Wisconsin has a lot of old golf courses: Courses nearing or eclipsing 100 years in age, at varying levels of wear and exhaustion and many in need of major infrastructural repair. This is a pivotal time for these properties, including my own home club, North Hills, when a decision needs to be made.
Will the course invest in its greatest asset, its golf course, and – if done right – face a thriving future? Or will it continually band-aid its failing resources and face inevitable digression?
For Stevens Point Country Club, that point was reached around 2015. Chartered in 1925, the then 90-year-old golf course had been through a lot having recently lost over 2,500 trees to DuPont’s Imprelis herbicide. The course was in a transitional phase where it no longer looked like what it did, and wasn’t maybe designed for the updated aesthetic.
As many other great golf courses in Wisconsin can attest, though, the Imprelis fiasco was a lamb in wolf’s clothing, leading to a windfall of millions of dollars for affected courses and, ultimately for Stevens Point Country Club, a rejuvenated golf course and club.
“The members were understandably devastated by the loss of thousands of old trees, but they believed us when we told them we could develop a new character for the course and help turn it into a net positive. They gave us complete freedom to open up all the native sandy areas, add width through the course, and to redo all the greens surrounds and add some pretty strong features and bunkering.”
– Craig Haltom, President of Oliphant Golf
Within a 10-minute drive of the world-famous SentryWorld, SPCC was highly regarded but not on many golf enthusiasts’ radars five to ten years ago. Even since the renovation, in fact, I think it’s just starting to generate the buzz it deserves… And I think that will only continue to build.
Until then, Stevens Point Country Club is the state of Wisconsin’s ultimate hidden gem.
Nowhere in Wisconsin will you find a better one-two punch of high-end courses that couldn’t be more aesthetically opposite than SentryWorld and Stevens Point Country Club.
The golf course
The “new” golf course at Stevens Point is unlike any other private track in the state.
Granted, I’ve only played 27 of the 55 total country clubs in Wisconsin but nothing compares to it. The layout is smart and efficient, and imaginative with a classy, frayed look – it’s got that “Ask me if I care” rock star aesthetic with exposed, rough edges and long, sandy expanses yet perfectly kempt greens, tees and fairways.
The only real comp for SPCC in Wisconsin is Sand Valley, a mere 45-minute drive southwest. While the two properties share many characteristics, the key magical ingredient weaving the two together is Golf Course Architect and President of Oliphant Golf, Craig Haltom.
We’ve talked a lot about Haltom over the years on WiscoGolfAddict.com, and for great reason. He’s a rising star in the golf course architecture industry and is doing much of his best work here in Wisconsin.
While The Club at Lac La Belle is considered his most comprehensive design, Stevens Point was also a massive, multi-million dollar renovation project with a lot of moving parts.
Similar to La Belle, almost all of the course’s existing holes were tweaked in some way to add strategic interest and more effectively utilize the club’s footprint. Unlike at La Belle, though, no new land was used for brand new holes and the routing was primarily left intact.
The second green was moved from being offset to the left to being offset to the right, for example; portions of the routing were tweaked slightly and several greens were rebuilt entirely. A different path was provided between nine and ten, 17 saw substantial improvements, and of course much of the ground that was previously covered in turf and pines was excavated to expose sandy expanses that now define this naturally stunning golf property.
“Most of the holes were tree-lined with red pines of similar age and height on both sides, and I would say the bunkering and presentation of the course were typical of what you see on Midwest country club courses built or renovated in the ’50s and ’60s… Bunkers on insides of doglegs at a uniform 260 yards from tees, and very standardized (narrow) widths for fairways and green surrounds. The greens are large and interesting (we only rebuilt a couple), and it’s a beautiful property. SPCC was always a highly regarded classic course before the renovation so we are thrilled that people still like it now!”
– Craig Haltom
Along with a full renovation of the course, the project also entailed an overhaul of the club’s facilities, including its clubhouse, pool and all new pool house – all to the tune of around $3 million.
The project was not without its challenges, though, especially once shovels were in the ground:
“We kept as many as nine holes open during the renovation, but after a month or so of construction had to close the course. We opened holes back up as we finished them, probably sooner than we should have, but we thought as a private club the members would stay away from newly seeded areas and do their best to take care of the new course. For the most part it worked.
