Golf Course Review: Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys

As I wrote in my recent stream-of-consciousness entry “The State of the Game of Golf in Wisconsin,” destination golf in the Badger State began in earnest at Blackwolf Run.

Development of its Original Championship course marked the start of a long and successful partnership between Herb Kohler and Pete Dye, and proved to be the springboard that has since led to the Meadow Valleys and River courses, to Whistling Straits, The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, Erin Hills, Sand Valley, Geneva National, The Bog, Wild Rock, the significant renovation of The Club at Lac La Belle and many others.

To me, Blackwolf is the property among these top-rated giants that feels most like Wisconsin. While the front nine of the Meadow Valleys is played through an open prairie, the back [and companion River course] is a magnificent parkland adventure through the north woods, traversing over and alongside rivers, ponds and wild, natural terrain.

The Meadow Valleys features nine of the eighteen holes played for Blackwolf’s Original Championship layout – the course played during the late-nineties’ World Golf Championships at Blackwolf Run (won by Mark McCumber, Greg Norman, and Ernie Els), and then for the US Women’s Opens of 1998 (Se Ri Pak) and 2012 (Na Yeon Choi).

The Original Championship course plays slightly different from the River or Meadow Valleys courses, though, mainly on the first hole which tees off near the clubhouse (versus a 5-minute cart ride away), then plays uphill to the current tenth green from a different angle before continuing on to the eleventh.

The 1st hole on the Original Championship course plays uphill from the clubhouse to the 10th green (foreground)

.

While Dye’s River course is Golf Digest’s number 15 ranked public course in the country, and the undisputed king of the Blackwolf Run property, the Meadow Valleys (ranked 74 by Golf Digest) includes some of Kohler’s most scenic golf holes, especially the thirteenth through sixteenth, and is a stern test of the game.

.

Our day

Not many folks can say they’ve had the opportunity to take drone photography at Blackwolf Run, and I’m proud to be one of them.

My morning there last month started at 5:15 am, rolling in to Kohler early to get my gear situated and prepared to start shooting when the golden hour emerged at 5:30.

The clubhouse at Blackwolf Run at dusk, before the hustle and bustle of daily operations could begin

.

Gazing over the practice green in front of the clubhouse, I could tell we were in for a great sunrise.

Thankfully, the haze that had lingered over the Midwest as a result of forest fires out west and in Canada over the past month had finally gone away. Bright, vibrant colors enveloped the horizon early, and I couldn’t have been more excited to be exactly where I was at that time.

Just before sunrise, looking over the Blackwolf Run practice green, Swan Lake and the 4th and 14th holes on the River course

.

After meeting up with Kohler’s Director of Public Relations, who helped make the whole day happen, the two of us rode out on the course to begin capturing this spectacular late-Summer Kohler morning.

The sunrise illuminating the world’s largest American flag, flown above nearby Acuity Insurance

.

The area of the course I was most excited to take photos of was between the thirteenth and sixteenth holes, especially the fourteenth which is aptly nicknamed “Nature’s Course.”

I consider “Nature’s Course” to be the most beautiful golf hole I’ve ever seen, and while I’ve taken and seen plenty of photos of it from the tee box on fifteen, I’ve never seen any from the sky. I couldn’t wait to get there and check out some different angles.

We started the morning by the second, third and fourth holes, which looked primarily away from the sun’s rays, then looped our way back around The Baths, stopping to snap some photos from high above the newly developed and highly touted, Chris Lutzke-designed par three course.

Sunrise reflecting off The Baths
Chris Lutzke’s phenomenal punch bowl 4th green (top-middle) on The Baths, and 5th green complex (below)

.

I love when a property’s past life converges with its new destiny, and the Meadow Valleys has two beautiful, nostalgic barns still standing proudly as remnants of the land’s former dairy operations. This milking parlor, which the cart path travels through, still has its stalls in tact along with upgraded men’s and women’s restrooms for players needing a quick break between the fifteenth and sixteenth holes.

Restrooms on 16, located inside a former cow milking parlor
A rustic, wooden shed on 16

.

We doubled back towards twelve and took the corner from that green to the thirteenth where we were greeted by some of the morning’s best sunlight, framing the tee shot on thirteen in all its glory:

Is the Volcano on 14 the best green complex at Meadow Valleys?

.

After photographing the Volcano green on thirteen, we rounded the bend to the elevated tees on fourteen, one of the highest points on the Blackwolf Run property. I was admittedly a little jittery at the opportunity to shoot this hole, but when the drone was in the air realized it wouldn’t be the angles I was looking at that would show best.

I shot it from every angle imaginable, though, before moving on to the spot I was already sure would be its perfect and intended vantage point: Above the tee boxes of the challenging par three fifteenth.

“Nature’s Course” from above the fifteenth tees

.

Because of the sun’s arc in the sky, the fifteenth – which is my favorite par three on the Meadow Valleys course – was best pictured from behind in the morning (taken earlier near the outbuildings):

The green of the challenging par 3 15th (middle) on the Meadow Valleys course, with the tee boxes situated back-left

.

The biggest surprise for me that morning was how photogenic the par five sixteenth is. A blind shot off the tee, it features one of the largest greenside bunkers I’ve ever seen, and the way its fairway moved with the land was surprisingly beautiful on camera.

The sixteenth on the Meadow Valleys course, with its gigantic greenside bunker on the inside corner of the approach

.

My buddy Joe and I had a tee time at 7:10, and the hour and a half allotted for drone photography was quickly coming to an end (not to mention my drone batteries).

After spending some time trying to find the right angles on the picturesque 18th, crossing the Sheboygan River to its shared green with the final hole on the River course, we made our way back to the clubhouse.

The approaches on 18 from Meadow Valleys (lower) and the River course (middle) converge on one colossal shared green below the Blackwolf Run clubhouse

.

Every staff member at Blackwolf Run seems excited to be there. Whether at the bag drop, food shacks or in the pro shop, the people carrying out their operations love to interact with guests and do a great job of building a welcoming environment.

This pervades to the guests, too, who will all stop and start up a conversation with other guests. It’s always such a joy to be at a golf destination like Kohler where everyone is in their best possible mood – it’s hard not to be when you’re enjoying golf and views as good as this.

