Golf Course Review: SentryWorld

This past February, on a Zoom call, golf writers and media members watched as the USGA and SentryWorld General Manager, Mike James, announced the appointment of SentryWorld to host the US Senior Open the week of June 29-July 2, 2023.

Golf and good news go hand-in-hand in Central Wisconsin, where news of expansions and sold-out seasons at Sand Valley, a fabulous renovation of Stevens Point Country Club and extensive updates to prepare for the 2023 US Senior Open at SentryWorld are quickly making it one of Wisconsin’s top golf destinations.

Debuted in 1982 (6 years before Blackwolf Run), SentryWorld was Wisconsin’s original destination golf course and was for a long time ranked it’s #1 public track. Development of golf properties has boomed in Wisconsin since the late 80’s, though, and in an effort to keep up and stay front-of-mind SentryWorld and its ownership group, Sentry Insurance, have undergone a series of extensive renovation projects that have left nothing to the imagination, and – even though the course has yet to reopen since the onset of COVID-19 – are helping tee up incredible success for years to come.

Shutting down play for the entire 2013 and 2014 seasons, SentryWorld’s initial renovations took away some of the course’s original quirks (see article: SentryWorld… Reimagined), included significant rerouting and led to development of new holes on one of the property’s most dramatic yet previously unused tracts.

The spectacular par three 12th, added in 2014 (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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Recent updates, while smaller in scope than in 2014, build on the excellence already in place and are aimed at making the course more challenging for the 2023 US Senior Open while still providing an enjoyable challenge for the everyday player. New tees were added, fairways have been tightened, new bunkers have been strategically cut where Phil Mickelson and other stars’ drives are expected to land, and multiple green complexes have been raised, repositioned and/or expanded to toughen up scoring and open new pin locations.

While very little of the course’s design aesthetic has changed to the eye, players – especially the pros in 2023 – will likely notice them on their scorecards. SentryWorld is a huge, beautiful beast of a golf course.

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SentryWorld is like no other course in the state, or that I know of, in general.

Originally developed in part as an [incredible] amenity for its employees and corporate guests, Sentry Insurance’s then Chairman John Joanis spared no expense when developing the course on the mutual insurance giant’s corporate campus in Stevens Point.

It was in that spirit that Robert Trent Jones, Jr.’s team was brought in to design what he now calls his “Mona Lisa,” and has even referred to as the “Augusta of the North.”

The newly placed “My Mona Lisa,” welcoming players to the Flower Hole (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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Certainly, you’d be hard pressed to find a golf course – public or private – with better, more consistent conditioning. Even playing in mid-October, when the course has been closed for two years and the greens were recently aerated, it played beautifully. The fairways were the definition of pristine, the greens were fast enough and ran true with very little bumpiness – significantly better than we expected given their recent punch. They may not have been running their normal 12-plus, but on most putting surfaces we could barely even tell they’d been aerated.

It’s a funny thing being the only ones on a course that hasn’t been played in a while. It felt criminal taking a divot from the fairways, and I’ve never looked quite so intently for my ball marks on greens.

With some leaves in the rough, we were prepared to institute a “leaf rule” from time to time. On both occasions I thought it would be invoked, though, my friend and WiscoGolfAddict.com Contributing Writer Troy Giljohann found my tee shot well behind where we were looking. On the sixth hole, for example, we were looking for my ball near SentryWorld Director of Golf Danny Rainbow’s. It felt well struck, just a tad off-course to the right.

To keep things moving, I dropped in the rough with 182 yards in, then heard Troy say he found it. I wound up with a 238-yard 5-wood in over trees, and almost wanted to say, “Nope, not mine!” It would’ve been a tough denial, though, given there were literally no other stray balls on the course.

SentryWorld’s new SubAir technology

SentryWorld has always been known for having terrific greens, and they’ll be even better going forward. One of the big reasons for this is the new SubAir system now installed beneath their putting surfaces.

