Nakoma Golf Club: The Ideal Everyday Course

Please note that while this article is dated November 2022 (date of the original post), it was updated in July 2023 to include all of the drone photos

The term “everyday course” is thrown around quite often in golf circles. But what does it mean, exactly? What makes a course “everyday” instead of an every-month, every-year, or once-in-a-lifetime venue?

Most golfers would be thrilled to play Whistling Straits every day, but that is not realistic for 99.9% of players. For that reason, an Everyday Course must keep a golfer coming back again and again with a smile on their face, but with more subtle appeal than Top 100 venues. What are the key characteristics of a property that promote this type of experience? To explore this further, let’s examine my home course, Nakoma Golf Club.

The long par 4 10th borders the Nakoma neighborhood to the west, with a demanding approach shot straddling OB left and a creek right

The tenth from the air

Nakoma Golf Club is a classic Bendelow design on the west side of Madison that I was highly fortunate to grow up playing, and to where I’ve since returned as an adult member. After playing it hundreds of times over the course of my golfing life, the layout still engages my golf game every time and I’m always excited to play it again. After reflecting on decades of play at Nakoma, I’ve identified the key ingredients that produce this recurring experience.

Three areas stand out that make Nakoma a great Everyday Course: its routing and hole design, its greens and conditioning, and its setting.

The Routing and Hole Design

While it is not essential for an Everyday Course to be on an elite property, it’s important that the strongest features on the land are maximized in its routing. An Everyday Course will also ideally have a variety of hole designs and distances to provide a thorough test of the regular player’s game.

Nakoma certainly checks both of those boxes. The original Golden Age routing laid out by Tom Bendelow is largely still intact, save for a few tweaks over the years. Fitting 18 holes on the small property required a creative approach and some sacrifices, like restricting the driving range to a small size that only allows for short irons. The total par of 70 also helped conserve space, with five par 3’s and just three par 5’s in the layout. Too often, I see par 72 designs forced onto smaller properties, leading to a less ideal golf experience.

The double dogleg par 5 16th, one of the few holes materially altered from Bendelow’s original routing, favors a fade off the tee over trees and a draw on the approach over a pond

The 16th from the approach angle – be careful with this pin position!

The southern half of the property is the more dramatic side with rolling hills and wooded terrain, and every square inch of it is used to maximize Nakoma’s beauty and to enhance strategy. Numerous greens and tee boxes are perched on hillsides and plateaus, with specimen trees found in strategic and visible areas throughout the course.

The gorgeous par 3 4th plays to a plateau that is perfectly suited for a green

The 4th from above

Meanwhile, on the northern section of the course, the routing makes full use of the natural water hazards and forested areas bordering the arboretum. A few spots on this side of the property are flatter and less striking, which is where some bolder manmade features and green complexes are located to make up for plainer land. Tree removal has been deployed to a large extent in recent years, opening up sight lines and creating a greater sense of shared community space.

The 11th hugs a creek down the left side before playing to a peninsula green with water on three sides

The beautiful natural setting of the UW Arboretum is much better highlighted after tree removal initiatives over the past 15 years

The variety of the layout is strong, with doglegs bending both ways, straightaway holes, and a mix of short and long par 3s, 4s and 5s. I find myself using most, if not all, of my 14 clubs in every round at Nakoma, while also having to hit a variety of shot shapes. Many holes remain tightly tree-lined and require creative recovery skills after mishit drives, while tree removal on other portions of the property has opened up playing corridors to emphasize ball striking. The thorough examination of a player’s skill set makes Nakoma a great place to prepare to play other courses.

The 5th at Nakoma is a sharp dogleg right with a risk-reward decision off the tee – either lay up short of the bunkers through the corner, or attempt to cut the dogleg over tall trees to the right

The Greens and Conditioning

An Everyday Course should be well-conditioned and have greens with strategic elements that are challenging without conveying a sense of unfairness. The greens should also have numerous pin locations that can alter the strategy of each hole in a meaningful way to provide variety for regular players.

Simply put, Nakoma’s greens are on the short list of the best in the state and are maintained at an elite level. They roll firm and very fast, and have subtle contours, sections and slopes that flummox even the most experienced members. In fact, the only greens I’ve encountered in the state that roll as fast and true as Nakoma’s have been at Milwaukee Country Club, which is widely considered a top 100 U.S. layout and the best private venue in the state.

The 15th is a short par 4 playing to a receptive green, with a small mound on its right side that creates tricky angles and sloping putts

The 15th green occupies one of the highest points on the property, offering a nice view of the surrounding area

Designed at a time when green speeds were notably slower, Nakoma’s original greens featured severe slopes and tiers. In the late 1990’s, after advances in agronomy and greenskeeping led to much quicker green speeds and rendered extreme slopes unplayable, the club invested in a complete overhaul of its greens complexes. The redesign by Arthur Hills breathed new life into the greens, improving their strategy, aesthetics and playability.