.

If there was a group who teed off before Joe and me, we’d’ve never known as we never saw them or anyone behind us all day. Playing as a twosome, we played at a comfortable four-hour pace and couldn’t have asked for better weather or conditions. The course was in spectacular condition, and it was admittedly a little sad to putt out on 18 – it was one of those days you wish the golf didn’t have to end.

Fortunately for us, golf wasn’t quite over as we still had ten holes left on the new Baths par three course.

I was floored by how good long-time Pete Dye protege Chris Lutzke’s design and green complexes are at The Baths. I also played well on the par three course, closing out my match with Joe in seven holes. I admittedly felt a little bad getting three strokes, but there was no money on the line and he beat me handily in our morning round on the championship course, so I’ll take it.

I’ll be publishing more about The Baths soon, including additional narrative and photos of its tremendous layout.

.

The course

The front nine of the Meadow Valleys course plays through a meadow (hence, the name), and actually includes some valleys, as well.

While the prairie terrain provides long views and wide fairways, its multitude of oversized sand traps, tall fescue and great length more than protect against par.

.

Play the right tees!

To me, I think it’s more important to plan your tees on a Pete Dye course than at any other architect’s. I made the mistake of playing the tips here one time back in 2014, for example (and have made the same mistake on the Irish and Straits courses), and boy did I regret it. On the Meadow Valleys, two of the par threes were over 240 yards (8 and 15) – all carry and straight in to the wind. I had to hit driver on both and lost a ton of balls that day.

Pete Dye designed the courses at Kohler for the pros, and for only the highest level of competition. Granted, I was the highest handicap in my groups each time, but I played those tipped-out rounds with buddies who are all low (0-4) single-digit ex-hockey players and hit the ball a mile, and everyone struggled.

Dye designed the courses at Kohler for a fabulous golf experience from 6,200-6,850 yards, then stretched them to 7,200-plus on the back of required heroic shots.

I get the whole “I want to play what the pros play” sentiment, but you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience if every tee shot you hit doesn’t require your very best result, and if all your approach shots aren’t low irons with a ton of wind. The greens are challenging enough!

As a 4- and 9-handicap, the blue tees were plenty of challenge for Joe and me, and in fact we moved to the greens following the front nine for some less stressful tee shots.

The course starts out adjacent to the new Baths development, with the opening hole playing around an inland pond to the right. Save for the water hazard, O/B left and an undulating green, the first is your welcoming handshake before some really challenging golf holes.

With the 2021 Wisconsin State Open two weeks away (won/defended by Vanderbilt’s Harrison Ott), these greens were fast. And slippery. We discovered that quickly on the first hole.

The opening tee shot on the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run

.

At 182 yards from the tips, the third is not overly long but is sneaky difficult with a narrow, heavily guarded green that’s flanked by sand traps and a back-to-front spine down its middle.

A look back at the third hole green complex

.

The first par five on the course, the central sand trap on four is situated exactly where players like Joe and me hit the ball. We both hit what we thought were bombs off the tee, and both landed toward the back of the trap. Neither of us could advance the ball more than a 9-iron distance on our second shots.

The approach on four is blind, built in to a glen beyond the rolling hills that inhabit much of the Meadow Valleys course. Drive ahead before swinging, and pick out a tree as your aiming point for a chance at hitting this putting surface.

Tee shot on the par five fourth hole

.

A tricky par four, the fifth is all about position off the tee. There’s enough room to hit driver, but anything long or left is likely gone. The entrance to the green area is tight, framed by tall trees and native grasses.

A somewhat intimidating tee shot on five

.

To me, the eighth is the hardest par three hole on the Meadow Valleys course. A long tee shot over 200 yards, the entire left side is bordered by water, and the right side and long by prairie grass. Short is hidden from view by mounding, making only a sliver of the green your only real target.

Joe and I both hit beautiful high iron shots on this hole, and both watched in dismay as each strayed left on the wind, deflecting off the rocks and in to the pond.

Nine is a great finishing hole for the front nine, with highly elevated tee boxes playing to a 430-plus yard par four with water on the right side and a nervy approach shot that’s most safely played to the left side of the green.

One of the biggest improvements Kohler has made to the Meadow Valleys course is in updating its tenth hole.

I have been critical of the tenth hole in the past. It was a terrible hole at best, though, with a forest that formed a literal canopy around and above the driving area, forcing players to hit low, perfectly straight irons to the bend in its left-to-right dogleg. I actually hit a hooded 8-iron off the tee one time, and still couldn’t get it out of that dungeon.

The former tee shot on 10 – anyone else feeling a little claustrophobic right now?

.

That’s changed now, thankfully, as the tree line has been moved back and the overhanging canopy has been removed entirely. It now plays as a much better golf hole and one that’s worthy of opening a 9-hole stretch at an important event like last month’s Wisconsin State Open.

Ahh, I can breathe again… The much improved teeing area for the 10th hole on the Meadow Valleys course

.

As I mentioned earlier, the tenth plays to the same green as the first hole on the Original Championship course. It’s a gorgeous, but tough green complex, and affords a view that begs players to snap a quick photo or two downhill toward the clubhouse.

The tenth green, as it would be played from the first hole on the Original Championship course

.

Where the Meadow Valleys course gets special – as special as any of the courses in the Kohler portfolio – is when players starting heading out south on the eleventh hole. A mid-length par five around 500 yards, the green surrounds are striking, with the fairway perched above a terraced right side covered in rough.

A fairly straight-away par four, the twelfth has a really tough green to hit.

The twelfth, including its back tee boxes, playing left to right over a ravine

.

A long iron or hybrid is the best play on thirteen to hit the elbow and set up a reasonable approach in to the Volcano green.

The 13th hole on the Meadow Valleys course, from the tee

.

The green complex is highly elevated – probably 15 to 20 feet above the fairway, and falls off on all sides. This is a really cool and memorable golf hole.

The approach shot from right of the fairway on 13 to the risen Volcano green complex

.

Speaking of memorable golf holes, we’ve again reached the fourteenth. Natures Course.

Breathe in. Let your eyes take it all in. Smile. Exhale. Repeat.

