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Golf Course Review: Sand Valley Golf Course

This year’s Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup was a long-anticipated match-up for many reasons: To start, Illinois has had our number for a few years, but most importantly it was to be held at the world’s most exciting new golf resort project, Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, Wisconsin.

I put up a preview of the front nine at Sand Valley after last year’s Media Day event here, and was unbelievably excited to see how things have grown in and especially to check out the back nine and lodging.

The back nine was everything I’d hoped it would be: More fantastic par threes and one great golf hole after another. Strategically placed sand traps, tricky greens and conditions that far exceeded what can be expected of a course that was seeded this Spring blew away everyone at the event.

Sand Valley has been blessed with one of the best two growing seasons in recent history. Weather in the Midwest has been mild, the winters [relatively] short and all the ingredients to be well ahead of its time just sort of fell in to place.

The initial plans for the course, in fact, were to have 13-15 holes open for preview play by the end of 2016, and already all 18 are and will undoubtedly become even more spectacular for its public unveiling in June, 2017.

The David McLay Kidd course is coming along nicely, too, with a number of holes already seeded and growing in beautifully. I unfortunately did not have time to tour it during this trip, so I can’t wait for my first thorough look at it next season.

I reviewed the front nine at Sand Valley in my original article from last year’s media day, linked here, so I will just include updated photos this time around with minimal commentary.

New photos from the front nine of the Sand Valley Golf Course at Sand Valley Golf Resort:

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Panoramic view from “The Volcano” above the first, tenth and eighteenth holes at Sand Valley Golf Course

The par 4 first hole, bending right to left and downhill from “The Volcano”:

The par 4 second hole, bending left to right and uphill:

The par 3 third hole, a long par three best played running on from the right side:

The par 5 fourth hole, played steeply uphill:

The par 3 fifth hole, played downhill to a crowned green:

The par 4 sixth hole, with its “Speed slot” down the right side:

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2016 Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writers Cup at Sand Valley Golf Resort

Following a tour of the front nine at last year’s Sand Valley media day, a reference to the Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writers Cup was made to which Mike Keiser, Jr. immediately replied: “Can we host next year’s event here!?”

The Writers Cup alternates between Wisconsin and Illinois courses each year, with last year’s event played at the challenging Chicago Highlands Club.

Needless to say, everyone in attendance was thrilled with the offer, but the ultimate decision had to be made by Chuck Garbedian of “Garbedian on Golf.”

Team Illinois has had the best of Team Wisconsin for a few years straight, including a rout at the Chicago Highlands Club last year. This year, though, the red team was back on our own soil at the world’s most highly touted upcoming golf destination, and there was no way we were going to lose. Not there on what we were told was the first event to be played on all 18 holes of the Coore/Crenshaw masterpiece.

Sand Valley and KemperSports were fantastic hosts, and both teams made the pilgrimage to Rome, Wisconsin on Monday for practice rounds prior to the tournament teeing off at 7:45 Tuesday morning.

The contrast between where the Coore/Crenshaw course is now versus where it was last August is almost unbelievable, but with two of the greatest growing seasons ever it is almost unnecessary to say that Sand Valley’s progress is well ahead of schedule. At no time did they intend to open all 18 holes for preview play this season, but alas on September 1 it is happening.

My first ah-ha moment during my first trip to Sand Valley last year was arriving at the top of “The Volcano” and seeing the first hole below, seeded and beginning to grow in. It is fully developed at this point, as are the magnificent tenth and 18th holes. The start of a driving range is also coming in left of the first fairway, and most of the course’s holes are visible from this highest vantage point on the property. The vista here outside of “Craig’s Porch” is comparably as spectacular as the view from the porch at Pacific Dunes (at Mike Keiser’s original golf resort, Bandon Dunes, on the southwest coast of Oregon).

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Sunset from the Pacific Grille at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, OR

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Sunset from “Craig’s Porch” atop “The Volcano” at Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, WI

Glen Turk of Midwest Golfing Magazine and I met up on Monday to play the front nine before a dinner at Craig’s Porch (named after Craig Haltom of Oliphant, who originally discovered the land) that consisted of buffalo burgers, Johnsonville brats and sides.

