Golf Club Review: Black Sheep Golf Club (IL)

Located just 45 miles west of Chicago, outside of Aurora, is a little slice of Heaven developed by attorney and real estate developer, Vince Solano, Jr.

One of four men’s only clubs in the state of Illinois (which makes up about a fifth to sixth of the total in the US), Solano developed Black Sheep to provide its membership a true home-away-from-home, with a comfortable but well-appointed, functional open clubhouse with a locker room, pro shop and a great room / bar area. It has everything it needs, and little it doesn’t.

There is no pool. No tennis courts. No dining room. No dress code.

There are no menus and no kitchen. The dining options are burger or chicken sandwich from the grill out back, or their famous peanut butter and jalapeno sandwich (there may have been a few pre-made options in the refrigerator that I missed).

There is no waitstaff. In fact, there are very few employees, in general, although those who are there including PGA Head Golf Professional Kevin Healy are tremendously helpful and accommodating, and will help throughout the clubhouse.

Black Sheep: One of the best logos in golf

All of this adds up to an intimate experience with low overhead. That means members get an elite, top-100 club with the lowest dues of any private course in the Chicago area (just over $7k/year, although initiation is ~ $35k), no food and beverage minimums, and no reliance on outside cash flow. With no need to host outside events on Mondays, for example, the course is open to membership seven days a week.

Black Sheep has 27 holes of fantastic David Esler designed golf that ebbs and inhales across a vast 285 acres of Illinois prairie land.

The holes Esler laid out will test every club in the bag, and will reward players who can pull off drawn and cut shot shapes while allowing for straight and steady play down its forgiving fairways.

The golf course at Black Sheep is one of the best competition courses I’ve ever played.

In fact, it played host this day to our 2019 Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup match.

An early morning view of the remote Black Sheep Golf Club from high above the clubhouse
Aerial view of the par four tenth at Black Sheep Golf Club

The first and tenth holes tee off adjacent to the clubhouse, but while the first hole heads west, the tenth leads players downhill and to the north.

A look back at the clubhouse from beyond the tenth hole green site

One of my favorite holes on the course is the lightning bolt shaped par five 11th. The fairway runs out from the tee, and helped turbo-charge my 275-ish yard drive well over 300.

Tee shot on the long, three-shot par five 11th at Black Sheep

Any 200-yard shot at the green in two, though, will need to carry a ton of greenside bunkers and would be ill-advised, at best. There is a ton of room short and left of the green for laying up and leaves a great angle in.

A look at the fairway transition on the par five 11th, from around 260 yards out

The course uses elevation well, especially on the par threes. My favorite is the short 25th, measuring just 135 yards to a postage stamp sized green that slopes hard from back to front.

Proximity on the tee shot is the whole game here. Anything outside 15 feet will leave a challenging two-putt, and anything short will likely be marooned well below the putting surface.

The short par three 25th hole, from 135 yards over fescue and sand

One of my favorite holes on the course is the par five second. Tipping out at 535 yards, this is a great three-shot hole that will penalize players for getting overly aggressive.

The par five 2nd hole at Black Sheep
An intimidating expanse of sand to carry to get home on the par five 2nd

The third is a beautiful downhill par three with a bevy of teeing options. The tee box nearest the second hole green is the highest, and forces players to take on more of the sand traps front-right of the green.

Tee highest tee box on 3, fairly straight-on

The next set of tees offers a straight-on approach with a clear lane to the green, and slightly less elevation.

Different tee, different angle on 3

The fifth continues my favorite stretch of holes at Black Sheep Golf Club, a drivable par four that is risk/reward at its very best.

Under 300 yards to the green, the putting surface is partially hidden by a volcano bunker front-left, and is one of the most heavily sloped greens on the course.

Any attempt at hitting this green better be straight. Errant shots left will likely disappear in the fescue, and anything short-right will be swallowed up by the pond.

Options galore! Line and club selection are key off the tee on 5

Esler designed great width in to the longer holes, generating a lot of options for how they can be played. This is the case on the par five sixth, the longest hole on the course tipping out at a beefy 618 yards.

