Playing a variety of courses can yield benefits to one’s golf game, as differences in topography, design principles and conditioning can test a player more thoroughly than the monotony of a single track. While I make every effort to maximize a membership at Nakoma, I enjoy getting away from my home course from time to time to take on a different challenge.
The Oaks, located just a few minutes down the road from my neighborhood, is a terrific home-away-from-home course. When I don’t feel like driving 25 minutes across town for a routine round at Nakoma, The Oaks conveniently beckons with a sporty, quirky and scenic layout that challenges my game in a different way than a typical round. It’s also my go-to course in early Spring and late Fall, as it’s usually one of the area’s first to open and last to close.
The Oaks is solidly positioned in the upper tier of Madison public properties at a reasonable price point. Any avid golfer driving towards Madison’s east side will see its lush fairways and greens and wonder, “what’s that nice-looking golf course right off of I-94?” The proximity to the highway makes this a very convenient, solid golf experience, especially for those coming from the east of Madison.
The Blaska family, owners and managers of The Oaks, saw the potential for this property to become a compelling venue for golf and purchased it in the early 90’s. With no other upscale public courses on Madison’s east side at the time, an opportunity existed to fill that void without having to directly compete with the vaunted University Ridge on the west side of town. The Blaskas farmed the land while developing it into a golf property that eventually opened for play in 2003.
Architect Greg Martin, best known for his work at Rich Harvest Farms in Illinois, was selected for the design. His innovative style and creativity on unconventional properties made him a perfect choice to tackle the unusual dimensions and topography at The Oaks. I recently had a chance to chat with Greg about the origins of the course and the unique challenges the land presented.
The main difficulty was to find a routing that effectively traversed the plot’s unusual elevation changes, while finding engaging holes on the property’s perimeter sections that featured more wetlands and forest. The small size of the available land made the task all the more challenging. More than 20 alternate routings were developed before finally landing on one that hit all the right chords.
“While the dimensions of the land were challenging to work with, the goal was ultimately to highlight its strong features to allow golfers to see the property as unique and interesting.” – Greg Martin on the original design of The Oaks
To optimize the routing on this unique property, it was essential to throw out the conventional notion of “par.” At the time, the common theme of a par 72, with four par 5’s and four par 3’s, was thoroughly engrained in industry practices. Rarely would one see consecutive par 3’s or 5’s on modern designs, for example. Martin bucked this trend to create the best 18 holes that could be found on the property, without adhering to unnecessary convention.
At The Oaks, some of the unusual features golfers will find include:
- Six par 3’s
- Five par 5’s
- Back-to-back par 5’s
- Each 9 ending with a par 5
- The 7th hole (par 3) returning to the clubhouse
- A dramatic, downhill par 3 10th hole
The result was a course so unique that I can’t say I’ve ever played another like it.
Abandoning conventional par sequences and totals also allowed for greater variation in hole distances. A mix of long, medium and short distances adds character and enjoyment to the game. It also puts lower scores in play with added birdie chances, but creates potential for higher scores at the same time. It’s not uncommon for me to struggle to break 90 one day at The Oaks and then break 80 the next time out.
Martin’s unconventional approach to the routing also allowed for a layout that minimized the environmental impact of the course, blazing a trail for sustainability before the concept took widespread hold in the industry. Wetlands throughout the property were largely left untouched, and while that led to one brute of a hole in the 14th, I’m a big fan of lay-of-the-land designs and The Oaks is a terrific example of one created at a time before it was in vogue.
The other key area where The Oaks stands out is its greens. These tremendously undulating surfaces are a steep challenge, especially for those lacking course knowledge. However, as Greg stressed to me, on undulating greens like those at The Oaks, it’s appropriate to dial down green speeds to ensure that a sufficient number of reasonable pin positions exist. At The Oaks, anything over 10 on the stimp meter would potentially create playability issues and lead to insufficient pinnable positions. To that effect, the greens crew does an outstanding job with the speed and firmness of the surfaces to allow for optimal playability. Nonetheless, making putts at The Oaks is a tough endeavor, placing more emphasis on ball striking as a means to score.
With the course about to hit its 20th birthday, the condition of the original bunkers was starting to degrade due to unsustainable aspects of their original design, including steep faces and large square footage that was difficult to maintain. To continue its reputation as an upscale public option in the area, it was imperative for The Oaks to make necessary investments to keep the course conditions at a high level.
The ensuing renovation, which wrapped up this past Fall, was also used as an opportunity to improve the look, shaping and strategy of the bunkers, while adding playability. Additionally, the severely sloped second green was selected for re-design to provide for more pinnable locations and to make this short par 3 in the woods a more fun and memorable experience.
Greg, who was brought back as the architect for the project, explained that much of the renovation effort was aimed at making the bunkers more sustainable and easier to maintain over the long haul. The original bunkers were designed using techniques developed and popularized in the 80’s and 90’s which maximized aesthetic appeal but led to degradation over time.
The bunkers were reduced in size to reduce maintenance costs, and were shifted to more strategic areas to maximize their effectiveness. The traps were also made shallower and followed the best-practice Better Billy Bunker method of construction to promote long-term sustainability. The faces of the traps were also re-designed to stand up better to Midwest heat and drought.
