While Course 3 gets all the pub, I think No. 1 is the best golf course at Medinah Country Club.
Course 1 features great design, terrific routing and the best of all worlds: A lot of wide, forgiving fairways with strategic playability, great par 3’s and 5’s and a little bit of tree-lined parkland style thrown in for good measure.
Redesigned by Tom Doak and his team in 2015, Course 1 has amazing Tom Bendelow green complexes and beautiful, signature Doak bunkering. Its par threes are varied and fun, standing in contrast to the penal one-shotters on its sister course No. 3.
While the par threes on Course 3 are plenty beautiful, they will beat players over the head for even slightly errant shots, especially if the wind is blowing.
Doak’s big on strategy, providing options for players of all skill levels, and lets them build a level of comfort off the tee.
One great example is at Streamsong Resort in Bowling Green, Florida. Coore and Crenshaw’s Red course, while maybe more visually appealing than Doak’s Blue course, rarely lets players feel comfortable.
The general feeling on tee shots – at least for me – is more angsty on Red, while on Blue I can swing away. Letting it rip is obviously more enjoyable, and while not every shot goes straight they’re almost always findable, and playable.
Rather than giving everyone the exact same challenge [from the tee] to hit a certain target, each player’s tee shot sets up their unique challenges that are found in the angles of approach and the putts they’ll face for being in or out of position.
Comparing Courses 1 and 3 at Medinah is similar in that respect to the Blue and Red courses at Streamsong. Medinah’s Course 3, like Streamsong’s Red, is big on target golf and penalizing errant shots, while Course 1 and Streamsong Blue allow for a higher degree of error and letting that error increase the degree of difficulty from its fairways, rough and green complexes. To me, it’s a more enjoyable brand of golf.
Course 1 is a top ten course in almost any state. Illinois is not “almost any state,” though. Like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California, Illinois is top-heavy with world-class private courses, and when you share a property with a track that’s hosted multiple US Opens and PGA Championships, a Ryder Cup, 3 Western Opens and a US Senior Open, you’ll face an uphill battle when it comes to rankings.
I would bet that if you polled the membership at Medinah, a majority would say Course 1 is their favorite on the property.
Tom Doak design characteristics at Medinah, Course 1
A Doak design characteristic I’ve come to love is his bunkering, especially cross-bunkering. The par four 16th on Course 1 has a really nice example of this. I had to point it out to my playing partners.
A few examples from other Doak-designed courses I’ve played:
Medinah’s Course 3 has a very famous cadre of par threes. Three of them require full carries over water, while the other – the 8th – is a nice little downhill shot to a well-protected green.
They’re all great holes, and perfect for the major competition Course 3 garners, but they present a maybe-too-major challenge for a more pedestrian (barely single-digit) player like myself.
Course 1’s par threes are much less intimidating off the tee, but present more challenge on the putting surfaces. That’s a strategic element I’ve come to expect and love on courses in Tom Doak’s portfolio, whether on par threes or any other hole.
My favorite of the par 3’s on Course 1 is the 15th.
A short one-shotter, the tee shot is just 148 yards but requires daft precision to find and hold the putting surface.
The short-right trap is interesting to me. From the tee, it looks like it would run up to the front edge of the green; on the other side, though, is run-off before a nasty false front. Very cool design element.
Tom Bendelow design characteristics on Course 1
The feature on Bendelow-designed courses that I’ve come to appreciate most is his greens. Bendelow designed some magnificent putting surfaces, and a lot of that is evident still on all three courses at Medinah.
The other feature I love about Bendelow-designed courses is their walkability. While we took carts, his courses always have short walks from green to tee, and the overall routing makes good sense.
Course 1 starts similarly to Course 2, adjacent to the colossal Medinah clubhouse. The tee shot plays over the famous “Camel bunker” across the river, and between one of the course’s narrower tree lines.
The third hole is a great, short par four that’s reachable for long hitters. Tipping out at 311 yards, or 299 from the silver tees, the fairway bends softly to the right, with the river not coming in to play.
The par three 7th has a beautiful little green complex with a ridge running from front to back. It plays long, over 200 yards from the two back tee boxes, and over water about 20 yards before the green.
Many of the finishing holes at Medinah close out by the clubhouse, like the 9th on Course 1. The 9th is a long par five – 616 yards from the tips or 603 from the silver tees, and has a challenging uphill approach over water.
Last month I had a 9 am tee time with my cousin, Frank, at The Club at Lac La Belle. I’d been there earlier in the season, and several other times for preview play and had a good idea of the shots – especially drone shots – I most wanted to get.
As it happens to me pretty often the night before rounds of golf that I’m really excited about, I didn’t sleep well the night before. My daughter woke up screaming at 1:45 in the morning, and after I got up to give her a new bottle and change her never fell back asleep. The same thing happened a few nights later when I was trying to rest up before a day at Medinah Country Club.
The great thing about being up way too early before rounds of golf is that it gives me the opportunity to leave early and chase the sunrise.
The Club at Lac La Belle is an amazing place to do just that. Everything about the course pops on camera. I’ve shown a handful of these on my Instagram account already, but here are some of my favorites from that morning… Enjoy!
Tall, tree-lined fairways, great greens and private club conditions are a little of what’s to expect at Central Wisconsin’s Bullseye Golf Club.
Bullseye’s Wisconsin Rapids location makes it a terrific companion course option for visitors of Sand Valley Golf Resort, along with the Lakes and Pines courses at Lake Arrowhead, the Castle Course at Northern Bay, and – when it reopens again in 2021 – SentryWorld in Steven Point.
Paired with Sand Valley, Bullseye allows players from out of town to experience great golf in the state’s [otherwise unique in Wisconsin] sand barrens, and also in more of a natural [for Wisconsin] Northwoods setting.
Turned semi-private in 2020, Bullseye’s 98-year-old property was originally designed by Leonard Macomber and renovated by Larry Packard in 1968.