After a couple of beers, Team Wisconsin met in the 4-bedroom cottage Coach Garbedian was staying in to get our team’s strategy together. Playing this year for Team Wisconsin included:

  • Gary D’Amato (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
  • Mike Duplaise (freelance writer and author)
  • Chuck Garbedian (captain, ESPN Garbedian on Golf)
  • Neal Kotlarek (GolfChicago – Wisconsin native)
  • Gabe Neitzel (ESPN 540)
  • Jay Royal (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Jeff Royal (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Rob Schultz (Wisconsin State Journal)
  • Paul Seifert (that’s me)
  • Matt Tevsh (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Glen Turk (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
  • Brian Weis (GolfWisconsin, GolfTrips.com)

Accommodations in the Lake Leopold Cottages were everything I hoped for and was told to expect during last year’s Media Day with Mike Keiser, Jr. and Bill Coore: “A comfortable bed, nice shower and a big bar of soap” … And fantastic views.

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The Lake Leopold Cottages at Sand Valley Golf Resort

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The Lake Leopold Cottages with Lake Leopold in the background

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Room 112 at the Lake Leopold Cottages at Sand Valley Golf Resort

The rooms are very well appointed, and I am told by this time next year the color of the cottages should blend in perfectly with the color of the sand that surrounds it.

The morning match-ups got started at 7:45 and my first round match was with my partner for the first two rounds, Rob Schultz. Rob and I had a first round best ball match against Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune and Steve Schapiro of WGN-TV.

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Turk and Weis tee off on one to start the first round of the 2016 Writers Cup at Sand Valley

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North Hills CC 2nd Annual Long Drive Competition

Last year, long-time North Hills Country Club veteran Ron Carey convinced the club to host an annual long drive competition. At the time, there were a couple dozen younger members and only a few guys in the under-50 division with a legitimate chance to win.

We fast forward to 2016 and North Hills’ recent new member promotion brought in more than 60 players under the age of 50 (almost all under 35), and a plethora of single-digit handicap players. The long drive competition has been long awaited, for sure, and was stormed out the first time around.

In last year’s competition, my buddy Ross Chawansky had some of the longest drives in the preliminary round but failed to get a ball in the fairway in the playoff against Ryan Isherwood. Isherwood, a 3.0 index player, is a great ball-striker and had a lot of money invested in him in this year’s competition.

Chawansky and John Ziemer were heavy favorites in this year’s competition. In a normal round, Ziemer (a +1.4 handicap) typically out-drives me by 30-60 yards every hole. The first round we played together, in fact, I witnessed him drive the 341-yard par four eighth hole, go driver/8-iron on the 519-yard par five ninth, then put his tee shot on the 323-yard uphill, dogleg left par four 15th eight feet below a back-right pin – completely blind from the tee. He is an epic hitter of the golf ball.

17 of the 19 guys competing were single-digit players – I was one of the two outsiders. To say I was an underdog is an understatement, but why not throw my hat in the ring!?

The field for the under-50 competition:

  1. Scott Nelson (13.6 index)
  2. Rick Fuller (9.6 index)
  3. Charles Buhrow (3.0 index)
  4. Jim Mirsberger (4.0 index)
  5. Paul Seifert (10.1 index)
  6. Nick Zellmer (3.5 index)
  7. Kyle Tendick (4.1 index)
  8. Ben Pilgreen (3.9 index)
  9. Ben Bernhard (8.8 index)
  10. Mike Tate (5.2 index)
  11. Ryan Isherwood (3.0 index)
  12. Dan Vilione (6.6 index)
  13. Levi Lura (4.3 index)
  14. Blake Jenkins (+0.4 index)
  15. Dan Benedum (+0.4 index)
  16. John Ziemer (+1.4 index)
  17. Ross Chawansky (4.5 index)
  18. Bryan Johnson (5.5 index)
  19. Vince Suter (5.4 index)

Benedum is the defending Club Champion, and Tendick is playing against Jenkins for this year’s title and the coveted parking spot. Quite a few of these guys played college golf, and seven of them have competed in the past couple of weeks in the State Am qualifers, State Open, Mid-Am qualifiers and so on.

I had nothing to lose, so I figured I’d just go out there and swing hard and hope the ball went straight. I bought some Titleist Velocity golf balls before the competition, and marked them above the number 77 with small teal-colored circles. Velocity is a harder golf ball than the ProV1 or ProV1-X, and I figured I’d take every slight advantage I could get (a few others were playing the same ball).

