What makes a golf course great?
Why is it that we leave some venues feeling like we had the experience of a lifetime, whether we shot 72 or 90? And why, on some other perfectly nice courses, do we feel like heading back to the clubhouse after 14 holes?
This was the key question that sparked my interest in golf writing starting late last year following memorable 2021 experiences at Mammoth Dunes, Whistling Straits and Lawsonia Links.
Great land and a commitment to excellence – these were two ingredients of a great golf course that I unlocked at Erin Hills this past spring. But after a full season of golf writing and rounds at several unforgettable properties, I’ve identified an extra, intangible characteristic of a great golf course, one that I strongly suspect is shared by all of the legendary links across the globe.
However, I’ve played plenty of very good tracks this year, too, and have seen the results of some exceptional projects by talented architects and passionate investors that have added to the legend of golf in Wisconsin and beyond. My first year of writing for WiscoGolfAddict has attempted to capture what these venues and projects mean for the game, and the feelings they invoke in golf-lovers like myself.
As the saying goes, the journey is better than the destination, and experiencing new courses did not completely define my 2022 season. This year, I have learned a great deal not just about golf courses and architecture, but also about writing, photography, the industry and myself. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve met some fantastic people that share my passion for the game.
My encounters with great golf courses started as early as they could this season, following a dismally cold spring. At Erin Hills in mid-May, my first round there in 15 years, I was blown away by the quality of the golf experience. In addition to the course itself being exceptional, the service and amenities were some of the best I have ever seen. The overall experience is at least on par with other world-class American golf resorts, despite having just one course to offer its guests.
The conditioning at Erin Hills was nothing short of extraordinary, considering we were just coming off of a historically cold April. The recent project to convert its fairways to bentgrass has been a smashing success, as they were some of the most impressive carpets of short grass I have seen. After tapping in for very solid round of 80, I left Erin Hills with a smile on my face, knowing full well that I had just experienced a great golf course.
Read on about my experience at Erin Hills this year:
After Erin Hills, the season kicked into full gear with warmer temps finally arriving, and the countdown was fully on for my very first trip to a place that has more great golf courses than any other single destination on Planet Earth, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. This long-awaited golf binge was more than a year in the making, a trip commemorating my father’s 70th birthday. In great company, we embarked on a 4-day, 7-round golf marathon, hitting all of Bandon Dunes’ six heralded courses (and adding a replay round at inland masterpiece Bandon Trails).
The rugged beauty, the firm and fast true links conditions, the quality of the architecture, and the exceptional service (especially our caddies) all made this experience exceed unreasonably high expectations. Our trip ended at Coore and Crenshaw’s spectacular cliff-hugging Sheep Ranch, Bandon’s newest track, and previously one of its best-kept secrets.
For a complete rundown of the Bandon Dunes resort and my overall experience this past June, check out my full destination review:
The worst part about a trip to Bandon Dunes is coming home, knowing it’s all over. Afterwards, I assumed my season had peaked, and that the magic I felt there would not be rekindled in 2022. Little did I know, the greatness of the season was just getting started and an epic summer awaited.
Next up was The Club at Lac La Belle, where I met up with WiscoGolfAddict founder Paul Seifert, course architect Craig Haltom and Contributing Writer Gregg Thompson to take on this freshly redesigned track on a sunny and warm June morning. Just a couple years ago, this historic property was completely reimagined into a sleek, modern design with innovative bunkering and dramatic use of contours. The property was transformed from a struggling, drainage-challenged private club to an elite public-access course, and none of it would have been possible without the tremendous investment by the Morse family and Haltom’s brilliant architecture.
My full review goes into great depth about Lac La Belle’s transformation, and can be found here:
In July, I took a trip down memory lane to The Glen Golf Park, a 9-hole municipal layout where I used to play high school golf, and home to another recent Haltom-led redesign project. The course was completely reinvigorated thanks to financial assistance from Michael Keiser, Jr.’s family. My course review dives into the substantial changes made to the property, most notably the severely enlarged greens and expanded playing areas. The Glen Golf Park is a great example of what municipal golf can be when financial resources exist and passionate industry players get involved.