Bullseye is a quintessential example of a great classic golf course with incredible potential. With a little tree clearing, I feel like some widening of the playing corridors would make it more player-friendly to the public players they’re now trying to attract. The course has plenty of land – holes rarely abut one another, and dense forest creates a sense of alone-ness. The ups and downs of the topography are subtle, and the routing with its short walks between greens and tees would also make for a nice walk in nature.
Dramatic vistas of the Wisconsin River are exaggerated from the air. I’d love to see them opened up more along the fairways, especially near the dam. I can’t think of many courses with as dramatic of waterfront property.
As an aside: I’m told the club has been working with the FERC (federal agency) and the paper company they lease the land from to clear out that tree line and open up those stunning views long-term.
There aren’t many courses available to the public with as good of greens, either. Bullseye makes a point of cutting and rolling their putting surfaces to run between 11.5-12 Wednesday to Sunday.
While we didn’t have a chance to eat and drink there – we had the morning’s first tee time and I had to get home to my family after a couple days away – I’ve consistently heard their food and beverage service is top-notch, and that’s definitely what I remember from a 2015 Sand Valley media day hosted there.
What’s the connection between Bullseye and Sand Valley, you ask? Bullseye is managed by Oliphant Golf Management, led by Craig Haltom. Craig (red sweater, above) is the Craig of “Craig’s Porch” at Sand Valley – he found and introduced Mike Keiser to the land, and still owns all construction contracts at the nearby resort.
He’s also made headlines recently with high-profile course design work at The Club at Lac La Belle and Stevens Point Country Club.
But, I digress. Let’s talk about the golf at Bullseye!
Tee shots at Bullseye can be a little nerve-wrecking, in general.
Maybe the best example of that is on the club’s first hole: Adjacent to the clubhouse, the back tees on one are built in to the same higher ground, alongside the cart path. It’s a tight spot, especially for a first tee, and can see it garnering some spectators.
Fortunately for me, I always hit my first drive of the day well, so I got up there and ripped a soft draw down the left side of the fairway. We were off and running.
The first hole gives players a lot of what they’ll need to know about scoring at Bullseye: There’s a definite emphasis on driving accuracy, the greens are fairly average in size and they feature a good amount of break. They’re also fast and roll beautifully – a real treat for a course that allows public play.
The first few holes have solid green complexes and straightaway routings.
If you’re curious what a tree lined fairway looks like at Bullseye, the first hole is a terrific example. I’ve played tighter parkland courses, and I’ve definitely played wider ones, but not a lot that are (overall) consistently as good.
The tee shot on five presents a risk/reward opportunity: Hit a high fade over the trees and enjoy a short uphill approach shot, or hit less than driver to the bend in the fairway and be left with a long iron in.
One of the signature holes at Bullseye, the 8th is a beautiful mid-range par three over water. Teeing up from 192 yards from the tips, or 165 from the whites, the tee shot needs to carry the front-left trap and, of course, stay left and long of the pond. This is one of the larger greens I can recall on the property.
The ninth is one of the hardest par fours I’ve played in a long time. The tee shot needs to hit the elbow, more than likely with less than driver, and there’s still a long way in to a very elevated, very slippery putting surface that runs back-left to front-right.
The false front on nine runs hard down and right. Par here is a great number.
The 13th is the first hole on the course that borders the Wisconsin River. A left-to-right par four, the hole has gorgeous views of the nearby dam:
I’m told the 14th has caused mild consternation with the membership at Bullseye. A dogleg left around trees, a natural-looking ravine area was added several years ago that, while aesthetically pleasing, is unique to the rest of the course. I’ve heard some members complain about that fact, but I personally liked it.
In just five short years, the Sand Valley Golf Resort has transformed the landscape of Wisconsin golf.
It all started with the vision of Oliphant Companies’ President of Golf Management, Craig Haltom, finding an extraordinary piece of land in remote Central Wisconsin. Haltom, knowing developer Mike Keiser was keen on finding a property for a Bandon Dunes-like resort within driving distance of Chicago, brought the former greeting card magnate and world-renowned golf visionary to Rome, Wisconsin.
Nearly invisible to the eye, the field of dreams was there, lying dormant beneath an endless forest of jack and red pines traversable only on ATV trails, winding through land that was otherwise unhospitable.
Its deep sand barrens, remnants of the Kettle Moraine glacier that dredged the Midwest 15,000 to 18,000 years ago, reach 200 feet deep in spots, representing limitless potential for golf course development.
The ATV trails have since given way to roads, the forests of pines are giving way to a more natural, rehabilitated “Midwest Desert” environment, and the vast chasms of sand are yielding golf courses that are out of this world good.
While the setting feels out of this world, it’s still in Wisconsin, and a 2-1/2 hour drive from Milwaukee or 3-1/2 to 4 hours from Chicago.
Keiser has built an empire around remote golf landscapes like this, starting of course with Bandon Dunes.
Nestled along the cliffs of Bandon, Oregon, the resort is like Disney Land for guys – a Mecca of golf a 4-plus hour drive from Portland (or via private jet to Coos Bay) to get to, but would still be well worth the drive if it was 10.
If you think Sand Valley is hard to find now, you should have seen it in 2015.
I’ve been fortunate to be a part of media days at the resort since the development started. From wilderness golf to pre-resort media days, our epic 2016 Wisconsin vs. Illinois Writer’s Cup, to opening days at Sand Valley and the Sandbox and so on, I’ve had an amazing front row seat and visibility in to the resort’s progress.
It’s come a long way. And it’s got a long way to go.
Since Sand Valley Golf Course opened in May 2017, the golfing world has taken notice. The original course was the obvious choice for everyone’s top new course in the world that year, the par three Sandbox was named Best New Short Course of the Year in 2018, and Mammoth Dunes was of course the top new course of 2018.