The competition is held on the tee box of the tenth hole, 20 feet from the gorgeous patio and bar and with a whole lot of people watching. Music was blasting through the speakers, and Ron Carey was announcing the competition over the loudspeakers.

The wind was slightly in, even though it didn’t feel like much. The fairway on ten goes slightly right-to-left, and falls off a little toward the right side past the right-side fairway bunkers. Drives had to end up in the fairway in order to be counted.

If settling in the fairway, tee shots are measured by holding up a flagstick and being laser’ed from the tee box. North Hills Head PGA Professional and one of Wisconsin’s all-time greatest golfers Eddie Terasa called out the numbers.

I was a little nervous getting on the tee for the first round and was fifth to go. My first ball went right and the second felt like it wasn’t even hit – long, high and right down the middle for 301 yards and an early lead.

My early lead held up until Ziemer took the tee, surpassing my  301 with a respectable 315. Chawansky hit one 309 next and I was hanging by a thread with Bryan Johnson and Vinnie Suter still to go.

The top three moved on to the finals, which was a great coincidence considering Ross, John and I met up at Ally’s Bistro across the street for a beer and some food with John’s family before the competition. I put $5 on John to win, and wish I would have put a few bucks on myself just for kicks.

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John, me and Ross before the final round

THE FINALS:

As the low man on the totem pole, I hit first and went right on my first of two attempts. My second was striped right down the middle – no draw, no fade, just high and long, and I knew it was great. 309!

Ziemer hit last, and his first ball went left. I knew all he had to do was get a drive in the fairway, though, and John’s a competitive player who relishes in the big moments. The moment he hit his second and last ball I knew I was beat, then just had to wait for the measurement… 312 yards.

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North Hills CC Long Drive Competition, Final Round

I never expected myself to be in the mix, and watching all the other guys hit balls in the fairway I was amazed that they weren’t 20 yards longer than me. Levi Lura, for example, played at Nebraska and hits an insane hard draw that runs forever. Each ball he hit I felt would beat me out, until Eddie would announce “286 yards,” or “290 yards.” Blake hit some shots that looked incredibly long, but the call still came to “296 yards.”

I had no idea what I would do if I succeeded, and when my shots were flying long and straight I felt like I had to do SOMETHING – the video is hilarious for me to watch as I dropped the club and goaded my drives further on down the fairway. The crowd seemed to approve, and it was just so much fun feeling like a big hitter and a factor in this competition.

Even though I did not come away with the W it was an awesome experience that I was happy to be a part of.

 

See my YouTube channel for videos of all the other contestants’ drives in the 2016 North Hills Country Club long drive competition

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MCC Takes Back #1 Spot

Even though I was very impressed with the course the first time I played Milwaukee Country Club, I then played Pine Hills a handful of times since then and in my mind moved Pine Hills ahead of Milwaukee.

It had been a few years since the last time I played Wisconsin’s most prestigious private golf club until last week. We had a beautiful Friday afternoon to enjoy the Colt and Alison gem, and I was excited to be invited out by my boss along with one of his MCC golf buddies, our co-worker Preston, and for nine holes his son.

The thing that hit me immediately was the conditions at Milwaukee Country Club. Everything near the greens is shaved to first-cut length, and there was not a blade of grass out of position.

Our caddies were attentive and enjoyable to spend the day with, and I loved the updates that have been made to the course over the past year. The added bunkers nearing the green on three and the remastered putting surface there fit beautifully, and I think having the opportunity to play it without photography enhanced my overall golfing experience.

The back nine is absolutely sensational over and along the Milwaukee River, and the front nine is an excellent test of golf, as well.

In addition, I think the ninth and eighteenth holes are two of the best finishing holes in the state – the ninth is quite simply a tremendous golf hole.

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Hole 9: Par 4 (332/300/262)

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Hole 18: Par 4 (444/391/362)

I played pretty well there, shooting an 83 that could have been considerably lower. I hit most fairways and greens and putted well. I just had a hard time getting out of the green-side bunkers that are a bit heavier than the ones I have become used to.

Another factor that enhances the MCC experience is the food and beverage. Their daily buffet in the beer hall-like men’s locker room is fantastic, featuring carving stations, brats, burgers, sides and desserts.

For the quality of the course and the overall golfing experience, I have decided to move Milwaukee Country Club back to the number one spot in my rankings of the top private golf clubs in Wisconsin.

