Erin Hills: A Legend in the Making

It’s hard to believe Erin Hills is just 15 years old. It’s got all the looks and feels of a historic property that’s been played and refined for centuries. Certainly, no course in America has changed and accomplished more in as short a time as Erin Hills, going under the knife regularly to improve the guest and tournament experience in ways both noticeable and strategically long-term.

Constant change, and an unrivaled attention to detail, has always been in its DNA. Even when initially routed by the design team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, literally hundreds of golf holes were proposed.

Erin Hills, from high above (photo credit: Jeff Schaefer)

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Every detail had to be considered: The prevailing and ever-present winds, sunrises and sunsets, that the property’s most dramatic land forms were utilized most effectively, and that the architecture paid homage to the great Scottish and Irish courses where the game began while staying irrevocably original and unique to the glacial kettle moraine that breathes it life.

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Across 640 acres, careful attention is paid on a daily basis to sweat every detail. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years to grow and care for the fescue that sways in the breezes, for example, keeping weeds from growing in and pulling rocks and even pebbles by hand. The land may not have been tailor made for fescue, but damn if it wasn’t placed here for golf.

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The story of Erin Hills’ origins is well-documented, perhaps best by Gary D’Amato in his 2017 6-part series entitled “The Making of Erin Hills.”

D’Amato’s expose is rife with intrigue, starting with local business magnate Bob Lang. Lang was obsessed with developing the country’s next great tournament course, and specifically with bringing the US Open to Southeast Wisconsin. He knew he had the right property, and [mostly] the right team, and he put everything he had in to making his dream a reality.

The course was designed by then perceived underdogs Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, and opened to rave reviews. There were some quirks, though, and it was partly those quirks that led to continual investments meant to satisfy one demand after another by the USGA. These games, along with his initial investment, eventually cost Lang over $26 million.

His well had run dry, and new ownership would be needed to keep Lang’s dream alive. It was clear it would require someone whose financial security couldn’t be tied to such a passion project, and Erin Hills and the world of golf were fortunate to find that rare buyer in billionaire Andrew Ziegler.

Ziegler, Founding Partner and Lead Director of Artisan Partners, helped deliver Lang’s vision of a US Open at Erin Hills in 2017. And, I bet if you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and dream of seeing another.

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The Drumlin

One of Erin Hills’ most recent developments has been the opening of their Drumlin putting course, which debuted in August 2019. With 63,000 square feet of green surface set upon a ridge adjacent to the first tee, the Drumlin provides a wonderful way to add a little more golf to your day – whether before or after your round, or even when the sun goes down… The course is lit up at night.

An overhead view of the Drumlin putting course – the property’s newest amenity

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My brief thoughts and reflections on the US Open

Will Erin Hills get another shot at our country’s greatest golf tournament? I think they will. I also think they learned a lot from their first go-round. Everyone expected the wind to blow hard like it normally does, but it didn’t. Instead, they got a ton of rain early, softening the course, and then some of the hottest and most serene weather the property has seen.

The result was a bloodbath as Erin Hills was left defenseless against an onslaught by the world’s best golfers. While experts expected a winning score around par, 27 players finished in red numbers including Brooks Koepka whose winning score was an incomprehensible -16.

The course was beautiful and its aesthetics translated well to TV, though, and the drama was intriguing as viewers witnessed players doing things we never before thought were possible.

Justin Thomas, for example, carded a 63 on Sunday after hitting a 299-yard 3-wood – all carry to an elevated green, landing softly and basically checking up – to eight feet on 18 to set up EAGLE on the 667-yard par five finishing hole.

I remember asking at one of the US Open media days how they planned on making 18 exciting if players needed to make up a stroke down the stretch. I was told there wouldn’t be making up strokes on 18; everyone would need to find a way to par it or lose ground. It still blows my mind that that didn’t end up being the case. I can see there being one-putt birdies on 18, but not eagle opportunities.

All said, I think Erin Hills got a raw deal in 2017 – the same way Chambers Bay did in 2015 – and I hope new USGA leadership brings a future US Open(s) back to them both. Paving of the way for Erin Hills has already begun via two future USGA events (the 2022 US Mid-Amateur Championship and 2025 US Women’s Open), and I hope those lead to a return of “The Big One” in the late 2020’s or early ’30s.

The Erin Hills clubhouse and pro shop

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Our day

I can’t imagine there have been many better Summer days for golf at Erin Hills. It was June 22 and we had highs in the low 70’s with very little wind in the morning, and plenty of sunshine (don’t worry, the breezes picked up as the day wore on).

The one thing I didn’t take in to account when we set up the round was that it was the day after the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year. In order to take photos at sunrise, I needed to leave the house by 4:30 am. I was obviously happy to for this opportunity, and was on-site with my drone in the air by 5:06.

The mist coming off the ponds, haze over the fairways and golden hue emanating from the fescue was magical, and I enjoyed all the stages of the day’s golden hour as I made my way from the parking lot to the 12th green complex.

The sun began cresting after my initial shoot from behind that incredible hole layout, and as I started shooting the par three 13th I started realizing how special this morning was.

Haze emanating from the ponds on the par three 13th at sunrise

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Among all the supplies I brought with me, I only brought one pair of socks. That became an obvious oversight as traipsing from one hole to the next had me wading through knee-high fescue soaked in dew.

With wet feet I ventured on, searching for the right angles. I’m sure I didn’t find them all, but I made the most of the morning and came away with some images I’m happy with.

I also took quite a bit of video footage – click on the image below for a 30-second clip from the morning (plays from YouTube):

Click for 30-second video compilation from my morning photo shoot (YouTube)

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Following my early morning photo shoot, I met up with my all-time favorite caddie and friend on social media, Julius Germany. Julius was the first caddie I ever played with at Erin Hills, back in July of 2012. We’ve kept in touch over the years via Facebook and Instagram, and he’s honestly the caddie I’ve compared all others to.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great loopers over the years, but none can match Julius’s skill and professionalism, general presence and great demeanor. I was really excited to spend the day with him, and he didn’t disappoint.