A morning aerial view of the 13th and 14th on the Meadow Valleys

.

Peer to the right for a beautiful view of the Sheboygan River. I’ve seen fly fishermen casting in their waders, the river flowing the length of the hole, jutting left to meander beneath a flatbed train car bridge and around this peninsular green complex.

This hole is perfect.

With a downhill fairway that bends left to right and runs out around 250 yards, driver is too long from the tee. Focus on golf long enough and hit something down the middle-to-left side, then be ready to work a big time drop in elevation in to the equation when pulling the next club.

Driver is too much off the tee, likely leading players in to this mess as the initial fairway runs out of space
The green on fourteen, well-protected within Nature’s Course
The stunning look back on “Nature’s Course” from above the 15th tee

.

The fifteenth is a great par three, all carry over a valley.

The 15th is one of the best par threes on the entire Blackwolf Run property

.

Sixteen is blind from the tee, but there’s plenty of space. Pick your target on this road-like hole and wail away. The second shot should be played short or left of the greenside sand trap, which literally engulfs the entire right side of the approach zone.

Psst! A look at the 16th from above the tees – remember your line, you won’t see any of this from the tee box

.

The green on seventeen is tiny, and can’t be missed left or short, and there’s a huge oak tree dead-splat center of the flight zone. Tee shots here need to come in high in order to avoid hitting the tree, which is doable only because it’s a short par three that typically plays between 145-160 yards.

A challenging tee shot on 17, left of the oak tree but right of the drop-off on that side

.

The eighteenth is a remarkable closing hole on the Meadow Valleys course, playing parallel to the Sheboygan River off the tee and then crossing it to the facility’s largest green complex, shared with the 18th hole on the River course and watched over by the spectacular Blackwolf Run clubhouse.

The 18th hole from just above the back tees, built in to the hillside
The fairway on 18 of the Meadow Valleys course, with its finishing green across the river

.

Because it can be a very lengthy carry over the river, there is an alternate green at the end of the 18th hole fairway. Make sure your group knows which green you’re playing to if money’s on the line 😉

The alternate 18th hole green, with the standard complex across the Sheboygan River

.

Conclusion

While it’s commonly referred to as Kohler’s least exciting track, the Meadow Valleys is a wonderful golf course that belongs comfortably with Wisconsin’s top public facilities.

It’s also one of the toughest, as was evidenced by the recent Suter Ward Group 101st Wisconsin State Open, where first round scores averaged 77.94 (+5.94 over par).

The Meadow Valleys fits perfectly in the Destination Kohler golf portfolio as a challenging, sporty golf experience that could not be blended any better in to a beautiful natural setting.

If you’re visiting Kohler, play them all, and keep in the back of your mind: “How would I rank the eight (nine, including The Baths) nines at Kohler?” If you have played them all, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

.

Wrap-Up:
Location: Kohler, WI
Yardage: Black-7165,Blue-6735, White-6236
Slope/Rating: Black-144/74.6, Blue-138/72.6, White-132/70.1
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $220 (including cart)

Blackwolf Run, Meadow/Valleys Website

Golf Course Review: Sand Valley

In 2013, President of Oliphant Golf Management Craig Haltom contacted Mike Keiser about a piece of land in remote Central Wisconsin that he just had to check out.

Keiser, the prolific developer behind Bandon Dunes, Cabot Cliffs and other ongoing international golf resort projects, has worked closely with the Wisconsin-based Haltom for years, and trusted his opinion enough to travel to Rome, Wisconsin to check out the can’t-miss property.

Keiser wanted to hate it. He wanted to give it a fair shake then dismiss it as a site incapable of housing one of America’s great golf destinations. He wanted a site on the water, and if in the Midwest then just outside Chicago.

Upon visiting he found densely forested sand barrens overrun by mature jack pines. Beyond its rolling topography and multitude of ATV trails, the land appeared useless. But it was what’s beneath that mattered, and under those millions of pines was sand that Haltom promised reached depths of 200-plus feet.

He wanted to walk away, but he couldn’t.

When Keiser and his team choose land for a golf destination, they traditionally look for three key elements:

  1. A significant sand foundation
  2. Great contours
  3. An ocean

“The last I remember, there is no ocean in Wisconsin,” golf course architect Bill Coore told him prior to seeing the land.

While Sand Valley does not have an ocean per se, it does have one of the deepest natural sand basins in the country – the result of the glacial Lake Wisconsin draining in a single catastrophic event many centuries ago. This land parcel has a sand foundation as substantial as any in the country.

An aerial view from above the Lido development, looking over Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes

.

Great contours? The jack pine oak savannah that Sand Valley inhabits rises and falls like tides. The land looks and feels like it belongs thousands of miles from the Midwest – maybe in the mountain ranges of Montana, the deserts of Nevada or in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, but certainly not in Wisconsin. Fabulous contours? Absolutely.

While there’s no ocean in Central Wisconsin, it was immediately evident that Haltom introduced a site that is perfectly suited for golf course development, and that has all the room in the world to sprawl.

When it was time to hire a design team to make the best of this epic piece of land, Keiser approached his old friends at Coore & Crenshaw, golf’s preeminent design team with whom he worked at both Bandon Dunes and Cabot Cliffs.

Coore & Crenshaw’s portfolio includes some of the very best courses in the world, like The Sandbox [par three course] at Sand Valley, Sand Hills Golf Club (NE), Friar’s Head (NY), Old Sandwich (MA), The Sheep Ranch and Bandon Trails (OR), Streamsong Red (FL), Colorado Golf Club (CO), Kapalua Plantation (HI), Hidden Creek (NJ), Cuscowilla (GA), Clear Creek (NV), Austin Golf Club (TX), The Dormie Club (NC), Chechessee Creek (SC), We-Ko-Pa Saguaro (AZ), Barton Creek (TX), Ozarks National (MO), Talking Stick (AZ), Trinity Forest (TX), Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes (Tasmania, Australia), Shanqin Bay (Japan), Cabot Cliffs (Nova Scotia, Canada – also a Keiser project) and others.

Overhead view of the 17-hole Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort

No architects in the golf industry today can stack up to their portfolio as Coore & Crenshaw have become the world’s finest design team at creating unique, memorable golf experiences that work with the land.

