Before 1982, upscale public golf was virtually non-existent in Wisconsin. Sure, some interesting properties could be found across the state including then-unappreciated Lawsonia Links, but the world-class, travel-worthy U.S. top 100 layouts we now take for granted were nowhere to be found in the Badger State just over forty years ago.
Then SentryWorld arrived, blazing the trail for Wisconsin to become one of the nation’s premier golf destination states.
This week, SentryWorld will be thrust back into the spotlight as host of the U.S. Senior Open. This seminal moment in the course’s history is one that SentryWorld has been carefully preparing for over the course of several years, but it’s really the culmination of more than four decades of excellence.
SentryWorld is in the incredibly unique position of having access to nearly unlimited financial resources from its owner, Sentry Insurance, a relationship that goes back to its founding. This strikes a special chord with me as someone who works in the insurance industry. Having spent most of my career in sprawling suburban insurance headquarters, I’ve constantly fantasized about my employers building golf courses on these properties to enjoy on lunch breaks or after work. Sentry’s employees have lived that dream for over 40 years.
Free from financial constraints that nearly all golf properties face, SentryWorld has evolved from Wisconsin’s OG destination course into a world-class golf experience that can stand toe-to-toe with Wisconsin’s other heavyweight public venues, and one that will now deservedly add senior major championship host to its pedigree.
As one of the most extensively-covered courses on WiscoGolfAddict, Paul Seifert has already dived deep into SentryWorld’s layout, history and recent initiatives. Starting with a massive 2014 renovation by original architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi, the venue has set about reinventing itself to keep pace as one of the top public properties in the state and to set the stage for hosting prestigious tournaments.
After the smashing success of the renovation, Sentry’s ownership started talking with the USGA about bringing a national championship to SentryWorld. A few years later, after serving as a successful host of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship in 2019, it came as no surprise when the USGA announced that SentryWorld had landed the 2023 U.S. Senior Open.
Around the same time, SentryWorld was in the midst of implementing another round of course improvements directly aimed at preparing for the championship, including installation of state-of-the-art SubAir technology that has enabled the smoothest and quickest greens one can find in the game. Concurrent with these efforts, they rolled out a new type of all-inclusive golf experience to further differentiate it as a top public destination.
Last year, Paul served as host content creator for SentryWorld in WSGA’s Wisconsin Captured project where he spent three full days on site extensively photographing this immaculate, refined property. The drone photos in this article are some of the results of his time spent on site.
The most impressive thing about SentryWorld is its ability to shut down for years at a time to renovate and prepare for tournaments. It was closed to regular play from the onset of COVID until mid-2022, when it briefly re-opened for public play for just half a season. The property has been closed all of this season so far, and will finally re-open to the public after U.S. Senior Open concludes on Sunday. While those of us in the media were extremely lucky to play the course in May, we were required to hit off portable mats to avoid making divots on their perfectly maintained turf.
If any of the competitors complain about poor lies this week, I won’t have a shred of sympathy for them!
Simply put, this doesn’t happen anywhere else. At any other property, the demand for revenue or serving members vastly outweighs the desire to get a course into perfect shape for an event, and at best a course will shut down for a few weeks leading up to an event (not years!). But at SentryWorld, with its ownership group not demanding a constant flow of revenue and profit, it can afford the luxury of long periods of zero play to sculpt the most ideal conditions imaginable.
On a beautiful mid-May afternoon, I joined Paul and Troy Giljohann at the U.S Senior Open Media Day to preview the course and learn more about the ongoing preparations for the championship. Representatives from the USGA, SentryWorld and Sentry Insurance kicked off the program with an in-depth presentation.
The presentation focused on the history of SentryWorld and how it landed the U.S. Senior Open, what it means for the area and Wisconsin golf, the course setup and what to expect for the week. While no contestants were on hand at the event, video interviews with defending champion Padraig Harrington and Wisconsin’s own Jerry Kelly were shared to provide competitor insights.
