The WSGA’s America’s #1 Golf Internship with Patrick Koenig and Bobbi Stricker

When the Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA) announced its new marketing plan for 2021, golfers across the state of Wisconsin let out a collective gasp – one lucky guy or girl would get paid to play golf – a lot of golf.

Golf enthusiasts’ interests were piqued, and news of the internship became the top story on Golfweek.com as it was eventually shared over 5,000 times during the week of The Players Championship.

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The “Job Description” laid out a goal of playing 50 Wisconsin golf courses in 50 days: A dream to someone like me, and apparently to many others as the WSGA received over 200 applications.

Golf is hot right now. And nowhere is it hotter than in the state of Wisconsin. With the recent openings of The Baths at Kohler, 12-North at Trappers Turn and Pioneer Pointe at Hawks Landing, and developing work ongoing at The Lido and Sedge Valley courses at Sand Valley, no state in the US is seeing new courses open like we are.

The punchbowl 4th green complex on The Baths at Blackwolf Run in Kohler

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Not only do we have world-class golf and great new options becoming available, but we’re finishing off a red-hot season that saw significant growth in rounds played, multitudes of new players and even a Ryder Cup for the ages at Whistling Straits. Wisconsin has been at the epicenter for growth in the game of golf.

It may sound sinister, but COVID-19 has been exactly what the game of golf needed. A sport that was previously dwindling in many ways has seen tremendous growth by way of new players who gave it a chance and started to realize what many of us do: Golf is great! It’s not just a game for stodgy and/or wealthy old white guys, but it’s a great pastime that can be enjoyed by all. Plus, it’s safe – social distancing is built in and the fresh air and leisurely walks in beautiful natural settings are good for the soul. It’s a sport that gives its players a challenge we can never truly conquer, but that keeps us engaged at all levels and has us always working on something new.

Rounds of golf in Wisconsin in 2020 were up over 20% versus 2019, even with an entire month of the season missed while courses were forced to close due to the start of the pandemic. Did that additional interest stick around? There had to be attrition, right?

If you think things have slowed since the pandemic started to “normalize,” you’d be wrong. Year-to-date 2021 rounds in Wisconsin are up another 22.4% over 2020, and are typically up around 7% month over month [to take in to account last year’s missing time].

Golf is booming in Wisconsin, and it’s high time we highlight and celebrate its incredible success.

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The intern…s

Among those interviewed for the WSGA Internship were two standouts – applicants so good they changed the program.

The first, Bobbi Stricker, played college golf at the University of Wisconsin, is a competitive player on the LPGA’s Symetra Tour and in July won the Wisconsin Women’s Amateur Championship at The Legend at Merrill Hills in Waukesha. She’s likable and affable, loves the game of golf and is a proud Wisconsinite through and through.

The second is a California native who the term “golf-obsessed” doesn’t even begin to describe! Patrick Koenig’s golf adventures have been well-chronicled over recent years, beginning with his “Big Year” in 2018 when he left his job, bought an RV he turned in to an “RGV” (recreational GOLF vehicle, equipped with his digital photo studio), and traveled the country playing the game he loves while raising money for The First Tee.

He played over 450 rounds at 405 different courses in 48 states that year, taking incredible photos, making new friends and connections and laying the groundwork for what’s become a successful career as a professional golf photographer and, for a lack of better terminology, golf celebrity.

The WSGA couldn’t possibly let either of these applicants go, so they hired them both.

Bobbi played and posted on social media (link to her Twitter account) about the 12 rounds in her part of the campaign, which were spread out around her competitive events and travel including LPGA Q-School and the Women’s State Amateur.

Her experience brought her to a number of the state’s heavy hitters, including Erin Hills, the River, Meadow Valleys and Baths courses at Blackwolf Run, Lawsonia Links, Mammoth Dunes, Sand Valley and the Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort, her former home course University Ridge, The Club at Lac La Belle, and the Straits and Irish at Whistling Straits.

She was able to play much of this golf with friends, former Badger teammates and family members – some of whom you’ve probably heard of like her parents, Ryder Cup Captain Steve and wife Nicki Stricker, and uncle and former PGA Tour player Mario Tiziani.

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Patrick’s Badger State journey began at Brown Deer on July 15th, and he’d go on to play 76 unique courses in 50 days, culminating in a round with WSGA colleagues at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club on September 4th. Appropriately, he finished things off by draining a 70-footer for eagle on the 18th. Can you imagine a better last memory from a trip like this?

