Please note that while this article is dated June 2023 (date of the original post), it was updated in September 2023 to include photos of the course in peak season
The dreaded blowup hole has haunted golfers for centuries, always lurking for the opportunity to ruin a round. Anyone who has played the game long enough has likely suffered at least one blowup that they’ll always remember.
I’ll never forget the one I had in the 2001 WSGA State Junior at Washington County Golf Course.
I came into that event playing the best golf of my junior years with an all-time best handicap of 4, crushing personal records almost every week. While I knew I didn’t have the talent to truly contend, I had my sights set on a good performance and making the cut.
Then, on the opening hole, I made a nine.
Despite being far behind the eight-ball right out of the gate, I was able to shake off that opening disaster quickly and play well the rest of the round, ultimately posting a respectable score. And after the pain of the blowup hole subsided, I realized I was playing an outstanding course.Read more: Washington County: Wisconsin’s Best Muni?
As someone who grew up playing tight, tree-lined parkland courses, I was blown away by the open links-style nature of Washington County.
Washington County’s expansive vistas, firm and fast conditions, strategic options and focus on the ground game were features of golf that I hadn’t experienced much to that point, and I instantly fell in love with them.
This spring, I finally returned to play Washington County, joining Paul Seifert, Troy Giljohann and Paul’s buddy Mike on one of the first semi-warm days of the year in late April, and was shocked to find that the course is even better than I remembered from that first experience 22 years ago.
When I first stepped onto the property, I was greeted with a sweeping view of the entire course and miles of countryside beyond. My first reaction was wow, this looks a lot like Erin Hills. Indeed, its location in the foothills of the Kettle Moraine is the same type of setting Erin Hills occupies just ten miles away. The dramatic, glacially-sculpted countryside of this region is a canvas of land perfect for crafting compelling golf holes, and Washington County boasts 18 very strong ones just like its “Big Brother” to the south.
While the layout and setting were similar to what I remembered as a 17-year-old, I was absolutely stunned at the excellent condition of the course we encountered. The greens were running at about a 12, a speed I had never seen in a Midwest April.
Our YouTube video illustrates just how impressive these playing surfaces looked early in the spring season:
For a contrasting view, here is a video showing the incredble aesthetics of the course in peak season:
Even though three-putting was a natural result of the demanding green speeds, it was an absolute treat to take on such firm and fast conditions this early in the season.
The municipal golf scene is strong in Wisconsin, a not-for-profit enterprise forming a backbone of the game where all can play and learn at an affordable cost. Munis have a reputation of being poorly maintained and architecturally uninteresting, but that is most definitely not the case for many of them in Wisconsin. Layouts like Peninsula State Park, Brown County, Naga-Waukee and Brown Deer are treasured, well-cared for municipal properties that have been enjoyed for decades by the public.
Washington County may be the best municipal offering in the state, though. Not only is the course itself outstanding at an incredibly modest greens fee, it also features a fabulous practice area that uniquely includes three full-length holes.
I’m a big fan of Arthur Hills, thanks to his masterful late 90’s redesign of Nakoma, my home course. His outstanding revamp of the greens complexes modernized Nakoma and re-established it as one of the best layouts in the Madison area. Hills has made his mark at several other well-known Midwest properties including Bay Harbor (Links/Quarry), La Crosse Country Club and Chicago Highlands.
Around the same time the Nakoma redesign project was taking shape, Hills laid out Washington County on an undulating property just to the east of downtown Hartford. This was the perfect template for Hills to install his signature design features. His use of topography, bunkering and sloping of greens is often visually understated, but is a lot tougher than it appears due to strategic placement of hazards and slopes combined with firm and fast conditions. You probably won’t feel intimidated hitting approach shots at Washington County like you might at more visually dramatic courses like Erin Hills, but you may be surprised to end up in some really tough spots after small misses.
Washington County Golf Course
Architect: Arthur Hills (1997)
Par 72; 7048/6587/6198/5650/5200 Yards
Starting and ending at the highest point on site, each nine meanders clockwise around the property, diving downhill to the southern section before ascending back up the slopes in challenging fashion. While the similar routing pattern of each nine feels a little repetitive, there’s no doubt that the holes fit the natural contours of the land.
