Late last month I had the opportunity to spend 30 minutes with NBC analyst and broadcaster Mark Rolfing. Mark will be covering the US Senior Open at SentryWorld this weekend and allowed me to pick his mind about all things golf while focusing on the USGA tournament venue and general state of the game, especially here in my own home state of Wisconsin where incredible daily fee courses like SentryWorld dominate the landscape.
My goals for this conversation were two-fold:
- Discuss his initial walk-through of SentryWorld and what he thinks of it as a championship venue, how he expects it to be attacked and what spectators can expect from it as a major tournament venue for the US Senior Open that teed off this morning
- Talk about one of our mutual favorite things: Golf! Especially, golf here in the Dairy State and how it fits into the national picture
Originally from DeKalb, Illinois, many of Mark’s golf trips as a younger player were to Michigan, from the southwest portion of the state up to Arcadia.
Courses like SentryWorld, which originally opened in 1992, were yet to hit the Wisconsin golf scene, though he made regular visits to Lawsonia which he maintains as one of his favorite rounds of golf in the state.
Note: Mark’s responses and comments are highlighted in light gray
This Golden Age masterpiece that has undergone a highly successful restoration should be on every Wisconsin golfer’s bucket list. One of the best public golf deals in the state, Lawsonia…
“We always went to Michigan, and now Wisconsin is maybe the top golf destination in America. Period. There’s a lot of great golf in Michigan, but what’s sprung up in Wisconsin is incredible, and I give Herb Kohler a lot of the credit. It’s the diversity of these places – if you go to the desert, for example, like Phoenix or Scottsdale and so on, it’s all kind of the same. Here, Sand Valley couldn’t be any different from SentryWorld, which couldn’t be any more different from Erin Hills, Blackwolf Run, Whistling Straits… Wisconsin offers a great variety of golf experiences.”
Mark’s had a front-row seat for much of the development here in Wisconsin, including as one of the original investors/members at Sand Hills in Nebraska along with Mike Keiser of Dream Golf (Mike and his family have of course developed Bandon Dunes, Cabot, Sand Valley and are currently working on Rodeo Dunes in Colorado).
“When Mike told me they were going to develop Sand Hills in Wisconsin I was like what are you talking about? There’s no place like that in Wisconsin. My wife is from Oshkosh and I’ve never seen land like that here. But boy was he right!”
The original Sand Valley Course is my favorite at this world-class Wisconsin golf resort that in just 5 short years has made a significant impact on golf in the state…
I personally think Erin Hills got a raw deal at the 2017 US Open (they widened the fairways thinking it would be too hard, then got tons of rain which softened the course and somehow the wind was almost nonexistent – it was the perfect storm leading to unusual scoring conditions), and was curious about Mark’s thoughts having worked it as an analyst and on-screen for the “Live From” telecast. Does he think they’ll get another shot at it?
“I really liked [the US Open at Erin Hills], enjoyed it and am in the camp that there will be another US Open there. The US Open needs the Midwest. It can go to Pebble, Shinnecock, Pinehurst, Oakmont and so on, but it needs the Midwest to bring it all together. It’s been in the Chicago area 13 times, but they don’t have the right site anymore. Our national championship needs to move around the country. You can’t just plop it down in four locations. It’s for our country’s best, including the Midwest.”
SentryWorld and the 2023 US Senior Open
To start, Mark was really surprised by his initial walk-through of the SentryWorld property and was incredibly complimentary of the property’s golf experience:
“I didn’t expect quite THIS type of championship experience. This is more like a US Open venue – it will require a lot of discipline, which is right up Steve Stricker’s alley. If you drive the ball in the rough, you can’t get to any of these greens.”
Have you ever seen another golf course/club not open until a tournament?
“Never. Nothing like it.”
What do you expect to be the toughest hole(s) to par for the US Senior Open?
“The fifth, ninth, thirteenth and seventeenth. [SentryWorld Director of Golf] Danny Rainbow has an almost identical swing speed, launch angle and overall swing dynamics as Steve Stricker and I had him play all these holes from different spots.
All four of those tee shots go in the same direction, and it was into a west wind, so you’re trying to really crank it to get over the lake on thirteen, for example, and if you lay up short on five then you’re laying up on the next shot, too.
On nine, driving into that upper-left part of the fairway – hopefully they don’t move the tees too far back or it’s going to force some players to play short-right of the river and give zero chance of going for that tiny green. That green was designed to receive wedges and short irons, not long- and mid-irons, and if players come in too hard on nine they’re probably going to end up in those back bunkers facing a really tough downhill shot toward the creek. There’s likely to be some dropped balls following those recovery attempts.”
Does SentryWorld favor any particular style of play?
“No. Not long players (even at ~ 7,200 yards), not left-to-right players or right-to-left, not guys with great short games… It should put pressure on every part of players’ games and expose any and all weaknesses. It’s a very complete golf course.”
How does the difficulty of the greens compare to other recent US Senior Open venues?