Tee shot on the 600-plus yard par five 6th
The approach shot on the par five 6th

By the green on six is where I noticed something little but interesting at Black Sheep: A new way of hiding trash cans. Rather than having the standard garbage cans near tee boxes, their refuse bins are buried in the ground with a pop-up button to step on that opens the lid.

Another Chicago-area course with a creative way of hiding otherwise unsightly on-course amenities is the Greg Martin designed Rich Harvest Farms. RHF buries their rakes near sand traps with a button that pops them up when needed… For whatever reason, I always enjoy seeing creative new ways of doing the mundane.

Because there are 27 holes, there is no true starting or finishing hole at Black Sheep. Instead there are three, and all three nines end with strong uphill layouts returning to the perched clubhouse.

A view of the ninth:

The uphill close to the front/first nine at Black Sheep Golf Club

The eighteenth is my favorite of the finishing holes at Black Sheep. Climbing sharply uphill, the green is perched before the clubhouse and provides no visual of the ball landing. The approach has to carry the greenside bunkers and mounded front edge, so spin control is important.

Tee shot on the par five 18th at Black Sheep
Approach shot on 18
An aerial view of the 18th green from above the Black Sheep clubhouse

The 27th is intimidating off the tee, with fescue that looks to encroach on the driving area from all directions. The fairways are wide, though, at Black Sheep, and the uphill approach shot is to the bottom section of the otherwise shared 2-acre practice putting green.

Just a sliver of fairway shows through shrouded tees on the 27th

The thirteenth is the longest par three on the course at Black Sheep, tipping out at 241 yards.

The long par three 13th

Maybe my favorite green complex on a course with tremendous greens is the putting surface on the par four 23rd. A double-ripple effect divides the green, twice, running from front-left to back-right, and the day’s pin location was just paces from the right edge.

Team Wisconsin Writer’s Cup Co-Captain Gary D’Amato putting on the unique 23rd green

I am a big fan of Black Sheep Golf Club. Solano and his team developed a spectacular golf experience for golfers, and did it in a way that is world-class good at an affordable annual price point.

As for the Writer’s Cup, Team Wisconsin managed a fourth consecutive win, retaining the Reid Hanley Trophy to be fought for once again at 2020’s tournament scheduled to be held at the redesigned Club at Lac La Belle.

Team Wisconsin, minus Brian Weis

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Sugar Grove, IL
Yardage: Holes 1-18: Black-7111, Grey-6732, White-6463; Holes 1-9, 19-27: Black-6930, 6659, 6382; Holes 10-27: Black-7107, Grey-6729, White-6519
Slope/Rating: Holes 1-18: Black-74.7/137, Grey-72.7/133, White-71.5/130; Holes 1-9, 19-27: Black-73.5/134, Grey-72.1/132, White-70.8/129; Holes 10-27: Black-74.6/135, Grey-72.6/132, White-71.7/130
Par: 72

Back Sheep Golf Club Website

Golf Club Review: Blue Mound Golf and Country Club

Rich in history, Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in Wauwatosa is one of the most prestigious and well-respected private clubs in the state of Wisconsin.

Designed by one of the world’s all-time greatest golf course architects, Seth Raynor, Blue Mound originally opened for play in 1926 and is one of only four courses in the state to have hosted a major golf tournament.

Bronze bust of Seth Raynor near the 1st tee at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club

They probably have the most legendary winner, too: Gene Serazen at the inaugural 1933 PGA Championship:

Gene Sarazen winning the 1st PGA Championship in 1933 at Blue Mound

History aside (I added a full list of Wisconsin major tournament sites, years and winners toward the bottom of this post), the team and membership at Blue Mound should be proud of the way they’ve shepherded it in recent years. Anyone even adjacent to the golf industry has noticed the tremendous challenges Golden Age courses have faced, including but not limited to:

  • Endlessly fighting the results of excessive post-war tree planting (and now the Emerald ash borer)
  • Resisted some, and allowed then peeled back other 1990’s-era updates
  • Surviving and recovering from the ensuing financial collapse
  • Refocused on their rich heritage and invested in a future that includes strategic restorations and property enhancements

Continually doing all of this and more have brought Blue Mound full circle to where things began in 1926, with a…

Perfectly maintained golf course with superior design elements and the state’s best greens.