Hole 1 – Par 4, 417/396/373/311 Yards
The first skirts the northern perimeter of the property, a downhill mid-length par four that provides a good chance to get off to a fast start. What starts as a generously wide landing area gets pinched by a fairway trap up the right side, making the ideal target slightly left of center.
The second shot tumbles down a steep hill to a well-protected green site. It’s crucial to club down significantly on the approach, even with a menacing bunker fronting the left half of the green. Sitting in the fairway at 155 yards, I hit 8-iron (my 145-yard club) and sailed 60 feet past the hole, making a two-putt par quite challenging.
Hole 2 – Par 4, 449/426/399/359/354 Yards
The long par 4 second cuts south, playing parallel to the 11th. With a narrow strip of a fairway winding around a large bunker right, the tee shot sets up perfectly for my preferred cut shot. Those who slice into the 11th fairway may feel lucky, but then will face an extremely challenging angle of approach. The green complex is very demanding for a longer par 4, a tiny target guarded by a bunker short-right and mounding around the other sides.
Hole 3 – Par 5, 535/513/494/423 Yards
This adventurous par 5 sweeps to the right around a large hill. A diagonal orientation seemingly provides options off the tee, but straying too far left will lengthen the hole significantly. Second shots played over the hill will be blind and it’s crucial to favor the left side on the approach, especially to the back-right pin we faced. This blind second shot was one of the most memorable moments of anticipation in our round, as we eagerly awaited our unknown fates and prospects for a birdie.
Hole 4 – Par 3, 183/169/156/120 Yards
I’m quite jealous of those whose homes back up to golf properties. I constantly daydream about being able to look out my back window at a beautiful golf hole and watch groups come through and give it their best shot.
The residences lining the left side of #4 at Washington County have a particularly nice spot, a secluded enclave housing a strong par 3. This mid-length one-shotter plays slightly uphill to an elevated green. With a large, deep bunker sitting front-left, a well-executed draw is the preferred shot here.
Troy rolled in a nice birdie here to snag some points in our Wolf competition and also to get into red figures for the day.
Hole 5 – Par 4, 350/323/300/256 Yards
Washington County’s short par 4’s help distinguish it as a standout design. While a few of them are potentially reachable by long hitters, going for the green usually comes with tremendous risk. Birdies are in play on the short par 4’s, but so are doubles or worse, and conservative play coupled with sound execution is rewarded.
The fifth is a great example of this, a slight dogleg left playing up a subtle slope to small, elevated green. A long, steep-faced bunker guards the corner and will catch poorly struck drives hit in the direction of the green.
The prudent route to the right is very straightforward for a hybrid or long iron, which sets up a wedge into a receptive angle. I wisely chose this path, and was rewarded after two good shots with a makeable, uphill birdie putt (which I missed – a recurring theme of the day).
Hole 6 – Par 3, 189/176/163/143 Yards
The sixth takes golfers to the southeasternmost point on the property, an interesting spot filled with mounds and swales. This is a demanding downhill par 3, with a pot bunker infringing on the entrance to the green short-left.
The bunker placement and contours surrounding the green produce a narrow aiming point off the tee, and once on the surface a ridge running back to front will funnel balls to the left or right edge.
After a chunked chip shot from the right side came up short of the ridge and rolled back to the fringe, I proceeded to sink a 50-foot par putt.
Hole 7 – Par 5, 545/524/505/431 Yards
There are only a few water hazards at Washington County, but they are used to maximum strategic effect. Case-in-point is the par 5 seventh, with water in play on each shot and options to dial the risk of a watery fate up or down.
A long pond lines the left side, and anyone hoping to get home in two will need to challenge it on their tee shot. That’s because a creek cuts in just short of the green, eliminating the possibility of running a second shot onto the surface. With the stout length of the hole and its right-to-left design, even long hitters will have a tough time carrying their second shot onto the green from the right side of the fairway.
Those who layup successfully will be rewarded with a short third shot and the opportunity to go pin hunting. With only short fescue to worry about to the right, I was able to hit a carefree 3-wood from the fairway and advance the ball as far as I could on my second shot, leading to an easy wedge in and a stress-free par.