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WSGA Executive Director Rob Jansen set up Patrick’s original 50 courses to play. If you’ve met or follow him on social media, though, it should come as no surprise that wasn’t enough.

Charismatic and with energy to spare, he has a great passion for the game and getting to know other golf enthusiasts. With over 90,000 Instagram followers, the hire of Patrick made a big splash in the golf world, and the support he and the WSGA received was so overwhelming he added a second round to 26 of the 50 days, including 17 at private clubs.

“Bobbi and Patrick did an amazing job this summer showcasing Wisconsin golf. It was fun to follow along on their journey across the state and the photos each of them captured during their travels will allow us to continue to promote the courses they visited for years to come. I hope more people have realized that Wisconsin is the #1 state for public golf in America.”
– Rob Jansen, Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA)

Rain or shine, through intense August heat and swarms of flesh-eating mosquitoes, the 2-handicapped Koenig played on across our great state while taking thousands of professional-level photos and carding some solid rounds of golf, including a 68 at Trempealeau Mountain.

Many of the photos he took in Wisconsin can be found via links on his Intern Schedule, linked here:

Link to Patrick Koenig’s Intern Schedule

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I had the privilege of playing three-plus rounds with Patrick during his visit, and overall couldn’t have enjoyed the golf and his company more.

“In terms of internship playing partners, few golfers reached VIP status. I am proud to announce that Paul was one of those VIPs.”
– Patrick Koenig, Intern for the Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA)

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How we met

Patrick and I had been in touch a little over the last year or so. I originally reached out to him to see if he had suggestions on courses to check out in Scottsdale, and mentioned I’d like to get together for a round if he finds his way back to Wisconsin for the Ryder Cup, or just in general for his golf adventures, this past season. He was kind enough to respond, and we kept in touch. Then, he let me know in May that he’d “be out in Wisconsin a bunch this summer.”

That turned out to be quite the understatement, as at the age of 41 he’d earned one of the most coveted and desirable internships in the country with the WSGA.

“I’ve long said that Wisconsin is the best state for public golf in the United States and I definitely proved it during the summer of 2021.”
– Patrick Koenig, WSGA Intern

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Our experience

The first round Patrick and I played together was at the Club at Lac La Belle, just outside Oconomowoc, on July 29. We were joined by Craig (@statelinegolfnut on Instagram) and Ben (@golf.spoiled), and while my golf game was in terrible shape (it was a brutal day of duck-hooks) we had a good time on one of the state’s most scenic courses.

It was, unfortunately, at the height of our hazy summer, and as our round went on the sky couldn’t have gotten less photogenic. Everyone enjoyed the golf course and company, regardless.

The short par three 8th at The Club at Lac La Belle

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One of the things I’ll take from this day was something Patrick likes to do post-round: “What was your favorite shot of the day?” The four of us did a round robin on the back patio over dinner, each talking about our favorite golf shot and what we enjoyed most about the day. When you play a round where almost none of your shots were on, it’s nice to reflect on the ones that were, and to be grateful for the time spent on a great golf course with even better company.

For me, my favorite shot was my approach on 15, a short iron that cozied to about six feet right of the flag and set up my only birdie of the round.

Fifteen’s wild, unique green from above (photo credit: Patrick Koenig of pjkoenig.com)

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We met up next at Kenosha Country Club on September 3, playing the penultimate day of his trip with my friend, Gregg, and Noah and Draymond from Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, IL.

The approach area on the par five 4th at Kenosha CC (photo credit: Patrick Koenig of pjkoenig.com)

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Continue reading “The WSGA’s America’s #1 Golf Internship with Patrick Koenig and Bobbi Stricker”

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)

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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.

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Our day (skip ahead to Golf Experience if uninterested in photography)

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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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The golf experience

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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While it’s generally considered to be Kohler’s least exciting track, the Meadow Valleys is a wonderful layout that belongs comfortably within Wisconsin and the country’s top public courses.

It’s also one of the toughest, as was evidenced by results from 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 sensational natural setting.

If you’re visiting Kohler, play all of their courses, and keep in the back of your mind: “How would I rank the eight (nine, including the 10-hole Baths) nines at Kohler?” If you have played them all, I’d love to know your thoughts on how you’d rank them in the comments below. Without putting too much thought in to it, and with the understanding that there are no losers here, here is how I think I’d rank them:

  1. Straits course, Back 9
  2. River course, Back 9
  3. Meadow Valleys course, Back 9
  4. Straits course, Front 9
  5. The Baths
  6. River course, Front 9
  7. Irish course, Back 9
  8. Irish course, Front 9
  9. Meadow Valleys course, Front 9

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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