The two-tiered 8th green was smoothed out in Arthur Hills’ redesign, but still slopes heavily and is a stiff challenge for a long par 4

While the greens remain challenging for everyday play, members have a distinct advantage with knowledge of their speed and breaks. Additionally, members will have superior knowledge on how to approach the greens. Nakoma’s elevated surfaces demand highly skilled and precise approach shots. When greens are inevitably missed in regulation, having a creative and versatile short game is essential to score well.

The approach to the par 5 6th hole has been dramatically altered in recent years in conjunction with drainage-focused projects. The fairway has been enlarged in the layup zone, and most recently a connecting fairway between the green and the 7th tee has been added.

The sixth green is well-guarded by sand and heavily slopes from back-to-front

After years of struggling to control drainage in the low-lying areas of the course near Lake Wingra, Nakoma embarked on a costly and complex project to install superior drainage infrastructure several years ago. The result has been consistently firm and true fairway surfaces, even in wet periods during the playing season. Most recently, the club has also focused on renovating teeing areas that had become crowned over the years, enlarging and smoothing them out for optimal playability and an expanded variety of tee locations.

The opening hole at Nakoma has been overhauled in recent years with improved drainage, tree removal, and installation of new strategically placed fairway bunkers (including the one visible in the foreground added just days before this photo)

The opening hole is short but features one of the most challenging green complexes on site, making it a very firm handshake to start the round

The Setting

An Everyday Course should have a unique setting, creating an ambience that golfers can identify with. Ideally, an Everyday Course should also feel secluded, providing a convenient escape from the stressors and bustle of normal life.

Nakoma’s ambience starts and ends with its elegant tudor-style clubhouse. Set on a hill overlooking the first and eighteenth holes, this iconic spot features a pristine patio with a view of Lake Wingra and the State Capitol in the distance, thanks to recent tree removal intiatives. In the past year, Nakoma also unveiled a fantastic new pool and tennis facility with a matching tudor-style pool house, adding to the unique ambience of the club’s home base.

Nakoma’s distinctive clubhouse, as seen from the blaze-orange maple backing the 18th green

The 18th green (right) is well-positioned for members to watch others finish their rounds from the clubhouse patio (background)

The State Capitol (background) can be seen in the distance from the practice green (foreground)

The course itself can certainly be described as secluded, as it’s bordered on three sides by the UW Arboretum, one of Madison’s largest nature preserves, and on one side by sleepy Manitou Way which is lined by historic houses. Wild turkey and deer sightings are as common as pars and bogeys, especially on the holes adjacent to the arboretum.

The 13th is a short but starkly uphill par 3 next to the arboretum

The 14th is one of the most peaceful spots on the property, with the arboretum lining the left side and backing its multi-tiered green

As noted earlier, the placement of greens and tees on ridges, hilltops and plateaus maximizes the beauty of the layout. A variety of fauna with mature oaks, maples and pines fills the landscape, and the routing does a great job of highlighting the most beautiful trees on the property.

The par 4 12th is a perfect example of a plateau being used to maximum effect for a green site, with beautiful stately oaks surrounding the green complex

The 12th may only require a short iron on approach, but the plateau green is still one of the toughest to hit on site

While Nakoma is not situated on the most gifted golf property, it has maximized its unique location in a secluded corner of Madison’s west side to promote a peaceful, idyllic experience.

Closing Thoughts

Starting with the original Bendelow layout in the 1920’s that laid a great foundation, Nakoma has evolved over the years into one of the best private golf experiences in the city. Its routing and architecture, its greens and conditioning, and its setting and beauty all set it apart from its peers to position Nakoma as one of Wisconsin’s top everyday courses.

The tough par 4 3rd hole plays straightaway through a chute of trees to a small, well-defended green on a hillside

Aerial view of the third from behind the green

Continuous improvement, including ongoing projects to enhance select holes and areas, continue to push Nakoma forward to keep up with the ever-changing golf landscape. Its membership can fully enjoy the results of this constant effort, while also reaping the benefits of its best-in-class pool, tennis and dining facilities. For anyone seeking a golf club membership in the Madison area, Nakoma is definitely worth considering.

The 8th hole as shown from the approach angle, with a Fall sunset peeking through the trees

For more on Nakoma Golf Club, check out WiscoGolfAddict’s 2021 course review.

Nakoma Golf Club Website

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4 thoughts on “Nakoma Golf Club: The Ideal Everyday Course

  1. Great review Brian! Looks like a beautiful & serene location next to the Arboretum. Looking forward to seeing it sometime this season!
    Gregg T.

    1. Thanks Gregg! And I can’t wait to visit Kenosha CC as well, a legendary centenarian in its own right!

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