Every Fall, a tradition like no other takes place when 12 golf writers from Wisconsin team up to take on 12 writers from Illinois and battle for the Reid Hanley Trophy.
Having lived a long stint in the Chicago area earlier in life (and putting up with Bears and Cubs fans in droves), I was thrilled to get the opportunity to play in the Writer’s Cup for the first time, and was ready to put my best foot forward to bring the Cup back to Wisconsin.
The venue, Abbey Springs, is a recently renovated property that proved to be the perfect track for a match play-style event, loaded with challenging risk-reward shots and incredible beauty and drama. We soaked in a perfect day of gorgeous early October weather over some compelling matches in great company. While Team Wisconsin fell just short of regaining the Cup, it was a very memorable and enjoyable experience on an excellent golf course.
The Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup follows a Ryder Cup-like format, with three sets of 9-hole matches – four ball, alternate shot and singles. There was a terrific mix of golf media represented on the rosters, from a full spectrum of outlets and backgrounds including traditional publications, freelance writing, television and social media. Team Wisconsin was a fun group with a variety of personalities, and we paired well with an equally enjoyable bunch from the Illinois side. This year’s crew included:
- Mike Dauplaise (Freelance Writer)
- Troy Giljohann (WiscoGolfAddict)
- Neal Kotlarek (Golf Chicago Magazine – Wisconsin Native)
- Jay Lilge (Retired from Wausau Herald)
- Dario Melendez (WISN-TV)
- Brian Murphy (Me!)
- Dan Needles (Retired from WISN-TV)
- Paul Seifert (WiscoGolfAddict)
- Matt Tevsh (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
- Gregg Thompson (Golfweek course rater and occasional WiscoGolfAddict contributor)
- Glen Turk (Midwest Golfing Magazine)
- Drew Westphal (host of the Group Golf Therapy podcast, @everydaydrew on Instagram)
Team Wisconsin got off to a fast start with a 7-5 lead heading into the final stage of singles matches. Paired up with fellow WiscoGolfAddict Contributing Writer Troy Giljohann, both of our team matches were filled with drama and came down to the wire. In our first contest, after falling 2 down with two to play, Troy made clutch birdie putts on each of the last two holes to salvage a half point.
Then, in our Alternate Shot match, Troy and I manufactured a 1-up win after making two epic par saves.
The first came on the 5th hole, where Troy nearly drove the green on the short par 4, but his tee shot came to rest mere inches from a small tree just right. I thought I had no swing or angle to the green, but (thanks to Troy’s creative thinking) was able to make a super-restricted swing with a long iron to pop the ball into a slope and run it just off the green, not far from the hole. From there, we got up and down for our par.
On the short par 4 8th, we converted a scramble for the ages to halve the hole and retain a 1-up lead. After witnessing Troy’s amazing prowess with his 3-wood from an assortment of lies, I hit a “layup” to about 45 yards off the tee in the left rough (translation: a topped duck hook), leaving Troy 260 yards in from a tough lie over water and trees. He hit a miraculous 3-wood into a greenside bunker, from where I pitched it to about two feet. We closed out the match on the next and final hole, thanks to these heroics.
In singles play, I scraped out a close win despite struggling for much of the round, and Wisconsin playing partner Matt Tevsh dominated his match for a 4-and-3 win. Unfortunately, Team Illinois nearly swept the rest of the singles play round, though, en route to a comeback 13-11 victory to retain the Cup.
Abbey Springs was a wonderful host for this event, fresh off its impressive Lohmann/Quitno renovation. I played the course in July just after it reopened – my full course review provides an in-depth look at the revamped property:
Two months later, I found the course to be in better shape as the surfaces have had time to mature. The green speeds were moderate, compared to very slow in July, and next season they should start to roll very fast. The fairways and rough were in terrific and lush condition, as well, and with the foliage starting to turn colors I could tell that the property is about to come to life and will likely be one of the most beautiful Fall golf settings in all of Wisconsin.
Abbey Springs is a stiff challenge, making it an ideal venue for a team-based, match play event. With deep woods and water hazards closely guarding extremely narrow fairways, this course would be a brute in medal play competition, and I was relieved not to have to suffer the full consequences of my handful of blowup holes.
After golf, we were treated to to a delicious pasta dinner in Abbey Springs’ iconic clubhouse, where longtime Head Golf Professional Jack Shoger gave a presentation on the renovation that was just completed this year.
He went into great depth about the process to rebuild their greens, which had deteriorated over the years due to a number of factors including an unusual bentgrass type, pop-up designs from the original construction and poor root growth. The greens have since been redone with 007 bentgrass, a technologically advanced strain that thrives at short lengths and allows for practically unlimited green speeds.
The greens were also reshaped to allow for a significant increase in possible pin locations. A series of “heat maps” conveyed how the slopes of the existing surfaces were simply untenable under modern green speeds, with some greens having virtually no acceptable pin locations.
Abbey Springs’ sand traps were also revamped during the project, utilizing the “Better Billy Bunker” method to lay foundations that should provide ideal long-term drainage. Lake-based sand was brought in from a reserve near Kohler to fill in the traps, instead of the more commonly used river-based sand.
Jack explained that lake-based sand creates a more ideal playing surface, but that it typically takes about a year to settle and pack together. That makes sense, since we encountered very soft sand on the course that frequently led to plugged lies. However, I look forward to seeing the bunker conditions next year after the sand has had ample time to settle.
The look of the course is absolutely fantastic, as the renovated shapes and contours blend perfectly with the already-beautiful surroundings of the property. On some holes in the woods, I could’ve mistaken the views for those on Amen Corner.
Overall, Abbey Springs and the talented architects they tapped for the project, Bob Lohmann and Todd Quitno, have done an outstanding job re-inventing the golf course, and it can now stand toe-to-toe with the other upscale options in the Lake Geneva area. Jack’s presentation was thoroughly informative, and a similar version of it with more details on the renovation can be found here.
My first Writer’s Cup was a smashing success, and I hope to get the opportunity to participate again next year. Team Wisconsin fell just short of taking the Cup, but will be back next year to turn the tide on Illinois’ turf. I enjoyed getting to know the writers from both teams, many of whom I was meeting for the first time.
The renovation at Abbey Springs has vaulted the course into the top tier of Wisconsin public-access properties, and I highly recommend checking it out. The conditioning continues to improve rapidly as the new surfaces establish themselves, and I fully expect it to be in tip-top shape later in 2023 and beyond with slick 007 bentgrass greens, expertly-constructed sand traps, and great overall conditions. One thing’s for sure, the scenery of the property is unrivaled, and the overall experience and service are excellent at the facility, as well. Abbey Springs was an ideal venue for a match play competition like the Writer’s Cup, and it’s a spot that should be included on any Lake Geneva golf trip itinerary.