A few weeks later, a special treat awaited, as I met up with Paul Seifert and Contributing Writer Troy Giljohann for a WGA team outing at vaunted Milwaukee Country Club. Widely regarded as Wisconsin’s top classic course and one of the state’s greatest courses overall, I was thrilled to uncover what makes MCC great. It was here that I discovered a love for golf photography, as I had the awesome opportunity to walk the entire property at sunrise to capture its incredible architecture and setting.
The golf experience at Milwaukee Country Club was surreal. Paired with Head PGA Professional Skip Simonds, we had a very memorable round taking on C.H. Alison’s legendary routing that makes full use of prime Milwaukee River waterfront. I even gave near-scratch Troy a run, but my spirited 82 filled with sand saves wasn’t quite enough to seal the deal.
Check out my full course review to see all of the elements that make Milwaukee Country Club great, as well as a tutorial on how not to play the short par 4 9th hole:
As summer wound down, my family headed to the Northwoods for a much-needed week of lakeside relaxation. While this was not a golf-focused excursion, we managed to sneak in in two rounds towards the end of the trip. The first came at Plum Lake, a secluded old-school 9-hole gem with terrific use of topography, excellent greens and great overall conditioning. Stay tuned to WiscoGolfAddict this winter for a full course review.
The following day I checked out Minocqua Country Club, the Northwoods’ premier golf property, and one of the state’s very best private clubs. Architect Ron Garl completely overhauled the layout and expanded it to 18 holes using new land in the early 2000’s. The result was a dramatic, challenging and beautiful golf experience fully highlighting the natural setting of Northern Wisconsin. This was the perfect conclusion to a fantastic end-of-summer getaway.
The Fall season centered around two excellent team events. First was the Langford Shield, Oliphant Golf’s annual event at Lawsonia Links. A year after unlocking Lawsonia’s Golden Age magic, I was once again reminded why this is such a treasured property. Its bold and innovative greens complexes result in 18 highly memorable holes, making Lawsonia Links a great course on a very good property. Its current management team and Oliphant Golf’s vision have restored this masterpiece to what we believe Langford and Moreau envisioned when they embarked upon this ambitious project in the 1920’s. My two-man scramble team was paired up with fellow WGA writers Paul and Troy, and despite struggling from tee-to-green, we grinded out a middle-of-the-pack even par finish with sharp putting.
A week later, I had the opportunity to compete for the first time in a tradition like no other, the Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup. This annual battle for the Reid Hanley trophy was waged on the recently-revamped Abbey Springs, where its greens complexes, bunkers and drainage were impressively upgraded under the direction of Todd Quitno and Bob Lohmann. I came in with a bit of course knowledge, having played the track just after its reopening in July. My full course review dives deep into the course improvements and elaborates on what makes it one of Lake Geneva’s top golf experiences.
After a gritty day-long battle, our 12-man team of golf writers fell just short of the Illinois squad, 13-11. The defeat did little to take away from what was great event filled with camaraderie. I already look forward to next year’s Writer’s Cup which will be held on Illinois’ turf.
Check out my full recap of the Writer’s Cup here:
While this season was filled with so many great experiences at a variety of courses, the heart and soul of the season still came at my home course, Nakoma Golf Club. The many rounds played at this Bendelow gem helped sharpen my game for the other highlight rounds of the season. I also enjoyed competing in some fun club events, including the Bendelow Cup, a season-long 77-player match play event, where my deep run to the quarterfinals ended in an epic match that came down to the final putt on the 18th hole.
Nakoma is the ideal everyday course, and my course review goes into great detail on what makes it so:
The 2022 season ended at one of the places it started, my home-away-from-home course, The Oaks. On a balmy mid-November afternoon, the sky opened up on the final hole as I narrowly missed a birdie on the signature 18th hole in the pouring rain. I still carded a memorable 77, one of my best rounds of the season to close out 2022 in style. The Oaks is an unusual course but is a lot of fun to play on a semi-regular basis, and you can read my course review to see how it’s improved this year with a renovation under the direction of its original course architect, Greg Martin.