Neither did the other caddie in our group, Chloe. A college student, Chloe had a wonderful attitude that complemented Julius’s well. She made some great reads and the two led the three of us to a lot of good shots and drained putts.

The world’s best caddie, Julius, and me post-round (6/22/2021)

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Our threesome included my favorite golf partner and “drone co-pilot,” Jeff (we have the same drone and he’s a huge help especially when we’re taking photos in-round), me and Erin Hills PGA Ambassador and Wisconsin Golf Hall of Famer Rich Tock.

Inducted in 2019, Rich has had a storied career that’s included playing in 22 PGA of America National Club Pro Championships, 8 Senior Professional Championships, won the Wisconsin State Senior Open in 2005, played on 26 Nelthorpe Cup teams and competed in the US Senior Open in 2002 (link to wisconsin.golf article, by Gary D’Amato).

Rich is at his best one-on-one, as I first learned on July 29, 2012 when I first visited Erin Hills and had the pleasure of spending hours on the pub’s patio talking golf, the property and its background and stories that had led it to where it was at that time (link to my 2012 course review).

As PGA Ambassador, Rich is the face of Erin Hills. His presence is ever-felt as he makes his way around the property on an almost daily basis, spending time with staff and guests, constantly tending to the small details that make this site so spectacular (including picking up any and every cigarette butt, broken tee or wrapper left on the ground), and of course helping promote the destination through its various media channels including his “Playing Lessons,” which can be found on Erin Hills’ YouTube channel (link to Rich Tock’s Playing Lessons).

Rich is a skilled player who consistently hits the ball down the middle with good length and has an incredible short game. He plays quickly and doesn’t take things too seriously. He can also talk to every story about Erin Hills – all the changes and adaptations, the legendary shots and players who have walked its fairways and of course strategy and playability. His fun and collegial manner make him one of my all-time favorite playing partners, and I hope for the opportunity to enjoy a round with him again in the future.

We joked with Jeff’s caddie, Chloe, that she had the easiest job in the world: He hit almost every fairway and I don’t think ever found the fescue en route to an easy 80.

Julius, who caddied for Rich and me, faced a bit more devious task of having to help locate several of my sliced tee balls when fighting the wind. Both caddies were amazing, as was all the company, and our day at Erin Hills was as good and memorable a golf experience as any I can remember.

Jeff, Rich and me following a great 18 holes at Erin Hills (6/22/2021)

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The course

The golf course at Erin Hills is remarkable. It’s beautiful, architecturally interesting and challenging all while providing an enjoyable experience for players of all skill levels.

It starts with a couple scorable holes in one and two, leading off with a par five that allows players to bite off as much as they want from the tee while negotiating one of the course’s few inland ponds. We were a collective -2 following the second hole, and a day of good scores felt attainable.

A view of the fairway on the first hole at Erin Hills, bending right-to-left from the tee boxes

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The second hole is one of my favorites at Erin Hills. A short par four with one of the most forgiving fairways, long hitters have a ton of room for error off the tee. The second shot is tricky, though, with the course’s smallest tabletop green that repels anything hit off-center.

The fairway on two was expanded prior to the US Open, as shown in the image below. The shaded area beyond the hill was previously fescue, coercing players toward smarter shots. The USGA wanted to urge long players like Bubba Watson to try driving the green here, and so the short grass was expanded.

As you can imagine, with long bombs toward this green complex comes risk. Short wedges are anything but simple from tight lies, making a full shot from just inside 100 yards oftentimes the smarter strategy.

A look back on the second hole at Erin Hills at sunrise
An aerial view of the tiny second green

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The third and fourth holes play in to the prevailing wind, and from significantly elevated tee boxes. I have always had a hard time driving the ball on this set of par fours, and I did on this day, as well.

The green on three was relocated prior to the 2017 US Open, as the original complex was a natural site with too extreme of a slope. The new green, while it shortens the hole by 18 yards, shifted the approach about 20 yards to the right and helps make the putting surface more receptive to long iron shots while opening up more hole locations.

An offset view of the third hole at Erin Hills, playing in to the wind

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The fourth has one of my favorite looking approach areas on the entire course, littered with craggy bunkers up the spine of its fairway.

The approach area short of the fourth green (photo taken in September 2013)

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The sixth is the first par three on the course, and one of the trickiest. A long one-shotter, only the front section of the green is shown, leaving some 40 or so yards past its lateral spine. I absolutely flushed a seven-iron with the wind, and everyone thought it was perfect.

Thinking I was on hole-in-one watch, I walked up the hill only to find about 50 feet to go to a back hole next to a steep slope. My high hopes turned to bogie pretty quickly.

A view from the back of the par three 6th green

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The eighth is an exceptional par four. The tee shot is blind, playing slightly to the right or directly above the high mound that serves as an aiming point.

This is a terrific example of the beautiful, natural land movement at Erin Hills. Aside and beyond the mound, this fairway moves like waves and with tons of changes in elevation, and the green is perched well above the rest of the playing surface.

A view from above the tee box on eight, with the fairway bending left around the mound and uphill to its perched green site
The dramatically elevated green site on eight at sunrise

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One of the most famous holes on the entire property, the par three ninth was previously the course’s bye hole – a 19th hole that served to settle bets.

When the USGA requested that its originally included “Dell hole,” which was a long and gimmicky, blind par three with a rock that was moved on a daily basis to provide an aiming point, was removed, the ninth was moved in to its permanent position. I for one can’t imagine Erin Hills without it.

