Glen Erin may not be the easiest place to get to, but it’s well worth it.
I’d been hearing great things about this place for years: A linksy inland course with good greens and terrific modern design. It was a spot I knew for a while I needed to check out for my list of Wisconsin’s top 25 public courses.
So, late this past season WiscoGolfAddict.com Contributing Writer Troy Giljohann and I set aside a morning to head south and review one of the state’s newest and most underrated public golf courses: Glen Erin.
I got lost on my way down, of course, as my phone’s GPS brought me along backroads that were adjacent to the property but couldn’t quite access it. I was frustrated as I could tell it was a great morning to have the drone in the air but was suddenly missing its best light.
I figured it out, though. The course is adjacent to the Janesville airport and shares a frontage road – not sure how my GPS didn’t know that (queue Michael Scott driving into Lake Scranton).
The moment I left my car I could see what readers have been telling me:
Glen Erin is the definition of a hidden gem.
Developed on a high point of the property, the parking lot, charming Irish-style clubhouse and Cursing Stone Pub reside over wide open, up-and-down golf terrain on either side (Glen Erin translates to “Ireland’s Valley”). It’s a well laid out setup that helps pique players’ excitement levels before the round, and then never lets them down.
Opened in 2003 and designed by renowned course architect Greg Martin of Illinois, Glen Erin punches well above its belt as a round of golf that costs on average just $49 with cart on weekends.
That overachievement in value versus quality is honestly something I’ve come to expect from Martin-designed courses. A former President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), Greg is well-known in the industry as a thoughtful designer who brings upscale design elements to the masses.
In the case of Glen Erin, those upscale design elements have just begun. The next couple years will bring big-time course enhancements, headlined by revetted bunkers on four to seven holes (see http://permaedgebunker.com and tell me that doesn’t fire you up!). Tree removal, new teeing surfaces/options and bunker improvements are all also slated to occur.
I’ve had the pleasure of playing several of Greg’s designs over the years, and the privilege of getting to know him a little personally, mostly over social media and email.
We first met at The Preserve at Oak Meadows in 2017, where Team Illinois hosted us for the annual Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writer’s Cup. At the time, the DuPage County course was preparing to reopen following a $17-million renovation that pared its layout down from 27 holes to 18, and that [as importantly] expanded the property’s role within the Wood Dale/Addison community.
The course, previously also known as “Soak Meadows,” didn’t just undergo a renovation but was given a transformation so significant Golf Digest called it “The most important new golf course to open in 2017,” and donned it winner of the publication’s annual Green Star Award for its positive environmental impact.
Martin’s new layout in Addison is exemplary, and one I’m excited to get back to in the next year or two.
Like The Preserve at Oak Meadows, Glen Erin overachieves in abundance: It’s a unique golf course with interesting design elements, a smart and thoughtful routing with excellent green complexes, terrific diversity within its hole layouts and is both fun and challenging.
Both courses have proven to be massive value-adds for their local communities.
History & Design
Glen Erin was the second project of Aviation Golf Services, following The Bridges in Madison (a course I still need to check out). AGS planned on developing courses at unused tracts of airport land across the United States, and was well on their way with a pipeline of four or five projects when construction began at Glen Erin.
The day after that site work began came 9/11.
While the development of Glen Erin continued, the rest of their projects were put on indefinite hold. I have to think if they knew how well Glen Erin would turn out that they’d have kept everything else on track.
Martin was tasked with designing a golf course that would be fun, and that would attract golfers from south of the Wisconsin/Illinois border while fulfilling the needs of Janesville’s local golf community.
That sounds simple enough for an accomplished architect, but rest assured this project was not without its challenges.
To start, the project’s proximity to the airport placed serious constraints on design elements. No water features could be incorporated, for example, as they’d attract ducks and geese that create potentially hazardous aircraft conditions.
Most impactfully, though, the project had an incredibly low $1.8 million construction budget, meaning the design had to take full advantage of existing terrain. There would be no blank checks to support excessive land clearing, shaping or drainage work.
As much as he was tasked with designing a course that would fill tee times, Martin was challenged to bring forth a routing that would satisfy needs for strategy and interest while staying within a budget that wouldn’t support trial and error or excess.
To help manage this, priority was placed on green sites and approach angles.
It’s the age-old adage of KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid. With principle focus placed on what’s most important to overall course design, Martin and his team could avoid the urge to overcomplicate less impactful architectural elements.
By getting the greens and approach angles right from the start, he could then focus on ways for the rest of the puzzle pieces to fall into place.
“There are no water hazards at Glen Erin (airport restrictions because of waterfowl), which was something that pushed me to present different aspects and strategies. The bunkers are relevant, and the greens are quite fun and interesting.
I am fond of a number of golf holes, but mostly proud of the routing, how it starts, then moves through the landscape – down and over the “Glen” (“Valley” in Gaelic), in and out of tree lines with ever-changing direction, wind influences, vistas and topography.
There is a simplicity to the routing that reveals the landscape without fanfare. Those are satisfying golf experiences. Those are golf experiences that compel golfers to return.”
– Greg Martin, Martin Design
I couldn’t agree more with Greg, and that they were able to do so much despite the project’s restrictions to me is an incredible feat.