The par-68 Sedge Valley course, being designed by Tom Doak, is currently on hiatus during COVID-19, but will provide a third 18-hole championship track to the resort. And there’s room for more, both in the way of public and private layouts.
The Lido Golf Course is lauded as the greatest course you’ll never play. Viewers of Golf Channel during the 2019 PGA Championship will recall a 6-minute expose by Tim Rosaforte on the Lido, which was originally designed and built by CB Macdonald and Seth Raynor in 1914, then shut down by the Navy during World War II.
Experts at the time said it was every bit as good as Pine Valley, which – like now – was regarded as the world’s best course.
I have no idea how they’re planning on doing it, but word is Keiser plans on bringing the Lido to Wisconsin in the form of a private course near Sand Valley. Like the original, it will be highly manufactured. Unlike the original, the golf world now has all the technology and equipment in the world to move that land. There’s certainly plenty of sand to make just about anything possible.
Letters of interest have started going out to potential investors. I’ve heard it will not include reduced fees/membership at Sand Valley, and will not be reimbursed if/when the club becomes profitable the way the original $50K investment at Sand Valley was.
I’ve been keeping my ears peeled for any information that drops on that project and will I’m sure write more about it in the future.
David McLay Kidd has designed some of the most vast, fun-filled golf courses of the 21st Century. Beginning with the break-through of all break-throughs, Bandon Dunes in 1999, Kidd has led developments at Nanea Golf Club in Hawaii (2003), the Castle Course at St Andrews (2008), Tetherow in his now home town of Bend, Oregon (2008), Gamble Sands in Washington (2014), and a dozen or so others.
His philosophy on golf course design sits in perfect harmony with Keiser’s on resorts; David McLay Kidd was destined to play a part in Sand Valley.
Keiser works to appeal to the golf enthusiast, not the corporate client. Golf enthusiasts want to have a good time. They want to feel good about their golf game, enjoy a beautiful natural setting and feel away from everyday life.
Mammoth Dunes, as Kidd designed it, will give up pars and bogies all day. The course, much like Bandon Dunes, Gamble Sands and other high-profile projects of recent years, is designed to protect the course against low numbers by low-handicap players.
High-handicappers have a tendency to play their “best round ever” at Mammoth Dunes. They can bomb the ball just about anywhere on its massive fairways – some hundreds of yards wide, never lose a ball and if they putt reasonably well post a low number (for them).
Mammoth Dunes’ wide fairways and large, undulating greens evoke creativity, and Kidd’s philosophy on golf course design stands in stark contrast to the “Tiger-proofing” trend that dominated much of the early 21st Century.
Where other architects have made golf more challenging, Kidd’s focus has been on making them more fun.
The golf world is eating it up. Now ranked the #30 public course in the country by Golf Digest, and #27 modern course by GolfWeek, Mammoth Dunes’ enormous scale and player-friendly architectural elements have been a huge hit.
One of my favorite holes for its terrain is the par four 5th. Its wavy fairway yields no even lies, and anything to the left will leave a blind approach shot to one of Mammoth Dunes’ massive green surfaces.
There are a few layouts at Mammoth Dunes that are truly unique, or at least that I’ve never before seen. The sixth is one of those as a drivable par four with a U-shaped green complex that allows for a myriad of pin locations and shot strategies.
Blue Mound Golf & Country Club in Wauwatosa is no stranger to hosting great golf tournaments, having held the 1916 Western Open, 1933 PGA Championship, 1955 Miller High Life Open, co-hosted the 2011 US Amateur with Erin Hills and plenty of others in between.
In 1919, the club hosted the state’s first and largest major golf tournament: The State Open. It was won by Arthur Clarkson, who defended his title the next year at Milwaukee Country Club.
All in all, Blue Mound has held the State Open five times (1919, 1921, 1928, 1942, 1952), and this year makes it a cool half-dozen in the form of the event’s 100th edition.
A 72-hole stroke play event conducted by the Wisconsin Section of the PGA, this year’s State Open sponsored by the Suter/Ward Group features a field of 156 players: 81 professionals, 67 amateurs and 2 players awaiting amateur reinstatement.
Throughout the years, the State Open has produced some of Wisconsin’s most legendary champions, including Steve Stricker (5 times), Jerry Kelly (1992), Skip Kendall (1988, 1989), Mark Wilson (2001), Eddie Terasa (3 times), Manuel de la Torre (5 times), Tommy Veech (4 times), Bobby Brue (5 times), Jordan Niebrugge (2011), and the winner of the event’s last two installments, Dan Woltman of Beaver Dam (4 total State Open wins).
Woltman, a member of the Korn Ferry Tour, is on the prowl again this year seeking his 5th title and currently tied for fourth just four strokes behind Kaylor Steger of Mount Pleasant who’s reached 8 under par.
Now in the books, days 1 and 2 otherwise produced a lot of high numbers. Players battled lightning fast greens and hellacious pin positions. Many of Blue Mound’s enormous, sometimes over 10,000 square foot green complexes have pins tucked in to far corners, cut just paces from edges. Former PGA Tour and current Champions Tour player Skip Kendall told Wisconsin.Golf’s Gary D’Amato they’re the second fastest greens he’s ever played (behind one year at The Memorial).
Tough greens lead to high cuts and great leaderboards, and this week’s tournament is no exception as a cadre of terrific players remain in the running, including:
2nd place at -6: Harrison Ott, fresh off a round of 16 appearance in last week’s US Amateur at Bandon Dunes where he knocked off the tournament’s medalist, Wilson Furr
3rd place at -5: Tommy Longbella, winner of the State Amateur at Milwaukee CC by TEN STROKES three weeks ago
T-11 at +2: 5-time PGA Champion Mark Wilson
T-11 at +2: Former PGA & current Champion Tour player Skip Kendall
A lot has changed since the State Open’s original event at Blue Mound in 1919, both in society and at their club. The course, though, looks tremendously similar now to its legendary course architect Seth Raynor’s design, thanks to a caring and benevolent staff and membership that has consistently done the right thing.