The all-world par three 9th at Erin Hills from its elevated tee boxes
An elevated view from behind the ninth green looking uphill toward the tees

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The back nine starts with what I consider to be the most challenging hole on the entire course. The tenth is a long test of a par four that plays straight in to the prevailing wind, and finishes uphill to a long left-to-right green protected in front by deep sand traps.

I hit what might have been the best 3-wood of my life on this day. Following a tee shot to the middle of the fairway, I had 242 yards left in to a sustained 20 mph wind. “I didn’t travel out to Erin Hills to lay up,” I said, and Rich told me to aim small, miss small. I caught it just right, hitting a towering shot right at the pin. It landed just left of the flag and rolled to about 15 feet.

If there was ever a birdie putt I really wanted to make, it was this one. Julius gave me a great read, but I pulled it just a little, leading to a tap-in par.

The challenging par four 10th, playing over a crevasse and directly in to the prevailing winds

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Following a knee-knocker like ten, the eleventh is a friendly handshake. Short by Erin Hills standards, it measures just 315 from the green tees we were playing and has a wide open fairway with a lot of movement from right-to-left. Hybrid was the play of the day here, and we all walked away with par.

The short par four 11th from beyond the green

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As 50 golf enthusiasts their favorite hole at Erin Hills and I would venture a bet that a good portion of them will tell you the twelfth.

With elevated tees heading back in to the wind, the twelfth has some of the most out-of-this-world land movement of any golf hole I’ve played in my life, finishing downhill and to the right to the course’s only lowered green complex. There is something really special about this hole, and to me the sunrise brought out a lot of that!

The meandering fairway of the 12th at Erin Hills, with the sunrise at my back
The twelfth green and its approaching fairway basking in the early morning sunlight

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The thirteenth is a mid-range par three that measures 170 yards from the green tees and has one of the smaller, hardest to hit greens on the back nine. A large bunker works its way in to the left side of the putting surface, and short, long and right all lead to collection areas well below the green’s surface.

The par three 13th at Erin Hills

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The fourteenth is one of the most fun holes at Erin Hills. A 507-yard par five, the green is so wide, so elevated and canted from left-to-right that it makes for a playful approach that’s really hard to resist.

I’ll never forget the first time I played here, and Julius told me to grab my wedge and try this shot. From short-right of the green I literally hit the back-left of the putting surface, watched it roll upward almost off and bend around right and downhill probably 50 yards from where it started, funneling toward a front-right pin. Creativity and options like that are just so much fun, and how could you ask for more than a caddie who makes sure you don’t miss that type of opportunity?

An aerial view of the par five 14th at Erin Hills, finishing over fescue with one of the most fun greens I’ve played

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Short par fours are all the rage these days, and Erin Hills has an exemplary one in its fifteenth. I watched a lot of groups on this hole at the 2017 US Open, and almost all the players took dead aim at green-under-regulation, but very few hit it.

At just 346 yards from the green tees, the elevated green brings in all kinds of trouble: Deep fescue long, deeper greenside bunkers short and steep run-offs all around.

The short par four 15th from the tees (photo taken in June 2015)

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Other than the ninth, the sixteenth has probably the most intimidating par three tee shot at Erin Hills. Sand traps are littered everywhere around this skinny green complex.

Tee shot on the par three 16th, with sand everywhere (photo taken September 2013)

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Tipping out at 663 yards (it can stretch over 700 for tournament play), the eighteenth at Erin Hills is one of the longest in golf. The hole is framed beautifully by The Village, and from afar by nearby Holy Hill.

To anyone other than Justin Thomas, this is a true three-shot par five and one of the most wonderfully climactic finishing holes found anywhere.

Looking down the fairway of the long par five 18th
Fairway and fescue leading to the green on the tremendous finishing hole at Erin Hills
How Justin Thomas managed to hit a 299-yard 3-wood to land softly and stop 8 feet from the hole here is beyond me

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Conclusion

Erin Hills provides the most complete first-class golf experience in the state of Wisconsin.

Folks like Rich Tock, Julius Germany, Head Golf Professional Jim Lombardo, Director of Course Management Zach Reineking, Competitions and Marketing Director John Morrissett and Marketing Manager Steve Pease work tirelessly to make that statement true, and to me it’s evident in every touchpoint.

From the time you drop your bag off at the caddie barn to the moment you walk away from your last Fescue Rescue, all the details are curated and managed to perfection.

It’s a pricy round, sure, but it’s also an indulgence that can revive your golfing spirit. To me, there is no finer golf experience in the entire state of Wisconsin than at this legend in the making.

The Drumlin putting course and Erin Hills Village, early morning

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Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Erin, WI
Yardages: Black-7731, Blue-7147, Green-6742, White-6206
Slope/Rating: Black-145/77.9, Blue-139/75.0, Green-135/73.2, White-129/70.3
Par: 72

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Erin Hills Golf Course Website

Golf Club Review: Tuckaway Country Club

Last month I had the opportunity to revisit a course I haven’t played in a really long time: Tuckaway Country Club.

Following my first round there in 2013, I remember liking the course but not being wowed. It was a long time ago, though, and a lot has changed since then.

A view from above Tuckaway from South 68th Street in Franklin

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Tuckaway’s done an incredible job over the past five to ten years of creating a niche in the south Milwaukee suburb of Franklin that’s otherwise barren of private club golf. They’ve not only modernized their facilities but also their golf experience, especially since reopening in August, 2019 following a $3 million renovation by Jeffrey Brauer (link to article from ASGCA).

Brauer’s work added length (now over 7,200 yards tipped out) and teeing options, replaced aging irrigation systems, drainage and bunkers, added continuous cart paths, practice ranges, expanded their practice green and cut back the overgrowth of tree lines.

Tuckaway CC logo sculpture outside the club’s back patio, adjacent to the first tee

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The result is a much neater course with clean lines and enhanced options for playability.

