An elite few courses in America raise to the level where most serious golfers would drop nearly everything for the opportunity to play them. Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Augusta National are the classic examples – if given the chance, I would rearrange my calendar and hop on the next available flight for a round at any of those venues.
Milwaukee Country Club is of a similar mold, and may be the toughest course to access for the common golfer in the whole state. This ultra-exclusive Wisconsin property is perennially ranked in the top 100 courses in the U.S. by most major publications. Before Blackwolf Run was established in the late 80’s, Milwaukee Country Club was the only top-100 golf experience in the state, but it was one that only a lucky few got a chance to play.
The Milwaukee Country Club was originally established in 1894 with a property on the near east side of of the city. As other golf clubs in the area were established on superior properties in the outskirts of the city, the membership decided to purchase a dramatic plot northwest of the city on the Milwaukee River. The development of Milwaukee Country Club was a key catalyst to the establishment of River Hills.
Golden Age architect Charles Alison, perhaps best known for his outstanding designs in Japan, was commissioned to expand and improve the original layout, and to incorporate additional land near the river. What followed is largely considered Alison’s finest original design in America, a masterpiece of routing that maximizes the incredible river setting.
After many decades, with trees encroaching on the intended playing angles and diminishing the layout’s scenic appeal, the course underwent a restoration project by Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf that was just recently completed. Many trees were removed, most notably near the river, which have opened up more spectacular views, expanded the area of play to make the course more fun, and called attention to the property’s beautiful and unique architecture.
The property is incredibly unique in that the sizable Milwaukee River flows through the course, not simply alongside it. This sets the stage for one of the best routings in America, incorporating the river in extravagant fashion on holes 10 through 15. This stretch has excellent variety, as well, with a great mix of par 3’s, 4’s and 5’s, doglegs that bend both ways and bunkers and slopes placed in a variety of spots to test a player’s complete set of skills.
The rest of the layout plays through a fairly conventional parkland setting with tree-lined fairways and large bunkers dotting a rolling landscape. The signature steep-faced sand traps are used in an incredibly aesthetic and strategic manner, giving each hole a unique identity as well as stiff defense. The club’s firm and fast conditions, combined with severe sloping around its green complexes, make approach shots daunting and place a huge premium on staying below the hole.
My opportunity to play Milwaukee Country Club for the first time came knocking this Summer. After dragging myself (excitedly) out of bed at 4 a.m. to help photograph the course at sunrise, I joined up with WiscoGolfAddict, a.k.a. Paul Seifert, Contributing Writer Troy Giljohann, and MCC’s head professional, Skip Simonds III. We had a beautiful, sunny July morning to photograph and play this heralded course.
Milwaukee Country Club
River Hills, WI
Architect: C.H. Alison
Pat 72, 7101/6864/6351/5434/4924 Yards
The front nine plays mostly through the less striking portion of the property that’s away from the river, but the routing makes maximum use of rolling topography and the hole designs fully incorporate MCC’s signature bunkering to provide a thorough challenge to start the round. After seven relatively ordinary holes (by MCC’s standards), the spectacular eighth and ninth are the perfect prelude to a dazzling back nine.
Hole 1 – Par 4, 431/416/396/330 Yards
The first hole at Milwaukee Country Club presents a relatively gentle handshake to start the round. This opening drive drops from the steep hill housing the clubhouse onto flat ground. With the river just to the right of the tee, this is the closest the routing comes to the waterfront on the front nine, providing a small tease of what’s to come later in the round. Fairway traps must be avoided both left and right, but the landing area is plenty wide to accommodate nervous first swings.
The approach shot is fairly straightforward, with sand left and right that must be avoided. The green is large and accessible, however, making this a good opportunity to get off to a nice start.
Hole 2 – Par 4, 458/417/381/303 Yards
The second is a long par 4 that bends slightly to the right, playing to the western border of the property. A large trap squeezes the landing area of the tee shot to the right, before the approach shot plays slightly downhill to an elevated green with traps on both sides.
Hole 3 – Par 5, 544/494/452/361 Yards
This is a slight dogleg right with OB running down that entire side. The drive and second shot must both contend with a series of fairway traps to get into good position for the approach. The green slopes from back-to-front, and it’s crucial to stay below the hole. However, Troy was able to convert birdie from the right greenside trap with minimal green to work with, as his sand shot squarely hit the pin and led to a tap-in.
Hole 4 – Par 3, 197/180/158/133 Yards
The fourth is the last hole on the northwestern section of the property until the closing few holes. This one-shotter plays uphill to a large green that is well-protected by a daunting bunker front-left. The pin was tucked behind the trap when we played it, and the safe play was to the right side of the green away from the hole location.