SubAir’s vacuum blower technology connects to the green complex’s subsurface drainage systems, pulling air and water from the surface to help dry them out quickly following rain, and pushing air through the root systems to keep turf healthy during oppressive heat and drought. The system was originally developed for the 12th green at Augusta National, and SentryWorld is the first course in Wisconsin to boast the new technology.

The 2nd green complex at SentryWorld, illuminated by the sunrise (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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Reinvestment

This is a property that has never shied away from investing in its golf course. Beginning with the appointment of Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and his team led by Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi [for the major renovation], Chairman Joanis never balked at spending to make this a world-class golf experience, and Sentry’s new Chairman, Pete McPartland, has seen things the same way.

One of my favorite stories about the opulence (in a very good way) of SentryWorld is how Chairman Joanis wanted trout in the manmade lake that shapes the now third, fourth and fifth, and eleventh through thirteenth holes. When he was told they’d need the pond to be dug at least 30 feet deep to survive, he told the crew to make it happen. When they came back to him after hitting solid rock at ten feet and weren’t sure they should continue, he simply asked what part of 30 feet they didn’t understand.

The all-world par five 5th at SentryWorld, circumnavigating the pond (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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Remnants of that massive amount of bedrock removal can now be found across the property, lining water features, cart paths and creating zen-like displays. It’s said this is likely the most expensive pond in the state, and today much more than just trout, bass and bluegills inhabit it as the 2014 renovation connected the water feature to other local waterways through a parcel of land they previously did not utilize. Danny mentioned it’s even inhabited by muskies these days.

Or how about the par five ninth and its criss-crossing stream that meanders the length of the hole? The pump system was engineered to move water in both directions – upstream and downstream – from a central point in the fairway. It’s an engineering feat that was I’m sure not cheap, but allowed for the hole’s challenging and incredibly unique design.

The to and fro stream winding down the 9th fairway at SentryWorld (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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It’s not often golf courses are backed by mutual insurance giants, but when they are it makes for one incredible golf experience!

The area that new renovations are most recognizable in is with the size of fairways. While they’ve shrunken considerably, it’s not a terrible burden for amateur golfers as the rough will not be anything like it will be for the 2023 US Senior Open for “normal rounds.” Guys like us can still find and advance our balls as long as they’re not completely off the reservation.

Other course updates that have been made include:

  • Drip irrigation systems installed around each bunker, which will allow the magnificent Ohio’s Best white sand to play perfectly even following rain
  • New trap on 13 where tee shots land, adding more structure to the landing zone
  • Green expanded on 4 in the back-left section, creates new pin positions and allows interesting run-on opportunities
  • Green on the par five 5th has been raised to create more danger in going for green in two – if short the false front can send shots down toward the water
  • New tee box added to seven, extending the par three to 235+ from the tips
  • New back tees on the beautiful par 3 12th played over water
  • Green complex raised significantly on 18, making it an even more challenging finish
View of the 18th green and SentryWorld clubhouse from the right-side fairway bunkers (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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When you bring up SentryWorld to the average Wisconsin golfer, they immediately mention the Flower Hole 16th. SentryWorld is so much more than a single short hole with tens of thousands of colorful blooms, though, and I would argue that the 16th is nowhere near their best par three.

The Flower Hole at SentryWorld in full bloom (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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The third, with its infinity green, and twelfth surrounded by water are breathtakingly good par threes in their own right, and the long (over 200 from the back two sets of tees) and challenging seventh is a terrific golf hole.

The 3rd hole and its infinity green (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)
The challenging par three 7th at SentryWorld (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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Beauty and the need for strategic shot-making is everywhere on this golf course, and I confer, along with the River course at Blackwolf Run, SentryWorld is one of the two best public parkland courses in the entire state of Wisconsin.

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Operational updates in 2022

Let’s start with the best news of all: Barring unforeseen major setbacks in world health, SentryWorld plans to reopen to the public this Spring.