One section of the course that stood out to me as nicely renovated is the southeast corner, near the 12th green and 13th tee. The new bridge from the green to tee, as well as the thinning of woods from the pond area was beautifully done.

Tee shot on the dogleg left, par four 13th at Tuckaway Country Club in Franklin, Wisconsin

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I think Tuckaway presents an awesome member and guest experience. The food is absolutely top-notch; the bar area was bustling on a Wednesday afternoon in May, and later that evening for ladies’ night, yet our round was quick and with good flow at right around four hours.

If there is any private club in the Milwaukee area tailormade for tournament play, it’s Tuckaway.

They’re no strangers to hosting professional events, too, having held the Greater Milwaukee Open annually between 1973-1993.

Their website calls it a PGA Tour caliber course, and I agree. Especially following renovations, TCC can present a massive challenge for elite players with its distance (rare for the Milwaukee area), large elevated greens and dramatic hazards.

The finishing holes, especially, are as challenging as they come. The ninth, for example, is a long par four tipping out at 442 yards. The tee shot is simple enough: Keep it near a wide open fairway or ideally close to the right side for a good look. The approach, though, is likely to be really long and uphill. Everyone in our group hit good tee shots here and no one was closer than 175 out, which played more like 200. Nobody got on in regulation.

Aerial photo of the tough 9th green and back toward the tee

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The end of the back nine isn’t much easier, finishing with a 220-yard downhill par three and another incredibly challenging, 490-yard par four. Even after my best drive of the day, I was still hitting 5-iron in from over 180 yards with 20-25 feet of uphill elevation. I managed to hit my approach shot pin-high, but still failed to qualify my prox bet after three-putting for bogey on a big left-to-right sweeper. Par on eighteen at Tuckaway is an impressive score.

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The front and back nines at Tuckaway are both set up amiably with highly elevated tee shots to wide, treelined fairways, making for early scoring opportunities. From the very first green complex, players get a good sense of the size and undulations of the putting surfaces. Tuckaway’s greens were designed for maximum pinnability, allowing the course to change significantly from day to day.

Elevated tee shot on the par four opening hole at Tuckaway CC

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One of my favorite par threes at Tuckaway is the over-water fifth, which has one of the most heavily contoured greens on the entire course. A middle-right pin location here is as slippery as they come, but it works as the tee shot puts a short iron in players’ hands.

The par 3 5th at Tuckaway, over water to a great green complex

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I was really impressed with my return visit to Tuckaway. I thought the conditions were phenomenal (as it was the first time I played it 8-9 years ago), loved the playability and aesthetics of the course following its renovation and was really impressed by the club’s overall ambience.

Tuckaway is the kind of place members must love to hang out around, and it comes as no surprise to me they’re thriving. Their spacious back patio is luxurious and features wide-angled views of the course, the men’s locker room (adjacent to the bar) has a pool table and cards setup (which I hear hosts some big-money games), the pool and tennis/pickleball courts are amenities I wish my home club offered, and their championship golf course should give South Milwaukee area golf enthusiasts everything they can ask for – and they’re eating it up.

Tuckaway is one of the Milwaukee area’s elite private golf clubs.

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Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Franklin, WI
Yardages: V-7218, IV-6699, III-6398
Slope/Rating: V-137/74.7, IV-131/72.2, III-127-70.3
Par: 72

Tuckaway Country Club Website

Product Review: Vessel Lux XV Cart Bag

Vessel makes golf’s best bags. Period. Since getting my first last year (the Player 2.0 stand bag, reviewed here), I’m comfortable stating that as a fact.

I’m so enamored at this point with the brand and product experience, though, that I’m venturing out to try other products in their line to fit my other golf needs. The first of these other products I’m currently bringing in to the fold is the Lux XV Cart Bag.

Released this past December, the Lux XV sold out in all colorways quickly via pre-sale. It’s available again online now, though, which makes this the perfect time to talk about it and the amazing golf brand known as Vessel.

As high-end, luxury-performance bags in the $350-and-up price range, consumers are right to expect a lot from their investment in a Vessel bag, and – in my humble opinion – they over-deliver.

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Why Vessel?

Vessel makes the nicest golf bags I’ve ever used or seen, and the only competition close are the brands who private label with them.

Their focus on sleek, functional and minimalistic style is unrivaled in an industry that is otherwise dominated by bright and flashy, bold and athletic. Vessel’s focus is on performance and classic looks – they take pride in having their bags perform as flawlessly as they look.

Vessel’s Tour-grade synthetic leather has a wonderful feel and has proven to be quite durable. I was nervous when I first got my Player 2.0 bag last year, for example, about having a white-colored bag. After a full season of golf, there has been no fading or discoloration; it looks as great as the day it arrived.

I’ll have even less to worry about with my new Lux XV cart bag. The matte gray color is so cool, especially with black and dark metal accents and white lettering.

I’ve had issues with the zippers breaking down on all my previous golf bags. Knowing this tends to be an area of concern, Vessel utilizes metal connectors in conjunction with their genuine leather pulls and gussets to withstand rust and corrosion.

That’s consistent throughout their product line: All touchpoints are crafted with high-quality construction and materials. Those pain points you’ve seen with other brands’ bags? Vessel’s found a way to engineer something a little extra that others don’t.

Plus, the Lux XV is a beautiful looking golf bag and has all the aesthetics you’d expect for $385.

My Vessel Lux XV cart bag on the riding cart at Wanaki Golf Course

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What makes Vessel bags truly special, though, is their design and functionality, which I’ll get in to next.

That, and they live a wonderful mission in society. For every golf bag purchased, Vessel donates a school backpack to a child in need. My Lux XV marks 90,013 total bags donated to those less fortunate.

Vessel packs these bags full of school supplies, food and living essentials for kids across the US and internationally.

