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For Those Who Curse Their Play at U.S. Open, There’s Holy Hill

Every golfer who stands on the 18th tee at Erin Hills during this year’s United States Open will need faith and hope. Perhaps even spiritual inspiration and divine intervention.

All eyes will turn toward Holy Hill, a castle-like Catholic basilica and shrine looming on the horizon of the event’s final hole as if floating in the clouds. Built on the highest point in southeastern Wisconsin, the nearly century-old Holy Hill church in Hubertus has twin spires that are an aiming point for golfers, beckoning well-struck drives to safe passage on the home hole.

But then, this is golf, where broken commandments — cursing, lying on a scorecard, failing to honor the Sabbath — are as common as bogeys. Indeed, there is probably a deep connection between bogeys and broken commandments.

Still, the presence of Holy Hill, where nearly 250,000 visitors arrive annually from around the world, offers unusual possibilities for competitors at the United States Open, which begins Thursday in Erin. The shrine, three miles from the golf course, is visible from 13 holes.

The 15 priests of Holy Hill, who are called friars, have already invited every contestant to attend one of several extra Masses scheduled to take place in their Neo-Romanesque church during the event. The players can also roam the idyllic property, set on a 1,340-foot hill that was first considered a sacred site in the mid-1800s.

Asked in a recent phone interview if there was a particularly appropriate blessing for a player about to face golf’s greatest crucible, one of the friars, Father Don Brick, replied, “Probably the serenity prayer.”

Father Michael Berry, Holy Hill’s head friar, added that he would be happy to bless golf clubs for anyone in the field.

Which led Father Don, to suggest that Phil Mickelson, who has been runner-up in the event a record six times, “might want to lay his putter on the altar.” This was before Mickelson announced that he planned to put all his clubs aside during the Open, so he could attend his daughter’s high school graduation.

There is some precedent for turning to Holy Hill for help with championship golf, or at least a calming influence. By the end of the 2011 United States Men’s Amateur Championship on the daunting Erin Hills layout, the friars at Holy Hill were no longer surprised to look down from the pulpit and see several players sitting quietly in the pews.

“There are parallels between the experience on the golf course and what brings people to the shrine,” Father Michael said. “There is the whole struggle with pride and having to be humbled time and time again, and yet believing that you have the means to keep going.”

The friars noticed that the players at the 2011 Amateur tended to come to Mass before they played.

And they went to confession after their rounds.

What did they confess to?

It’s golf. You can imagine.

The friars said their confidentiality vows forbade them to disclose what they had heard. But Father Don, one of five Holy Hill friars who are golfers, said with a laugh, “We can speak to what we have to confess to after we play golf.”

The 435-acre Holy Hill site — which includes a grotto, a monastery, a cafe, a gift store and an observation tower with 30-mile views of the rolling countryside — was first graced with a log chapel in 1863.

The surrounding area, known as the Kettle Moraine, is a mass of rocks, sediment and debris deposited by glaciers, which is why Erin Hills, which opened in 2006, has such dramatic topography.

On weekends in the spring and summer, Holy Hill can be mobbed by thousands of visitors, including people who come regularly from as far as Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. For some, it is part of a yearly religious pilgrimage. Others see it as a tranquil spot for a picnic.

Beginning in the 19th century, some visitors believed the Holy Hill site had curative powers. It was declared a shrine by Pope Leo XIII in 1903, and elevated to the status of basilica in 2006.

As many of the world’s best golfers began playing practice rounds at Erin Hills this month, the friars were asked if a trip to Holy Hill could cure golf afflictions, like nasty slices or the dreaded yips. They snickered.

At best, they said, a visit to the peaceful grounds might inspire a golfer to find a good instructor. And the friars proposed that throughout the tournament, Holy Hill would benevolently watch over all the golfers. Especially on the 18th hole, a punishing par 5 that can play as long as 630 yards.

There, every participant will surely need all the help he can get.

The tournament’s general chairman, Jim Reinhart, called the 18th one of the most difficult finishing holes he had ever seen, an expanse “dotted with a lot of cruel, deep bunkers” and a tiny, crowned green surrounded by hazards.

“There is, however, a beautiful vista of Holy Hill,” Reinhart added, “which provides a kernel of hope for the faithful as they attempt to navigate the troubles waiting ahead.”