Hole 8 – Par 4, 334/310/294/246 Yards
The eighth is another wonderful risk-reward proposition that makes optimal use of water. Like #7, a pond borders the left side of this slight dogleg. At near 300 yards, a booming tee shot could find its way near the surface but would have to flirt with the water to get there. Alternatively, hitting hybrid or iron to the right sets up a wedge in with a good angle.
Troy and I both went for broke and ripped driver, and I paid the price with a hook into the water. Coming into the hole in great shape at +1, the resulting double bogey was quite deflating. Meanwhile, Troy hit a beautiful drive but it ran through the green, from where he ended up settling for par. Lesson learned – with water lurking just off the fairway and the reward for good execution no sure thing after hitting driver, laying up is usually the right move here.
Hole 9 – Par 4 450/425/404/359 Yards
The ninth is a stiff challenge to end the front 9, a sharp dogleg right climbing a slope back to the clubhouse. Attempting to cut the dogleg is a poor option for most, as the carry over the right fairway bunker exceeds 250 yards. Playing to the corner, while a smart play, ensures a long approach to a green that is well-defended by sand front and right. I ripped a tee shot right down the middle, only to find myself nearly 200 yards in and hitting a full hybrid. Par is an excellent score here, a feat no one in our group was able to accomplish.
Hole 10 – Par 4, 386/362/341/284 Yards
The tenth is a shorter, downhill par 4 that doglegs slightly to the right. With the green protected short and right by sand and sloping, drives hit to the deep edge of the fairway will face a much better angle of approach.
This time around, I was able to do much better than the aforementioned quintuple bogey of my youth, knocking my approach from the right side just past the pin to about 20 feet. The green proved tricky, though, sloping from back-to-front against the orientation of the hill. Even with a savvy read from Mike (who plays the course regularly) it was extremely tough to go against my intuition and I blew my first putt six feet past the hole, leading to a three-putt bogey. That was still better than a nine though!
Hole 11 – Par 4, 395/329/310/272 Yards
The choose-your-own-adventure 11th can either be a birdie hole or a very difficult par 4, depending on the tee box selected. From the blue tees, this is a potentially reachable par 4. In fact, during pre-round photography I witnessed two players in the same group reach the fringe from there.
Mike convinced us to play from the much longer back tee here, even though we had played the middle (blue) tees the rest of the round. I’d normally embrace such a challenge, but this time around I found the worst possible moment to have one of my dreaded duck hooks. Minutes later, I was picking up for double, wondering how my round went from good to mediocre so quickly.
A large fairway trap closely borders the left side, which is definitely more in play from the back tee and needs to be avoided at all costs. The green sits in a slight depression, surrounded by mounding and sand. This is a challenging approach shot for anything more than short iron.
Hole 12 – Par 4, 455/433/414/362 Yards
The 12th is a beast of a par 4, stretching across the southern section of the property. Like the parallel 3rd, it plays over a gradual hill which can lead to blind shots at certain angles. The right side should be favored, which shortens the hole and steers clear of sand left. My tee shot and approach both missed slightly right, but that left me in decent position to attack the pin on a bump-and-run chip shot where I was able to save par.
Hole 13 – Par 5, 570/548/528/457 Yards
One of the greatest golf feats I’ve ever witnessed in person came at the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah, where Woody Austin found the trunk of a tree off the tee on a long par 5. Having to play the ensuing shot lefty, he flipped the club over and nonchalantly ripped it well over 200 yards down the fairway. It hit me hard in that moment – the pros are simply playing a different game than the rest of us.
The shot I hit on the thirteenth wasn’t quite that great, but it was memorable nonetheless.
This is possibly the easiest par 5 on the property with a relatively wide fairway and somewhat shorter length. Being slightly downwind, even I was able to give the green a go in two, but the well-guarded, elevated surface was challenging to attack with a 3-wood.
After yanking my second shot left my ball came to rest against the trunk of a small tree. Apparently, I have a knack for finding tree trouble even on near-treeless courses like Washington County!
Fortunately, I pulled off what may have been my best ever lefty shot, swiping it over a bunker and onto the green to set up a par. I would’ve been happy with any solid contact, but getting it onto the surface from a tricky angle was a huge bonus.