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Setup and Performance

The Lux XV is feature rich, to say the least, and was designed to provide an optimal player experience while using a golf cart or trolley. It’s that second part I had in mind when getting my Lux XV cart bag: For use with my Bat-Caddy X4R electric caddy / trolley.

Rocking the Lux XV cart bag with my Bat-Caddy X4R at Hawthorn Hills in Saukville for my first round of 2021

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Storage

Cart bags are recommended with trolleys to help provide weight and stability, but they serve the added purpose of allowing players to carry more. For a guy like me, that’s huge. I can fit my drone in either of the oversized side pockets and a coat or hoodie in the other (or several), hundreds of tees and dozens of balls, my Bushnell Wingman Bluetooth speaker, rangefinder, a 32-ounce Yeti and large bottle of Gatorade, my wallet, wedding ring and all my valuables (locked up), plenty of extra gloves and accessories and still have enough room to throw 8 beers in the cooler pockets (if I wanted to).

The only real limit to how much stuff you can carry with the Lux XV cart bag is A) How heavy of a bag you can lift in to and out of your car, and B) If using it with an electric caddy, its weight capacity (~ 77 pounds for my X4R, but keep in mind a heavier bag will adversely affect battery life).

For club storage, the Lux XV comes standard with a 15-way divider top that keeps all clubs separated, including an oversized putter well that works with grips of all sizes (eg: SuperStroke and other fat setups). This is my first time owning a bag with individual dividers, and it took some time to figure out my organizational strategy.

My preferred bag setup, keeping hybrids, woods and driver toward the back to make everything accessible

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Here is where my one complaint about the Lux XV comes in: When used on my trolley or with the rain cover, some wells can be tough to access irons or wedges from. In both cases, it would be more convenient to have a 3- to 5-way divider configuration, but I’m figuring out ways around it… Talk about first-world problems, I know 🙂

I haven’t figured out a way around the rain cover issue yet, but have found that by putting my driver, fairway woods and 3-hybrid toward the back (against the base of the caddy), it makes all my clubs more accessible and my irons and wedges more visible.

My original hesitancy with a 15-way divider system had to do with grips. Other bags I’ve seen set up that way had a top divider that kept club faces spaced out but then entwined the grips underneath. Especially with Arccos sensors that cost $15 apiece to replace attached to each grip, it was a valid concern.

The Lux XV features full-length dividers, though, to keep clubs isolated entirely, avoid sub-surface entanglement and keep my sensors attached and working properly.

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The little things

Being a second-time Vessel owner, I write this review with so much more knowledge and experience of the brand than when I reviewed the Player 2.0. I was crushing on its great looks and specs at the time. It was a strong emotional connection, sure, but it was surface-level and we were still in the honeymoon stage.

Those emotions have only grown over time, and it’s consistently surprised me along the way. One day we got poured on at Brown Deer, for example, and I discovered the same-material rain cover and its simple but ingenious two-way zipper that allowed me to peruse club selection quickly without having to reattach the rain cover each time to keep my clubs dry. So smart!

After ~ 35 rounds of golf together, here are some of my favorite features on Vessel Bags:

  1. Magnetic rangefinder pockets – I show these off to everyone who asks about my bag
  2. The luxurious straps on my stand bag, always in a comfortable position because of the self-adjusting Equilibrium strap system
  3. Sturdy, high-quality gunmetal alloy YKK zippers and pulls – zippers have always been a pain point on other bags
  4. 2-way zipping, matching rain cover
  5. Velour-lined, microfiber pockets
  6. Expandable, magnetic water bottle holders
  7. Durable side handles on the cart bag for lifting

I’ll admit I also enjoy the way others check it out on the bag rack. Vessel bags are gorgeous, and people notice. At the practice green by Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley, for example, I had four separate caddies or other players compliment me on my bag or ask to feel it. It’s like bringing the prettiest girl to the ball.

The feature of Vessel Bags that gets me every time is the magnetic pocket, and the Lux XV has two. It’s a pull pocket with a strong magnet that lets you quickly access things like your rangefinder, tees and other accessories without constantly zipping and unzipping. It’s a very satisfying “snap” that I’ve come to love.

The Lux XV has another magnetic, snapping feature, too: The upper pocket pod that pulls away to allow the cart strap to secure underneath. Again, it’s smart design that’s elemental after the fact, but it’s not something I’ve seen elsewhere. Having the strap routed behind this pocket eliminates the wear and tear a cart strap can otherwise inflict on the leather (especially in conjunction with the neoprene strap sleeve, which is an accessory they’re currently including free of charge).

My Vessel Lux XV cart bag, from the front – its most essential pockets are stacked centrally

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The Lux XV was designed to keep everything in front of you, providing ample storage in a center column with mirrored storage options on each side.

From top-to-bottom, this includes the first magnetic easy-access pocket, a deep zippered accessories pocket, the second magnetic rangefinder pocket and a large ball storage compartment.

Each side then has a large zippered garment compartment that runs the length of the bag (each with a locking interior valuables pocket and combination lock), a microfiber-lined personals pocket, pen sleeve, cooler compartment that holds four 12-ounce cans per side, and an insulated, magnetic, self-expanding and drainable water bottle carrier that carries my 32-ounce Yeti snugly.

The Vessel Lux XV cart bag on my Bat-Caddy X4R electric golf caddy – side-view, including the full-length garment compartment, cooler pocket, pen holder, water bottle sleeve and valuables pocket (mirrored on each side)

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My conclusion

Now that mid-April has arrived and the golf season is finally rounding in to view here in the Midwest, I can’t be more excited to get to know my new Vessel playing companion better.