I have Glen Erin currently ranked as the #19 public course in the state of Wisconsin and, along with tracks like Whispering Springs in Fond du Lac and Wildridge in Eau Claire (another Martin design), I now consider it to be one of the state’s most notable must-play hidden gems.
The golf course
Glen Erin opens with an elevated tee shot on one, playing from a chute of trees out from the clubhouse. While the fairway looks restrictive, there’s plenty of room right on this short par four.
A long par three, the second is a 225-yard (we played the tips) monster with a steep two-tier green. A back pin is most challenging to summit with a left-to-right ledge bisecting the putting surface.
One of the most unique holes at Glen Erin comes early by way of the par four third. With a tee shot aimed at an opening in the woods, the approach is where this hole gets really interesting (remember: Primary emphasis was placed on greens and approach angles).
The second shot on three is one of the prettiest on the entire course, significantly uphill and well-guarded by deep greenside bunkers built into the hillside.
The sixth is a lengthy par four with even longer views. The tee shot is elevated, playing into a valley adjacent to the property’s entranceway.
Martin’s cross-bunkering on six is wonderful and took a layered approach, forcing players to consider their distances both off the tee and on the approach [or setup] shot to avoid these deep traps.
I can only imagine this will be one of the holes considered for riveted sand features. It could be a spitting image of golf across the pond.
A great short three, mounding from the forward tees on seven hide much of the hole’s oversized green surface from the back tees. This is one of the highest points on property, and one of the most exposed, bringing wind into the equation.
Playing downhill, the eighth hides players’ views of the fairway from the tee boxes, forcing them to pick a line. It seems like the shot here is a little further right than you’d (I’d) think, but I think I’ll have to [happily] play it again to confirm.
The key swing on eight is the second, which needs to be well-centered for a chance at hitting this green in regulation. This image portrays the way the hole moves before playing through and around a chute of trees separating the eighth and ninth fairways (top).
The front nine ends with a magnificent finishing hole. Playing out from the trees, the tee shot on nine is uphill to the same right-to-left bend in the fairway shared with eight.
Hidden beyond the corner and its fescue-covered mounding and bunkers, the approach shot is mostly blind and conceals a long front-to-back green nestled into the hillside beneath the Cursing Stone Pub and clubhouse.
I loved the way the sun’s morning light lit up this hole…
The back nine tees off uphill on a long right-to-left par five tipped at 589 yards (559 from the first tees in). The initial fairway area veers slightly to the left, favoring a draw.
Swing away on the second shot as there’s plenty of room for error to set up a short third:
Another hole I really enjoyed seeing was the par four 12th. I say “seeing” because I drop-hooked my tee shot way left of the trees. I mishit it so badly, in fact, I had to punch out toward the 13th tees in order to have any angle toward the green. I somehow managed five.
I had to then drop a ball in the fairway to play it more as it was intended. This is too good of a golf hole not to get the full experience.
Another hole absolutely made for riveted pot bunkers is the par three fourteenth. With its elevated clover-shaped green complex, anything missed short-left should find a brutally challenging up-and-down that layered bunkering would add just the right exclamation point to.
I love short par threes. There’s something about golf holes designed to make you think about shot placement that tug at my heart’s strings, and the sixteenth at Glen Erin is special in that regard (versus trying to match up a long distance with general vicinity – I understand that the more accomplished you get as a player the farther out this ability to be precise extends, but I’m an 8- or 9-handicap and my long irons are not my strength).
The elevated tee shot on sixteen plays downhill to what for us that day was one of the shortest holes I’ve found – just 99 yards. With an extreme front pin, there was no way I could hit a 52-degree wedge that little without short-siding myself, so I opted to swing out of my shoes with a 60.
I put up the “Ace Cam” prior to teeing off. Resting the drone behind the pin, such a short distance allows the camera to capture full swings from the tee box and, who knows, maybe someday it’ll catch one going in. While it gave the pin a scare, it needed a few more revolutions.
The dogleg right seventeenth might be the toughest hole on the entire course at Glen Erin, demanding two equally solid, long shots, and it got both Troy and me during our round as neither of us could beat double bogey.
A long par five, the eighteenth is a terrific finishing hole that provides little chance for getting home in two.
Navigate the bunkers on either side of the fairway off the tee and prepare to use the scan feature on your rangefinder to find a comfortable distance [and accessible angle] to lay up to.
The green on eighteen is well downhill, adjacent to the Cursing Stone Pub and its back patio and what I’d assume is event space. Deep bunkers front the green, restricting its functional surface area because of the slope and defensive features. Five is a good score to end your round at Glen Erin.
I can’t say enough how impressed I was with Glen Erin. For a facility with no water hazards (albeit on a beautifully rolling piece of wooded land), built at a cost that would normally cover irrigation and little else, it’s amazing to me how good this golf course is.
An everyday daily fee course with a price tag to match, Glen Erin is now part of my annual must-play list, and I’d encourage you to make it part of yours’, as well.
“Golfers don’t care what it cost to build a golf course, they just want a product that’s authentic and fun. Figuring out how best to use the budget and site resources was the challenge here. Glen Erin is quite satisfying.
– Greg Martin, Martin Design
Location: Janesville, WI
Slope/Rating: Orange-126/72.4, White-121/70.3, Green-116/67.7
Yardage: Orange-6849, White-6342, Green-5786
Weekend Rates: $49