Following the event, Paul also had the opportunity to interview Mark Rolfing of NBC, who had extensively walked the property himself, to get his take on how the seniors will attack the course. Mark stressed how surprised he was at the difficulty of the setup after experiencing the course firsthand.
“This is more like a U.S. Open venue, one that will require a lot of discipline, which is right up Stricker’s alley. If you drive the ball in the rough, you can’t get to any of these greens.” -Mark Rolfing, NBC
After playing the course myself, I would have to agree with Mark. The fairways are a lot narrower than what I remembered from my last time at the property, and even in May the rough was starting to look nasty thick. In mid-summer, I expect the rough to play to U.S. Open-level difficulty. With many of the green complexes elevated and heavily-bunkered and putting surfaces expected to roll at a 13 for the championship, it will be virtually impossible to hold any of these greens coming out of the rough. Thankfully for me, after missing most of the fairways at Media Day, I was able to hit off a mat and get a great lie coming into the greens, a luxury the U.S. Senior Open contestants will not have.
One overarching theme that emerged from both the Media Day presentation and the Rolfing interview is that while SentryWorld is going to be a tough test, it won’t be the hardest possible setup and we should see plenty of birdies. Stretching out to over 7,200 yards, this is the longest ever U.S. Senior Open layout on paper, but it will vary between 7,000 and 7,250 depending on the setup of the day. Even with the length, the layout should favor smart, conservative play and those trying to overpower it will likely pay a hefty price.
The range of total yardage also illustrates one of SentryWorld’s great strengths as a tournament host, as it offers ample flexibility in setup. Multiple tee options exist on many of the holes, which will allow the USGA to dial in the setup to account for conditions and to adjust difficulty and strategy each day.
The first great example of this comes on the par 4 2nd. This beastly straightaway hole plays with the prevailing wind, and can stretch out to well over 500 yards. If the wind comes out of the east, however, the USGA may be inclined to shorten the yardage which would be easy to do with several shorter tee boxes to pick from. The shortest option could bring the yardage in to around 400 which would bring water into play on both sides, while from the back tee a pond on the right would be in play but the marsh left would likely be out of reach for most. The hazard placements allow for either teeing option to be used on a given day with strategy that fits the yardage.
The fifth is the spot I look forward to seeing the competitors attack the most. This horseshoe-shaped par 5 bends tightly around a manmade lake and should produce the most exciting risk-reward shot of the whole tournament. Off the tee, players will need to decide how much of the lake to take on to cut off distance. Fairway traps through the corner may discourage some players from hitting driver, but that may take them out of the running for getting home in two.
From the corner, the second shot will be well over 200 yards and must contend with a towering tree on the water’s edge less than 100 yards from the green. Long hitters with a high ball flight will have a significant advantage, as they’ll have the option of flying their second shots directly over the tree towards the green. Mark thinks this will be one of the best areas to hang out as a spectator, where one can watch all of the drives come in and then hear the competitors strategize with their caddies on the decision to go for it or layup on the second shot.
As I found out firsthand, laying up leads to an easy angle into the green, which features right-to-left sloping that can kick shots towards the pin. With the green also sloping mostly from front-to-back, it’s most receptive to wedge shots with spin. With all that said, I think going for it in two is not worth the risk except for longer hitters who find themselves in great position off the tee.
The 9th, which has been converted into a par 4 for this tournament (normally a 5 for regular play), can vary dramatically in distance depending on the setup. I expect the highest scoring average to par here, and with large numbers in play the ninth could prove to be a crucial juncture in the competition down the stretch.
With a serpentine creek winding its way throughout the hole, the strategy will depend completely on the tee selection for the day. From the back teeing location the yardage can push out to near 500 yards, and if into the prevailing wind many players would probably need to layup short of the creek and tackle this as a three-shotter. On the flip side, an “up” tee would play closer to 450, where most players would have no problem carrying the creek to the left section of the fairway and then giving the green a go in two.
