Erin Hills 101: Rookie caddies are learning the course on a video game (and it’s a hit)
HARTFORD, Wis. — Her AP Psychology exam was just hours away, but high school senior Chloe Gruszynski was worried about something other than the human brain. There she was last week, in Erin Hill’s deluxe caddie barn, being shamed for her 83-80 start to the Erin Hills Caddie Open.
Gruszynski is one of 42 newly hired caddies at EHGC, and she was making progress, no doubt. But her 163 two-round total placed her 27 strokes behind clubhouse leader and fellow caddie-in-training, Lukas Heckman, who was letting her know about it. This isn’t exactly the scene caddiemaster Justin Kordus dreamed up, but it can’t be far off. The Erin Hills Caddie Open, played exclusively on smartphones, was his idea, and one that has blossomed into an important piece of caddie training in the Covid-19 world. Erin Hills’ incoming class of caddies are learning their way around the course by tapping, swiping and flicking their fingertips — long before they even set foot on the property.
Erin Hills, in what can only be described as the weirdest year in its history, opened its doors on May 18, a full 24 days after Wisconsin’s state-imposed Opening Day. During March, when caddies might normally have preview loops or at least on-course training, the spread of the coronavirus rendered the course inaccessible. But thanks to the World Golf Tour video game (WGT), Erin Hills caddies have been looping the course for months. Heckman, who has become a solid virtual stick, had his freshman season cut short at the University of New Orleans. Weeks later he was back home in Wisconsin, pegging it online as @Lukas3272. “It’s kind of fun, honestly,” he says. He’s not wrong.
Kordus, who has worked at Erin Hills since its inception, sent the caddies drone footage of every hole, archival footage of Brooks Koepka’s 2017 U.S. Open victory, even 360-degree videos of most of the property. He then created the private “Erin Hills Caddie Country Club” within the game and WGT donated an endless stream of online credits. In a world where dozens of young caddies were already learning virtually in their respective schools, why not enroll them in Erin Hills 101?
“We felt it was so realistic,” Kordus says, “because we could put them in the positions that your average golfer is going to see.” Spots like the treacherous bunkers short of the 3rd green (pictured below), in the fescue that tormented Rory McIlroy, or up on the exposed 9th tee, which on a windy day makes even the best players in the world look like amateurs.
At the virtual country club, Kordus plays the role of Golf God, surveilling the caddies in the same way teachers and principals are across the country, monitoring their progress and scores. During the online tournaments, he decides which tees they play from, the firmness of the course and the weather conditions. During one virtual round Erin Hills is gettable on a mild, summer morning, and the next it’s the windy beast the USGA hoped for back in 2017. (The Sean Zak Invitational that Kordus set up was played on varying tees in high winds with easy pins. In five attempts, I broke par once.)
As with any virtual learning, it’s all good and fun as long as it leads to something positive. “[Normally] you’re spending five or six training sessions with them to try to get them up to a level that you are comfortable putting out with a guest,” Kordus says. “We saw that [level] on the first session out of our first eight guys. We were like, ‘Wow, why haven’t we been doing this all along?'”
Which brings us back to Gruszynski. Despite not necessarily pegging it well on WGT, she’s been memorizing hole descriptions, yardages to bunkers and preferred lines off the tee. Now, hours after that Psychology exam, her new boss puts her on the spot: How many yards to that fairway bunker on the first hole? “Two-ninety,” she said, confidently. “And the target line is the left edge of that bunker.” Suddenly, her 163 doesn’t look so bad.
As the caddies played the course later that day, their virtual learnings were a natural topic. “On WGT, that’s the hardest shot in the world,” Heckman said, describing the pitch shot from below the 14th green. “It’s impossible.” Naturally, multiple attempts ensued and only one held the green. “It is the toughest shot in the world,” Kordus said. (Feedback has been so positive a handful of veteran caddies have even joined in playing the game.)
Now that the real Erin Hills is open, Kordus expects WGT play to slow down, but he’s thrilled to have a blueprint for virtual learning in place. He plans to get the game in the hands of next year’s crop of caddies even earlier. Though he’s hesitant to admit it, Kordus will be looking for fresh competition by then. Over the course of six tournaments this spring, none of the 42 recruits have beaten him.
“We had to teach the kids, ‘You’re doing good, but keep trying.’ We sit there and wait to the last day of the tournament and let them post a 65,” he says. “Then you go play once or twice just to post a 63 and take their soul.”
He plays under the username @ErinHillsCaddie, if you’re looking for a match.