Anyone could live with that.

Even the first time I played it this year, following a few days that stockpiled over three inches of rain (you can see some still standing in bunkers), Blue Mound’s course conditions were better and faster than expected.

That said, the conditions the second time I played it were off-the-charts good. The fairways were spry and ran out, and the greens were just perfect.

No area course has better, more interesting green complexes than Blue Mound, and only Milwaukee CC can stand toe-to-toe with its decorated history and the mystique that coexists at upper-echelon private clubs.

Where does that come from? In the case of Blue Mound, it started and still lives with Raynor.

One of my coworkers who joined us for my first round there enjoys playing golf, but told me afterwards he didn’t follow our conversations about template holes. He especially didn’t understand why the club would want to raise a perfectly good fairway like on the Alps fourth when the hole is fine as is.

I had to admit it’s a geeky golf guy thing that goes against [real] common sense, but I love everything about Golden Age golf and especially when it’s related to Macdonald/Raynor and their template holes. These guys were masters, and that’s proven out over time, course and tournament history. The onus to keep the course within their parameters has long been passed, and Blue Mound has been running in full stride.

Raynor built some beautiful golf holes at Blue Mound, highlighted as I mentioned by incredible green sites. I’ll touch on a few of the most memorable to me here, and will also give a couple general opinions.

The first really remarkable green at Blue Mound is their Double Plateau second. At over 10,300 square feet, this is the largest and most pinnable surface on the entire course with three distinct levels.

Part of the green on the par four Double Plateau 2nd at Blue Mound

While I haven’t had a chance to fly my drone at Blue Mound, @putt4dough24 on Instagram does on a regular basis. I highly recommend following him for great images of Blue Mound and other top national private clubs, including this pic of Blue Mound’s Double Plateau.

Link to @putt4dough24 on Instagram (Blue Mound member, golf/drone photographer)

The first of Blue Mound’s par threes, the third is a terrific Raynor Biarritz. I thought it was interesting at first that they do not mow the first/high shelf section of the green. After doing more research, though, I’ve come to understand that this is how Raynor and Macdonald actually intended it.

The long Biarritz par three 3rd at Blue Mound
View from the back section of the Biarritz 3rd, showing the swale and unmowed front

Most Biarritz-style greens I’ve played were not actually designed by Raynor or Macdonald. The Sandbox at Sand Valley, Old Macdonald, Streamsong Red, Bandon Trails and Sweetgrass all have Biarritz-style greens, for example, but all were designed/implemented by modern day architects.

Shoreacres (Lake Bluff, IL) is the only other true Raynor course I’ve played and, according to Golf Club Atlas and The Fried Egg, is the exception to the rule that the front section of Biarritz greens should be mowed to fairway length. In fact, GCA mentions that the front section of Shoreacres’ Biarritz sixth lacks the cinder subsurface that serves as a base for the rest of the putting surface.

That said, I’d prefer the front section be mowed. There are few shots in golf more fun to watch than when your tee shot hits the front section of a Biarritz green, disappears in to the swale and reemerges rolling toward a back hole location.

My buddy, Greg’s tee shot on the 8th at Old Macdonald, for example (click for video) – a solid 12 seconds of watching the ball fly, run out, climb and curl in.

Greg’s tee shot on the Biarritz-style 8th at Old Macdonald

Some other Biarritz-style greens I’ve played and took pictures of:

The Alps fourth hole is one that may garner interest in the near future because of potential renovation plans. The club is looking at raising the fairway surface near the green to make the approach shot completely blind, like it is on the original Alps hole at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland.

The par four Alps 4th hole

The seventh at Blue Mound is the course’s Short hole and features one of the property’s prettiest backdrops: Mt. Mary University.

Blue Mound’s downhill Short par three 7th

The eighth is probably the course’s signature hole, featuring a well-elevated Punch Bowl green.

Tee area on Blue Mound’s Punch Bowl 8th
A closer look at the Punch Bowl on 8 at Blue Mound

I love the view from the tee on nine. With the clubhouse as the backdrop, the tee shot needs to carry the deep Ravine the hole is named for. The three fairway bunkers on the right side look gnarly but are not in play for most golfers. The biggest miss to avoid here is anything snappy and left.

