Ranked by Golf Digest as the number eight overall course in the state of Wisconsin, and third among private clubs, Pine Hills Country Club is a hidden gem located just miles from Kohler’s Blackwolf Run property.
The similarities between the Blackwolf Run’s River course and Pine Hills are striking, but the two also differ in many ways. The River course, extending to over 7,400 yards for tournament play, plays inside and along the Sheboygan River, while Pine Hills is set mostly in woods and along the Pigeon River. Blackwolf Run is a public, albeit pricy, course, while Pine Hills is fully private. Both courses play host to a multitude of state-wide (and for Blackwolf Run, national/international) tournaments, and both have been of particular interest to the Kohler Company.
The story I was told prior to playing Pine Hills is that it was the original course Kohler was looking at to purchase as the golfing destination for his resort guests. When the club did not sell to him, and chose to stay private, Kohler was introduced to Pete Dye, who grew his love for the game of golf and inspired him to develop the international golfing mecca that the Sheboygan area is today.
My grandfather and I used to fish the Pigeon River when I was a kid. My dad grew up in Sheboygan, and my mom in Two Rivers, so visiting this area always brings back some memories of my childhood.
Using the reciprocity program through North Hills Country Club, my friend, Greg, and I were able to get a great group out on Pine Hills yesterday. This was all of our first time playing the track, and it was the last of Wisconsin’s top ten courses for friends and fellow golf writers Brian Weis (owner of GolfWisconsin and 30-plus other golf websites) and Glen Turk (Midwest Golfing Magazine). I still have three left to play: The Straits course at Whistling Straits, Milwaukee Country Club, and Blue Mound Country Club.
The list for 2013 is as follows:
1. Whistling Straits, Straits course (Haven)
2. Erin Hills (Erin)
3. Milwaukee Country Club (River Hills)
4. Blackwolf Run, River course (Kohler)
5. Whistling Straits, Irish course (Haven)
6. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course (Kohler)
7. Blue Mound Country Club (Wauwatosa)
8. Pine Hills Country Club (Sheboygan)
9. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (Sheboygan Falls)
10. SentryWorld (Stevens Point)
Pine Hills is a fabulous golf course! Around the eighth hole, Glen brought up the inevitable question: “What other courses would you compare this to?” The answers that were thrown out there? Like a mix of the Links course at Lawsonia and the River course at Blackwolf Run, with elements of Milwaukee Country Club. Also, greens like West Bend Country Club but scenery like the River. And, my favorite: “This is the Augusta of the Midwest.”
No matter what great Midwest golf courses you compare it to, one thing is for sure: Pine Hills transports golfers to a setting far, far away. It takes them to a feel of the great north woods, or maybe the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with huge trees and drastic elevation changes – all within a convenient hour’s drive of Milwaukee.
We arrived at Pine Hills an hour prior to our tee time, and were introduced quickly to John Wallrich, PGA Head Golf Professional and ambassador of the club. John and Mike oriented us and got us out to the practice range, which has elevated tees overlooking a nice assortment of target greens. We got our swings loose and, with ten minutes until teeing off, checked out the practice green in front of the clubhouse. We were pretty sure the putting surfaces would be fast, but this was just silly. The undulations in the practice green, while true to the course, made cozying up to the holes nearly impossible. There was a lot of laughing going on while “warming up” – this was going to make for a very interesting challenge!
The greens on the course were true to the practice green, and the many raised greens and huge sand traps make for a whole lot of danger.
The first hole is an uphill par four with an infinity green that is longer than it appears. A false front will rush anything hit short back downhill.
Getting to the second tee box, the view is beautiful: A huge American flag and their prestigious clubhouse linger in the background of a wide green that is fronted by one of the deepest sand traps I have ever seen. Finishing toward the clubhouse, and with such a beautiful view, this would make for a spectacular finishing hole anywhere else.
The third hole is the number one handicapped hole on the course, and plays uphill and left to a raised green that has a wide bunker below and in front of the putting surface.
Four is a gorgeous woodland hole, and long. At 449 yards from the tips, the drive is straight away with woods to the right and trees running along the left side of the fairway. The green is raised again, with a small creek residing on the right side of the approach area.
Five is one of the most intimidating par threes I have ever seen! Straight in to the wind, and tremendously uphill, it also has one of the sharpest ridges running through the middle of it on the course.
Six is a fantastic par five, again running through the woods and finishing to a mostly blind approach that is well downhill.
Another magnificent par three, the seventh plays downhill from 208 yards from the tips. The Pigeon River runs horizontally through the fly zone, and huge traps surround a very tough to hit green.
Running back alongside the seventh is a breathtaking par four eighth hole, with the river along the left side. A very small target of a green area on the other side of the river demands a long and precise approach shot.
Arriving at the tees on the ninth hole, my first thought was: Finally, a manageable par three! At 172 yards from the blue tees, the final hole on the front nine plays over a ravine to what turned out to be the hardest green I have ever seen in my entire life. No kidding at all. Speaking of Augusta, this hole looks spot on.
Prior to our round, one of the only holes I was able to find a picture of was the signature par four tenth. The tee boxes, sited just outside the grille room, lie far above the Pigeon River, which paces the left side of the fairway. The second shot is way uphill.
Another tough par five, the eleventh tees off uphill and plays along the right-side treeline. My one word of caution on this hole: Do not fly the green, as the pitch back on is nearly impossible to hold.
A shorter par five than the previous hole, the twelfth has plenty of difficulty: The rolling fairway flows up and down, and like on most playing surfaces at Pine Hills does not leave many even lies. The green is again risen above the fairway, and bordered all over with deep traps.
The thirteenth has a tight fairway between the tree line, plays uphill and has one of the craziest green-side slopes I have seen anywhere. I hit what I thought was a perfect approach from 209 yards with a three-hybrid (right at the pin, I thought), only to find my ball thirty feet below the pin on the left side of the green.
Fourteen is a very cool par three. With a postage stamp green, the defining elements here are the plethora of sand traps littered around the putting surface.
With another tight fairway and woods all around, the fifteenth appears to be a manageable par four at 400 yards, but has one of the most severe false fronts on the course.
Sixteen is a classic uphill par three with a hard-breaking slope from back to front. This is the smallest green on the course, and was the spot where we found out that the Packers fumbled their fourth and one attempt and had it returned for a touchdown by Cincinnati. Ouch.
Featuring one of the most beautiful vistas on the course, the penultimate hole at Pine Hills features an intimidating tee shot to a split fairway that runs through and before an uphill green. If a long faded tee shot can be played (ahem, Greg), the opposite side of the fairway can be reached. If not, hit 225-plus to the target area in front of the tees.
Eighteen is a tough finishing hole. The tee shot has to find the opening of the dogleg left for any view of the green, and anything just short will leave a really tough, and long drawn approach shot. I hit three-hybrid off the tee to the elbow in the fairway, then hit a four-hybrid in to the trees on the right. It obviously didn’t draw. Another uphill approach awaits to finish the round, and the green is tightly shorn to enforce the need for accuracy.
Pine Hills is a glorious golf course, and after playing it it is difficult for me to believe there are two better in the state of Wisconsin. The natural splendor of the Sheboygan area, outstanding design elements, tough but true greens, and especially the challenge faced on a “short yardage” of just under 6,500 from the tips, make this a must-play for anyone who has the opportunity.