Learnings from My First Year of Golf Writing
I really did not know what to expect as I ventured into the world of golf blogging in 2022 for the first time. I was very fortunate to find an amazing medium to try my hand at writing, and WiscoGolfAddict OG Paul Seifert has been the perfect person to write for. Not only did he give me a shot to show what I could do in front of an established readership, he’s allowed me to explore my passion for writing in a very open-minded way, and has been a great mentor to show me the ropes.
Most importantly, this year I’ve gained a better understanding of how the creative side of my brain ticks, and how to channel it to turn ideas and feelings about golf into readable content. I’ve found that I produce the best content in short bursts, and that giving myself time and space to allow the creative ideas to flow will yield the best results. Sometimes that means I can crank out a course review within a few days of a golf experience, while other times I’m best off spending a few weeks on a piece to get the ideas and structure flowing together succinctly.
Along the same lines, I’ve kept an open mind about where the golf writing journey will lead, which has paid huge dividends. I believe my content creation skills have improved drastically over the course of the year thanks to being open to new ideas and having a strong desire to learn. Most recently, I expanded my golf writing into the product review space, where I really enjoyed reviewing my first two products, the RH Fore and the Kam Kaddie.
Another byproduct of writing has been my newfound love of golf photography. I’ve always appreciated the beauty of golf properties, but never realized that capturing it could be so much fun. The experience at Milwaukee Country Club really opened my eyes to the visual side of content creation, and I’ve invested a lot of energy in my course reviews since then to present quality photography alongside the actual writing. Next year, I hope to take some of my photography efforts to the air with my first drone purchase.
Lastly, I’ve gained insights into how deep the golf industry goes, and how much opportunity there is to document areas of the game that are still obscured from common knowledge. Whether it’s new golf properties, hidden gems, new architects or developers, or hot new products, there is a treasure trove of golf material just waiting to be written about. I look forward to continue exploring the industry and sharing new insights and experiences with readers.
Closing Thoughts and Looking Ahead
Without further adieu, here is the characteristic of a great golf course that I saw in all of the great properties I’ve been lucky enough to play over the past couple years:
A great course inspires a golfer to rise to the occasion and play their best game. It is challenging, not for the sake of defeating the golfer without mercy, but rather for making success all the more satisfying.
Whether it’s the thrill of sending shots sailing alongside Lake Michigan at Whistling Straits, playing to greens framed by massive sand dunes at Sand Valley, or taking on old-school greens complexes at Lawsonia Links or Milwaukee Country Club, a great course will present challenges that excite those who love the game.
How would I rank the courses played this year? Take a look at my Top 50 Course Rankings page to see how my 2022 experiences stack up, and also check out my Instagram page (@bmurphgolf) for a Top 10 countdown of my favorite courses played this year.
Later this winter, stay tuned for new course reviews, including more on the Bandon experience, some well-hidden Wisconsin gems that I found this season, and a couple properties I plan to visit in Florida this February.
Looking ahead to 2023, I can’t wait to continue my golf writing journey, and I couldn’t have a better venue to do it than WiscoGolfAddict or be in a better state to cover golf than Wisconsin. My 2023 playlist of courses to target in Wisconsin features several famous properties I have yet to experience, including the original Sand Valley course, Green Bay Country Club, two of the Kohler courses, Stevens Point CC and Blue Mound CC. I also hope to experience new high-profile venues opening in 2023, including The Lido, preview play at Sedge Valley, and TPC Wisconsin. Last but not least, a trip to Pebble Beach is in the works for next summer, my first journey to the most famous public property in the country.
Thank you to everyone who has checked out my articles this year and for following WiscoGolfAddict! I’m excited to continue my journey as a WGA contributing writer in 2023, and to continue providing high-quality golf content to our readers. Happy Holidays and may you all have a great offseason!