The par four Ravine 9th, with a forced carry off the tee

With a back pin location, the green on nine is one of the toughest on the course to get to, but it pales in comparison to the seemingly straight-forward opening hole on the back nine.

Ten, appropriately nicknamed Prize, is a shining example of how an ingenious green complex can make an otherwise innocuous golf hole great.

There is nothing for the golfer to worry about off the tee. Given the size of the green, though, chances are there are at least a few clubs that can provide enough distance but just one that will leave a good chance for a two-putt par.

Tee box on the par four Prize 10th, one of the course’s best competition holes

Featuring one of the most scenic teeing areas on the course, the par four twelfth is the course’s Hog’s Back template.

The tee boxes set up alongside a pond and play to a crested fairway that cants from right to left. Even if just for the views alone, this is a really memorable par four.

Joe’s tee shot on the par four 12th, Hog’s Back
The long par four Hog’s Back 12th from the forward tees

There are actually two standard right-to-left Redan greens at Blue Mound. The first is on the course’s par four opening hole, and the second is this gem that I’d imagine took incredible physical labor to manufacture:

The beautiful Redan par three 13th at Blue Mound

The fun in any of Raynor or Macdonald’s Redan complexes is in the way the right side can be used to influence approach shots toward the middle or back of the putting surface.

The thirteenth has a long, narrow green with an expansive approach area above and short-right of the putting surface to funnel balls greenward.

I can’t imagine the amount of land that was moved to elevate the playing surface here. To illustrate my point, here’s a view of the outside border toward the back-right (from the tees):

The Redan green complex’s dramatic edge on 13

Every great golf course needs a solid finishing hole, and the 18th at Blue Mound is perfect. Measuring 560 yards from the tips, the 18th is by far the longest hole on a par 70 course with just two par fives, and offers ample width off the tee and on subsequent long shots.

The par five Long finishing hole at Blue Mound

Both times playing here I was able to smack a 3-wood as far as I could on the second shot. Neither made the green, but being able to haul off on a long club without worrying too much about tree lines, water or other hazards is good fun and brings strategy in to play. Both times I put myself in no man’s land too close to the green and would have been better off laying up to a more comfortable distance with a full wedge, but that’s not quite as satisfying.

As with the rest of the course, Blue Mound is all about the second shot and putting. And the true genius in CB Macdonald and Seth Raynor’s work can be found in the give and take. While there is always a best-case, sporty shot to hit, there’s also one for the smart, consistent player (not me) to count on for a great look at par.

Any ultra-exclusive club is going to have outside naysayers. It’s how the world and people who want to feel important work. Over the past five to ten years, I’ve heard two common negatives about Blue Mound:

  1. Tree removal made the course too easy
  2. The membership is old and stuffy

Having not played Blue Mound previously, I pictured in my mind a landscape as barren as Washington County, or the Links course at Lawsonia… Scorched earth.

I was actually surprised by how many trees do come in to play, and I think if anything they could probably take out more. Their team certainly did not overdo it, though, and any challenge taken away was never intended to be there (by their ingenious course designer) in the first place.

From what I’ve seen, the second generalization is also unfounded. I half-expected to be having lunch and tea in a rollback leather chair with old bronze casters while old men read newspapers in their pajamas all around me, maybe slipping silverware in their pockets when nobody was looking.

In actuality, I’ve played with some really fun younger guys and have met a dozen or so others pre- and post-round by the range, men’s locker room bar and fire pits. I’d be excited to golf with any of them.

From what I’ve seen and heard, the club is getting younger and flourishing, and a bright future is comforting to see at a course so rich with history and charm.