If you’re in the market for a new golf bag this season, and looking for something top-of-line, trust me when I say Vessel is worth the extra money. Whether it’s a cart bag like the Lux XV, one of their Pro Staff bags (used by Tiger Woods, Bryson DeChambeau, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Steve Stricker, Patrick Reed and dozens of others on the PGA Tour and LPGA), or a more traditional carry bag like the updated Player 3, Lite Lux or VLX stand bags, the difference in craftsmanship, aesthetics and features/performance with Vessel is far superior to anything else on the market.

It’s pricier, but it’s worth it, and so are you.

Vessel’s got a customer for life in me, and I’m confident if you make one of their bags your next golf investment they’ll make a customer for life out of you, too.

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Product Wrap-Up:
Brand: Vessel Bags
Product: Lux XV Cart Bag
Price as shown: $385 + $35 personalization

Vessel Bags Lux XV Cart Bag Product Page

Golf Course Review: Wanaki Golf Course

What was the golf course like that you grew up playing on?

Mine was a Waukesha County municipal course with a few quirks and a lot of character. It had some holes I could do without, and a lot more I always looked forward to.

It always had good greens. Most are slightly elevated, but nothing too crazy. The design team of Arthur Hills and Billy Sixty, Jr. (and later Bob Lohmann) did a really nice job of designing them with optimal pinnability, and the maintenance crew always kept their surfaces rolling quickly, though they could get a little beaten up from so much play from beginners — like I was. And it seemed like they aerated more than most, with huge punches that made putting feel like a game of Plinko.

I never quite figured out the right clubs to hit on its doglegs. They mostly took driver out of my hands from the white tees, and I was always second guessing irons selections. 30 years later, I still second guess my irons all the time.

An aerial view of “Dogleg Corner,” as we called it, including the par four 13th and 14th, par five 15th, and the par four 4th and 5th holes at Wanaki

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My friends David, Dan and I played it a lot. Our parents would drop us off at Wanaki Golf Course in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, and we’d walk the course, learn the game and enjoy the time outside. We were around 10 when Dave and I started playing junior leagues there. He was a much better player than I was, but we were buddies and always had fun golfing together. I still have a hard time taking golf too seriously.

I’d love to get out there with those guys again someday. Dan and I typically play a couple times a year, usually in the Madison area (or last year we had a nice 45-hole day at Medinah) where he and his family live. I haven’t seen Dave in decades, though we keep in touch a little on Facebook. Like Dan, I think he’s a college professor now and lives in Indiana.

It had been a lot of years, probably ~ 20 since the last time I played 18 holes at Wanaki, and yesterday’s round waxed nostalgic for me in all the right ways.

A view from above the practice green, looking east over the 17th fairway and towards Menomonee Falls

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It was a day of opportunity. My friend, Jeff, and I were planning on playing North Hills Country Club at 10:30, but as a social-plus member now I’m only able to play it a handful of times a year and get hit with $122.50 walking (I prefer to walk there with my electric caddy, but still get charged for the cart).

Even with the Weather app calling for 100% chance of rain the entire morning and afternoon, I wanted to get out and give golf a go. I didn’t want to burn one of my rounds at the club, though, and really didn’t want to spend $100-plus on an early-April round I didn’t even know if I’d want to finish if the weather was as terrible as it was supposed to be. $45 with cart at Wanaki sounded much better, and their pro shop said to come on out as the tee sheet continued to clear.

We were planning on playing a quick nine. Public courses can be a bit of a death march on Saturday mornings, and I was happy to get even a few hours away from the madness of our 2- and 3-year-old at home.

Nine turned in to 18, though, as we played hole after hole – all bringing back good memories – quickly and without wait. A group on two let us play through off the tee; we didn’t run in to anyone else until 16. It was awesome.

An overhead view (from left-to-right) of 18, 17, 1, 7, 2, 6 and 3 at Wanaki

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The signage has been updated, the nines have been switched, their rickety old gas carts have been significantly upgraded for new ones (I remember having to constantly pull the choke to get their carts to run), the bridges have been renewed and their maintenance crew has certainly been busy with tree removal.

Otherwise, it was the same course I remember playing as a kid.

The opportunity to play Wanaki again almost didn’t happen for me. In fact, we almost lost it following the 2019 season when Waukesha County decided to discontinue operations.

Wanaki was losing between $41,000 to $243,000 per year since 2001 (link to report), and needed significant capital investment. It’s always had good bones, though, including a beautifully wooded track of land with rivers and ponds, one of the strongest men’s clubs in the state, high annual rounds and played home course to multiple school teams. Losing Wanaki would have made a significant impact on the Milwaukee area golf community.

#SaveWanaki rallied local golf enthusiasts, and eventually stirred up a legitimate bid from a new ownership group to stave off redevelopment. Together with Scott Schaefer of the Milwaukee Brat House, the good folks at Storms Golf were able to acquire Wanaki with the agreement that it continues to operate as a golf course.

This is a dream ownership group for the property, combining longstanding golf-related operations experience and expertise with terrific food and beverage savvy. Scott’s culinary niche couples well with golf where brats, hot dogs and other quick bites play perfectly. The hot dog and pretzel bun yesterday was awesome, by the way.

Wanaki is a solid test of golf, playing host fairly regularly to State Am and Open qualifiers. Its par threes, especially, are really tough – three of them measuring over 200 yards from the back tees. And the greens were in great shape – much better than we expected this early in the season.

The 220-yard par three finishing hole at Wanaki

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A grand re-opening party is scheduled at Wanaki for April 18, 2021, which will include a free pig roast, live music and [rubber] duck races down the Fox River. If you haven’t had a chance to play it yet lately [like I hadn’t], get over there and check it out.

I for one know my next visit to Wanaki won’t take nearly as long to happen as the last one did, and I’m really excited to see what other changes new ownership has in store for this course that holds so many good memories for me.