Hole 14 – Par 3, 197/175/147/92 Yards
The fourteenth plays to the lowest point on the course, a depression with a pond fronting the left corner of the green. Everything slopes towards the water, making this an intimidating shot. Playing a high draw and using he right-to-left slope is the optimal play here. The front-right pin position we encountered provided a nice aiming point, and I was able to come up with one of my best iron shots of the day to the middle of the green.
Hole 15 – Par 4, 411/369/341/248 Yards
#15 plays back uphill, with a short carry over marsh on the tee shot. This is a fairly straightforward, shorter par 4 (except from the back tees) with a wider fairway and receptive green. The approach shot is still a challenge, to an elevated, tiered green.
Hole 16 – Par 3, 222/200/171/152
This gorgeous downhill par 3 may also be the most difficult one at Washington County, requiring a mid-to-long iron over a huge trap short-left and a large swale front-right.
The landing area is a little more generous than it appears, though, as shots hit up the right side can find a strip of fairway and run onto the surface. Coming into #16 having made four straight pars, I couldn’t keep the momentum going as I blocked my tee shot way right and made a double.
Hole 17 – Par 5, 555/533/514/432 Yards
The 17th is a lengthy par 5, snaking to the right over a series of hills to finish at a challenging green site. The tee shot sets up well for a booming fade, and a speed slot just to the right of two fairway traps is can be used to shorten the length of the downhill second shot. I was able to pull off the optimal tee shot, riding to my cut tendency. I even outdrove Troy here (for once!), and had under 250 yards in.
Second shots played towards the green should favor the left side to avoid a poor angle and sand to the right. Despite nearly getting home in two I was unable to convert birdie, but par still felt decent on this stout challenge.
Hole 18 – Par 4, 405/376/344/258 Yards
The finishing hole plays dead uphill directly towards the clubhouse. Into the prevailing wind, this par 4 plays quite long, starting with an intimidating tee shot over fescue with deep fairway traps lurking just off the left side of the fairway.
One of Washington County’s strengths is its design variety and the manner in which it tests all shot shapes. The 18th was a final reminder of this, decidedly favoring a draw on both the tee shot and approach. Despite hitting a solid tee shot, my natural cut found the right rough, and being out of position from the get-go I eventually settled for a bogey. At Washington County, those who can work the ball both ways will be able to score well.
Washington County was every bit as good as I remembered from my teenage years, and then some. Its exceptional design maximizes strategic shot values and makes best use of a very interesting piece of of land. Arthur Hills was ahead of his time in 1997 when he conceived this lay-of-the-land links-style design at a time when penal, tree-dominated, overly manufactured properties were in vogue. In many ways, Washington County was a preview of the coming second golden age of golf architecture in Wisconsin and beyond. It provided a basic template for other linksy destination courses in the state, like Erin Hills, to flourish.
The amenities at Washington County are nothing short of stellar, as well. Its chalet-style clubhouse is adorned with a sweeping patio, a great spot to take in the scenery.
Did I mention the practice area? Washington County’s facility is hands-down one of the best in the state, and has everything a golfer could need to prepare for their round. I remember playing the three-hole course to warm up for the State Junior (OK, so it didn’t help me on the first hole) and thinking to myself how lucky locals have it with such an awesome resource at their fingertips.
Here are a few more photos of this stellar facility:
At a peak weekend rate of $65, the greens fees at Washington County make it one of the best values in the state, and all golf enthusiasts in the region should make it a point to visit at least once.
While this was an absolutely terrific experience in the early spring (especially with those lightning quick greens!), my only regret was the less photogenic nature of the conditions (to be expected from any Wisconsin landscape in April, really). Our photos turned out about as good as could be hoped given the time of year and overcast conditions, and as you can see from the images captured during my re-visit in early September, the bright gold fescue contrasted against the lush green playing surfaces yields a tremendous aesthetic in peak season.
In a municipal-rich state like Wisconsin, Washington County certainly stacks up well among the most renowned munis in the state. But is it #1? We’d love to see your opinion in the poll below and hear your thoughts in the Comments section!