After crossing the entrance road, #5 kicks off a stretch of parallel holes on the southwest side of the routing – a final prelude to the remarkable riverfront portion of Milwaukee Country Club.
Hole 5 – Par 4, 438/413/344 Yards
This downhill par 4 is lengthy and demands accuracy. The tee shot must split a set of fairway bunkers to set up an approach to an elevated green protected by a large trap left. A steep slope at the back of the green makes it important to not hit too much club on this approach shot. After missing the fairway off the tee, I was able to scramble for par thanks to my sand wedge approach stopping inches short of the back slope.
Hole 6 – Par 4, 440/405/382/313 Yards
The sixth is a straightaway, uphill par 4. A large cross bunker narrows the landing zone about 230 yards off the tee. The approach plays to a well-defended green, with the elevation change necessitating extra club. I continued a good run on #6 even after finding the sand off the tee, as I was able to hit a low running pitch close and sink the par putt.
Hole 7 – Par 5, 479/451/433/376 Yards
This sub-500 yard downhill hole plays to a par 4 in tournament play, but is a reachable par 5 for members. The tee shot must navigate around or over a deep fairway trap. From there a fairway wood or long iron can get you home in two, but three bunkers near the green make it a risky play. After a good drive, I ran my second shot up near the green but free of the sand, and from there was able to get up-and-down for my sole birdie of the day.
After seven very good holes to open the round, it was clear that Milwaukee Country Club is an excellent property, meticulously conditioned and with unique architecture. However, holes 8 through 15 make this a great golf course with these eight outstanding holes making full use of the river as well as the hillier portion of their property.
Hole 8 – Par 3, 173/160/160/106/79 Yards
The eighth is a brutally difficult short hole. The green is raised around cavernous bunkers that will consume all but the most precise tee shots. This short-to-mid iron shot is visually intimidating, as the giant traps form what appears to be a wall of sand guarding the green. #8 is one of the most beautiful spots on the property, perched atop a hillside with views of the next three holes, the clubhouse and river beyond.
Hole 9 – Par 4, 332/299/225
This famous short par 4 straddles the top of a steep hill on the way back to the clubhouse. It’s a feast-or-famine hole that reminds me of the 14th at Bandon Trails, a picturesque yet perilous test with anything from eagle to triple bogey in play (or even worse, as I found out). The main reason for this is the extreme manner in which the green is elevated and sloped, and of course the colossal bunker that guards its front-right side.
After playing over a small ravine to a tight fairway bordered to the right by a steep hill and large bunker, a tricky short iron shot awaits. Anything remotely short of the center of the green will find a false front and careen well off the green, either back down the fairway or into the sand.
Skip was the only one in our group to avoid double bogey or worse on #9. Meanwhile, the WiscoGolfAddict trio combined to shoot 20 (+8) as we fell victim to the dangers off the tee and cruel green complex. Troy had multiple “tin cup” pitch shots that landed near the pin but rolled off the front slope back to his feet; I toiled in the ravine and sand on my way to a disastrous 8, and Paul found the 10th fairway down the hill to the right and couldn’t quite recover. Despite my snowman spoiling an otherwise solid front nine, this was still one of my favorite holes at MCC.
After a quick stop at a charming halfway house featuring crackers and cheese in true Wisconsin fashion, the glorious back nine awaits. This may be my favorite nine in the whole state, with six holes hugging and crossing the Milwaukee River followed by a more traditional, yet memorable, finish on 16 through 18. Alison’s routing prowess is on full display on the back nine, as the river setting is visually maximized while also being utilized as a template for a large variety of shots.
Hole 10 – Par 5, 486/475/453/359 Yards
The tenth leaps from the clubhouse down a steep slope, bending slightly to the right along the hill that borders the ninth. This is another short par 5 for members that plays as a par 4 in tournaments. The green is nestled into the extreme side slope with a sublime vista of the river in the background. While it is a very reachable par 5, the second shot must be played up the right side to catch the hill at the right angle and hold the green.
Hole 11 – Par 4, 349/245 Yards
The eleventh is a dogleg left with the river running down the right side. A large cluster of bunkers left of the fairway must be avoided, and discourages attempts to cut the corner. The short approach plays to a green with a gigantic false front ensuring mishits will collect in a poor spot. The hole design is very well-suited for the strategy of a shorter par 4, with options that can shorten the hole but add risk.
Hole 12 – Par 3, 206/178/129/113 Yards
This dramatic par 3 plays across the river to a green fronted by three bunkers. While this is one of two forced carries over the river on the property, water is only in play for severe mishits. The bigger challenge here is avoiding the sand and getting onto the correct section of a large, undulating green to ensure a chance at birdie or a routine par. A long, narrow bridge takes golfers to the other side of the river, which is a brief crossing as the 14th hole returns to the original side.