Private Golf Club Review: Milwaukee Country Club (October 2013)

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Golf Course Review: Racine Country Club

Let’s start out by saying that I (and my fellow buddies from North Hills Country Club) loved the Racine Country Club experience.

The course is classic with small, lightning-fast greens, and the clubhouse and facilities are beautiful. I don’t think I’ve seen a club in Wisconsin with better amenities, in fact.

The food was fantastic. I got a dozen chicken wings before our round (I’m not a warm up on the range kind of guy), and a massive fish filet afterwards. The wings were meaty and the buffalo sauce was perfect. The fish was delicious, as were the sides and drinks.

The clubhouse sprawls. It looks nice from the front, but amazing from inside and behind. It actually reminds me of the clubhouse at Blackwolf Run when viewed from the course, which I consider to be the prettiest clubhouse in the state.

The club’s facilities are plentiful and tastefully done. The pro shop is adequate, and the locker room is world-class. Each locker is dark wood with the RCC inscription engraved. There is a bar in the men’s locker room – a feature I always like – and it is manned by Gene who is a bit of a celebrity, himself. Gene retired from Case more than fifteen years ago, and took the job as the men’s locker room assistant for something to do. He has been there ever since, and provides the experience every country club strives to find someone to deliver.

We were told to make sure we get a drink from Gene, who makes a solid concoction but more than anything provides customer service that is second to none.

After getting to the club, Scott and I went to the bar upstairs and I ordered my wings. Kyle and Nick texted us that they were at the locker room bar downstairs, so we made the journey to the men’s locker room and I told the bartender upstairs and he had them delivered there. When we made our way back to the upstairs bar, my wings were already delivered downstairs. I made my way down there and Gene said, “No, sir I will carry them for you,” to which I told him I was happy to carry it. He gave me every excuse why it would be better for him to carry them, including that it will look better to my friends, and we were on our way back to the upstairs pub. I tried giving him five dollars for his inconveniences, but he wasn’t having it.

Private golf clubs are all about the golf, followed by customer service and experience, if you ask me. Racine Country Club excels on all fronts.

Enough about buffalo wings – I didn’t even mention the huge game room downstairs including a billiards table, four bowling lanes, tons of card tables and lounge areas. I also didn’t mention the awesome lounge in the men’s locker room, the beautiful upstairs bar and numerous dining areas, the fitness center, pool or tennis courts… Let’s just say I was jealous and wish my club had the space to catch up!

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Two of the four bowling alleys in the basement at Racine Country Club

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Billiards table in the downstairs game room at Racine Country Club

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Fitness center in the basement at Racine Country Club

We had a great foursome for Saturday’s round, including my friends Kyle, Nick and Scott, who are all 4-handicaps. I got 6 total strokes on the day, and our game du jour was wolf. In wolf, foursomes keep a rotation where the last player to tee off has to decide after each tee shot if he/she wants to partner with that person. If passed, that player cannot be picked. Sometimes it ends up that they pass on the first two and the third player to tee off duck-hooks one in to the water – in that case, they can choose to go alone and risk losing two points, but also have the opportunity to earn three.

I was chosen several times because of great drives. After the majority of those, I hit green-side bunkers next. Normally that’s not a big deal since I pride myself in my sand game, but the traps at Racine Country Club are nothing like the ones I’ve become used to. The traps at Racine are deep and with heavy sand, very similar to the sand at Bandon Dunes. It’s the kind of sand that feels like it was taken from a beach, and swinging with arms will not get the job done.

The course at Racine Country Club starts out in glorious fashion, with steeply elevated tee boxes adjacent to the pro shop and overlooking a narrow but short opening par five. There is a little more room to the left than it looks, and none to the right.

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Hole 1: Par 5 (473/459/445/432)

The fairway bends hard right at about 400 yards, so the second shot will either have to carry out-of-bounds to the right or else be played safely left toward the elbow.

The first hole initiates players to the greens at Racine Country Club, which are… Fast. And small. I was told putting here is like putting on concrete more times than I can remember leading up to our round, and the actual experience did not disappoint.

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Hole 1: Par 5 (473/459/445/432)

The second hole is a little intimidating from the tee, as the left-to-right dogleg par four is mostly hidden and the river that runs through the fairway mostly blends in to the playing surface. A solid drive over 200 yards should carry the water with ease and leave a manageable approach.

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