“The greens have more slope than undulation. There aren’t many humps and bumps, but the greens are quartered off/sectioned off because of their slope. That won’t be the biggest issue; it will be a good course for good putters, which includes Stricker and Padraig Harrington who is one of the best in the world – I see Harrington competing seriously at this US Senior Open. Driving will be the problem. We haven’t seen a course that will require straight driving as much as this one.”
Which par three do you think has the best chance of yielding a hole-in-one?
“Sixteen will be a completely different hole depending on the pin location. They were actually planting the flowers today – what a process! With a hole location one-third of the way on the green, left-center, there is a great chance for a hole-in-one. There will likely be a back-left hole location one day, and back-right another. That front third pin (described above) will probably be on Saturday, and Saturday might be the day for one.”
I can personally attest to that one as I had an easy birdie that was right in line with that hole location at last year’s media day.
How about strategy for a short four?
“On hole eleven, I’d love to see them go up two tees from the back and see what these guys have got going after the green off the tee.”
If you could choose one hole to camp out at as a spectator, which one would it be and why?
“Five by the traps in the driving zone – you can watch all the tee shots come in, hear the players strategizing with their caddies before their next shots on whether to lay up or go for it in two.”
What will the strategy look like on nine as a par four? Will some players still play it as a three-shot hole?
“I’m a little nervous about them playing this hole too far back! The first couple days you’ll have club pros and qualifiers in the field, and you don’t want to see any advantage created because of length. I’d be surprised if they did anything extreme to make any holes too long, including nine. This hole won’t need much length because it will take so much precision.
The setup is really important here, and I’m rooting for the tee to get up as far as they can – again, this green was designed for a short-iron shot so to have it played as a par five it won’t support/isn’t receptive enough to hold a long-iron shot, especially if the wind is coming out of the west and into players’ faces. There would have been plenty of players who would have had to lay up to the water on the right during my initial walk-through, for example.”
How will players approach the centerline bunker on thirteen off the tee?
On a day like yesterday it won’t even be in play for these guys – they’ll be short of it.
Will the big run-off slope on the fifteenth green lead to big numbers?
“For these guys, if they get the ball in the fairway they won’t have a serious problem with any of these holes. SentryWorld really is not overly long but the greens are tough and the fairways are harder to hit than most championship venues. And the rough will be incredibly challenging. If you drive the ball off the fairway there’s nothing you can do to get to the green in two. This course will take a tremendous amount of discipline to play it well and compete.”
What’s the optimal play off the tee on seventeen? How will a back pin be approached there?
“Yeah, I can see some shots going long on seventeen.”
A few final thoughts from Mark on the weekend’s US Senior Open championship at SentryWorld:
“Champions Tour players don’t have a lot of shot analytics – there’s no ShotLink on that tour, for example, so it’s not like the PGA Tour guys. It’s harder to predict shot behavior on the Champions Tour. There’s more run-of-the-mill distances off the tee for Champions Tour guys, too.
Are there any players, like Michael Block in the PGA Championship, who might have a chance to make a serious run in the US Senior Open?
First, I’m totally against a no-cut PGA Championship and hope they never go through with that as the PGA Championship is meant to be a tournament that includes the people who work in the profession year-round. Regarding Block-like players, probably not a chance over 72 holes. It will be almost impossible for a club pro/qualifier to contend for this championship. It was such a fluke what Block did at Oak Hill, even though he’s an incredible player. I was talking with Paul Goydos who played a lot of golf with Block in Southern California, and he said Block used to beat him like a drum every day. It was still a strange set of circumstances for Block to do what he did and get that far at the PGA Championship, though, and I can’t see that happening at SentryWorld.”
What are you looking forward to most about the US Senior Open?
I’m looking forward to seeing the fans! Walking around Stevens Point, people are so revved up for this thing! This will be the most fan-friendly major championship experience you can find. The parking is going to be spectacular – it will be so easy to park and get to the facility versus most majors.
The tees and greens are close together, too, so it will be an easy walk for spectators. There are some really exciting shots where you can park yourself. I’d go out to number five and stand behind the bunkers in the fairway there, listen to what the players are saying and trying to figure out, who’s going to lay up and this and that… There are three or four spots like that on the course that should be perfect.
And I’m a fan of golf first, so I’ll try to walk around and enjoy the event as a fan any opportunity I get.”
And, finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: How does Mark Rolfing rank his top five courses in Wisconsin?
- Whichever the next I’m going to play is!
- Whistling Straits
- Blackwolf Run – “Straits gets all the attention, but I remember a day when Blackwolf was the top billing!”
- Milwaukee, Blue Mound and Brown Deer Park all have incredible shot values
How does Mark’s top five compare with yours? How does it compare to mine?
I’d like to send a huge THANK YOU to Mark for his time and openness in talking with me. He could not have been more gracious and congenial, and I’m looking forward to watching his broadcast this coming weekend. Thank you, Mark!
Want more on SentryWorld and what to expect at the US Senior Open? Check out Brian’s recent article, linked here:
After experiencing SentryWorld firsthand at the U.S. Senior Open Media Day this spring, it’s clear that the top-notch public venue has its sights set on being one of the best…