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A few more overhead drone shots from my early-Spring round yesterday at Wanaki Golf Course:

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Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Menomonee Falls, WI
Slope/Rating: Blue-127/71.4, White-123/69.6, Gold-117/67.0
Yardage: Blue-6560, White-6206, Gold-5629
Par: 71

Wanaki Golf Course Website

Golf Course Review: Quintero Golf Club (AZ)

When setting up rounds for my Spring golf trip to Scottsdale, there were a handful of public courses I wanted to play most: Quintero, Troon North, Coore/Crenshaw’s Talking Stick and the Coore/Crenshaw Saguaro and Scott Miller Cholla courses at We-Ko-Pa.

Quintero was number one for me. I’ve looked at hundreds of pictures of the course and its natural surrounds, and while plenty of the pictures were stunning there were just so many that looked the same. In a setting that naturally magnificent, I was sure I’d be able to capture some breathtaking and original shots.

Quintero over-delivered as one of the most beautiful and demanding golf courses I can ever remember playing. In fact, it’s probably one of the most picturesque settings I’ve ever photographed, in general.

Long vistas of the Hieroglyphic Mountains, huge cacti and a wild and expansive desert landscape framed every picture.

The overcast Arizona sky that accompanied our unseasonably cold and rugged weather conditions made it even better. While most snow-birds would complain about pants weather (low-to-mid-40’s) while escaping the Midwest cold, I knew we were in for a treat and think the pictures bare proof.

It’s tough to beat cloud cover and natural contrast like this when taking drone photography!

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History

Quintero was originally planned to be a private club with two courses: The Rees Jones designed Founders Course (currently Quintero Golf Club) that debuted in 2000, and a planned but never built Greg Norman designed Charter Course.

The story I was told during my Uber ride from the airport is that the outskirts-of-Peoria location was simply too far from Phoenix/Scottsdale, while also being too far from Flagstaff in the other direction to draw en masse for the nearly 300 home sites and 700 available golfing memberships.

I believe the driver that it was simply Quintero’s remoteness that didn’t allow it to thrive as a private club development. It certainly was not the golf, which immediately garnered top 100 praise from the likes of Golf Digest, GolfWeek and Golf Magazine.

And it is certainly not the dramatic natural setting that Quintero inhabits.

Still, even being an hour from Phoenix/Scottsdale, the golf is great enough to fill tee sheets at $300-plus per round during peak season.

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The architect

Rees Jones has a reputation at times of over-designing golf courses. In his defense, that’s what’s been asked of him by the USGA to toughen up tournament venues as “The Open Doctor” (think Dubsdread, East Lake, Bethpage Black, Pinehurst No. 2, Medinah No. 3 and the South course at Torrey Pines – all are beautiful and a great test for the pros, but perhaps over-the-top difficult for the everyday player).

I know Rees’s work at non-US Open venues to be challenging yet thoughtful, and it’s in that vein that I view Quintero. I think he did a wonderful job of designing Quintero especially with regards to three key elements: Interesting hole layouts, beautifully set up tee shots (the only location on a golf hole where all players share the same view), and challenging but fun green surrounds.

I had a chance to speak with Rees and pick his brain a little on this at a media event a few years ago at Medinah, shortly after he’d finished work on Course 2. This guy has unbelievable knowledge of golf course architecture, turf management and designing for the challenge and enjoyment of all skill levels – Quintero’s a great example of that. The Oconee course at Reynolds Lake Oconee is another prime example that comes to mind – an incredibly interesting and aesthetically beautiful course that’s fun while providing a stern test of golf.

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Let’s get this started

Following an early morning flight from Milwaukee to Phoenix International, my friend and 2019 North Hills Country Club Club Champion, Will, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare the day of our round at Quintero. We took full advantage, visiting several of the course’s most photogenic spots including the all-world par three 6th.

With no tee boxes in site (they’re all way above the green), well-spaced greenside bunkering, a nicely kept fairway approach area and massive green complex, I thought at first that it must be a short-game practice area. It’s a good thing Will had been here before.

We took the opportunity to head uphill where I was able to run dry my first couple drone batteries of the trip capturing some unique angles of a world-class golf hole.

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Desert golf

When I told friends I was going to Scottsdale to play my first ever desert golf, everyone told me to bring extra balls. It’s target golf at its best, they said, and that was certainly the case at Quintero.

I thought I had my swing dialed in on Trackman prior to the trip. I was regularly hitting 10+ fairways/round and shooting in the low-to-mid-70’s. Even though that was from unrealistically perfect turf lies, in to a screen with no wind, putting or need to look for errant shots, I was fully expecting to play well and compete with Will and our friend and 2018 North Hills Club Champion, Charlie.

The fairways are not small at Quintero. In fact, a lot of them are 60+ yards wide, but anything missing the fairway is basically gone. Knowing that, and having the vast scale of desert landscape lingering all about creates intimidation. When you add in the strong winds we had for our round, let’s just say I was glad I listened and brought extra golf balls… Though I wish I’d’ve brought more than ProV1’s and TP5’s. I donated 11 ProV1-X’s to the rattlesnakes during my first round of the season.

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The golf course

Quintero’s practice facility, about a 5- to 10-minute cart ride from the clubhouse, features a double-sided driving range that stretches over 300 yards and can be teed from both ends. Things were looking good there – I was hitting the ball long and straight – all systems were go.

Quintero’s practice facility, from near the 1st tee

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The practice green near the first tee ran very similarly to the greens on the course. It was really quick, and very smooth. I had no idea what to expect of putting surfaces in the desert, and I was really impressed by Quintero’s well-kempt bent grass greens.

The very first tee shot of the day was elevated and in to a left-to-right, hurting wind – in fact, we didn’t have a single hole all day with wind at our back.

I lost my first two Titleists of the day on one – one right, the next left. So much for a welcoming handshake!

The opening hole at Quintero Golf Club, from above
1st hole tee shot at Quintero, ground-level

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Tipping out over 570 yards and with a long carry over wasteland, the right-to-left running fairway on the par five second left a lot of room to miss laterally and was actually one of the most comfortable drives of the day for me, and one of my only hit fairways.