To coincide with the course reopening, GM Mike James recently unveiled an upgraded golf experience unlike any I’ve seen at a public facility, including:

  • A relaxed pace of play
  • Fully inclusive rounds – the $275 all-inclusive rate will include:
    • 18 holes of world-class golf on SentryWorld
    • GPS-equipped golf cart with Bluetooth speakers
    • Practice balls
    • On-course refreshment stations with complimentary:
      • Grab-and-go meals and snacks
      • Handcrafted hot menu items
      • Draft and craft beers, wine, seltzers and other premixed cocktails
      • Non-alcoholic beverages including soda, sports drinks and lemonade
      • Made-to-order cocktails and specialty beverages
    • Club storage
    • All gratuities
  • New stay-and-play option – starting at $375 per player, enjoy the fully inclusive golf experience and stay on-site at the all-new Inn at SentryWorld boutique hotel

Just how relaxed will the course’s new pace of play be? SentryWorld will now be spacing out tee times in an unprecedented 20-minute intervals! In a world where most golf properties aim to cram every last player they can on the tee sheet, SentryWorld is moving the other way. With just three tee times per hour, the course should never overcrowd, and conditions should stay impeccable all season long for visitors to enjoy their relaxed day on the course.

The infinity green, drivable par four 11th (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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Being an international destination, Sentry felt it was the right thing to do to keep the course closed throughout the pandemic, thereby not bringing folks from around the country/globe along with the germs they may carry.

This is obviously something only a golf property backed by an incredibly successful large corporation could have even considered, but that they did it for the right reasons is I think commendable. Since 2019, only a very small group of people have had the privilege of playing here, and I obviously feel incredibly fortunate to be one of them (other than my friends Troy and Brandon and me, they’ve only held two outings they couldn’t cancel and hosted Patrick Koenig as part of the WSGA Internship).

With less available tee times, years of pent-up demand and heaps of mystique surrounding the course and its updated layout and operations, it may not be quite as difficult to get on as it’s been the last couple years, but I can see securing a tee time in 2022 being a formidable yet worthwhile challenge.

That said, some preference will be given to stay-and-play guests who book a room in their new boutique hotel, The Inn at SentryWorld, situated just off the 18th fairway. With 64 well-appointed rooms, highlighted by local Wisconsin artwork and flair, these high-end accommodations feature gorgeous vistas of the golf course and are just steps from the magnificent SentryWorld clubhouse and all it has to offer (anyone who doesn’t take in a meal and enjoy local craft beers at PJ’s is really missing out!).

An early view of the new Inn at SentryWorld (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)
The grand main entrance to SentryWorld’s clubhouse (photo credit: Katie Berdan Wolden/Sentry)

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So, where do I put SentryWorld in my list of the state’s top golf courses? It’s certainly up there. Here’s how the big guys rank it:

  • Golf Digest: Top 100 Public #50, Wisconsin #8, Wisconsin Public #7
  • GolfWeek: Top 100 You Can Play #94, Wisconsin Public #8
  • Golf.com: Not ranked

Personally (with the disclaimer that all are absolutely world-class facilities and there are no losers here), I put the newly renovated course at number four, nudging out nearby Sand Valley and just behind Whistling Straits, Erin Hills and the River course at Blackwolf Run.

But just think about that: According to the big golf publications, Wisconsin has 7 courses they rank ahead of what RTJ II calls his “Mona Lisa,” and two of those are within an hour at nearby Sand Valley Golf Resort.

As the good news keeps coming for the Central Wisconsin golf scene, it’s a destination that can no longer be overlooked, and out-of-state golf enthusiasts better be sure they’ve got SentryWorld on their itinerary early for 2022 trips to the Dairy State. It’s a course and experience nobody will want to miss.

2022 tee time availability opened December 1, so make sure to book your trip to SentryWorld now.

Visit the SentryWorld website for more information and tee times/rates

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