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.
While Dye’s River course is Golf Digest’s number 15 ranked public course in the country, and the undisputed king of the Blackwolf Run property, the Meadow Valleys (ranked 74 by Golf Digest) includes some of Kohler’s most scenic golf holes, especially the thirteenth through sixteenth, and is a stern test of the game.
Our day (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.
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.
After meeting up with Kohler’s Director of Public Relations, who helped put the day together, we rode out on the course to begin capturing this spectacular late-Summer Kohler morning.
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 photos from above the newly developed and highly touted Chris Lutzke-designed par three course.
I love when a property’s past life converges with its new destiny, and the Meadow Valleys has several nostalgic barns 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.
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 right-to-left dogleg in all its glory:
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 my drone was in the air realized it wouldn’t be the angles I was getting that would show best in the morning.
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.
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 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 stunning on camera.
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 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.
The front nine of the Meadow Valleys course plays through a meadow (hence, the name), and actually includes some valleys, as well.
While the prairie terrain provides long views and wide fairways, its multitude of oversized sand traps, tall fescue and great length more than protect against par.
Play the right tees!
To me, I think it’s more important to plan your tees on a Pete Dye course than at any other architect’s. I made the mistake of playing the tips here one time back in 2014, for example (and have made the same mistake on the Irish and Straits courses), and boy did I regret it. On the Meadow Valleys, two of the par threes were over 240 yards (8 and 15) – all carry and straight in to the wind. I had to hit driver on both and lost a ton of balls that day.
Pete Dye set up the back tees 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 (plus-to-4) single-digit ex-hockey players and hit the ball a mile, and everyone struggled.
Dye designed the courses at Kohler for a regular player to have 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 8-handicap, the blue tees were plenty of challenge for Joe and me, and in fact we moved up 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The fifteenth is a great par three, all carry over a valley.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
It’s also one of the most challenging courses around, 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).
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:
- Straits course, Back 9
- River course, Back 9
- Meadow Valleys course, Back 9
- Straits course, Front 9
- The Baths
- River course, Front 9
- Irish course, Back 9
- Irish course, Front 9
- Meadow Valleys course, Front 9
Location: Kohler, WI
Yardage: Black-7165,Blue-6735, White-6236
Slope/Rating: Black-144/74.6, Blue-138/72.6, White-132/70.1
Weekend Rates: $220 (including cart)