The Oaks Golf Course
Cottage Grove, WI
Architect: Greg Martin
Par 71, 6763/6310/6011/5615/5071 Yards
The opening hole is a short dogleg right with an intimidating tee shot playing over and around a marshy area down the right side. If a rusty first swing can be avoided off the tee, this is a manageable hole that will present a decent opportunity to start off with a birdie. The approach plays slightly uphill to a deep green with extreme left-to-right slope. While it may seem prudent to play away from the hazard to the right, there is plenty of room to be aggressive and aim for the right side of the green, which would crucially keep the ball below the hole.
After a quick stop in the forest on the par-3 second, holes 3 and 4 are rare back-to-back par fives that provide a great opportunity to kickstart a good round. #3 plays downhill to a wide fairway, then to a green complex that is well-defended by a series of bunkers short and slopes to the side. While it’s reachable in two, a miss can lead to an awkward pitch shot and difficult up-and-down.
The fourth hole plays parallel to the third, back up the hill that golfers just descended. Depending on tee selection, it can be reachable in two after a solid drive, as the middle tee box clocks in at well under 500 yards. The approach plays extremely uphill with bunkers flanking the right side. A lengthy attempt at the green will likely need to favor the left side where slopes can kick the ball towards the target.
The dramatic downhill 6th will vary in difficulty depending on the wind. If the hole plays downwind, which is more common given its west-to-east orientation, the tee shot can ride the breeze over fairway traps into a manageable position. However, if the wind is blowing out of the east, this becomes a brutal hole and will likely need to be tackled as a three-shotter for shorter hitters like myself.
The ninth hole is a quirky and incredibly fun dogleg right par 5 playing up the northwest corner of the property. It heads uphill and alongside a severe slope, creating potential for some challenging sidehill lies. The tee shot must be played to the right of a yardage post that appears to sit in the middle of the fairway. Anything hit to the left or past the post will tumble down a steep hill into thick rough, making it a poor aiming point for most players.
The second shot plays blind over another portion of the hill with a fairway bunker guarding the left side. The savvy play is a low running shot up the right side, where a slope will funnel balls towards the green and possibly set up an eagle putt. The ninth encompasses every characteristic that makes The Oaks interesting and fun.
The tenth is a thrilling downhill par 3 playing over wetlands. The slope and prevailing wind on this hole will usually allow for one to two less clubs off the tee. Playing towards the left side is a conservative route but takes much of the trouble out of play.
The 12th is a mid-length par 4 with a series of bunkers impeding the fairway 240 to 270 yards from the tee. In the renovation, Martin opted to change the strategy of the hole by creating a centerline bunker, forcing longer hitters to decide between laying up to about 150 yards from the green and attempting to carry the traps to leave a short pitch shot. The approach shot plays to a deceptively narrow green with a ridge running back-to-front, adding challenge to greenside chips or long putts.
The 15th is a short par 5 with OB lining the left side. This straightaway hole is a good scoring opportunity, but one must first hit a bold tee shot through a narrow chute of trees. From there, the approach plays to an elevated green with a tough back-right tier (which seems to be the pin position nearly every time I play it). The safe play is up the left side, where there will be more green to work with on the ensuing chip shot.
The 16th is a dogleg right sculpted out of the west side of the property’s large center hill. The tee shot must skirt past or fly over a large fairway trap down the right side. The approach plays slightly uphill to a large, two-tiered green that plays significantly more challenging when the pin is back.
The 18th is my favorite closing hole in the Madison area, a dramatic par 5 playing over hills before bending left over Koshkonong Creek. The tee shot must avoid traps short-left and long-right, making an aggressive tee shot over the bunkers to the left a solid play for those that can carry the ball far enough.
Attempts at the green in two must carry a grove of mature trees, the creek and a deep sand trap short, making it a very risky approach. An easily accessible layup area exists down the right side to a wide portion of fairway, which sets up a short iron over the creek and sand to a green perched on a steep hill. Distance control is essential on the approach, as the green is very shallow and features heavy undulations that make it crucial to stay below the hole.
Amenities and Closing Thoughts
The Oaks has thrived under the watch of the Blaska family, who have invested in outstanding service, amenities and conditioning to keep the property up to a high standard. Their commitment to the course has helped ensure that it remains a top public golf option in the area, which is even more apparent with the fantastic renovation that was just completed.
The Blaskas also found the perfect architect to realize the vision of converting their farm into a dramatic golf property, and made a wise decision in bringing him back for the renovation. Greg Martin has gone on to achieve great success, with other well-regarded public properties in Wisconsin and Illinois such as Glen Erin, Wild Ridge and The Preserve at Oak Meadows on his resume. His creativity and innovative design philosophies have converted the oddest of properties into very enjoyable golf experiences. Perhaps most importantly, his early adoption of sustainable practices was ahead of its time and has served as a great example of how golf development can help the environment instead of hinder it.
The Oaks features a full-length driving range, short game practice area, a learning center for group and individual lessons and a large clubhouse with a solid range of food options. The patio at the clubhouse is a scenic spot to have a burger and take in the sunset after a terrific day on the course. The Oaks is also a top-notch wedding and large event facility, with a massive permanent tent adjacent to the clubhouse that can serve the largest of groups.
I’m very fortunate to have such a great public facility so close to home, and relish every opportunity to play The Oaks. It is the perfect contrast to the narrow, tree-lined, classic-style course where I play most of my rounds, and playing a wider and hillier course like The Oaks a handful of times per year has helped my game become more well-rounded. It’s certainly a venue that golf enthusiasts visiting Madison should make a point to visit.