In case you’re wondering about all Wisconsin courses to have hosted major golf tournaments/events (with year(s) and champion(s)), here is the full list:

  • US Open
    • Erin Hills
      • 2017: Brooks Koepka
  • PGA Championship
    • Blue Mound
      • 1933: Gene Sarazen
    • Whisting Straits
      • 2004: Vijay Singh
      • 2010: Martin Kaymer
      • 2015: Jason Day
  • US Senior Open
    • Whistling Straits
      • 2007: Brad Bryant
  • US Amateur
    • Erin Hills and Blue Mound (alternate site for stroke play)
      • 2011: Peter Uihlein
  • Ryder Cup (yes, I’m including it)
    • Whistling Straits
      • 2020: To be decided
  • US Women’s Open
    • Blackwolf Run
      • 1998: Se Ri Pak
      • 2012: Na Yeon Choi

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Wauwatosa, WI
Yardage: Black-6667, Blue-6313, White-5632
Slope/Rating: Black-131/72.1, Blue-127/70.6, White-124/72.5
Par: 70

Blue Mound Golf and Country Club Website

Lawsonia: One of Wisconsin’s Best 36-Hole Destinations

For my money, there’s probably no better spot in the state of Wisconsin for 36 holes than Lawsonia. An hour and fifteen minutes from Milwaukee, Lawsonia offers two distinct golfing experiences: The all-world Langford/Moreau classic Links course, and the tree-lined, scenic Woodlands course.

I made this year’s first pilgrimage to Lawsonia two weeks ago, and this time brought with me a new gadget.

My friend, Troy, had been telling me how easy it is to use the DJI Spark drone, and he let me borrow his to try out for a couple of weeks.

Like any golfer, I’ve always salivated over amazing drone footage of great golf holes. No one I’ve seen recently has done that better than Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg. For a terrific example, see his video from Lawsonia here:

“The Boldest Value in Golf: Lawsonia Links” – video credit: Andy Johnson, The Fried Egg

Despite having no drone or video editing skills, I fumbled around enough to take a couple nice shots I wanted to share. The first is one of my favorite par fours: The second hole on the Woodlands course.

Lawsonia Woodlands hole 2: Par 4 from the sky

A view from the sky shows the strategic value in playing off the tee to the fairway right of the quarry: A clear shot to the green.

Another great par four on the Woodlands course is the curvy, up-and-down fourteenth (click image for video):

Lawsonia Woodlands hole 14: Par 4 from the sky

Finally, a video of Phillip’s tee shot on the famous par three seventh on the Links course (click image for video):

As an aside, I didn’t realize until after this trip that I haven’t updated my review and photos of the Links course since it was deforested in 2014. I’ll aim to re-shoot the course and update photos sometime during the 2019 season.

And, finally, to all the dads out there… Happy Father’s Day!

Early Season Golf at Whistling Straits & Golf Kohler

There are a number of different ways to play Whistling Straits, and none of them are cheap. Playing it during the early Spring and late Fall, though, will save money.

Normal folks like myself have a hard time dishing out $600 for a round at the Straits, so one of the most common questions I get asked is how and when to play it.

The answer: Whenever you can afford it and have a good group to go with. The more economical answer, though, depends on the year. Kohler’s current promotion has early-season deals through Friday, May 9, which include:

  • Whistling Straits, Straits course: $190
  • Whistling Straits, Irish course: $80
  • Blackwolf Run: River course: $130
  • Blackwolf Run: Meadow Valleys course: $80

The next round of deals goes up significantly, making this week the perfect time to play it. Golf Kohler rates from May 10 to June 3:

  • Whistling Straits, Straits course: $300
  • Whistling Straits, Irish course: $130
  • Blackwolf Run, River course: $210
  • Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course: $130

Now here’s where early-season rates get tricky…

There’s a fine line between taking advantage of early-season rates on one of the top five courses in the country and playing it on soupy, brown terrain. I won’t pretend to know everything about fescue grass, but a combination of the Straits course’s turf type and its proximity to the lake can mean a less than beautiful setting during some early Spring seasons.

The trick is to get as close to the final day of the early-season rates as possible, and to consult the course ahead of time if you’re concerned about how it’ll look and play.

For example, here is the second fairway on the Straits course during the final week of the initial early-season rates during two very different years:

The fairway on 2 at the Straits course on May 8, 2014 – soupy, soggy, brown, slow

In stark contrast, the course greened up very quickly this year, and in fact the conditions right now are legendarily good. In other words, if you can get a tee time on the Straits course this week (by May 9, 2019), book it. If you can’t and are on a budget, book it before June 3.