Speaking of the green, it features the creek butted up against its front-left edge and bunkers just long, making this a very unreceptive surface for a long iron. After my best tee shot of the day, I was able to go for the green in two (albeit with a teed-up 3-wood from a mat). I crushed it, only to find myself in the back bunker with little chance at getting up-and-down as the green slopes heavily back towards the water. The fact that my best play didn’t yield a four, even with the advantage of using a mat, illustrates the sheer difficulty of the ninth.
The USGA will have to be creative in its setup to ensure a bloodbath on this converted par 4 doesn’t get too out of hand, but the options at their disposal to vary the yardage will help manage this risk.
Getting struck by a ball is one of the few true dangers of golf, second only to lightning strikes. Anyone who has played the game for a long time has either been hit or can at least recount a close call they’ve had from an errant ball whizzing into their group. But have you ever seen two players hit by the same ball? I can now say I have.
Starting our rounds on #10, as we warmed up for the opening tee shot a ball rocketed through the trees and hit Troy Giljohann directly in the kneecap before ricocheting off of Paul’s leg, as well. Crucially, there was no Fore! call from the offending group on the neighboring hole.
Holes 10-14 will be a crucial stretch in the tournament with birdies in play and opportunities to gain ground on the leaders. After foolishly challenging Troy to a match at scratch (he is a 1-handicap to my 7 or 8), even with a bruised knee he came out scorching hot starting -4 through 5, with the only par resulting from a missed four-footer. Despite my own respectable start of +1 on the same stretch, it was game-set-match right out of the gate. Oof!
If a hobbled Troy can nearly rattle off five consecutive birdies, I’m keenly interested to see what the pros can pull off here. This will be a stretch filled with fireworks.
The tenth is a par 5 that will test accuracy, with a tight fairway bending to the right through a chute of towering trees. Drives hit up the left side will have the best angle of attack to a green tightly protected by bunkers short-right, long-right and long-left. After chipping out from the woods on my second shot, I was surprised that I was able to hold the green with a 5-iron on my approach, thanks to a receptive slope dividing the front and back sections.
With longer distance, higher ball flight and more spin, the pros should be able to do the same from further back, which makes me think that we’ll see a decent number of eagle putts here this week. Of course, the setup and wind direction will play into that, as the distance can range from the mid-500’s to over 600.
Two more birdie opportunities are there for the taking at the short par 4 11th and par 3 12th, but water and challenging greens could produce bogeys as well. Anyone hoping to make up ground on Sunday will probably need to take advantage of these opportunities.
A stiff challenge awaits at the par 4 13th. The tee shot plays over water and competitors will need to be careful about running their tee shot too far into a centerline bunker. If it’s playing into the wind, the bunker may not be an issue, but the potentially lengthy approach will be a demanding one to a green bordered closely by water short and left.
The white tees we played at Media Day were just 335 yards, from where the forced carry and centerline trap were non-issues and a short iron approach was the reward for a good drive.
The back tee US Senior Open contestants are likely to see is 85 yards longer and presents a different challenge altogether, where the forced carry, fairway trap and the greenside water hazard combine to make this a potentially brutal par 4. I wouldn’t be surprised to see very conversative approach shots and quite a few bogeys carded here.
The 15th was where Troy’s epic start came to a grinding halt, thanks to a wicked runoff slope just left of the green. This straightaway par 4 hole looks simple enough with no bunkers to contend with near the green, but approach shots must favor the right side. We played to a back-left pin which baited us into taking on the steep slope to the left.
Troy’s approach shot just barely caught the slope and ran out to 30 yards, where he faced a devilish chip with no green to work with. From there it was a painful path to double bogey. The contestants this week should have no problem avoiding this diabolical spot provided they are playing from the fairway, but it will still be interesting to see how they approach a left pin.
The closing sequence at SentryWorld is primed to produce some intense made-for-TV drama, with a world-famous par 3, a tricky, short par 4 and a difficult uphill par 4. This stretch presents unique challenges and will call for a wide array of shots to execute under pressure.
