Whether into fishing, boating, hiking or golf, the Northwoods has something for everyone who loves the outdoors. I’ve been a sporadic visitor to Northern Wisconsin throughout my life, and I find it to be a place where one can truly unwind, unplug and live in the moment away from the stressors of regular life.
Quality golf in the Northwoods is in ample supply with a smattering of courses, mostly public, found throughout the Minocqua region. Many of the properties in this area are heavily wooded and challenging, but incredibly scenic. Over the years I’ve become familiar with popular public layouts such as Timber Ridge, Trout Lake, Plum Lake and St. Germain. Each course has its own distinctive character and utilizes the natural setting of the Northwoods in a unique way.
Minocqua Country Club, the only private facility in the area, has similar characteristics to these well-known public properties, but takes them to a higher level. This meticulously maintained modern track has a terrific routing that traverses through heaving hills, forests and marshes. The spectacular property, and in particular its newer southern section, reminded me of Wild Rock Golf Club in Wisconsin Dells, featuring dramatic elevation changes coupled with outstanding forest views.
Minocqua Country Club combines a great piece of land with outstanding architecture. All 18 holes present strategic options from tee to green, and the greens complexes are challenging yet playable.
At the end of a recent Northwoods vacation with my family, my dad and I had a chance to check out the club for the first time in about 15 years. My memory of the course was not very good, mostly because of the horrendous round I played the last time. If you can’t get the ball in play, golf simply can be frustrating regardless of the strength of venue. Fortunately, this time around I kept the ball in play most of the time and shot a decent score, and I was able to take in the layout on a much better footing.
Originally a Golden Age 9-hole property, the club underwent a complete redesign and expanded to 18 holes in 2001, shortly after Timber Ridge turned public and created a void of 18-hole private facilities in the area. Architect Ron Garl, best known for an impressive number of original designs in Florida, was enlisted for the effort. A large tract of dramatic, wooded land south of the original property was donated by a founding club member to expand the course to 18 holes. In fact, 12 holes were created on the new land, while the original property was re-routed to house the other six holes. The result was a cohesive yet varied experience, blending old and new seamlessly while providing a secluded experience in nature on the newly added land.
Minocqua Country Club
Established 1917; Redesigned 2001
Architect: Ron Garl (redesign)
Par 72, 6794/6478/6093/5631/5373/4945/4000 Yards
The front nine at Minocqua Country Club features six spacious holes residing on the original portion of the property, occupying a pleasant setting of meadow mixed in with forest and offering occasional views of nearby Minocqua Lake. Holes 2 through 4 provide a short introduction to the hillier and more wooded terrain found on the newer side of the property.
Hole 1 – Par 5, 557/501/463/439/344 Yards
The first hole is a straightaway par 5 that played directly into the morning sun. The tee shot is generously wide and will accommodate a rusty start. I needed the extra width as my opening tee shot disappeared into the morning glare but we fortunately found it on the right edge of the fairway, mere yards from deep woods.
Fescue lines the left side and forest borders the right all the way up a rolling fairway, but the open playing area creates a nice opportunity to get off to a good start. I sprayed my ball all the way up to the green, and escaped with an up-and-down par save from a tough lie 75 yards out to avoid pain on the scorecard.
Hole 2 – Par 4, 394/365/332/290/239 Yards
After a journey through the forest to the newer portion of the property, the second hole is a mid-length dogleg left that meanders through a marshy area. The tee shot is tight and daunting, and there may not be enough room through the dogleg to hit driver. The approach then plays slightly uphill to an undulating green guarded by sand left and short. After two solid shots, I was disappointed to walk away with a three-putt bogey from about 30 feet.
Hole 3 – Par 3, 215/195/186/120 Yards
The third is a long, demanding and scenic par 3. After a short carry over a ravine, the landing area slopes slightly right-to-left to a narrow green protected closely by sand left. The natural bail-out area to the right is bordered by a large bunker, where my slightly blocked hybrid came to rest. However, I made up for the three-putt on #2 by sinking a 35-footer for a tough sand save.
Hole 4 – Par 4, 398/363/330/294/236 Yards
The fourth hole is an uphill dogleg right with a split-fairway off the tee. The right section of the fairway is but a sliver at the bottom of a hill, and while playing to it could cut off distance, it’s a very risky play with forest and marsh just to the right and a potential blind approach. The second shot plays to a multi-section green with a spine up the middle, placing a premium on an accurate shot to the correct side as well as sound club selection to account for the elevation change.