Keiser purchased 1,700 acres of land, Sand Valley was born and the entire golf world took notice.

.

Location, Environment and Economic Impact

The Wisconsin state and local governments, along with the Department of Natural Resources, have worked hand in hand with Keiser’s team throughout the property’s development, and environmental agencies jumped on board quickly even when many argued the removal of so many red pines could have adverse affects on the region’s ecology.

What the DNR, Chicago Field Museum and others became enamored with, though, was not tree removal but a high-scale sand dune habitat restoration project.

The Chicago Field Museum, led by Jens Jensen, identified the project quickly as an opportunity to undertake one of the most expansive sand barren ecosystem restorations in modern history. They even surmised that, if successful, Wisconsin and the Midwest could see the return of animals like elk and lizards, cacti and other desert life that barely exist in the environment currently.

Environmental groups hope the Sand Valley project will be the first of many natural restorations of this type, which to date have gone largely untried.

Not only has Sand Valley been terrific for the environment, but it’s also made a significant economic impact on the local economies of Adams and Wood counties. In fact, when they first set out to develop Sand Valley, Project Manager Michael Keiser, Jr was unequivocal that the team’s number one goal was to become Adams County’s top employer, and in five short years it has.

.

The impact of Sand Valley on the state and region

Sand Valley has quickly made a significant impact on the Wisconsin golf community.

SentryWorld, one of the state’s original golf destinations that opened in 1982 and will be hosting the 2023 US Senior Open, is just 45 minutes away, and Northern Bay is within 25. Lake Arrowhead’s Lakes and Pines courses are literally next door (their properties share a border), and the now semi-private Bullseye Golf Club is within a 20-minute drive in nearby Wisconsin Rapids.

When open for business (ahem, SentryWorld), these courses have all seen increased play, as have top-level golf destinations across the state.

Wisconsin’s proven to have plenty of capacity for the influx in out-of-state players, benefiting the entire golf community. In fact, spots like Sand Valley nearly sell out before the season even begins, making advanced planning essential for a successful visit.

.

Design strategy and theory

“More than anything, we want to do something different. We don’t want to design the same style of course over and over on the same type of terrain.”
– Bill Coore at a 2015 Sand Valley media day at Bullseye Golf Club

Coore & Crenshaw have designed all kinds of golf courses, from coastal (ie: Cabot Cliffs) to inland links (ie: Sand Hills Golf Club), to woodlands (ie: Bandon Trails), desert (ie: The Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa) and tropical (ie: Kapalua’s Plantation course).

Variety is the spice of life, and for Coore & Crenshaw it’s about taking an incredible location and doing the best, most creative work they can.

There was significant pressure at Sand Hills, for example, as well as at Streamsong and Friar’s Head. The pieces of land they were entrusted with at these locations were so stunning that anything but their best would inevitably be met with disappointment.

While Sand Valley offered land that good, it also provided the x-factor Coore & Crenshaw desired: Uniqueness.

Sand Valley was never meant to be Sand Hills, Pine Valley, Pinehurst or even an 18-hole version of The Dunes Club. It was meant to be fast, unprecedented and spectacular, and the land dictated the opportunity for Coore & Crenshaw to design a style of course that alluded America: Heathland.

Heathland courses, primarily in Great Britain, are maybe a 75/25 to 95/5 mix between links and parkland styles, are typically flush with gorse and heather (vegetation that grows in open soil), are heavily contoured, and while they do have some trees are primarily open land that encourages golf to be played on the ground.

While Wisconsin does not have heather (hence, “Heath”land) or gorse (the Bandon Dunes complex in Oregon is the only known location in the United States where gorse is considered to be native) like traditional heathland courses, Sand Valley’s ecosystem is rife with pines and a variety of “Wisconsin Desert” vegetation unique to its property. Take, for example, the batches of prickly pear cacti found growing on four and nine. Who knew cactus can grow naturally in Wisconsin? As far as I know, it only does there.

Heathland courses have some trees – more than Erin Hills, the Links at Lawsonia or the Straits course at Whistling Straits – but do not smother with them. Their key defenses against par tend to be sprawling wastelands, deep sand traps, undulating green complexes, run-offs and green-side collection areas.

.

Bill Coore values the partnership between Architect and Superintendent, and his relationship with Director of Agronomy Rob Duhm was at the heart of their design strategy at Sand Valley.

“How do you know when a green is right? Take, for example, the 18th on the Red course at Streamsong?” I asked Bill.

“When it feels right. The difference between a great green and a terrible green is very narrow. We (Coore and Ben Crenshaw) encourage our staff to be creative and ‘go with it.’ The result is a combination of artistry, strategy and of course drainage.”

Coore & Crenshaw’s role in course design is one of give and take. In the big picture, they provide conceptual vision and entrust the details to their team. Bill and Ben start by providing guidelines with a wide focus and broad concept, then let the land guide the process.

Continue reading “Golf Course Review: Sand Valley”

The State of the Game of Golf in Wisconsin

I’m playing golf again tomorrow morning with one of the country’s top golf course photographers and content creators, and “America’s #1 Golf Intern,” Patrick Koenig, with my friend, Gregg, at Kenosha Country Club. Patrick and I will be playing his last two rounds of golf while in Wisconsin together there and then at North Hills on Saturday morning, capping off what will be his 75th different course in Wisconsin since July 15.

75 different courses in 52 days. Let that soak in a moment.

Through unbearably hot weather and summer storms, rain and that horrible plague of mosquitoes we had the past few weeks, Patrick was somewhere new every day – usually twice, playing golf with new people, taking in local culture, staying in hotels and finding good places to eat, traveling across the state as an ambassador of the game while creating fun and engaging content to help build awareness and excitement for both well- and lesser-known Wisconsin courses.

I’m excited to hear more about his adventure, and his thoughts on the state of the game in Wisconsin. On a macro level, how does he think Wisconsin compares to other states (he played over 400 unique courses and 450 rounds across the country in 2018 alone)? More pointedly, what are his favorite memories he’s made while here, what courses and towns surprised him, and what will he most look forward to getting back to after he heads home to Laguna Beach Monday?

