Golf Club Review: The University Club

I first visited The University Club (fka Tripoli) three years ago with Golf Course Architect Andy Staples (link to original article). Andy had been hired to put together a 10-year strategic plan for renovating the now 99-year-old course: Updates that will help usher the club in to and beyond it’s centennial anniversary.

The University Club has a rich history, having played host to the 1956-1960 Miller Opens (video below from the year Ken Venturi won in 1957) and the 1970-1971 Greater Milwaukee Opens, won by players like Venturi, Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler.

Video highlights from the 1957 Miller Open

Recent Renovations:
Starting with a terrific competition golf course and outstanding facilities/amenities, Staples’ work and suggestions have been far from a total redo.

Heightened private club competition on the north side of Milwaukee, though, meant critical changes needed to be made to address a few quirks and especially upgrade the club’s practice facilities.

The previous practice facilities consisted of a tight chute of land between N 43rd Street and the first tee with a handful of hitting spaces. It’s a small area that allows players to work out some kinks before teeing off, but little else.

Enter Staples, who is highly regarded for his practice facility expertise (link to portfolio), and enter a strategic partnership between the University Club and the Marquette University Men’s Golf Team.

This joint venture worked with Staples to upgrade the U-Club’s practice facilities significantly, including designated short game areas, practice greens (one perfectly level to practice speed and line), a competition wedge range with cement targets (to sound when hit) and a 4-hole practice course.

Level and uneven lies, uphill and downhill shots, required lobs, awkward sand shots, approaches from fairways and long rough can all now be simulated on the 10-acre parcel of land.

Conceptual plan for the new short game practice area (2017)
The new practice facility’s competition wedge range (photo credit: Dylan Hills, University Club of MKE)
4th green on the new short course (photo credit: Dylan Hills, University Club of MKE)
Practice facility short course (photo credit: Dylan Hills, University Club of MKE)

To make room for this state-of-the-art practice facility, some physical changes needed to be made to the golf course.

The par three twelfth was moved from running north-south to east-west, was lengthened slightly and given a terrific green complex that’s modeled after the original twelfth.

Much simpler re-routing was achieved on the tee areas of the thirteenth and sixteenth holes, helping create more well-defined fairways and, in the case of the sixteenth, a safer golf experience.

Significant tree removal has been undertaken (and is still underway) across the property, some mowing lines have been adjusted and numerous forward tees have been added.

The Course:
The University Club is not an overpoweringly long course on the scorecard, tipping out at 6,588 yards and with blue tees at 6,269, but it plays significantly longer. The back nine, especially, features a tremendously challenging stretch of holes from twelve to sixteen.

None are more challenging than the par four sixteenth, which regained its bite and now fully earns its number one handicapped hole status.

The par threes are mostly on the shorter side, which I appreciate at a classic course with tough greens.

The new twelfth is the longest of the four and is unquestionably the hardest. It plays about 200 yards slightly uphill, regularly in to the wind and to a fairly narrow, well-protected green.

The new par three 12th at The University Club

The great green complexes at The U-Club start right out of the gate on the first hole. A downhill drive from the clubhouse to a tree-lined fairway, this raised Bendelow putting surface is nicely canted back-to-front:

Hole 1: Par 4 (386/373/364/364)

The second is where players start to see noticeable updates from the renovation. This area, running parallel to Good Hope Road, includes the second hole fairway and its green surrounds, the sixteenth tee area and the twelfth hole.

Visually, the tee shot on two has been cleaned up beautifully. They’ve removed a lot of trees that had little to do with the hole’s playability, and also some that did. A bad drive is less penal now, especially if it’s missed left – there’s now a chance to recover and get back in the game.

The 2nd hole tee shot prior to renovations in September 2017
The now cleaned-up second hole at The University Club (May 2020)

The approach shot on two is measured, requiring care within the shape to keep from hitting the tree just right of the pond and short of the green.

Approach shot on the par five 2nd hole at University Club

The third is a terrific par three.

Downhill to a small green flanked by traps, there are two separate teeing areas: A longer one playing thru a chute of trees (shown below) and a second, shorter one with no tree impairment but playing more directly over sand.

Hole 3: Par 3 (176, 166, 148, 142)

The fourth is a mid-length par four with a tremendous green. Uphill off the tee, the green runs hard right-to-left and off the putting surface altogether short-left. Aim far right side on the approach shot here.

Hole 4: Par 4 (349, 336, 332, 303)
The unique, highly contoured fourth green at The University Club

The tee shot on six is slightly blind, playing uphill between a somewhat imposing tree line. Know that the fairway bends left, and if you hit that well then look forward to the beautiful approach shot that awaits…

Uphill tee shot on the dogleg left par four sixth

This is one of the prettiest looking second shots I’ve seen in a while, downhill to an incredibly well-protected green on a peninsula.

Downhill approach on the 6th at The U-Club
Hole 6: Par 4 (406, 390, 380, 320)

The seventh is an exciting, short par three over water. Playing to 120 yards during our round, club selection is important as one short is liable to hit the false front and roll back to the pond.

Hole 7: Par 3 (168, 137, 130, 108)

My buddy Jeff took a drone video of my tee shot here: A pitching wedge that was tracking perfectly. It hit the front of the green, though, and repelled toward the water. I managed par, but how cool would that have been if it was finally my time for a hole-in-one while being recorded?

Video of my 7th hole tee shot at The U-Club – didn’t quite climb the hill

A massive uphill climb, the par five eighth probably plays 75-100 yards longer than the 469 it shows on the scorecard.

Hole 8: Par 5 (498, 469, 460, 406)

The front nine ends with a soft dogleg left par four running alongside the club’s non-golf facilities: Tennis and pickleball courts, pool, cabana and a massive and stately clubhouse.

A look back over the green and fairway of the par four ninth

The back nine begins with the one hole on the course I’m not a big fan of. Even the longest of drives uphill will not afford a view of the green on ten, which is at an awkward distance too close to the top of the hill to visualize.

Tee shot on the uphill, dogleg right par four tenth

If I were a member, I would have liked to see the tenth addressed during renovations. That said, it’s a great “home course advantage” layout for members bringing out their friends, and is probably the kind of hole that really grows on you.

While I’m not a big fan of the tenth, I love the eleventh. It’s a big, bold par five with a go-for-it opportunity off the tee that’ll coax you in to doing something stupid.

Playing well above the fairway, the first tees in require a drive of ~ 275 to clear the river. I hadn’t hit many good drives all day, but there was no way I was about to lay up to that distance. I ended up clearing it and had 204 in. The reward would have been worth the risk if I hadn’t then topped my 5-wood in to the fairway bunker.

Hole 11: Par 5 (528, 515, 475, 421)
The par five 11th features another great Bendelow green complex

For 97 years, 17 of the 18 greens at Tripoli were original to Tom Bendelow’s design. To make room for their new, world-class training facilities, though, something had to give.

The area that made most sense to be altered was right here, nestled amidst the eleventh green, former twelfth tee box, twelfth green, thirteenth fairway and sixteenth tee and its unintended fly zone.

The sixteenth previously played directly over the twelfth green, a dangerous situation that yielded too much reward for too many players not to risk, even though it was considered out-of-bounds if landing short.

The new twelfth is slightly longer than the previous par three, plays east-west slightly uphill and I’m told typically in to a headwind. The green is wonderful, modeled after the old twelfth green with some Bendelow grassy features similar to what’s found around the rest of the course.

Hole 12: Par 3 (212, 197, 152, 119)

To assist in making room for the practice facility, the thirteenth tee was expanded and shifted but plays to the same landing area as the old hole. It has a more pronounced dogleg now and a wider, more forgiving fairway.

With a potentially blind second shot, the thirteenth plays uphill to the landing zone then downhill to a green that allows approach shots to run on. I really like this golf hole. A lot.

The fourteenth is a classic short par three and an opportunity to dial in a lofted club to one of the course’s smallest hittable targets. I love short par threes and this one’s a gem.

Hole 14: Par 3 (144, 134, 130, 102)

The number one handicapped hole at the University Club, strategy on the par four sixteenth has changed significantly over the years. With massive technological advancements in clubs and golf balls, the 240-yard drive over trees that the previous version of this hole required had become more and more possible over the years. In fact, it had become a common line. And smack dab in the middle of that line was the 12th green.

With the tees shifted slightly back and to the right, players are now foolhardy to aim over the treeline – even the longest drivers of the golf ball would be challenged to carry it now, and coming up short would still be out-of-bounds.

The number one handicapped hole should be the number one handicapped hole for a reason. And it is again now.

Hole 16: Par 4 (444, 423, 415, 326)

I hit one of my best drives of the day here, and still had 5-iron in. Having to then carry water and hit an elevated green with a ridiculous false front shows exactly why this hole is worthy of a one on the card.

Hole 16: Par 4 (444, 423, 415, 326)
The approach area short of the river near the U-Club’s trademark windmill

The eighteenth is a fun finishing hole and fits my eye well. Its wide fairway climbs uphill and slightly right toward the clubhouse, and the green has more room than it appears from the fairway.

Hole 18: Par 4 (373, 361, 355, 305)

I really enjoy the University Club.

It’s a challenging classic golf course that’s walkable yet features terrific changes in elevation. Tees are near enough to greens to avoid exhausting transfers, and the uphill jaunts (while significantly uphill) are spread out enough to let players regain their energy.

More than that, though, there’s good variety to the feel and the layout. There’s a solid collection of uphill and downhill holes, straight shots and doglegs. The par threes vary nicely, the course drained remarkably well [considering the multiple-day deluge we had just emerged from] and the conditions were impeccable.

In addition to the great private golf club experience U-Club members get on the north side of Milwaukee, they also have a sister club downtown for dining and entertainment. Chef Jeff Slough was the long-time [and missed] Executive Chef at North Hills Country Club in Menomonee Falls before going out on his own with Pike Lake House. He’s absolutely terrific.

Overall, the University Club seems like a top-notch Milwaukee private club experience, and recent updates have helped bolster its competitive appeal for years to come with amazing practice facilities, a resort-like pool and cabanas, tennis and pickleball courts, a top-notch downtown dining venue and really well thought out locker rooms.

Combined with what appears to be a relatively young and active membership, there’s a lot to like about the new 99-year-old University Club.

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Yardage: Black-6588, Blue-6269, White-6010, Red-6330
Slope/Rating: Black-130/72.4, Blue-127/70.7, White-124/69.6, Red-120/66.6
Par: 71

The University Club Website

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