The “Flower Hole” 16th is perhaps Wisconsin’s best-known par 3. Otherwise a rather ordinary, modern par 3 designed to challenge elite golfers with tough bunkering and a multi-tiered green, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. opted to install a vast flower garden around the green to add interest during the course’s construction.
At Media Day, the flowers had not yet been planted, but Mark has reported that they were in the process of planting them when he visited the property a few weeks later. I have no doubt that the flowers will be in immaculate shape and ready for prime time this week. Here are a few looks from Paul’s past photo shoots to provide an idea of what to expect at the 16th:
With three distinct sections, the putting surface offers an array of possible pin positions which will drastically alter the challenge and strategy of the shot. Mark Rolfing pointed out that the lower-left pin position could produce the best opportunity for an ace on any of the par 3’s this week, as the green slopes toward that section and can be used to funnel the ball near the hole. Back-left and back-right should prove to be much tougher positions, which will either favor a fade or draw; I expect both locations to be used throughout the tournament to reward those who can work their irons both ways.
The 16th will undoubtedly be one of the best spots to take in the action this week in person, with the first and 17th tees and the 18th green within view in addition to this iconic par 3. With its location near the clubhouse on top of that, it may be tough to find a seat here.
In case you haven’t gotten enough of the Flower Hole, be sure to check out WiscoGolfAddict’s YouTube video from last year:
The 17th is a strategic and dangerous short par 4, bending sharply to the right around trees. Cutting the dogleg is a realistic option, which would place balls in lob wedge range. This could prove vital with water lurking just a couple feet off the green and all of the slopes running toward it. The alternative is an easy iron to the corner followed by more of a full wedge shot.
If the pin is back, those who successfully cut the dogleg will be rewarded with the chance to be more aggressive to get close to the hole without seriously challenging the water. However, both pitches and putts into that location should be approached extremely cautiously, as the steep slopes on the green will easily carry balls into the drink. I’ll be most interested to see the strategy here if someone is protecting a close lead down the stretch.
The 18th is a tough conclusion, a lengthy dogleg left par 4 ascending a hill. A series of fairway traps may force longer hitters to hit less than driver, and with little chance to cut the corner the approach will be a lengthy one for most players. This demanding shot plays to a multi-sectioned, well-defended green. Par will be an excellent score on this closer, and a one-shot lead heading into 18 on Sunday will be anything but safe.
Predictions and Closing Thoughts
After seeing SentryWorld firsthand and getting a feel for the setup and presentation of the layout, I think it will be a solidly difficult venue compared to other recent U.S. Senior Open hosts. The narrow width of the fairways and penal nature of the rough should keep scores from going really low, even though there will be plenty of birdie opportunities. Those who aggressively fire for birdies all tournament are likely to get into trouble on at least a few occasions. With that said, I think the winning score will fall in a similar range to what we’ve seen in the past couple years in this event, somewhere around -10.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Rolfing that Steve Stricker could not have a better chance to win this week, given the venue and the circumstances. Not only does he come in with a home field advantage and a ton of momentum after a dominating start to the season, the setup and strategy of SentryWorld should suit his game perfectly. It’s a thinking player’s course where sound conservative play is rewarded, and I believe this will play into Stricker’s hands and he’ll come away with the trophy. One cannot count out fellow Madison native Jerry Kelly either, who is playing some great golf of his own these days including shooting 59 at the Beauty vs. The Beast exhibition match at Geneva National vs. Paige Spiranac earlier this month.
SentryWorld should also be a magnificent spectator course. It’s a flat, relatively small property, featuring several locations where multiple greens, tees and fairways come together closely. There are no holes that venture out into remote corners of the property, and ample room exists for bleachers and gallery areas. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, you may regret it after watching the fun on TV this week.
Add it all up, and I strongly believe SentryWorld will go down as one of the elite hosts of the U.S. Senior Open in recent history and will be primed to host other major USGA championships in the near future. I can’t wait to see what’s in store this week.