One of the biggest complications was that when we were nearing the end of work the course got hit by a tornado-like storm that knocked down a few hundred additional trees. That storm caused major erosion and the entire town was without power for several days. Those were challenging times for Jimmy Cavezza (now Superintendent at The Club at Lac La Belle), John Femal and the maintenance team… Finishing construction, growing in a golf course and dealing with a tornado on top of it. I don’t know how they did it!”
– Craig Haltom
Resilience through all these challenges could not have been easy, but I think anyone would agree the results were worth the effort, and the club – under direction of Haltom, General Manager Jesse Malsom and Superintendent Matt Shafer – continues to make strategic updates on a regular basis. I’ll call out a few of those since our visit in my course detail below.
The course at Stevens Point Country Club opens with a couple of straightaway par fours that venture players out along the property’s eastern perimeter. Trees line the left side of the fairway on each, and the driving range makes up the majority of the right side with several spatterings of natural sandy areas interspersed to catch wayward shots – especially on the second.
The third comes back toward the driving range as a short par five with native grasses and fescue lining the right side and a tremendous elevated green complex.
While these are far from throw-away holes, our time photographing the course in the morning was cut short when Troy and I both ran out of juice on our drone batteries. The back nine was so compelling we completely missed this stretch of holes and by the time we realized that players were already teeing off.
But, trust me, neither of us are against a return visit to finish up course photography, and we are already planning a revisit in 2023.
The fourth is an interesting par three with a wildly undulating, elevated green that’s lined with an entire backyard of sand. While not an overly long tee shot (183/175 from the two back tees), there’s certainly something intimidating about it.
Interested in purchasing this or other photos from our shoot at SPCC? Read on for details.
One of the prettiest tee shots on the entire property, the fifth is a masterpiece of new and mostly classical design. Teeing off over the Hell’s Half-Acre-like wasteland, majestic red pines line both sides of the generous driving area and define the fairway’s right-to-left bend.
In my mind, this is what Augusta National would look like in person.
The longest par four on the course, the sixth tees up from 493 yards from the tips (blue tees) and over 440 from the first tees in (white). Mostly downhill on the approach, the fairway bends right-to-left with an exposed sand perimeter on the right side.
The seventh is another long four – 443 yards from the tips and 403 from the blue tees. Again bending right-to-left, the right side of the dogleg is littered with exposed sand and several trees to frame the tee shot.
A good number of holes at Stevens Point favor a draw, which is fitting for a course with a high slope and rating from the tips at 141 and 74.3, respectively.
The one hole on the course I was not a big fan of was the eighth.
As a guest, it was hard to figure out where it went and how far I could hit my tee shot. There was obviously a dogleg right involved, but club selection was quite daunting given the large pond lining the left side and the tree line potentially restricting the tee shot.
This hole has since been updated to remove 14 trees from the right side of the dogleg, opening up options off the tee versus having to hit something long enough to get past the corner. I’m excited to see those changes in person as I think it will take what was an incredibly penal golf hole and make it much more playable and fun.
The eighth finishes over a shared pond [with the ninth hole] to the right. This is a demanding par five and the course’s number one handicapped hole for good reason.
The way out ends with a scenic par three over water, just below the clubhouse. This is another intimidating par three and a beautiful way to finish the course’s opening nine.
The back nine starts with an interesting, drivable par four that goes hard left. I will admit I had no idea what was happening on this hole when I teed off, and apparently hit driver straight into the pond dead ahead (in my defense, I was on beer duty at the turn and didn’t see Troy and Brandon tee off).
The right play here, of course, is an iron to the fairway or a driver cutting the left corner toward the uphill green.
While this is an ideal spot to be playing along someone with a bit of course knowledge, the club has since opened up the left side of the driving zone a bit to provide a view to the right side of the green. They aim to make the entire green visible in the near future to further promote this as a drivable par four.