Hole 5 – Par 3, 166/158/145/111 Yards
After returning to the original section of the property, the fifth plays over a valley to an elevated green. A giant bunker stands guard on the front-right, and should be avoided at all costs. I hit a near-perfect mid-iron right at the pin, but it came up a foot short and violently hopped back into the trap where I faced a tough downhill lie. As the saying goes, that’s golf!
Hole 6 – Par 4, 296/266/235/212/159 Yards
The sixth is a terrific short par 4, reachable for the longer hitter but still a good birdie opportunity even following lay-up. A swale of fescue cuts into the right side about 220 yards off the tee, followed by a modest ascent to an elevated green protected by sand short-right. Aggressive drives must skirt past the swale and favor the left side to run onto the surface. I wisely laid back with a hybrid off the tee to set up a sand wedge in, and I was able to convert the birdie.
Hole 7 – Par 4, 437/399/367/338/254 Yards
Any generosity provided by the fun, relatively easy 6th is quickly erased at the brutally difficult 7th. This long par 4 tees off just yards from Lake Minocqua’s shoreline to a wide fairway. The approach shot is a brute, however, as the hole bends left towards an elevated, tiered green. I hit the fairway but didn’t advance it as far as I’d like, and my hybrid approach was slightly pulled left into fescue and resulted in a lost ball. From there I played a pitch to the wrong tier and faced a near-impossible downhill putt, ultimately leading to a triple.
Hole 8 – 335/325/300/268/188 Yards
The eighth is a short, narrow dogleg left that makes excellent use of Minocqua’s mixed landscape of forest and meadow. Foliage to the left will prevent most players from trying to cut the dogleg. The conventional tee shot is less than driver to the corner followed by wedge in, but the narrow width makes this challenging even for a conservative play. The fairway bends into the forest to a beautiful green site with bunkers short.
Hole 9 – 585/546/509/472/448/379 Yards
On the long, uphill ninth, “grip it and rip it” is a mantra that should work well, with the fairway more than 75 yards wide in some spots. However, it will still be difficult to get home in two, due to the sheer length of the hole as well as a tightly guarded approach. Those laying up will be rewarded with a manageable short iron to an elevated green with deep sand traps short. The green is two-tiered, and we played to a less accessible left pin. I needed five solid shots to grind out a par and close the front nine in good order.
After turning at Minocqua CC’s tasteful log cabin-style clubhouse, a woodsy adventure awaits on the back nine. Many of the same architectural themes seen on the front are also on display on the back, but the course begins to feel more claustrophobic with deep forest surrounding much of its playing area. Aesthetically, the back nine is on the short list of most beautiful nines in the state, with dramatic elevation changes blending in with the forest and wildlife sightings in ample supply.
Hole 10 – Par 4, 377/325/300/285/238/198 Yards
The tenth hole wastes no time jumping into the pure natural setting of the back nine. The drive (pictured earlier) is an intimidating blind shot with a short forced carry into a narrow-looking corridor with deep forest on both sides. The fairway is actually quite wide, however, and a good drive will set up a short iron to an elevated punchbowl-like green. Golfers who can overcome the mental challenge of this tee shot may be able to earn a nice birdie opportunity to start the back nine.
Hole 11 – Par 4, 445/403/367/327/259 Yards
The nickname of eleven, “Brute,” is quite fitting. This long par four plays over dramatic, heaving hills. The fairway tumbles down a slope about 240 yards off the tee and then veers left, and anything hit right will be in danger of running into a ravine filled with fescue and trees. That’s the path my tee shot took, leading to one of my few lost balls of the day. The approach plays to a narrow green, demanding a straight, pure shot. In general, two sound shots are needed to have a realistic chance to make par, but I went the unconventional route by chipping in for a 4 from just short of the green.
Hole 12 – Par 5, 507/471/415/381/300 Yards
The twelfth is an uphill, dogleg right that may be reachable in two for longer hitters. The fairway narrows after about 250 yards with plenty of opportunities to lose a ball laterally, so clubbing down off the tee and playing it as a three-shot hole is the prudent move.
Hole 13 – Par 3, 166/125/109/91 Yards
I love tight, short par 3’s that properly match length with the need for precision. With a wedge in hand, it just seems right to have to hit a highly precise shot. The famous 7th at Pebble Beach, perhaps the best-known par 3 in all of golf, is a short wedge shot to a tiny green backed by the glorious Pacific.