While there is a fairway straight ahead, it’s actually for the first half of the fifth hole and is not a split fairway, although if no one’s there it’s probably playable (albeit an even longer carry).

Tee shot on the par five 2nd hole at Quintero

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The third hole is a terrific example of the visual intimidation I referenced earlier. The fairway here is probably 75-100 yards wide at most spots, but beyond those borders is all lost balls – water left, desert right.

I thankfully had no idea there was wasteland in between the end of the fairway and the approach area, or there’s no way I would have gotten near this green in two.

This is one of the only areas of the course where water comes in to play.

Aerial view of the approach shot on three

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The par four 5th introduces players to one of the factors that makes Quintero truly special: Its incredible elevation changes.

Playing directly uphill, the tee shot gives the impression you’re aiming directly in to the base of the mountain.

Looking back over the par four 5th from beyond the green

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With views for days of the Sonoran Desert, the mid-to-long-range par three 6th features about 110 feet of drop in elevation and is one of the most picturesque golf holes I’ve ever seen.

The target is plenty large, and long from front to back, helping make up for all the questions swirling around in players’ heads about the plays-like distance. From ~ 180 yards, Will and I both hit 7-irons and had the distance just about right.

The magnificent par three 6th at Quintero, from the tees
An aerial view from the side of the par three 6th at QGC
The par three 6th at Quintero, from past the green looking toward all the tees
An overhead, flattened view of the par three 6th at Quintero

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The eighth is an unbelievable par five, teeing off first to a wide fairway with plenty of room to miss left. The second shot then plays over wasteland, and significantly uphill between two peaks. I can’t imagine many could hit this green in two, making it a solid three-shot par five.

Driving area on 8, leading over a wash and uphill green-ward
A view from the left side of the first fairway on eight

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Like on six (and later on 16), the par three 9th features an unbelievably dramatic tee-to-green drop in elevation – about 60 feet, according to a past article on GolfArizona (link).

I hit a ridiculously good shot on this hole, landing the ball less than five feet from the pin. It fell from so high, though, and to such a small portion of the green that it one-hopped off the back. I didn’t care – it felt pure, and like one of my first real golf shots of the day, so I was happy.

Tee shot from the first tees in on the par three 9th at Quintero
The downhill, tremendously challenging par three 9th at Quintero (the tees shown are the 3rd, 4th, etc. tees from the back)
The view from beyond the pin on 9, with my ball mark just to the left of the pin
To show scale: The 9th can be seen in the top half of this picture: Its tee boxes are built in to the mountainside (top-right of the photo), its bailout area is short of the pond and the green is left of the water

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The only par three at Quintero that’s not significantly downhill, the 13th doesn’t make things any easier on players. The tee shot here is long – around 180 yards from the first tees in, and needs to carry water to hit the green surface (Jones provided a bailout area short-right).

The par three 13th is the course’s only level one-shotter but doesn’t pull back on the difficulty factor

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With the sun beginning to lower on our round and day one of my Arizona golf trip, the Peoria skies kept getting more and more beautiful at Quintero, and the great golf holes, ever-present winds and lost balls kept on coming.

The par four 15th is another stunner, and features one of the course’s narrower initial fairways and a tough to hit, elevated green. We both came up short on our approach shots, and both hit good sand shots from the deep front-right greenside bunkers.

A demanding tee shot on the short par four 15th at Quintero

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The last of Quintero’s set of all-world par threes, the 16th plays at least 50 feet downhill (I’d think much more, but can’t find any numbers to support that online) to one of the most challenging of the course’s par three greens to hit.

While Jones’ beautiful greenside bunkering on the right side screams “Stay away,” it’s the left side that’s fraught with treachery as unplayable desert wasteland encroaches all the way to the left side of the green complex.

We both hit the traps about pin-high, and while Will was able to save par I was not.

The downhill tee shot on 16 at Quintero

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The 16th provided a terrific backdrop for an obligatory drone selfie:

Will (right) and me on the elevated 16th tee box at Quintero Golf Club, 3/11/2021

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This was a tough round to put in the books, especially since my swing started coming around a little towards the end. The eighteenth played directly in to the lowering sun, another restricted fairway with long shadows creeping inward.

Tee shot on the long par four 18th at Quintero – a demanding finish to a challenging but wonderful round of golf

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Final thoughts

With around 200 total golf courses in the greater Phoenix / Scottsdale area, I’d be shocked if Quintero was not ranked one of the top overall. Indeed, Golf Digest ranks it number one among public courses in the state, and GolfWeek has it number two behind Coore/Crenshaw’s Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa.

While we weren’t able to get on Saguaro during my trip, we were able to play the Cholla course at We-Ko-Pa. It was also spectacular, and with great changes in elevation and a wild, rugged yet refined aesthetic. I personally liked Quintero better, though, and in fact would put it immediately in to my list of the top 25 golf courses I’ve played.

While it is an incredibly challenging course, called out by its 148 slope and 75.3 rating from the tips, I think Rees Jones really hit it out of the park at Quintero. And it’s more than just the par threes, which on their own make it an unforgettable golf experience. It’s the way he incorporated the surrounding natural scenes, always framing key areas within the confines of mountain peaks, using elevation sparingly while meandering through the Sonoran Desert and building up to wow moments early and often.

Quintero Golf Club is bucket list worthy, and a true must-play for golf enthusiasts visiting the Greater Scottsdale area.

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Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Peoria, AZ
Slope/Rating: Black-148/75.3, Gold-143/73.1, Silver-137/70.7, Copper-127/68.4
Yardage: Black-7249, Gold-6875, Silver-6437, Copper-5807
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: Up to $385 (including cart)

Quintero Golf Club Website

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