Outside of the 20+ bratwursts, several dozen pounds of cheese curds, hundreds of birdies and leaping celebratory high kicks, I bet his thoughts are fairly well aligned with mine: Even with a shortened season, Wisconsin is second to none when it comes to golf in America.

And it’s only getting better.

“America’s #1 Golf Intern” Patrick Koenig teeing off on the par three 11th at The Club at Lac La Belle (July 29)

.

I was thinking about this the other night while working on my updated review of Sand Valley Golf Course, and rather than indulging myself within that article decided it should have it’s own soap box.

I know this article won’t be perfect, and I don’t intend it to be, but I want to splurge my thoughts as there’s a lot to say, a ton to be proud of and so much to be excited for.

.

Taking a step back, it blows my mind how far the golf industry has come in the Badger State.

As the story I’ve heard goes (please correct me in the comments if you know it’s wrong):

When Herb Kohler decided in the 1980’s to add golf to the resort amenities at Destination Kohler, he initially approached nearby Pine Hills Country Club, just a few miles down the road and one of the most exemplary classic golf courses in Wisconsin and maybe the Midwest. The club didn’t want to sell their course, leading Kohler to begin conversations around new development with several world-renowned course architects headlined by Pete Dye.

It was through his burgeoning relationship with the late and great Pete Dye, and his growing love for golf course development and the game that led to the opening of Blackwolf Run in the late 1980’s.

Debuted with 18 tremendous golf holes, the “Original Championship Course” at Blackwolf Run was named Golf Digest’s Best New Course of 1988 and has gone on to host numerous professional golf tournaments over the years including the 1998 and 2012 US Women’s Opens (won by Se Ri Pak and Na Yeon Choi, respectively) and 1995, 1996 and 1997 Andersen Consulting World Golf Championships (won by Mark McCumber, Greg Norman and Ernie Els, respectively).

I believe that Kohler’s success at Blackwolf Run is the domino that started Wisconsin down the path that’s made it one of the most significant golf states in the country.

Adding 18 holes to the Original Championship Course gave Blackwolf Run a total of 36, and helped secure its spot as a true golf destination. Taking the original front 9, Kohler and Dye added 9 more holes along the Sheboygan River to complete its River course, and 9 more holes in a more “meadowy” parcel of land to act as the front 9 of what is now the Meadow Valleys course.

The par four 14th on the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run

.

Both courses are ranked perennially in big golf media’s top 100 public courses list, but the River is always rated higher – it’s currently the 15th rated public golf course in the country according to Golf Digest (Meadow Valleys is 57th), 43rd by GolfWeek and 38th by Golf.com. The Meadow Valleys is missing in those last two’s rankings, which I see as a miss.

Dye wasn’t done with golf in Kohler – not by a long shot. In 1998, with his pal Pete Dye at the helm he’d open one of the top few public golf courses in the country, Whistling Straits, and then its sister course the Irish in 2000.

Looking back on the 13th hole at Whistling Straits

.

During the boom at Kohler other great golf destinations also joined the fray, including University Ridge in Madison, Washington County, The Bog and Geneva National and its Palmer, Player and Trevino courses in the early-to-mid 90’s.

The tee shot on 18 at The Bog (September 2020)
Sunrise over Geneva National’s Player course (September 2020)

.

We all know the kind of attention Whistling Straits has brought our great state, hosting professional events including the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships (won by Vijay Singh, Martin Kaymer and Jason Day, respectively) and the 2007 US Senior Open (won by Brad Bryant).

Continue reading “The State of the Game of Golf in Wisconsin”

Golf Club Review: North Shore Golf Club

Boasting a 6,600+ yard par 70 course with pristine conditions, wide forgiving fairways, large greens and a clubhouse with gorgeous views of the north shore of Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, North Shore Golf Club in Menasha, Wisconsin is one of the state’s top hidden gems.

North Shore, which hosted the Wisconsin State Amateur in 2016, has for a long time flown under the radar.

I think this is partially because it’s in a part of the state that’s not very well known for golf. While the Fox Valley has a lot of big business and is known to be a terrific area to live, it doesn’t have the same cache of courses that the Sheboygan, Milwaukee, Madison or even nearby Green Bay regions do. It’s market is much smaller in that way, and it feels like North Shore GC doesn’t mind.

Opened in 1930, the course was originally designed by a course architect I hadn’t heard of until researching Bullseye Golf Club in Wisconsin Rapids, Leonard Macomber.

I think Macomber was a bit underrated as a course architect, and North Shore definitely is.

Both North Shore and Bullseye are parkland courses with a lot of trees (though Bullseye is a bit tighter) and long, beautiful views of the water – the powerful Wisconsin River at Bullseye, and the colossal Lake Winnebago at North Shore – and these courses have a lot else in common like fairly wide fairways (again, a bit less restrictive at NSGC), really well contoured, oversized greens and terrific par threes.

Prior to my round there, I reached out to quite a few golf enthusiast friends, wondering if they’ve played it before and their general thoughts. None of them had, although one of my buddies’ dad did recently and can’t stop talking about how good it is.

I’ve since joined him in that boat.

While North Shore might not have the name recognition [in the Milwaukee market] as Milwaukee, Blue Mound, Pine Hills, Oconomowoc, West Bend, Kenosha, Racine and other top-tier, Golden Era private courses, they are definitely the high-end club in the Appleton / Fox Valley market, and that comes through quickly when on-site.

Founded by Kimberly-Clark paper executives (both John R. Kimberly and C.B. Clark are listed among the club’s first Directors), the clubhouse has an understated elegance with tall, airy rooms and windowed partitions, large fireplaces and generally grand features.

The clubhouse opens up in back to a beautiful patio and pool area with amazing vistas of the lake, and they’re doing a great job of eliminating excess trees in front to open site lines to the course.

It’s a clubhouse I’d enjoy spending time at.

An overhead view of the clubhouse and pool deck at NSGC

.

The Course

Beginning in 2001, Bruce Hepner and Renaissance Golf Design have worked with the club to modernize their golf experience, including updating its bunkers, improving tee grounds and, of course, undertaking significant tree removal.