The thirteenth at Minocqua CC is another example of a great short par 3. The green is of moderate size, but with multiple sections and tiers, it’s paramount to dial in a high-quality wedge or short iron to find the right section. A large, deep bunker covers the front-right side while a stately pine flanks the left. With water far right and steep elevation changes all around, this is one of the most sublime views on the entire property.
We played to the tiny front-left tier which left no options or bailout zones. Unfortunately, my slightly mishit wedge found the bunker and led to a routine bogey.
Hole 14 – Par 4, 416/376/351/344/324/270
Eagle sightings are common in the Northwoods, but we had the mother of all such encounters on the fourteenth. Prior to the round, the assistant pro told us to watch out for an eagle that had taken up residence near the green. Sure enough, as we approached the green a huge eagle flew right over us, then swooped onto the green next to my dad’s ball. For a minute I was worried the eagle would steal his ball, but ended up passing on it before returning to its nest at the top of a tall nearby tree.
The hole itself is another challenging one, with a narrow tee shot that must avoid bunkers and all-consuming forest on both sides. The approach shot is tight, as well, playing to a green that slopes heavily from right-to-left. The bird sighting thoroughly distracted me as I badly hooked a mid-iron from the middle of the fairway into the nevermore, leading to a double bogey.
Hole 15 – 544/521/484/453/411/318 Yards
The fifteenth is a straightaway par 5 with a drive over a marsh to a wide fairway. Selecting the right set of tees is crucial here, as the longest two sets (the Bear and Wolf tees) have a more intimidating angle from the left and a longer carry over the hazard. The approach heads uphill with more water on the right side near layup distance. The green on fifteen is multi-tiered with large bunkers on both sides. With ample trouble to contend with, the decision to go for the green in two is not straightforward, and would only be advisable for the most confident ball-strikers. I hit a great drive and found myself 250 yards out, but wisely chose to lay up which still led to a makeable birdie putt.
Hole 16 – Par 3, 198/165/149/123/95 Yards
The sixteenth is a thrilling par 3 playing downhill to a green surrounded by marsh, forest and sand. Once again, tee selection is vitally important and could make the difference between needing wedge or long iron. We played the wrong tee (as I later realized) from 165 yards, a manageable distance but still a demanding shot. My flushed six iron landed close to the pin and then gathered on a slope long and rolled back to within 10 feet. I missed the short birdie putt for the second hole in a row but could feel momentum building in my play from tee-to-green.
Hole 17 – Par 4, 353/321/294/229/179 Yards
The 17th is a straightforward, uphill par 4 with plenty of room off the tee. An accurate drive is essential to set up a manageable approach shot to a green tucked behind several bunkers. I stayed in a good zone, splitting the fairway and sticking wedge to 3 feet to set up an “easy” birdie.
Hole 18 – Par 4, 405/389/358/249/329/260 Yards
Minocqua CC’s closing hole is a terrific par 4, bending to the right around a tall pine sitting in the right side of the fairway. Within-fairway trees are not my cup of tea, but this one enhances the strategy of the hole, as uber-aggressive long hitters can try to cut the dogleg right of the tree to set up a short pitch in. The more sensible play for most of us is to the left, where less than driver is likely required to avoid running into a fairway trap at the corner. The approach is uphill to a very large, sloping green with plenty of trouble left. It’s a fitting end to the round, with excellent forest views, pronounced elevation changes, sufficiently wide playing surfaces and an undulating, quick green.
Playing Minocqua Country Club was the perfect ending to a terrific Northwoods vacation. The expansive property was in outstanding condition, and the marvelous routing by Ron Garl put the beauty of Northern Wisconsin on full display. I was quite surprised at how playable the course was, given my first encounter with it many years ago that featured lost balls on most holes. A low score is achievable provided the misses aren’t too extreme, as the fairways are generously wide but woods and tall grass await severe mistakes on nearly every hole.
The magnificent views of the forest, wildlife, and playing corridors paired with an engaging, challenging layout provided a memorable and highly enjoyable experience in nature. While good public tracks exist in the nearby area, Minocqua Country Club has established itself as its top golfing property and one of the top private facilities in the entire state, and I would highly recommend checking it out if you are visiting the region and have access to the course.