It’s not just golf that Blue Mound’s membership has shown to be consistently gracious toward, but also the great kids who grow up in and around their community. One player in the field who has been a benefactor of that is fellow North Hills member Mike Bielawski.
Bielawski, a former Marquette player and winner of the 2017 & 2018 WSGA State Match Play and 2018 WSGA State 4-Ball Championship, knows this year’s site well:
“This year’s open at Blue Mound is very special to me personally. I first learned what golf was when I was 12 years old when my Dad took me to Doyne, a MKE County Par 3 course. I loved it immediately and my parents thought it would be good to get me a job as a caddy, which turned out to be a great decision! Blue Mound is where I ended up going to caddy and it’s been an incredible ride in the golf world ever since. From winning a few good junior events, to college golf at Marquette, to mini tour life (thanks to a group of Blue Mound members sponsoring me), to club pro, and finally to college golf coach; I have seen a lot of the golf world. Now a father of two (Noah 2.5 and Lily 5 months) and husband, and working at the MACC Fund, I have so much to be thankful for.
Realistically, I owe much of this to my experience at Blue Mound and a few key people there that helped shaped my golf path. Head Professional Barry Linhart and (at the time) Assistant Pro Andy Fish really went out of their way to help me along both on and off the course, in addition to a generous group of members who helped me ‘chase the dream’ after college.
The reason I note all this is over the next few days, whether my golf is good or bad, two rounds or four, I am going to have a lifetime of really special memories to reflect upon between trying to hit some decent golf shots. It’s hard to find a place more special than Blue Mound to learn about golf and life. Aside from these great memories, the course changes over the past few years have been incredible—it’s truly pristine. I feel very fortunate to be able to compete in this year’s Open and can’t say thanks enough to the membership, staff, PGA staff, volunteers, and everyone who will make the 100th State Open a first class event.”
– Mike Bielawski
Over the years, Bielo has become one of my favorite people in the golf world, and it’s classy statements like these that exemplify his character and leadership at an organization as impactful as the MACC Fund.
While a lot has changed since Blue Mound held the state’s first Open, surely no changes have been as drastic as the environment created for this year’s tournament: A modern golf event held during the time of COVID-19.
Spectators this year are limited to immediate family members who must arrive and depart with the players, and members of the media who are required to socially distance while on-site.
Scoring is being updated online, and there are no physical leaderboards or crowds to cheer on their favorites. Still, 61 players remain in the battle for 36 more holes, motivated to become the state’s 100th Open Champion.
14 players have repeated at the State Open over the past 100 years, but will Woltman be the tournament’s first ever three-peat winner? Will University of Minnesota’s Longbella back up his State Am title? Will Harrison Ott stay hot after his impressive performance at Bandon last week? Will one of the streaky guys a ways back, like Charlie Delsman at +6, get hot and fire off something in the low-to-mid-sixties to get in the hunt?
Even without fans, this year’s State Open is filled with storylines, and tomorrow’s 36-hole marathon should be writhe with intrigue. They certainly couldn’t find a better host club than Blue Mound for it all to happen.
Note: If you’re bored/annoyed by the first section of this post, please feel free to skip to the 2nd section that begins near the teal-highlighted call-out
As I wrote about in my previous post, this is an exciting time for the 92-year-old Pine Hills Country Club, and I think the club and Drew Rogers’ upcoming renovation work, combined with some potential national media play during the now 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits is going to help skyrocket the course’s image nationally.
How it’s stayed as low-key as it has – even in the state – for so long is a mystery to me.
That Pine Hills doesn’t appear in any of the state rankings amazes me, though I think recently it’s because the course hasn’t been rated often enough. That will change soon, I’m sure, too.
I’m not saying the major publications’ rankings are the Bible on golf courses, nor am I saying Pine Hills should care. What I am saying is I think it’s as good of a private member golf course as there is in Wisconsin.
Keep in mind, in the following current “major rankings,” that Pine Hills does not qualify for public courses. I’m including them to provide a transferable framework for where they could/should fit in.
In this first list (Golf Digest’s top 10 overall courses in the state), for example, I think Pine Hills post-renovation has potential to reach the top 3-5. It belongs in the top 7 already, if you ask me.
Golf Digest’s 2019-2020 Top 10 Courses in Wisconsin (2019): * Public & Private 1. Whistling Straits, Straits course 2. Erin Hills 3. Milwaukee Country Club 4. Blackwolf Run, River course 5. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course 6. Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes course 7. Whistling Straits, Irish course 8. SentryWorld 9. Blue Mound Golf & Country Club 10. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course
Here’s how those figures translate nationally:
Golf Digest’s 2019-2020 Top 100 Public Courses, Wisconsin (2019): * PublicOnly 3. Whistling Straits, Straits course 9. Erin Hills 15. Blackwolf Run, River course 18. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course 27. Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes course 43. Whistling Straits, Irish course 44. SentryWorld 57. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys 58. Lawsonia, Links course 69. Troy Burne
Next is a public ranking by GolfWeek. As it stands, I think Pine Hills belongs a little before the Irish course, SentryWorld (which is tremendous, although closed for the 2020 season), the Meadow Valleys course and U-Ridge.
As a private club, Pine Hills does not qualify for this list, but it’s relevant for comparative purposes.
Aside: How can anyone put Erin Hills as the #6 public course in the state? I understand rankings are based on opinion, but it feels like a miss.
GolfWeek Best Courses You Can Play in Wisconsin (2019): * PublicOnly 1. Whistling Straits, Straits course 2. Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes course 3. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course 4. Lawsonia, Links course 5. Blackwolf Run, River course 6. Erin Hills 7. Whistling Straits, Irish course 8. SentryWorld 9. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valley course 10. University Ridge 11. Troy Burne 12. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms 13. Geneva National, Player course 14. Wild Rock 15. Big Fish
This next list is an interesting one: If Milwaukee’s #49, the Links course at Lawsonia is #62 and Blue Mound is #148, Pine Hills should really be included.