Hole 13 – Par 4, 366/352/309/271 Yards
The thirteenth is the only hole that plays exclusively on the opposite side of the Milwaukee River from where the bulk of the course resides. This shorter par 4 bends sharply to the right around a massive, uniquely-shaped fairway trap and a tall specimen tree. Unfortunately, my natural left-to-right shot shape failed me off the tee and I found thin fescue to the right with a tree to carry on the approach.
The green is protected by two signature steep-faced bunkers wrapping their way around the majority of the green, with the back-left sloping off to a shared fairway with the 14th tee. For the second hole in a row, I found sand on the approach but nearly holed my recovery shot on my way to a tap-in par. Poor play from the sand on holes 8 and 9 paid dividends in the form of experience on the back nine, where I was able to dial in my 60-degree wedge for some solid par saves!
Hole 14 – Par 4, 445/415/388/348/253
The 14th is a long, straightaway par 4 playing over the river on the tee shot. The carry is less than 100 yards, making this more of a visual hazard than a real challenge. While a fairway trap must be avoided off the tee, this is a very straightforward drive down a narrow corridor. The approach plays to a relatively flat green complex with a bunker front-left and small collection area long. While 14 has some challenge length-wise, it is one of the flatter and most defenseless holes on the property, making it a decent scoring opportunity.
Hole 15 – Par 5, 581/515/443/401 Yards
The fifteenth is an adventurous, long par 5 with the Milwaukee River lurking all the way down the right side. The tee shot must either stay short of a set of bunkers left or flirt with the water right, creating an engaging risk-reward opportunity. Sand also cuts into the fairway less than 100 yards out on on the left side, so it’s advisable to lay back to set up a manageable pitch shot approach.
Across the river from 15, a large house sits within par 3 distance of the 15th green. I’ve often fantasized about owning that house and hitting approach shots across the river from the backyard. We all can dream!
The final three holes at Milwaukee Country Club play away from the river, but still present a hefty challenge as they have length while also requiring great precision. I grinded out three tough pars to end the round, and was relieved not to suffer a worse fate on this demanding finish.
Hole 16 – Par 4, 483/441/414/327 Yards
The sixteenth is a long par 4 that bends slightly to the left. The green is generously sized but the back-to-front sloping encourages less club on the approach. Two bunkers sit short of the green, but are only in play for mishits or recovery shots from the trees. The green complex sits in the midst of several mature oak trees, and this idyllic setting was one of my favorite spots on the property.
Hole 17 – Par 3, 254/187/132 Yards
A true par 3.5, the 17th is an extremely long, uphill challenge. As a relatively shorter hitter, I found myself hitting driver, and my tee shot found a large trap on the front-right side. Despite having about 35 yards to the pin, Troy “offered” me a gimme up-and-down par after observing my stellar sand play throughout the back nine (note, this is not how I normally handle sand!). I declined, but proceeded to get up-and-down, anyway. It was a par on the scorecard, but felt like a birdie.
Hole 18 – Par 4, 439/425/388/359 Yards
The closing hole is a slight dogleg left par 4. With a fairway trap cutting off the left half of the fairway roughly 230 yards out, a tough choice exists for medium-length hitters who barely have the power to carry the sand. Extra yardage should be factored in to account for the steep uphill climb.
The approach plays to a green that slopes from right-to-left towards a deep bunker with the clubhouse framing the background. Anything hit to the front-left side of the green is at risk of rolling into the bunker. This was the path my approach took from the right rough, and I was very fortunate to find my ball inches from the sand with an easy angle to save par.
Milwaukee Country Club was everything I hoped it would be, and then some. From the moment I stepped onto the property, I knew this was a special place, one that’s filled with history and prestige. Alison’s masterpiece is a lesson in exceptional routing, and along with his innovative use of bunkering and sloping he took a very good property and made it magnificent. Renaissance Golf has since helped restore the club to its original glory, letting the routing and architecture speak for itself without overgrowth of foliage concealing its magic.
On top of that, the facilities are top-notch, with a perfectly manicured driving range and practice area. The conditioning of the course was also some of the best I’ve ever seen, with the turf playing firm and fast and virtually no blade of grass in poor shape.
After playing the course, I now know why it is widely considered the top private property in Wisconsin and a top 100 course in the nation. I was so impressed with the facility that it debuts at number three in my Top 50. I sure hope I get to play it again someday, and any golf lover who ever gets the chance to play Milwaukee Country Club should absolutely jump on the opportunity.
Interested in purchasing images from this photo shoot?
All photos in this article are available to buy as high-resolution digital downloads for personal use. A few of my favorites from this sunrise shoot at Milwaukee Country Club include: