For three years I’ve been trying to play Nakoma Golf Club in Madison, and every year something’s come up with the kids that’s kept me from keeping the tee time.
2020 was finally the year as my buddies Jeff and Mario and I headed up a couple months back to Nakoma to play with Jeff’s dad, Gary, at his home course on a flawless Fall day.
Designed by Tom Bendelow and debuted in 1925, Nakoma is a classic parkland course with outstanding greens and a fun, sporty layout.
As I’ve come to expect of Bendelow designed courses, Nakoma is an enjoyable walk with convenient routing and short treks from green to tee. It’s a perfect everyday golf course. In fact, I’d put it in the running with spots like Kenosha, Washington County and North Hills as one of the better everyday courses I’ve played.
These are courses you could play day in and day out – walking or riding – and never get tired of them. No annoying holes to “put up with,” a good challenge without being difficult for the point of being difficult, impeccably kept conditions and overall really good, well-designed golf holes.
Tipping out at just under 6,500 yards, Nakoma feels longer as it plays to a par of just 70 (34 on the front, 36 on the back). While the front nine has three par threes (2, 4, 7) and one five (6), the back has a more conventional two of each.
I enjoy an unconventional scorecard. I love a 5-3-5 to end the round at Nakoma, a 5-3-5-3-5-3 mid-round at Lawsonia, back-to-back par fives at Pine Hills (even though the second in the set should probably be a long four) and The Oaks, or back-to-back par threes on 10 and 11 at Pacific Dunes when it means the holes making up those stretches are right for the course. And, in all these cases, they are.
Par doesn’t need to fit a template of 36/36 with two threes and two fives on each nine. Swaying from the standard keeps things interesting, not to mention provides players with good opportunities to score.
Nakoma’s finishing stretch, which ends with the long par five 16th, mid-length par three 17th and short five 18th, is a terrific example of that opportunity to score – it’s a fun, challenging set of holes that left me wishing there were more.
Pace of play for our round at Nakoma was ideal as we finished in under four hours with nobody pressing us and no waiting on tee boxes. The walk wasn’t overly taxing on the legs, it was a perfectly comfortable round of golf, and a ton of fun.
Nakoma has really good variety to its hole layouts, starting with a soft dogleg left through a chute of trees on one.
It’s immediately evident Nakoma’s membership has invested a lot in their course over recent years, which bears out in conversation with the membership.
As an example, look at the tree lines near the clubhouse. This picture could easily be from Milwaukee CC or Medinah – their tree lines are made up of healthy, mature specimens that provide structure, aesthetics and direction, but don’t lead to lost balls and time spent searching for errant tee shots. Furthermore, the neat clusters allow the turf to thrive and provides a visual appeal that puts their team’s attention to detail front and center.
The other key place where attention to detail is incredibly evident? Nakoma’s greens. They. Are. Perfect.
From the very first hole on, each putt rolled perfectly. Nakoma has some of the best conditioned green complexes I’ve played on.
Our round at Nakoma was the first with my Bat-Caddy X4R electric golf caddy, and there couldn’t have been a better course to demo it on. Finishing 18, I barely felt like we started. I would have happily played another 18, and even more happily another 18 after that.
It wasn’t a flawless ride, though. Jeff put the over/under on how many times I dumped it at five. The first time was on the par three 4th, a fun one-shotter with a great risen green complex and a large bunker front-right.
I wanted to put the drone up for a good aerial shot of this hole. So I put up the bird, drove the caddy off the elevated tee boxes and thought I had it stopped in the middle of the fairway. I put my attention, then, on the drone and took a couple shots before hearing my entire bag hit a tree branch just right of the green. It hadn’t occurred to me that I never hit the “Stop” button.
That was embarrassing! It was my first on-course crash with my new electric golf caddy, but I’m sure it won’t be my last.
A dogleg right par four, the fifth is a fun risk/reward hole that begs players to hit driver over the inside tree line. A spattering of fairway bunkers protects long off the tee, while anything coming up short will keep players from having a good look on their approach.
A long par five that stretches to almost 600 yards, the tee shot on six is somewhat blind beyond the crest of the hill, and to a fairly narrow fairway running downhill.
The green on six was a lot tougher than it originally looked, especially with the hole cut just past the left-side false front.
The front nine ends with a dramatic downhill dogleg left par four with a really tricky, crowned green. Position off the tee is crucial here for a short wedge in.
A bit over 400 yards, the back nine kicks off with a long, straightaway par four. The ponds right and long will only catch anything really long or really errant off the tee, but the stream (“Mitchie’s Stream”) meandering down the right side of the hole comes much more in to play, especially around the green.
The fourteenth is a tricky par four, with a straightaway tee shot and multi-tiered green that runs laterally with traps in front and behind. This is a tough green to hold on long approaches.
The 16th is an outstanding par five, and one of my favorite holes on the entire course. The hole incorporates a ton of angles, jutting out toward the left from a chute of trees to an ample landing zone, then right to a setup area defined by a pond short and left of the green. Positioning on this second shot makes the hole, taking the water out of play to the right, or taking it on directly laying up.
A short par five at just 490 yards, the eighteenth presents a great opportunity for birdie to end the round.
It was such an enjoyable round that when we sat down for lunch afterwards I had no idea what I shot. I knew it was pretty good – no blow-ups save for a double on eleven, and a nice birdie on twelve. When we sat down for lunch, though, Gary tallied the scores and had me at 75, which would be my all-time low round by two strokes! It felt like I played well, but not personal best well, so I counted them myself and got 79. Oh well… but what great hospitality!
Speaking of lunch, I love a good cheeseburger, and Nakoma’s Big Chief Burger is awesome. A full half-pound of beef with really good french fries for $14, it hit the spot.
While I’m happy with the pictures I got at Nakoma, I missed plenty of opportunities. Sometimes, though, I feel bad taking photos mid-round – it takes time to put the drone up in the air, to find the right angle(s) and then bring her down. It can make me feel like a burden to my fellow playing partners, although they’re usually the ones who enjoy my photos the most afterwards.
That was the case here. We had such a good flow going to our round that I was hesitant to mess it up, figuring I could grab a cart post-round and tour the course to fill in some of the gaps missed along the way.
Since Nakoma, Jeff (my favorite golf buddy) and I have developed a great cadence where I’ll put the drone up and he’ll bring it down, allowing me to tee off and keep things moving for the group. It allowed us to get a ton of great shots at Green Bay Country Club, for example. Hopefully we’ll be able to visit Nakoma again next year and get a more comprehensive photo gallery that way.
I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed our day at Nakoma. The property has a refined yet old-school feel, a classy and inviting clubhouse, an awesome patio, great food and a timeless course that would be interesting and fun to play on a regular basis. While there are a number of other private clubs I still need to play in the Madison area, I think it’s going to be hard to beat this one.
Location: Madison, WI
Slope/Rating: Gold-128/71.5, White-125/70.0, Green-124/72.0
Yardage: Gold-6469, White-6033, Green-5376