Ever play a lesser-known track in a secluded location, not expecting anything special, only to come away stunned at the quality of the venue?
That was my experience last summer at Plum Lake Golf Club, an old-school layout off the beaten path in northern Wisconsin, where I was caught off guard by nine holes of imaginative Golden Age architecture and excellent course conditioning.
Plum Lake is the oldest course in the greater Minocqua area and is one of the oldest properties in the state. After the turn of the 20th century, wealthy Chicagoans and other urbanites started flocking to the Northwoods to enjoy its natural setting. At Plum Lake, a resort development sprouted up, and land leftover from the other side of the lake was donated to create a golf course as an extra amenity for the incoming tourists. Designed by relatively unknown architect Tom Bennet, the facility opened in 1912, and is largely the same track today that it was 110 years ago.
The course has many signatures of Golden Age architecture, including lay-of-the-land fairway contours and runoff slopes around the greens that can harshly penalize errant approaches. The green designs certainly hearken back to the old days, as well, with often steep undulations that demand a strategic approach and savvy course knowledge. I was surprised to find the greens rolling quite fast at Plum Lake, making it a perilous proposition to be above the hole.
Nine-hole courses have a poor reputation in America, often overlooked as incomplete golf experiences. However, look no further than the home of golf, Scotland, where 9-holers are quite common and are treasured properties in golfing communities. While the overall experience on a nine-hole property is half the length of 18, why should quality golf holes on 9-hole tracks be considered any less significant than those found on 18-hole layouts?
Furthermore, there are intangible advantages of nine-hole courses that add to the richness of the game:
- They occupy a smaller footprint, reducing the amount of land required and increasing the number of viable golf properties
- They’re less costly to maintain given the smaller property size
- They can fit more comfortably onto property apportioned for golf development, giving the architect more freedom to use the best land for routing and green sites
- Nine holes is a quick activity that can be more easily slotted into a busy schedule, while 18-hole loops that don’t return to the clubhouse after the front nine cannot be accessed in the same way
- They can be stretched into 18 with a simple replay. Ever had a blowup hole that just irks you for days on end? On a replay of a 9-hole course, you can get quick revenge on that blowup hole.
- They are ideal for beginners and youngsters, the perfect length of a round to learn the game before frustration or bad habits take over on the back nine
In my opinion, a nine-hole layout meets the mark if it is replay-worthy. If two plays of the course can match or exceed the experience of an 18-hole layout, why should it be perceived as anything less than its larger counterpart?
In the case of Plum Lake, the quality of its nine holes made me aching for a replay at the round’s conclusion (which unfortunately didn’t fit into the schedule). The subtleties of the architecture beat me up on a few holes, and armed with a little knowledge I wanted another crack at it.
Plum Lake would be the stronger of two nines at most 18-hole properties and is certainly one of the best 9-hole tracks I’ve played in the state.
Another advantage of nine-hole layouts is that they are great for on-the-course practice with minimal risk to the handicap or scoring average. At this point in last summer’s Northwoods trip, a round at challenging Minocqua Country Club loomed, and I was able to shake off the rust of a 10-day layoff quite well with one loop at Plum Lake. While that resulted in a lackluster nine-hole score, my frustration level remained low and the experience set the stage for much better play the following day.
Hole 1 – Par 4, 335/283 Yards
Plum Lake starts by its lakeside clubhouse and quickly ascends a hill parallel to the entrance road. The opening hole is a short par 4 that plays longer than the scorecard indicates, due to the elevation change. With OB right, getting the ball in play is the main objective on this opening hole. Pro tip – arrive early and make the short drive over to the range on the other side of the property to loosen up for this intimidating first drive.
The first fairway traverses over small hills, setting the stage for potentially tricky lies on the approach shot into an elevated green with a steep false front. While short in length, the first is a stiff challenge that should be approached cautiously, and par is a very good score here.
After #1, the routing crosses the road to the main portion of the property, which features rolling terrain and evergreen-lined fairways. Plum Lake uniquely has seven par fours, and five of them are found in this main section.
Hole 4 – Par 3, 146/130 Yards
The lone par 3 at Plum Lake comes at the fourth, and it is a quirky, memorable one. While it plays over a hill and into a depression, an extra-tall pin is installed to prevent a blind tee shot. A circular punchbowl green will propel balls toward its center, where the pin was located for us that day. I came close to my first career ace playing to this favorable pin position, with a short iron shot that stopped just 18 inches from the hole.
Hole 7 – Par 4, 362/352 Yards
There’s a lot more to the 7th than meets the eye. This mid-length par 4 plays down a tree-lined, rolling fairway. While the path from the tee appears straightforward enough, the green complex adds strategy and rewards players who game plan from the outset. The small seventh green features a shoulder to the right paired with a steep drop-off into a bunker, a potentially diabolical spot to pitch from. We played to a far right pin, making the ideal play off the tee to the left to open up a better angle of approach.
Hole 8- Par 4, 351/316 Yards
I have a recurring nightmare where I stand up to a tee box and realize that the path to the fairway is completely blocked by trees. In this dream, my playing partners nonchalantly rip their tee shots around the trees to the fairway, while I embark on a misadventure filled with deflections off the timber.
My nightmare nearly came true at Plum Lake’s eighth, a dogleg right par 4 with a back tee nestled among mature pine trees that offer a mere sliver of a window to the fairway. The back tee was so obscured among the trees that it took us awhile to figure out where it was.
Thankfully, I came up with my best drive of the day here, launching a laser through the middle of the chute into the short stuff. Even the slightest contact with a branch could set the stage for disaster, but the reward for a good drive makes up for the danger off the tee, with a flatter, relatively unprotected green site that made par from the fairway straightforward.
Hole 9 – Par 4, 333/303 Yards
The closing hole is an adventurous, bumpy par 4 playing back down towards the lake. Finding the fairway on this shorter hole is very important, as mature trees guard the left side and OB lurks right. Additionally, the small, elevated green is a challenge to hit in regulation on a recovery shot, and it’s best attacked with a fairway wedge. The green slants heavily from back to front and is well-guarded by a large, deep bunker on its left side. Longer hitters attempting to drive the green will need to favor the right side to avoid running their tee shots down the slope to the left where a tricky pitch shot awaits.
I had clearly underrated Plum Lake in my mind heading into the round, not having played the course in many years. While I recognized the historical significance of the property, I expected a run-of-the-mill experience to tune up for the following day’s round at Minocqua County Club. Plum Lake surprised me with subtle, elegant Golden Age architecture paired with outstanding, firm course conditions. The 9-hole greens fee of around $35 including cart was a fantastic deal given the quality of the experience.
Plum Lake’s charming lakeside log cabin clubhouse is also a terrific spot to visit, so be sure to carve out a little time to enjoy this unique setting after your round. Its screen porch overlooking the lake is a quintessential relaxing Northwoods enclave to enjoy a beverage or two.
While there are a handful of solid 18-hole properties in the area worth visiting, be sure not to skip Plum Lake on a Northwoods golf itinerary. I’m glad to have added it as a practice round in my last visit to the area, not knowing that a highly memorable experience was in store.
What are your favorite nine-hole courses in the state? We’d love to hear your opinions below or in the Comments section!