Whenever I play a new course, I find myself playing the “Where does this course remind me of?” game. For me, North Shore felt a bit like Course 1 at Medinah Country Club. It didn’t occur to me until well afterwards that that’s probably not purely coincidental as both courses have been recently renovated by Renaissance Golf Design (Course 1 by Tom Doak, and North Shore by Bruce Hepner).

Having been thoughtfully studied and worked on by the same general brain trust, it’s no wonder their golf experiences can look and feel somewhat similar at times. Both courses have outstanding par threes and are fairly similar in their bunkering styles, fairway widths, angles and a little in their green complexes, even without any overlap in their late 1920’s/early ’30’s design teams (Course 1 was originally designed by Tom Bendelow).

The front nine starts with a nice par four that gives players a feel for what to expect at North Shore: Tree lines that are visible but not overly penal, wide fairways in between them, large and smooth, elevated greens that are moderately undulating, and nicely designed sand traps.

Opening tee shot on the par four 1st hole at NSGC
The first hole at North Shore, looking back toward the clubhouse

.

Grab a par on one and cross the train tracks that separate the north and south sections of the club’s property. The southern tract, which includes the clubhouse, driving range, pool and other social amenities, generally consists of holes that shoot out north from Lake Winnebago (holes 1, 10 and 17) or return south to it and the clubhouse (9, 16 and 18).

This southern section’s terrain is fairly subtle, relying on a little tighter tree lines, green run-offs and strategically placed bunkers to protect scoring.

Left to right: The 1st, 9th, 10th, 16th, 17th and 18th holes at North Shore Golf Club, from above Lake Winnebago

.

The northern property features more severe terrain, including significant changes in elevation – especially on several raised greens, a pond and river that affects six holes.

The first of these holes on the northern tract of land is the par four second. With a tee shot that begs for a draw, the fairway has a sharp dogleg left with an approach shot carrying a deep valley, bisecting river and a massive, elevated green complex that needs to be held.

The right-to-left tee shot on 2 at North Shore Golf Club

.

Anything short to this green will repel down its false front, and anything left, right or long will find deep collection areas.

A view of the elevated green on two, its false front and massive collection areas

.

Continue reading “Golf Club Review: North Shore Golf Club”

Erin Hills: A Legend in the Making

It’s hard to believe Erin Hills is just 15 years old. It’s got all the looks and feels of a historic property that’s been played and refined for centuries. Certainly, no course in America has changed and accomplished more in as short a time as Erin Hills, going under the knife regularly to improve the guest and tournament experience in ways both noticeable and strategically long-term.

Constant change, and an unrivaled attention to detail, has always been in its DNA. Even when initially routed by the design team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, literally hundreds of golf holes were proposed.

Erin Hills, from high above (photo credit: Jeff Schaefer)

.

Every detail had to be considered: The prevailing and ever-present winds, sunrises and sunsets, that the property’s most dramatic land forms were utilized most effectively, and that the architecture paid homage to the great Scottish and Irish courses where the game began while staying irrevocably original and unique to the glacial kettle moraine that breathes it life.

.

Across 640 acres, careful attention is paid on a daily basis to sweat every detail. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years to grow and care for the fescue that sways in the breezes, for example, keeping weeds from growing in and pulling rocks and even pebbles by hand. The land may not have been tailor made for fescue, but damn if it wasn’t placed here for golf.

.

The story of Erin Hills’ origins is well-documented, perhaps best by Gary D’Amato in his 2017 6-part series entitled “The Making of Erin Hills.”

D’Amato’s expose is rife with intrigue, starting with local business magnate Bob Lang. Lang was obsessed with developing the country’s next great tournament course, and specifically with bringing the US Open to Southeast Wisconsin. He knew he had the right property, and [mostly] the right team, and he put everything he had in to making his dream a reality.

The course was designed by then perceived underdogs Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, and opened to rave reviews. There were some quirks, though, and it was partly those quirks that led to continual investments meant to satisfy one demand after another by the USGA. These games, along with his initial investment, eventually cost Lang over $26 million.

His well had run dry, and new ownership would be needed to keep Lang’s dream alive. It was clear it would require someone whose financial security couldn’t be tied to such a passion project, and Erin Hills and the world of golf were fortunate to find that rare buyer in billionaire Andrew Ziegler.

Ziegler, Founding Partner and Lead Director of Artisan Partners, helped deliver Lang’s vision of a US Open at Erin Hills in 2017. And, I bet if you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and dream of seeing another.

.

The Drumlin

One of Erin Hills’ most recent developments has been the opening of their Drumlin putting course, which debuted in August 2019. With 63,000 square feet of green surface set upon a ridge adjacent to the first tee, the Drumlin provides a wonderful way to add a little more golf to your day – whether before or after your round, or even when the sun goes down… The course is lit up at night.

An overhead view of the Drumlin putting course – the property’s newest amenity

.

My brief thoughts and reflections on the US Open

Will Erin Hills get another shot at our country’s greatest golf tournament? I think they will. I also think they learned a lot from their first go-round. Everyone expected the wind to blow hard like it normally does, but it didn’t. Instead, they got a ton of rain early, softening the course, and then some of the hottest and most serene weather the property has seen.

The result was a bloodbath as Erin Hills was left defenseless against an onslaught by the world’s best golfers. While experts expected a winning score around par, 27 players finished in red numbers including Brooks Koepka whose winning score was an incomprehensible -16.

The course was beautiful and its aesthetics translated well to TV, though, and the drama was intriguing as viewers witnessed players doing things we never before thought were possible.

Justin Thomas, for example, carded a 63 on Sunday after hitting a 299-yard 3-wood – all carry to an elevated green, landing softly and basically checking up – to eight feet on 18 to set up EAGLE on the 667-yard par five finishing hole.

I remember asking at one of the US Open media days how they planned on making 18 exciting if players needed to make up a stroke down the stretch. I was told there wouldn’t be making up strokes on 18; everyone would need to find a way to par it or lose ground. It still blows my mind that that didn’t end up being the case. I can see there being one-putt birdies on 18, but not eagle opportunities.

All said, I think Erin Hills got a raw deal in 2017 – the same way Chambers Bay did in 2015 – and I hope new USGA leadership brings a future US Open(s) back to them both. Paving of the way for Erin Hills has already begun via two future USGA events (the 2022 US Mid-Amateur Championship and 2025 US Women’s Open), and I hope those lead to a return of “The Big One” in the late 2020’s or early ’30s.

The Erin Hills clubhouse and pro shop

.

Our day

I can’t imagine there have been many better Summer days for golf at Erin Hills. It was June 22 and we had highs in the low 70’s with very little wind in the morning, and plenty of sunshine (don’t worry, the breezes picked up as the day wore on).

The one thing I didn’t take in to account when we set up the round was that it was the day after the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year. In order to take photos at sunrise, I needed to leave the house by 4:30 am. I was obviously happy to for this opportunity, and was on-site with my drone in the air by 5:06.

The mist coming off the ponds, haze over the fairways and golden hue emanating from the fescue was magical, and I enjoyed all the stages of the day’s golden hour as I made my way from the parking lot to the 12th green complex.

The sun began cresting after my initial shoot from behind that incredible hole layout, and as I started shooting the par three 13th I started realizing how special this morning was.

Haze emanating from the ponds on the par three 13th at sunrise

.

Among all the supplies I brought with me, I only brought one pair of socks. That became an obvious oversight as traipsing from one hole to the next had me wading through knee-high fescue soaked in dew.

With wet feet I ventured on, searching for the right angles. I’m sure I didn’t find them all, but I made the most of the morning and came away with some images I’m happy with.

I also took quite a bit of video footage – click on the image below for a 30-second clip from the morning (plays from YouTube):

Click for 30-second video compilation from my morning photo shoot (YouTube)

.

Following my early morning photo shoot, I met up with my all-time favorite caddie and friend on social media, Julius Germany. Julius was the first caddie I ever played with at Erin Hills, back in July of 2012. We’ve kept in touch over the years via Facebook and Instagram, and he’s honestly the caddie I’ve compared all others to.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great loopers over the years, but none can match Julius’s skill and professionalism, general presence and great demeanor. I was really excited to spend the day with him, and he didn’t disappoint.

Neither did the other caddie in our group, Chloe. A college student, Chloe had a wonderful attitude that complemented Julius’s well. She made some great reads and the two led the three of us to a lot of good shots and drained putts.

The world’s best caddie, Julius, and me post-round (6/22/2021)

.

Our threesome included my favorite golf partner and “drone co-pilot,” Jeff (we have the same drone and he’s a huge help especially when we’re taking photos in-round), me and Erin Hills PGA Ambassador and Wisconsin Golf Hall of Famer Rich Tock.

Inducted in 2019, Rich has had a storied career that’s included playing in 22 PGA of America National Club Pro Championships, 8 Senior Professional Championships, won the Wisconsin State Senior Open in 2005, played on 26 Nelthorpe Cup teams and competed in the US Senior Open in 2002 (link to wisconsin.golf article, by Gary D’Amato).

Rich is at his best one-on-one, as I first learned on July 29, 2012 when I first visited Erin Hills and had the pleasure of spending hours on the pub’s patio talking golf, the property and its background and stories that had led it to where it was at that time (link to my 2012 course review).

As PGA Ambassador, Rich is the face of Erin Hills. His presence is ever-felt as he makes his way around the property on an almost daily basis, spending time with staff and guests, constantly tending to the small details that make this site so spectacular (including picking up any and every cigarette butt, broken tee or wrapper left on the ground), and of course helping promote the destination through its various media channels including his “Playing Lessons,” which can be found on Erin Hills’ YouTube channel (link to Rich Tock’s Playing Lessons).

Rich is a skilled player who consistently hits the ball down the middle with good length and has an incredible short game. He plays quickly and doesn’t take things too seriously. He can also talk to every story about Erin Hills – all the changes and adaptations, the legendary shots and players who have walked its fairways and of course strategy and playability. His fun and collegial manner make him one of my all-time favorite playing partners, and I hope for the opportunity to enjoy a round with him again in the future.

We joked with Jeff’s caddie, Chloe, that she had the easiest job in the world: He hit almost every fairway and I don’t think ever found the fescue en route to an easy 80.

Julius, who caddied for Rich and me, faced a bit more devious task of having to help locate several of my sliced tee balls when fighting the wind. Both caddies were amazing, as was all the company, and our day at Erin Hills was as good and memorable a golf experience as any I can remember.

Jeff, Rich and me following a great 18 holes at Erin Hills (6/22/2021)

.

The course

The golf course at Erin Hills is remarkable. It’s beautiful, architecturally interesting and challenging all while providing an enjoyable experience for players of all skill levels.

It starts with a couple scorable holes in one and two, leading off with a par five that allows players to bite off as much as they want from the tee while negotiating one of the course’s few inland ponds. We were a collective -2 following the second hole, and a day of good scores felt attainable.

A view of the fairway on the first hole at Erin Hills, bending right-to-left from the tee boxes

.

The second hole is one of my favorites at Erin Hills. A short par four with one of the most forgiving fairways, long hitters have a ton of room for error off the tee. The second shot is tricky, though, with the course’s smallest tabletop green that repels anything hit off-center.

The fairway on two was expanded prior to the US Open, as shown in the image below. The shaded area beyond the hill was previously fescue, coercing players toward smarter shots. The USGA wanted to urge long players like Bubba Watson to try driving the green here, and so the short grass was expanded.

As you can imagine, with long bombs toward this green complex comes risk. Short wedges are anything but simple from tight lies, making a full shot from just inside 100 yards oftentimes the smarter strategy.

A look back on the second hole at Erin Hills at sunrise
An aerial view of the tiny second green

.

The third and fourth holes play in to the prevailing wind, and from significantly elevated tee boxes. I have always had a hard time driving the ball on this set of par fours, and I did on this day, as well.

The green on three was relocated prior to the 2017 US Open, as the original complex was a natural site with too extreme of a slope. The new green, while it shortens the hole by 18 yards, shifted the approach about 20 yards to the right and helps make the putting surface more receptive to long iron shots while opening up more hole locations.

An offset view of the third hole at Erin Hills, playing in to the wind

.

The fourth has one of my favorite looking approach areas on the entire course, littered with craggy bunkers up the spine of its fairway.

The approach area short of the fourth green (photo taken in September 2013)

.

The sixth is the first par three on the course, and one of the trickiest. A long one-shotter, only the front section of the green is shown, leaving some 40 or so yards past its lateral spine. I absolutely flushed a seven-iron with the wind, and everyone thought it was perfect.

Thinking I was on hole-in-one watch, I walked up the hill only to find about 50 feet to go to a back hole next to a steep slope. My high hopes turned to bogie pretty quickly.

A view from the back of the par three 6th green

.

The eighth is an exceptional par four. The tee shot is blind, playing slightly to the right or directly above the high mound that serves as an aiming point.

This is a terrific example of the beautiful, natural land movement at Erin Hills. Aside and beyond the mound, this fairway moves like waves and with tons of changes in elevation, and the green is perched well above the rest of the playing surface.

A view from above the tee box on eight, with the fairway bending left around the mound and uphill to its perched green site
The dramatically elevated green site on eight at sunrise

.

One of the most famous holes on the entire property, the par three ninth was previously the course’s bye hole – a 19th hole that served to settle bets.

When the USGA requested that its originally included “Dell hole,” which was a long and gimmicky, blind par three with a rock that was moved on a daily basis to provide an aiming point, was removed, the ninth was moved in to its permanent position. I for one can’t imagine Erin Hills without it.

The all-world par three 9th at Erin Hills from its elevated tee boxes
An elevated view from behind the ninth green looking uphill toward the tees

.

The back nine starts with what I consider to be the most challenging hole on the entire course. The tenth is a long test of a par four that plays straight in to the prevailing wind, and finishes uphill to a long left-to-right green protected in front by deep sand traps.

I hit what might have been the best 3-wood of my life on this day. Following a tee shot to the middle of the fairway, I had 242 yards left in to a sustained 20 mph wind. “I didn’t travel out to Erin Hills to lay up,” I said, and Rich told me to aim small, miss small. I caught it just right, hitting a towering shot right at the pin. It landed just left of the flag and rolled to about 15 feet.

If there was ever a birdie putt I really wanted to make, it was this one. Julius gave me a great read, but I pulled it just a little, leading to a tap-in par.

The challenging par four 10th, playing over a crevasse and directly in to the prevailing winds

.

Following a knee-knocker like ten, the eleventh is a friendly handshake. Short by Erin Hills standards, it measures just 315 from the green tees we were playing and has a wide open fairway with a lot of movement from right-to-left. Hybrid was the play of the day here, and we all walked away with par.

The short par four 11th from beyond the green

.

As 50 golf enthusiasts their favorite hole at Erin Hills and I would venture a bet that a good portion of them will tell you the twelfth.

With elevated tees heading back in to the wind, the twelfth has some of the most out-of-this-world land movement of any golf hole I’ve played in my life, finishing downhill and to the right to the course’s only lowered green complex. There is something really special about this hole, and to me the sunrise brought out a lot of that!

The meandering fairway of the 12th at Erin Hills, with the sunrise at my back
The twelfth green and its approaching fairway basking in the early morning sunlight

.

The thirteenth is a mid-range par three that measures 170 yards from the green tees and has one of the smaller, hardest to hit greens on the back nine. A large bunker works its way in to the left side of the putting surface, and short, long and right all lead to collection areas well below the green’s surface.

The par three 13th at Erin Hills

.

The fourteenth is one of the most fun holes at Erin Hills. A 507-yard par five, the green is so wide, so elevated and canted from left-to-right that it makes for a playful approach that’s really hard to resist.

I’ll never forget the first time I played here, and Julius told me to grab my wedge and try this shot. From short-right of the green I literally hit the back-left of the putting surface, watched it roll upward almost off and bend around right and downhill probably 50 yards from where it started, funneling toward a front-right pin. Creativity and options like that are just so much fun, and how could you ask for more than a caddie who makes sure you don’t miss that type of opportunity?

An aerial view of the par five 14th at Erin Hills, finishing over fescue with one of the most fun greens I’ve played

.

Short par fours are all the rage these days, and Erin Hills has an exemplary one in its fifteenth. I watched a lot of groups on this hole at the 2017 US Open, and almost all the players took dead aim at green-under-regulation, but very few hit it.

At just 346 yards from the green tees, the elevated green brings in all kinds of trouble: Deep fescue long, deeper greenside bunkers short and steep run-offs all around.

The short par four 15th from the tees (photo taken in June 2015)

.

Other than the ninth, the sixteenth has probably the most intimidating par three tee shot at Erin Hills. Sand traps are littered everywhere around this skinny green complex.

Tee shot on the par three 16th, with sand everywhere (photo taken September 2013)

.

Tipping out at 663 yards (it can stretch over 700 for tournament play), the eighteenth at Erin Hills is one of the longest in golf. The hole is framed beautifully by The Village, and from afar by nearby Holy Hill.

To anyone other than Justin Thomas, this is a true three-shot par five and one of the most wonderfully climactic finishing holes found anywhere.

Looking down the fairway of the long par five 18th
Fairway and fescue leading to the green on the tremendous finishing hole at Erin Hills
How Justin Thomas managed to hit a 299-yard 3-wood to land softly and stop 8 feet from the hole here is beyond me

.

Conclusion

Erin Hills provides the most complete first-class golf experience in the state of Wisconsin.

Folks like Rich Tock, Julius Germany, Head Golf Professional Jim Lombardo, Director of Course Management Zach Reineking, Competitions and Marketing Director John Morrissett and Marketing Manager Steve Pease work tirelessly to make that statement true, and to me it’s evident in every touchpoint.

From the time you drop your bag off at the caddie barn to the moment you walk away from your last Fescue Rescue, all the details are curated and managed to perfection.

It’s a pricy round, sure, but it’s also an indulgence that can revive your golfing spirit. To me, there is no finer golf experience in the entire state of Wisconsin than at this legend in the making.

The Drumlin putting course and Erin Hills Village, early morning

.

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Erin, WI
Yardages: Black-7731, Blue-7147, Green-6742, White-6206
Slope/Rating: Black-145/77.9, Blue-139/75.0, Green-135/73.2, White-129/70.3
Par: 72

.

Erin Hills Golf Course Website

%d bloggers like this: