Golf Course Review: Castle at the Bay

A 40-minute drive from the Wisconsin Dells, Arkdale is home to the most fun golf course I have ever played. Widely known as the “Replica Course,” Northern Bay features six replica holes and 12 others that should be replicated by lesser tracks.

View from the clubhouse of hole 10
The replica holes at the Castle Course are a lot of fun to play, but some of their non-replica ones are probably my favorites. Holes two, eight and 13 are fantastic holes. Interestingly, the fairways at Northern Bay are not bentgrass, like most notable courses in the state, but rather bluegrass. While I really enjoy the way they play, I have been told it catches the club more than bentgrass, and can be tougher to play from.
Thirteen is highly elevated with a dogleg left that can be cut with a driver. The smart play is a hybrid or low iron to the fairway, which can set up a managable approach to the green. Straight tee shots over 220 yards will probably find the deep, slanted bunkers that are on the far side of the fairway.
Hole 13: Par 4 (401, 373, 360, 350, 323)
Hole two is a long par three that starts testing your length. Slightly uphill, the green is 200-plus yards away and I found is best reached by hitting a well-struck 4-hybrid.
Hole 2: Par 3 (223, 206, 154, 136, 116)
Hole eight is a 500-plus yard par five that features a wide open tee shot. Put it out there far enough and you can try to cut the corner over a large pine tree that narrows to the green. The scorecard says it is reachable in two, but I don’t buy it. Lay it up into the approach alley and assure yourself the green in regulation.
The hole that makes this course most marketable is the “Island Hole.” Hole ten is a gorgeous replica of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass – the most famous hole in golf. From the replica length of 132 yards, the wind seems to always play into the tee boxes, which should change your club selection from the normal PW/9-iron you might expect. 150 yards will land you in the water on the opposite side of the island, and 130 will splash before it. The drop area (shown below) forces a difficult 25-yard flop shot and provides little in terms of relief.
Hole 10: Par 3 (146, 132, 127, 95, 81)
Hole 10: Par 3 (146, 132, 127, 95, 81)
My favorite replica hole is the par three third, which is modeled after the 16th at Augusta National. This hole requires a mid-iron off of high tee boxes over a long and narrow pond to a hugely undulating green. There are three large sand traps around it, and going in either of the two above the pin will result in a next to impossible shot out. The green slopes severely from the top to the bottom, and anything overhit from there will likely find the pond.
Hole 3: Par 3 (194, 170, 164, 160, 158)
Hole 3: Par 3 (194, 170, 164, 160, 158)
The two hardest holes on the course are brutally long. The Firestone replica sixth hole tees up from 625 yards of tree-lined fairway, and the 641-yard 15th is a blow-up waiting to happen. Both demand straight and long drives, and well-placed second shots to set up long approaches. The 15th narrows to about 40 yards with 175 to go, and the green proves elusive as it is mostly blind on the opposite side of a hill. This par five is unbelievably difficult.
Hole 6: Par 5 (625, 586, 565, 546, 361)
The 11th hole is a lot of fun. Nicknamed “Azalea,” the 11th finds you teeing off to a wide fairway that gives a tremendous advantage if you can drive to the left side. The final hole of Augusta National’s “Amen Corner,” this is an excellent risk/reward layout that challenges your courage. I found myself with 210 yards to clear the pre-green stream, and thought to myself, “What would Tiger do?” My 3-hybrid to the left-side fringe set me up for my only birdie of the day.
Hole 11: Par 5 (510, 465, 455, 431, 362)
 Hole 11: Par 5 (510, 465, 455, 431, 362)
The 18th is a par four replica of the finishing hole at Bay Hill. Trouble is far enough that you can drive off the tee, but the second shot is going to be a nail-biter regardless of your drive. The green is surrounded by water and three deep bunkers that all aim you back towards the pond in order to hold a long, bending putting surface.
Hole 18: Par 4 (462, 441, 430, 417, 305)
What surprised me most about Northern Bay is the greens. They have slowed them down slightly to make the course more playable for the layman, but they are by no means easy. In fact, several are downright mean.
If you have the opportunity to play Northern Bay, play it. You will not be disappointed. We had so much fun on Friday, in fact, that we got off the 18th green and went straight back to the clubhouse to pay $30 to play 18 more. Get started early enough in the morning and you will probably find yourself doing the same.
Hole 12: Par 4 (433, 426, 392, 329, 321)
Hole 17: Par 3 (167, 150, 131, 109, 98)
Course Wrap-up:
Location: Arkdale, WI
Yardage: Black-7,223, Blue-6,769, White-6,419, Green-5,995, Red-5,197
Slope/Rating: Black-131/74.4, Blue-129/72.9, White-125/72.7, Green-124/70.2, Red-123/69.7
Par: 72
Weekend Rates (riding): $90

Best Way to Play: On GolfNow.com, you can usually find rounds at $55 or $40 after 2:00 pm

The Anticipation of a Great Golf Weekend: Northern Bay Preview

Have you ever had a weekend planned that you were so psyched for, you could barely contain your excitement? This is one of those weekends for me. Ask the guys on my sales team, and they will probably tell you that I have not contained my excitement well at all.
Tomorrow, a couple of friends and I will be heading to the Wisconsin Dells to play two of my top six courses of all time: Castle at the Bay (aka Northern Bay), and Wild Rock.
I don’t want to give too much away for my friends who have yet to play Wild Rock [and writing doesn’t do it justice, anyhow], so my writing on that course will be left for the post-round review. 
For Northern Bay, I thought it would be fun to compare – at the lowest possible level since I have not played any of Augusta, TPC Sawgrass, Oak Hill, Oakmont, Bay Hill or Firestone – their replica holes versus the ones that make them worth replicating.
We will go in order of the holes as they are played at Northern Bay (all pictures of the course were taken this past spring, which explains the lack of foliage)…

3. Augusta National, Hole 16:

The real thing: 170 yards
NB blue tees: 170 yards
Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: 0
Hole 16 at Augusta National (170, 145)
 Hole 3 at Northern Bay (194, 170, 164, 160)
This is a very difficult par three! A friend of mine was the assistant pro at Northern Bay and was telling me they actually had to keep a ranger on the third to keep players from taking too many tee shots. Go short, and you’re in the water. Go long, and face an almost impossible task of holding the green. It is not uncommon to putt the ball from the top into the pond at the bottom. The front-left sand trip almost seems like a treat.
Proposed hole contest: Closest to the pin from the rough above the green
4. Oakland Hills Country Club, South Course, Hole 5:
The real thing: 490 yards
NB blue tees: 465 yards
Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: -25 yards

A very long par four, this is the number one handicapped hole at Northern Bay. The fourth is played from slightly elevated tee boxes with the road on the left and two large bunkers on the right side of the fairway. It feels like a par five from the tee box to the green, which is huge but sloped.

Proposed hole contest: closest to the pin in two
6. Firestone Country Club, South Course, Hole 16:
The real thing: 667 yards
NB black tees: 625 yards

Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: -42 yards

Fortunately, this hole plays mostly downhill, but it is still tremendously long. A calming stream runs alongside the end of the hole and builds into a pond guarding a small green. With trees engulfing the length of the fairway, the course’s recommended tee shot is long iron or wood.

Proposed hole contest: Closest to the pin from the fairway 200-yard marker
10. TPC at Sawgrass, Stadium Course, Hole 17:
The real thing: 132 yards
NB blue tees: 132 yards

Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: 0

Hole 17 at TPC Sawgrass (132, 128, 115)
Hole 10 at Northern Bay (146, 132, 127, 95)

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Hole 10 at Northern Bay (146, 132, 127, 95)
Probably the most famous par three in all of golf, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass is known simply as “The Island Hole.” The pond on this single hole collects over 8,000 balls every season.
Proposed hole contest: Closest to the pin (tee shot)
11. Augusta National, Hole 13:
The real thing: 510 yards
NB black tees: 510 yards
Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: 0
Hole 13 at Augusta National (510, 455) 
Hole 11 at Northern Bay (510, 465, 455, 431)
A picture-perfect tee shot. There is plenty of room to play with in the fairway, but getting out far enough and left enough for an iron approach over the stream to the green is not an easy task – nor is finding a spot in the fairway that is not on an up-, down-, or side-slope. Take a minute to enjoy the scenery around the green on the 11th.
Proposed hole contest: Longest drive in the fairway
12. Oakmont Country Club, Hole 3:
The real thing: 428 yards
NB blue tees: 426 yards
Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: -2 yards
Hole 3 at Oakmont (428, 390, 378)
Hole 12 at Northern Bay (433, 426, 392, 329)
The famous “Church pew” sand traps on the left side are for the most part out of the picture except for in the case of a quite errant tee shot. What makes this hole tougher is the deep sand traps on the right, and the considerable uphill approach.
Proposed hole contest: Closest approach to the pin from the last of the church pew bunkers
18. Bay Hill, Hole 18:
The real thing: 440 yards
NB blue tees: 441 yards
Difference in  yardage from recommended tee box: +1 yard
Hole 18 at Bay Hill (440, 414, 391)
Hole 18 at Northern Bay (462, 441, 430, 417)
The 18th is a fantastic finishing hole. Keep dry off the tee and do your best to hit the green between a substantial pond short and right, and deep green-side bunkers left and long. This green has one of the most drastic changes in slope at Northern Bay, which does not bode well for players “trying to break 90” – or 80, 100, or whatever the final score they have in mind happens to be.

Proposed hole contest: Lowest number of putts

Northern Bay website:
http://www.castleatthebay.com/

Wild Rock website:
http://www.wildrockgolf.com/

Wisconsin’s Best Public Golf Courses

When you look at any of the key “Top 10” lists in the state of Wisconsin, there is certainly a lot of parity. My list is not much different from others, but I do like to think that I tend to be more subjective than the major media (GolfWeek, Golf Digest, Golf.com). How some state courses are consistently left out of the major top ten lists (ie: Wild Rock, SentryWorld, Geneva National, etc.), for example, is beyond me.

My Top Ten List:

1. Erin Hills (Erin, WI):

Golf Digest: #8 US public, #42 US top 100, #56 US toughest, #2 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #139 US modern, #31 US resort, #5 Wisconsin public
Golf.com: #96 US top 100, #22 US public

Located in the middle of  nowhere, Southeastern Wisconsin, Erin Hills is looking forward to hosting hundreds of thousands of spectators for the 2017 US Open.

With fine fescue fairways, and bent grass tees and greens, Erin Hills is one of the most finely manicured courses in the country, and certainly in the state. Elevation is used stunningly, and craggy, deep sand traps abound the fairways and green complexes. The US Open will be the longest in history, around 7,700 yards.

With a slope of 145 from the championship tees, Erin Hills is one of the most challenging courses I have played, and also one of the most picturesque.

Hole 18: Par 5 (660/637/620/539/506)

2. Whistling Straits, Straits Course (Haven, WI):

Golf Digest: #4 US public, #22 US top 100, #48 world top 100, #6 US toughest, #1 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #6 US modern, #4 US resort, #1 Wisconsin public
Golf.com: #28 US top 100, #6 US public, #49 world top 100

Host of the 2004 PGA Championship, 2007 US Senior Open, 2010 PGA Championship, 2015 PGA Championship, and the much-anticipated 2020 Ryder Cup, the Straits course is perennially rated as one of the top five golf courses in the country, alongside legends like Sand Hills, Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes and others.

The Straits course features eight holes that run alongside the shore of Lake Michigan, offering one of the most beautiful (and windy) natural settings for golf in the world.

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

3. Blackwolf Run, River Course (Kohler, WI):

Golf Digest: #16 US public, #32 US toughest, #4 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #56 US modern, #17 US resort, #3 Wisconsin public
Golf.com: #89 US top 100, #14 US public

Absolutely breathtaking. I loved, too, that I could play it on Tiger Woods Golf the night before playing it for real! The 47th ranked modern course in the country, the River has been the site of many professional golf events, including the 1998 and 2012 US Women’s Opens, and in the mid-nineties the Arthur Andersen World Golf Championships.

The River is Pete Dye’s quintessential parkland course, with a championship tees slope of 151, making it one of the 30 toughest courses in America, and certainly one of the most beautiful.

Hole 4: Par 3 (219/195/185/146/117)
 

4. Whistling Straits, Irish Course(Haven, WI):

Golf Digest: #47 US public, #91 US top 100, #6 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #172 US modern, #35 US resort, #6 Wisconsin public
Golf.com: #89 US top 100, #79 US public

The Irish course at Whistling Straits is the next best thing to its $400-plus big brother Straits course. Striking vistas of Lake Michigan, and a perfectly curated layout make this course quite memorable. The 10th hole (shown below), nicknamed “Shepherd’s Post,” provides one of the most visually stunning tee shots I have ever taken.

Hole 11: Par 3 (208/193/177/169/125)
Carved alongside the site of the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championship Straits Course, the Irish features much of the same charm that makes the Straits such a fantastic tournament venue: Roaming herds of sheep, huge cliffs and changes in elevation, and lightning-fast bent-grass greens and fairways that roll beautifully. Even the restrooms built into the hillsides add to the rustic charm that is the Whistling Straits.

5. SentryWorld (Stevens Point, WI):

Golf Digest: #5 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #4 Wisconsin public
Golf.com:

Home of the famed “Flower Hole,” SentryWorld is much more than just one beautiful par three. The course is a classic Robert Trent Jones, Jr. parkland design in central Wisconsin, and has been a perennial top ten to fifteen course in the state for nearly 30 years (including number one until Kohler entered the scene).

SentryWorld is scheduled to reopen in the Spring of 2015, after a major course renovation was executed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and his course design team led by Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi.

The new SentryWorld is better than ever. The improved routing and added length have successfully updated the course for the times and technology, while making the course more challenging for low-handicap players and more enjoyable for the weekend warrior.

It is my prediction that SentryWorld: Reimagined will find it’s way back on to every major golf course ranking provider’s top ten list in 2015.

Hole 12: Par 3 (161/139/123/86/76)

SentryWorld Website

6. Lawsonia, Links Course (Green Lake, WI):

Golf Digest: #85 US public, #12 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #71 US classic, #2 Wisconsin public

The most legendary public course in the state, the Links is a perennial top 100 course in the United States, and Wisconsin’s most true to form links style setup. Highly elevated green complexes, huge elevation and devilish sand traps make it a fantastic test of golf.

Hole 13: Par 5 (568/556/489/489)
 

7. Wild Rock (Wisconsin Dells, WI):

Golf Digest: #15 Wisconsin

The one word that comes to mind when trying to describe this course is “Majestic.” How each hole seems to somehow outdo the last one is mind-boggling to me. The drastic changes in elevation, and the ridiculous length of this course is staggering, too (7,418 yards from the Quartzite tees). Wild Rock is a bit pricy, but well worth the $89 rate.

Hole 15: Par 3 (179/166/148/130/118)

8. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys (Kohler, WI):

Golf Digest: #72 US public, #10 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #10 Wisconsin public

With nine of Blackwolf Run’s original 18 holes, the Meadow Valleys includes my number one favorite hole in the state of Wisconsin: The magnificent par four fourteenth, known as “Nature’s Course.” This is just one of many beautiful layouts on the Meadow Valleys.

I recommend not trying to play the Meadow Valleys from the tips, like we did on July 20, 2014. At 7,250 yards, there are par threes with forced carries of 227 and 230. Yikes.

Hole 14: Par 4 (423/409/384/376/293)

9. University Ridge (Madison, WI):

GolfWeek: #7 Wisconsin public

The split-fairway sixteenth hole is one of the coolest holes I have ever played. U-Ridge is a Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course, and is the home of the Wisconsin Badgers golf team. The back nine has some exceptional holes cut through the woods, starting with the thirteenth and continuing through sixteen.

Recently renovated for 2013, U-Ridge now features the same 007 Bentgrass greens as at the Olympic Club, Augusta, and other select world-class courses.
Hole 6: Par 5 (623/570/534/442)

 

My favorite of the three courses at Geneva National, the Palmer Course features some of the most unique hole layouts I have found in the state. The par five seventeenth hole is ranked as one of Arnie’s “Dream 18” holes, and is one of mine, as well.

Hole 17: Par 5 (573/530/485/421/406)
The Next Ten:

11. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (Sheboygan, WI):
Golf Digest: #70 US public, #9 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #9 Wisconsin public
 
The Bull is beautiful, to say the least, with outstanding hole layouts. But, it is also incredibly tight and penalizing. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the course is spread out over 400-plus acres of former farm land, and beautifully incorporates the Onion River, dense forests, rolling hills, deep ravines, large ponds and significant elevation changes. The course rolls out one signature hole after another, especially in the stretch of the fifth through eighth holes, which is one of my favorite four-hole stretches of all time.
Hole 8: Par 5 (568/556/500/487/435)

12. Castle at the Bay (Arkdale, WI):

A primarily replica course, my only complaint about Northern Bay is that it’s too damn far away! I have a hard time deciding which of the replica holes is my favorite: Oakmont’s church pews, Firestone, Amen Corner, Bay Hill… Probably TPC 17. It helps that I seem to play well here, but Castle at the Bay is the most entertaining course I have played on.
View from the club house of hole 10

13. Hawk’s Landing (Verona, WI):

Featuring some of the truest, fastest greens in the state, Hawk’s Landing is a beautiful golf course with incredibly challenging par fives and great par threes.

Hole 9: Par 5 (587/550/533/469)

14. Lawsonia, Woodlands (Green Lake, WI):

One of Wisconsin’s most beautiful Fall-time courses, especially, the Woodlands at Lawsonia is in stark contrast to its world-famous sister course, the Links. With exceptional holes like the second, third and seventh on the front nine alone, the Woodlands is half of what makes Lawsonia one of my favorite Wisconsin golfing destinations.

Hole 2: Par 4 (341/329/315/315)
 

15. Geneva National, Gary Player Course (Lake Geneva, WI):

My close second favorite of the Geneva National layouts, the Player course has some great hole layouts, especially on their par fours. With a number of holes offering extreme risk/reward scenarios, Player allows golfers to risk disaster for the potential reward of more managable approaches.

Hole 5: Par 4 (354/310/283/257/255)

16. Hawk’s View, Como Crossings (Lake Geneva, WI):

With one of the best collections of par threes in the state, Como Crossings takes great advantage of its rolling Lake Geneva land and former Mt. Fuji ski hill.

Hole 17: Par 3 (169/153/136/120/91)

17. Grand Geneva, The Brute (Lake Geneva, WI):

Everything you need to know about The Brute at Grand Geneva is said in its name. This course is huge: Huge bunkers, huge water features, huge greens, huge elevation… Make sure to bring your A-game!

Hole 1: Par 4 (424/395/255)
 

18. The Bog (Saukville, WI):

Golf Digest: #14 Wisconsin

An Arnold Palmer signature course, The Bog is assuredly the Milwaukee area’s best overall public golf course (since the PGA Tour stopped coming to Brown Deer after 2009), and best championship test at 7,200-plus yards from the tips.

Hole 9: Par 5 (543/521/493/467/401)

19. The Oaks (Cottage Grove, WI):

The Oaks made its way to being one of my absolute favorite golf courses in the state this past year. Their greens are lightning quick and undulating, and its unique mix of six par threes and five par fives make it a wonderful test for anyone’s short and long games.

Hole 7: Par 3 (192/175/170/157/150)
 

20. Wild Ridge (Eau Claire, WI):

Wild Ridge was a perennial top ten course in the state of Wisconsin before the building boom of the 1980’s and ’90’s that introduced such tracks as Blackwolf Run, Whistling Straits, the Bull and Erin Hills. Wild Ridge has awesome elevation and a great collection of par fives. This was a great stop on the way back from the Twin Cities, just off of I-90/94 in Eau Claire.

Hole 12: Par 3 (184/153/141/127/127/107)

Notable Media Rankings:

GolfWeek’s Top Ten Public Courses in Wisconsin (2013)

Golf.com’s Top 15 Public Courses in Wisconsin (2012)

Golf Digest’s Top 10 Golf Courses in Wisconsin (2014)