There were a lot of new-age classic nuances built into the course at Stevens Point Country Club, like the shared areas between several greens and tees. Twelve is a terrific example of this where the green surrounds lead to a tight run-off and the thirteenth tees. I always enjoy these “community areas,” as I call them. In a small way, it helps build a sense of community you want at a private club and helps define the routing with a neat, highly curated aesthetic.
You will notice above that there is a shared area between the 12th and 18th fairways (bottom-left) – this rough space has since been renovated to create the largest sand feature on the course.
Probably the toughest par three on the course, the 13th measures 210 from the tips and 186 from the first tees in. Looming before the putting surface, the cross-bunker leaves a little room for error while making sure most tee shots hit short or thin will face a challenging recovery. Sand surrounds the majority of the rest of the green complex, as well.
The number two handicapped hole on the course, the 14th is a fairly short par five but with a tough green to hit in two. Anything short or right is liable to end up in the sand for a difficult up-and-down.
This is the first in a set of back-to-back par fives, and I’d argue the most scorable of the two.
I love uncustomary scorecards and sequencing, like back-to-back fives. Like at one of my favorite private clubs in the state, Pine Hills in Sheboygan, which also features back-to-back fives, at the Links course at Lawsonia where the front and back nines combine for a run of 5-3-5-3-5-3, or at Pacific Dunes in Bandon where the front ends with a par three and the back nine starts with another. Course architects shouldn’t feel constrained to design holes that meet scorecard expectations, but instead build what the land provides as the best option given the terrain. I’m a big fan of that.
One of the most interesting holes on the course, the 15th features a split-fairway that can be used by long and accurate hitters to set up a chance at the green in two.
The fairway to the right is significantly wider and more forgiving, but leaves almost no chance of getting home under regulation, while the left-side fairway contends with out-of-bounds left and the waste areas in front and to the right, but features a speed slot that, if hit, can propel balls downhill, within range and with an open angle in to the dance floor. Anything to the right side will require a layup.
The 16th is a long par four, measuring 460 from the tips and 416 from the first tees in. With a right-to-left dogleg in the fairway, the left side needs to be avoided for any chance at a long approach getting home in two.
The 17th, to me, is an instant classic. This hole could have been lifted straight from the Carolina pine barrens, with loads of exposed sand and a small green as the players’ target.
I think this is the course’s signature hole, and with the trees to the right of the green now razed I’m told it looks even more beautiful now with an opened-up view down to the eighth, ninth and 18th holes in the valley below.
The 18th is a tough finish, requiring a long right-to-left shot uphill around the left-side tree line. All three of us hit beautiful 3-woods and were in perfect shape (don’t worry, I still yanked my approach into the greenside bunker), but there’s nothing easy about this tee shot!
The entire left side of the approach area on 18 is covered in sand, and trust me it’s not a fun spot to be in. Well below the putting surface, it’s a tough recovery to a challenging green complex. I was able to clip a really nice 60-degree wedge from that surface to within gimme range, but I’d imagine that’s the exception to the rule from this spot.
Strategic Planning & Achieving Buy-In Gets Great Results
Stevens Point Country Club is the quintessential example of what an aging golf course can achieve when the right people and plans are involved, and when the membership achieves true buy-in. Nobody ever wants their golf club to close down, especially since their dues and payments won’t stop, but for the long-term health of the club and its membership it can certainly become a necessity.
Was the renovation at SPCC a success? Did they achieve the goals they set out toward?
In short, absolutely!
The membership and leadership’s substantial investment in the renovation project at Stevens Point has resulted in a spectacular new golf course that rivals almost any in the entire state and Midwest, has filled their membership and invoked a wait list for new players hoping to call it their own home away from home.
“We have so many great golf courses nearby and throughout the state of Wisconsin. As a GM, you secretly do not want your members playing a lot of other courses in the area as they may tend to come back with ideas of what we can be doing better. At SPCC, our members come back with a greater appreciation of what they call home, which says a lot considering the quality of clubs in Wisconsin.”
– Jesse Malsom, General Manager of Stevens Point Country Club
Isn’t that the ultimate goal of every golf club?
Interested in purchasing images from this photo shoot?
All photos in this article are available to buy as high-resolution digital downloads for personal use. A few of my favorites from this sunrise shoot at Stevens Point Country Club include: