course is there is already open. Why do you think Wisconsin has made such big-time strides in recent years?
GD: I truly believe Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the former president and CEO of Kohler Co., should get a lion’s share of the credit. When he opened Blackwolf Run in 1988, it instantly was the best public-access course in the state. He added three more courses over the next 10 years, including the acclaimed Whistling Straits. Then he got the U.S. Women’s Open (1998) and the first of three PGAs (2004) — both of which set attendance records — and I think people saw the possibilities. Other good courses suddenly sprouted in the state, including Erin Hills and Sand Valley. In 20 years we’ve gone from a flyover state to one of the hottest summer golf destinations in the United States.”
MW: What’s your biggest concern with this year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills?
GD: The weather. We could get anything in mid-June — temperatures in the low 60s, scorching heat in the 90s, rain every day, wind, no wind. Erin Hills’ biggest defense is the wind, so I hope it blows some every day and I hope the wind changes direction and intensity. The course drains extremely well but a lot of rain would soften it and then if there’s no wind, I think scoring will be low.
MW: What specific holes should merit special attention by those attending or viewing?
GD: My favorite holes are Nos. 2, 9 and 18. The second hole is a short par-4 — it will be set up to be drivable at least one day — with a blind tee shot to a green set atop a perfectly formed glacial mound. No. 9 is the shortest hole on the course at 150 yards but the tee boxes are exposed to the wind on a ridge and the shot is straight downhill to a green surround by irregularly shaped bunkers. If a golfer misses the green, I’ve heard the hole described as a great little par-5. The 18th is a long par-5 that plays toward the twin spires of Holy Hill in the distance. This will be the most photographed hole during the U.S. Open.
MW: Who do you see as being the clear favorites to win at Erin Hills?
GD: It’s a long course at nearly 7,700 yards, with fairways that are wider than normal for a U.S. Open. So I think Erin Hills favors the bomber as long as he’s able to keep most of his drives in the fairway. Therefore, I’d look at the usual suspects: Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and anybody else who bombs it.
MW: Curious to know — are you planning a post-event book chronicling what happens during this year’s U.S. Open?
GD: I think Classics of Golf, the publisher of the book I did with photographer Paul Hundley (“Erin Hills”) is considering either a second edition with a chapter devoted to the U.S. Open or possibly a stand-alone book that would be a companion to our first book. I’m prepared to do one or the other, so I hope it happens!