The fairway on 2 at the Straits course on May 5, 2019 – really good

As you can see, the big difference between what the course looks like right now versus what it looks like during peak season is in the fescue off the fairways – it just hasn’t grown in yet.

The fairway on 2 at the Straits course on August 10, 2014 – perfect

Additional photos from Sunday’s round on the Straits course:

It should be mentioned that the Blackwolf Run and Irish courses are much less volatile than the Straits, so if you’re looking for a world-class round of golf on one of them, feel confident in booking it that the conditions will be worth the investment.

Just like your game probably won’t be in mid-season form yet, though, don’t expect perfection quite yet – that’s why they’re offering early-season deals. The greens will probably still be a little choppy and on the slower side, the native grasses won’t be grown out yet, and tee shots probably won’t get as much run as they will in July… But chances are you’re still going to love the round.

WiscoGolfAddict review of Whistling Straits: Straits course (2014)

WiscoGolfAddict review of Whistling Straits, Irish course (2011)

WiscoGolfAddict review of Blackwolf Run, River course (2012)

WiscoGolfAddict review of Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course (2014)

Golf Course Review: Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes

I have been very fortunate to take part in a handful of Sand Valley media events, and the recent May 1 media day for the opening of the Sandbox was a great one.

Along with playing Bill Coore and Ben Creshaw’s par three course on the day it debuted, we were also treated to a golfing experience that blew my mind: David McLay Kidd’s Mammoth Dunes.

A 6-hole loop was available for preview the last time I was on site, so having the opportunity to see the rest of the project was highly anticipated to say the least. 16 holes were made available to a few of us media guys, which was better than I expected considering the most recent snowfall (a blizzard) was just a week before.

The Wisconsin weather warmed up quickly, though, leaving playable albeit soft and slightly off-colored turf at Mammoth Dunes. I can tell you from experience that this course will green up nicely and will play fast. Really fast.

Growing up in Scotland, David McLay Kidd is the son of long-time Gleneagles course Superintendent, Jimmy Kidd, who taught him all about golf course architecture and conditioning. His fascination with great golf led him to the pursuit of a career in golf design, and things really took off when he partnered with Sand Valley developer Mike Keiser for the flagship course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in 1999.

Bandon was the development that changed everything for Keiser, for Kidd, and for the golf industry, and a resort like Sand Valley would never have been possible if it was not for the tremendous success they had there.

Mammoth Dunes is the third course at Sand Valley Golf Resort, and has now been open to the public since May 31. The first course, Sand Valley, debuted last year to great acclaim, paving the way for more championship golf in the prehistoric sand dunes of central Wisconsin.

The land at Mammoth Dunes is more rugged than at its sister course, Sand Valley. There are fewer clean lines and the scale of its features – the fairways, greens, sand blowouts and changes in elevation – are nothing short of mammoth. The scale of this course is staggering; every hole is memorable, every shot makes you think and typically provides at least a couple of options.

I caught myself constantly saying, “Oh wow,” and “Jeez, this is beautiful,” and other equally cheesy and obvious comments that I couldn’t hold back. Mammoth Dunes is an exhilarating, wonderfully pure golfing experience that will quickly take the world of golf by storm.

The opening tee shot is to one of the widest fairways I’ve ever seen – easily 100 yards in width. The green area is mostly without bunkering, but like the majority of the course features mounding that helps or hinders shots played along the ground.

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Hole 1: Par 4 (417/394/358/324/221/198)

A central blowout bunker dictates some of the ground game in the approach area:

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Hole 1: Par 4 (417/394/358/324/221/198)

Hole two is a spectacular par four. A sea of sand lies between the teeing grounds and fairway, lengthening the carry the further right you aim.

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Hole 2: Par 4 (405/402/360/330/286/236)

Keep in mind the fescue turf at Sand Valley plays very, very fast, so expect a lot of run-out when the ball hits the fairway. This should affect your aim as you won’t want to land your drive anywhere near traps like these ones:

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Hole 2: Par 4 (405/402/360/330/286/236)

Kidd’s green on two is all-world – massive in size with spines, valleys and a left-side mound that hides much of its contouring:

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The first par five on the course is a good one. Like on two, make sure to choose the right line over the sand – anything short will leave a tough recovery and a challenge to get to this green in regulation.

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