Here’s another interesting one… Like I said, I think Pine Hills should be #2 here, and that it could potentially get to #1 with some smart, subtle changes during their upcoming renovations. Blue Mound’s awesome, but I personally give PHCC an edge and put Blue Mound at #3.
I should mention I haven’t played Oneida or Green Bay. I hear great things about both but can’t imagine either challenges MCC, Pine Hills or Blue Mound for the top 3.
Golf.com hasn’t published a top 100 national list since 2018, but I think Pine Hills has the opportunity to break on to theirs’, potentially alongside or slightly ahead of the River course at Blackwolf Run.
* Lawsonia, Links course (World next 50) * Sand Valley, Sand Valley (World next 50)
As you can see, there are spaces on all these [not public only] lists where a previously anonymous course can potentially fit in.
I think the time is right for Pine Hills to invest in their club and course (which they are), and afterwards I think we’ll start seeing “Pine Hills CC, Sheboygan WI” in a lot of lists going forward.
PART# 2: Comparing the state’s 2 best private clubs
So, how does Pine Hills compare now to the perennially top-ranked private golf course in Wisconsin, Milwaukee CC?
Keep in mind, this is all my personal opinion. All rankings and ratings within golf are, and I understand that my preferences for golf courses are not everyone else’s. They’re certainly not the same as the major publications’.
Milwaukee Country Club has always been the incumbent. No other private course in Wisconsin has probably ever even been considered.
Currently ranked by Golf Digest as the #74 course in the country (link), Milwaukee oozes rich heritage and tradition, features terrific golf holes both on the Milwaukee River and inland, and was recently updated by Tom Doak and his team in 2015.
It’s a hallowed ground that’s challenging to get on, and the anticipation of a round at Milwaukee Country Club can bring about butterflies, or anxiety in even the biggest golf enthusiast.
Yet, does its exclusivity make it the unquestioned number one private golf course in the state?
When considering course design and customer experience, I have a hard time saying it’s better than Pine Hills. I also have a hard time saying it’s not. I waffle between the two enough that I might as well call them 1-A and 1-B.
There are no losers here. It’s rare air. Some people who read this will say I’m an idiot for comparing the two at all – Milwaukee is clearly the best because it’s such an honor to play it, and its incredible heritage makes it better. Oh, and because CH Alison was a historically significant golf course architect while it’s hard to find much about Pine Hills’ designer, Harry Smead.
As an aside, I’m told Smead worked with or was a protege of Langford & Moreau’s. There are a lot of similarities between Langford & Moreau’s design and aesthetics and those of Pine Hills, especially in the green complexes, use of mounding and structuring of bunkers.
Here is how I compare the two clubs by key category:
Both courses are magnificently maintained, but green complexes like the 9th with their closely shorn green surrounds are so compelling that I’m sending the nod to MCC.
Par 3’s: Pine Hills
Pine Hills might have the most memorable set of par threes in the entire state of Wisconsin, and despite a quality set at Milwaukee wins this category easily.
My favorite par 3’s at Pine Hills: 1. 9th (170/145/135/114) – this is how I picture golf at Augusta 2. 5th (195/182/175/165) – uphill par 3 with a massive, tiered green 3. 14th (134/123/114/114) – I love a great short par 3 4. 7th (208/172/155/125) – the long downhill par 3 with amazing views 5. 16th (148/141/126/122) – uphill shot with a tough green
Par 4’s: Pine Hills
Along with a handful of great, incredibly memorable par fours, Pine Hills’ overall collection is solid. Stalwarts among those truly memorable holes are the 8th, 10th, 13th and 17th.
Par 5’s: Milwaukee
Neither course’s par fives are their biggest strength, but Pine Hills’ three-shot holes are more legitimate. The one that does not fit that mold is the 12th, which is the second in a set of back-to-back par fives that play in opposite directions.
While the 12th measures just 458 yards from the tips and 450 from the first tees in, its dramatically rolling fairway makes for a challenging [and oftentimes blind] approach shot to a heavily guarded green to get home in two.
While the 10th at Milwaukee is a gorgeous golf hole, and an incredible photo opportunity with the Milwaukee River as a backdrop, it and the 7th are both better played as long fours (as they are for the Wisconsin State Amateur) for scratch players. A more normal player like myself (8-10 handicap) still finds plenty of challenge in them.
Based purely on memorability, the edge here goes to Milwaukee.
Closing holes: Milwaukee
The 9th and 18th at Milwaukee might be its two best holes. The 9th is all-world, with an elevated tee shot heading straight toward the clubhouse.
Similarly, the 18th finishes outside the clubhouse and features an outstanding, back-to-front green complex.
Course Layout & Use of the Land: Pine Hills
Pine Hills is dramatic. There are very few level shots, whether off the tee or when approaching its greens. Milwaukee has some elevated tee boxes and greens, but nowhere near the ups and downs.
Both courses use the rivers that go through them well: The Pigeon River winds through the 7th, 8th, 10th and 17th at Pine Hills, and the Milwaukee River bisects or provides a border for the 10th thru 15th holes at MCC.
Pine Hills’ dramatic land use and highly contoured greens barely require bunkering, and use of sand is nowhere near as prominent as it is at Milwaukee.
Milwaukee’s bunkering is beautiful. Players need only to look at the magnificent par three 8th, par four 11th and the recently updated par five 3rd as prime examples.
Greens: Pine Hills
Milwaukee’s greens are great, but Pine Hills’ greens are amazing. Pine Hills’ green complexes are just more interesting to me, and with much more break.
Take the par three 5th hole. This is a long, uphill shot that feels attainable because the green is so massive in size. Get up there, though, and the green surface is ribboned like the waves of nearby Lake Michigan.
Clubhouse & Amenities: Milwaukee
Milwaukee has one of the most memorable clubhouses I’ve ever seen. While the men’s locker room facility is in the style of an old German beer hall, the principal dining and social areas are stately and well-appointed. I attend several annual events there and their food and beverage service is fantastic.
Pine Hills’ food and beverage is outstanding, too, but the edge – by an edge – goes to Milwaukee mostly based on uniqueness.
That I go back and forth between Milwaukee and Pine Hills says it all. Both courses are beautiful and feature tremendous Golden Age design and aesthetics.
If I could help it, I would never turn down the opportunity to play either of them, and both are shining examples of our state’s best golf.
I’m not saying Pine Hills should be ranked the number one private course in Wisconsin, but it should absolutely be considered and I hope it starts seeing a lot of positive pub in the years to come.
I’m expecting a few “you’re crazies” and would love to hear others’ thoughts, so please feel free to leave them in the comments below.
USGCA Architect Drew Rogers, also on the back end of a terrific restoration project at the Donald Ross designed Kenosha Country Club, is partnering with Pine Hills to help enact a series of small projects they anticipate will have long-lasting positive impacts.
Tree removal, bunker placements, tee boxes, drainage and green surrounds are all on the docket to be addressed.
Some lighter aspects of the renovation work have begun, and deforestation is set to begin this Fall on the course’s closing hole. Rogers’ plans for the 18th should take it from being Pine Hills’ weakest hole to potentially being one of its best (a bold statement on a property like PHCC!).
The 18th already has an excellent green complex, but its current layout doesn’t fit the rest of the course – especially to end the round. As it is, the 18th features a tight, restrictive right-to-left tee shot between trees that leaves a mid-iron approach to a really tough, elevated green.
It’s a very penal hole on a course that’s much better characterized as fun and imaginative.
By removing the woods inside the dogleg, repositioning the tees and making other small adjustments, the new 18th will open up views of a deep hillside ridge that lines the hole’s entire left border and in effect creates a thrilling right-to-left risk/reward opportunity.
This new Cape Hole (a CB Macdonald template design that originated at the National Golf Links of America) will urge players to bite off as much as they can of the ridge to leave a shorter approach shot to the green.
Like the rest of the course, it will be beautiful and dramatic – adjectives more befitting a great finishing hole than penal and restrictive.
Pine Hills’ / Drew Rogers’ plans for the renovated 18th at Pine Hills:
The new Cape will become the second half of a unique and dynamic back-to-back risk/reward left-to-right then right-to-left combination of holes.
While the 17th requires a risky faded tee shot to leave wedge in, the 18th will set up for a draw. Both will demand execution and will put golf balls, and high scores, in jeopardy.
Pine Hills is already a really special golf course, and I’ve flip-flopped on it and Milwaukee being my number one private course in the state for years, to the point that I basically consider them 1-A and 1-B.
So what will high-impact renovations mean to a course that’s already as ‘extraordinary’ as Pine Hills?
For one thing, I think we’ll finally start hearing about this exceptional 92-year-old Sheboygan golf course outside of post-round discussions at the bar or fire pit. I think it should also get a shot in the arm from golfers traveling to Sheboygan for next year’s 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.
But will these changes and more attention be the catalyst that elevates the club toward the state and national notoriety a course of its caliber deserves?
I’ll examine that in an upcoming post, including where I think Pine Hills can and should fit in to state and national rankings as well as how I think it compares to and against Wisconsin’s perennially top ranked private club, Milwaukee CC.
One of two Donald Ross designed golf courses in the state of Wisconsin, Kenosha Country Club boasts an almost 100-year-old private course with a rather unique variety of hole layouts, thoughtful use of elevation and fun, tiny [but expanding] green complexes that my host, Gregg, described perfectly as “playful.”
This was my first ever round on a Donald Ross design, and since playing I’ve found myself thinking a lot about it: Different options off its tees (I’d definitely change how I played 15!), how different pin locations could dramatically change several holes, how I could have optimized where I left my bag around certain greens, how I’d love to have both those restrictive tee shots on two, three, five, ten, eleven and fifteen, as well as those “Swing as hard as I can in the right general direction” shots on six, seven, twelve, thirteen and sixteen to look forward to again…
Basically, how Kenosha Country Club is the kind of golf course that would really grow on you.
KCC is a great everyday golf club. Its holes are laid out with terrific variety, allowing players to wail away at will then reining them back in. It’s perfectly walkable with short transfers between greens and tees, and the green complexes are really interesting.
It’s an easy walk minus a few steep hills, but for the most part the hills can be climbed without your full bag (grab your driver or next club selection before walking uphill on 3, 5 and 14, for example, and leave the rest of your equipment to grab on the way down).
Originally designed and opened for play in 1921, Kenosha Country Club has experienced a lot of the same changes and challenges as many other Golden Age golf courses.
It started with a great strategic design (above) by a master at his craft, Donald Ross, and over time matured and morphed in to something different, albeit recognizable. It’s how recognizable it is compared to its originally designed intentions that’s helping make its current and next steps truly special.
A return to its roots
Kenosha Country Club has been working with ASGCA architect J. Drew Rogers since 2015 to help undo some of the changes that have happened both naturally and intentionally over the last 99 years.
Chief among these updates are significant tree removal, realignment of fairways, recovery of bunkers that have been filled in, and – most importantly if you ask me – a reclamation of green surfaces that have shrunken over time.
Evidence of these green surface changes can be found across the course today. Blue/green dots outline where putting surfaces will be re-expanded to, and it’s easy to picture the positive impact that will be made by recouping so much short grass.
The green on ten, for example, will be expanded to include high slopes on either side that were meant to help push balls toward the center of the green, protecting its outside pins.
Some greens’ redemptive surfaces are less structural (not re-incorporating humps or slopes, for example), but their impact when expanded will be immeasurable through the addition of pinnable areas.
For several holes on the course, it’s that adding of pinnable space that will make all the difference. The par three 17th, for example, can now only be pinned in the upper-right. Surely this was not Ross’s original intent, but it is a natural and unfortunate by-product of golf course evolution.
Most putting surfaces will be moved out a few feet in each direction, which will be very noticeable on a course with such small greens.
The course and a few of my favorite holes
The smallest of the greens at Kenosha Country Club is on the short, way uphill par three 3rd. I wish I would have walked the length and width of this green, because if I had to guess from memory and photos I’d say it’s 40′ x 20′, and probably 30-40′ uphill.
It is just a 130-yard shot, though, and it was my first birdie of the day, so I thought the small green size fit the hole just right.
We let the threesome behind us play through on three, and one of their guys went left of the traps off the tee. His only option was a flop shot over the back-left trap to a downhill green running hard away. Not easy, and understandable that he left it short and ended up in his pocket.
Uphill approach shots are a key trend at Kenosha Country Club, and the third is the first hole there where elevation could alter club selection by several clubs.
Other holes that play several clubs longer because of elevation changes include the par four 5th, par four 11th, par four 13th, par four 15th and the previously mentioned par three 17th.
While it’s unusual to see more than one hole on a golf course with such a dramatic low-to-high difference in elevation approaching the green, it simply works at KCC.
In general, Ross’s use of the terrain at Kenosha is thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing. Starring in this category is the all-world par four 15th.
Drew Rogers calls the 15th at Kenosha one of Ross’s all-time greatest hole designs (Ross is accredited with designing ~ 400 courses, by the way), and it’s easy to see why.
There are options galore off this tee. My host hit a wedge safely in front of the river. I elected, twice, to hit driver from the elevated tee boxes, with a wind coming in and to our right. I put two balls well over the trees on to the highway, then – feeling lucky to have avoided hitting anything –
Fifteen was the hole I wanted most to get drone photography of. Unfortunately, though, a massive storm hit about 20 minutes after our round and I was ushered back to the clubhouse before I got that far out. I’m definitely hoping to get aerial footage the next time I visit Kenosha, though.
While there are quite a few holes at Kenosha Country Club that feature uphill approach shots, there are also downhill approach shots that must be negotiated on the par four 7th, par four 9th, par three 14th and par four 18th.
The finishing holes on each nine are great round enders. Both are significantly downhill with really well protected greens.
The eighteenth has a terraced fairway that if hit well off the tee should leave just a short iron or wedge to get home:
The ninth is similarly as good, and challenging, to close out the front nine. A view from its higher fairway:
Probably my favorite green on the course is on the par four seventh.
Gregg played this half-punch bowl green perfectly, hitting a long approach shot all the way to the left side and watching it climb the edges, roll toward the back and then back around toward the right-middle hole location.
I saw that and was excited for my turn, which was a short approach shot under 100 yards from the right side of the fairway. I wanted to play the same angle and enjoy the view as it filtered toward the hole.
Then, I pushed it right of the flag and in to a small collection area off the back-right of the green. That was a swing I’d love to get back.
As I said, this is the kind of golf course I could play every day. The fairways are forgiving enough that it won’t overly penalize players for having a bad driving day; the greens and hole layouts, in general, are varied and fun, and it would be a terrific walk that won’t completely wear you out.
Kenosha Country Club is a prime example of a Golden Age course that’s getting better and better over time. Even visiting on a Monday afternoon, the course was active with men and women of all age groups. They obviously have a very avid golfing membership, and one that is in growth mode having added over 50 new members in 2020.
While part of their single-year growth is likely because of the COVID-19 pandemic and folks needing something to do and be a part of, I’m sure the majority of it can be attributed to the excitement building around a course and membership that’s receiving new life through the returns from its investments – a revival in design and architecture that will once again see Kenosha Country Club played as one of the game’s all-time greatest designers meant for it to be played.
It was a familiar feeling, and one I’ve come to chase over the years while being blessed to play some of the country’s great golf courses. It was that feeling when, despite high expectations, you’re blown away by a golf course that’s unfolding in front of you.
My expectations were surpassed quickly and often at the new Club at Lac La Belle outside Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Course Architect Craig Haltom has been a veritable Swiss Army knife of the golf industry throughout the years, having risen to the role of President at Oliphant Golf Management in his time with the company since 2001.
Still, many know his name for having found the land and introducing Mike Keiser to what has become Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, Wisconsin. Craig still serves as Construction Lead for new projects there, but until now hadn’t had the opportunity to both design and build a full golf course.
Having earned his Masters of Landscape Architecture from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, Craig spent years studying the great courses of Great Britain and Ireland, and while I have not been across the pond I can see from pictures there that his passion for European-style golf is on display at La Belle.
Rich in history dating back to 1896, Haltom was able to take something very old in Oconomowoc and not only make it new but completely unrecognizable from what it was… And unique compared to everything else in the area.
The new Club at Lac La Belle is bold and memorable. It meshes Mammoth Dunes-like green complexes with a beautiful, parkland-esque layout.
Thoughts like “Whoa, that’s so good,” and “This does not feel like Wisconsin,” and “This green is insane – I love what he did with [this] slope” popped in my head constantly. I had to apologize a number of times to my buddy Jeff for all the over-the-top commentary.
Simply put, I was in awe of what Craig Haltom and the Morse family have created at The Club at Lac La Belle.
They have successfully and simultaneously developed a golfing experience that is top-end and extremely unique to the area while paying homage to a rich heritage nearly 125 years in the making that originated with US Open champions Alex Smith and Willie Anderson, and fellow champion golfer Robert B. Simpson.
Those were the first three PGA Professionals at what was then the Country Club of Oconomowoc on the same piece of land that now inhabits the CLLL.
The club’s history and the Smith brothers who helped open the site for golf, specifically, intertwines with the history of Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland. New ownership is even working with Carnoustie and David Mackesey of Diablo CC to put the Smith brothers’ nostalgic equipment and other turn-of-the-20th century artifacts on display at La Belle.
But I’ve written about the history of The Club at Lac La Belle in the past (Course Preview: The Club at Lac La Belle), and I hope you dive down that rabbit’s hole as it’s as rich as any course’s in the Midwest. What I want to touch on now is what The Club at Lac La Belle has become.
There is nothing fully comparable in the state of Wisconsin, and honestly I think it will jump straight in to the top 10 public courses discussion behind the likes of the River course at Blackwolf Run and the Links at Lawsonia, but ahead of or among [mostly top 100 nationally ranked] courses like SentryWorld, the Irish at Whistling Straits, Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run, the Bull at Pinehurst Farms, University Ridge and Wild Rock.
Random thoughts during my round:
The course design is unique and really fun
The Club at Lac La Belle will feature prominently in the “Best Renovations” category
Wide and forgiving fairways
These greens are massive! Only in-state comps are Mammoth Dunes, Blue Mound, Lawsonia Links for some
The bunkering stars – from the Ohio Best white sand to the natural fescue outcroppings, they’re really beautiful
I can’t believe they created this out of Rolling Hills (and what the hell happened to all those trees!?)
The Rivalry Pub, patio areas, short game practice area, events & wedding venues, and the pro shop are all really nicely appointed
Merchandising akin to Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley
Love the logo
Incredibly friendly staff – everyone’s very helpful, especially Patrick
So many wow moments on the course
Green contouring favors players with course/local knowledge – eg: The par three 8th green, bank shots found on other short holes
When these sand-based greens are sped up, false fronts could get really crazy
Love the drivable par fours, risk/reward opportunities
The par 3’s are masterful, and the 4th might be one of my all-time favorites
The par 5’s are gettable, especially the course’s signature 16th hole
The 18th green is incredible – I love a good punch bowl
Don’t go in the left-most fairway bunker on 2
I need to buy more batteries for my drone – 3 was not enough here
The memorabilia they have on property from Carnoustie is very cool – I held the mashie of a 4-time US Open champion, for example
This would be a fun course to chase the sun on, then spend time with cocktails betting over putts on the Himalayas / Punch Bowl-like putting course outside the Rivalry Pub
I could go on, and I’m sure I will in future posts about the Club at Lac La Belle, but the point I want to get across is that their opening week (this weekend, starting Saturday June 20) is a big day for golf in Southeastern Wisconsin.
With a price tag just under $100 including cart, the new Club at Lac La Belle is the best course in the area not named Erin Hills, and I think it is the perfect complement to Erin Hills for out-of-towners looking for a second round without breaking the bank.
A few of my favorite holes: The par four second is a wonderful strategic golf hole on land new to the Club at Lac La Belle. The tee shot is between trees to an area littered with sand traps – the smart play is short of them to set up a short approach shot, but what fun would that be? This multi-tiered green will be diabolical when fully grown in.
I first visited The University Club (fka Tripoli) three years ago with Golf Course Architect Andy Staples (link to original article). Andy had been hired to put together a 10-year strategic plan for renovating the now 99-year-old course: Updates that will help usher the club in to and beyond it’s centennial anniversary.
The University Club has a rich history, having played host to the 1956-1960 Miller Opens (video below from the year Ken Venturi won in 1957) and the 1970-1971 Greater Milwaukee Opens, won by players like Venturi, Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler.
Recent Renovations: Starting with a terrific competition golf course and outstanding facilities/amenities, Staples’ work and suggestions have been far from a total redo.
Heightened private club competition on the north side of Milwaukee, though, meant critical changes needed to be made to address a few quirks and especially upgrade the club’s practice facilities.
The previous practice facilities consisted of a tight chute of land between N 43rd Street and the first tee with a handful of hitting spaces. It’s a small area that allows players to work out some kinks before teeing off, but little else.
Enter Staples, who is highly regarded for his practice facility expertise (link to portfolio), and enter a strategic partnership between the University Club and the Marquette University Men’s Golf Team.
This joint venture worked with Staples to upgrade the U-Club’s practice facilities significantly, including designated short game areas, practice greens (one perfectly level to practice speed and line), a competition wedge range with cement targets (to sound when hit) and a 4-hole practice course.
Level and uneven lies, uphill and downhill shots, required lobs, awkward sand shots, approaches from fairways and long rough can all now be simulated on the 10-acre parcel of land.
To make room for this state-of-the-art practice facility, some physical changes needed to be made to the golf course.
The par three twelfth was moved from running north-south to east-west, was lengthened slightly and given a terrific green complex that’s modeled after the original twelfth.
Much simpler re-routing was achieved on the tee areas of the thirteenth and sixteenth holes, helping create more well-defined fairways and, in the case of the sixteenth, a safer golf experience.
Significant tree removal has been undertaken (and is still underway) across the property, some mowing lines have been adjusted and numerous forward tees have been added.
The Course: The University Club is not an overpoweringly long course on the scorecard, tipping out at 6,588 yards and with blue tees at 6,269, but it plays significantly longer. The back nine, especially, features a tremendously challenging stretch of holes from twelve to sixteen.
None are more challenging than the par four sixteenth, which regained its bite and now fully earns its number one handicapped hole status.
The par threes are mostly on the shorter side, which I appreciate at a classic course with tough greens.
The new twelfth is the longest of the four and is unquestionably the hardest. It plays about 200 yards slightly uphill, regularly in to the wind and to a fairly narrow, well-protected green.
The great green complexes at The U-Club start right out of the gate on the first hole. A downhill drive from the clubhouse to a tree-lined fairway, this raised Bendelow putting surface is nicely canted back-to-front:
The second is where players start to see noticeable updates from the renovation. This area, running parallel to Good Hope Road, includes the second hole fairway and its green surrounds, the sixteenth tee area and the twelfth hole.