Golf Course Review: The Harvester (IA)

The Harvester Course Rankings:

Golf Digest: #42 US public, #1 Iowa
GolfWeek: #99 US modern, #1 Iowa public
Golf.com: #55 US public, #1 Iowa public

Designer: Keith Foster (2000)

This past summer, Brian Weis (owner/operator of GolfTrips, GolfWisconsin and 40-plus other golf-related websites) and I had the magnificent opportunity to attend a market trip to The Prairie Club in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

We had an 11-1/2-hour drive ahead of us to Valentine, and 36 holes of golf per day started the next morning. Being the golf enthusiasts that we are, we drove the extra hour out of the way to Rhodes, Iowa, home of the number one golf course in the state of Iowa and Golf Digest’s number 42 rated public course in the country: The Harvester.

The extra hour and ten minutes of driving was well worth it, and we were treated to some extremely special golf on a course that deserves every accolade sent its way since opening in 2001.

Course architect Keith Foster’s masterpiece at The Harvester beautifully blends unique and challenging hole layouts with the rolling Iowa countryside and inland lakes that abound on this fantastic piece of land.

The course is beautifully maintained with its squared off tee boxes and large, undulating greens. The huge changes in elevation offer gorgeous vistas of the property, and advanced golf course architecture designs put a premium on shot-making and strategy.

Throughout the course, the back tees make for a long and intense golfing experience: 7,365 yards of championship distance that includes par fives of 650, 575, 565 and 560 yards, par fours of 530, 470 and 465 yards, and par threes of 230, 200, 180 and 180 yards.

The big difference between the championship and blue tees is first noticed on the first hole, where the tips make for a tough starting experience from 425 yards, while the blues are a significantly less intimidating start from 390.

Back tees on Hole 1: Par 4 (425/390/375/335)

This 390-yard start treated me well, with a tap-in birdie to start our round (excluding my breakfast ball, in full disclosure, after I decided I’d rather not climb the ladder to go out-of-bounds and look for my original tee shot)

Hole 1: Par 4 (425/390/375/335)
The ladder to go out-of-bounds on hole 1
Hole 1: Par 4 (425/390/375/335)

Two is a very interesting par four. Short by all standards, and especially on a course that reaches nearly 7,400 yards, the play here is to safety. A long iron or hybrid, for example, should leave a great approach to the green.

As the crow flies, the green is certainly reachable from the tee, but has to fly a long way uphill and over the fescue out-of-bounds to the right.

Hole 2: Par 4 (360/345/330/265)
Hole 2: Par 4 (360/345/330/265)

The third hole at the Harvester is an absolutely beautiful par three. Measuring 180 yards from the tips, and playing significantly downhill, the distance measuring on three was made even trickier by the gales of wind that played in and to our right. This was one of the windiest days I have ever played golf on, and both Brian and I were pretty excited just to stay dry on this hole.

Hole 3: Par 3 (180/165/145/100)

The first par five on the course, the fourth is a tricky hole especially when considering all the changes in elevation from the fairway. Nicknamed “Cattle Run,” a large swale is found in the fairway around the driving target area, and requires a mostly blind second shot to set up the approach.

Hole 4: Par 5 (575/545/490/465)
 
Hole 4: Par 5 (575/545/490/465)

The fifth is the easiest hole on the course, being a mid-length par four with a slight dogleg left and a wide and inviting fairway. Distance is key on the approach, as three deep bunkers protect the right side of the green.

Hole 5: Par 4 (370/335/300/230)

A number of nostalgic extras are found around the course, including this halfway/restroom house between the fifth and sixth holes:

A long, wild downhill par five, the tee shot on six is strikingly beautiful from one of the course’s highest vantage points. The fairway runs downhill from the right to left, and is bordered on the right side by a multitude of sand traps.

The toughest shot on six is the second, which is required to set up a manageable approach over water to a secluded, heavily-breaking green. Stay short of the bunkers that line the end of the fairway for any chance at birdie or par.

Hole 6: Par 5 (560/535/515/430)
Hole 6: Par 5 (560/535/515/430)

Running hard uphill while winding to the right, the seventh features a fairly open tee shot, but a very challenging approach. Bunkers both left and right, and a sharp false front, make this hilltop green a treat to hit in two.

Hole 7: Par 4 (405/370/350/325)
Hole 7: Par 4 (405/370/350/325)
Rest bench between 7 and 8

The Harvester has one of the best sets of par threes I have seen anywhere, led by the third but nearly equaled by each of the others.

One of the most challenging of these par threes, especially with considerable wind gusts, is the eighth.

The infinity green on eight abuts the largest of The Harvester’s inland lakes, and has a massive ridge on the middle-right section that was next to impossible to judge accurately.

Hole 8: Par 3 (200/180/165/100)

As far as tough finishing par four holes goes, the ninth at The Harvester is one of the best. With the lake running the length of the driving area on the left, the tendency would be to cheat right to stay dry. The rough to the right is deep – trust me on that one – but is preferred versus the alternatives of three-from-the-tee or outdriving the usable fairway area straight.

Hole 9: Par 4 (465/430/410/365)

Weis hit the drive of the day on this hole, and was sure he’d have under 100 in from the center of the fairway, only to find out about this little devil of a stream running across the approach area:

Hole 9: Par 4 (465/430/410/365)

The second longest of the par fours on the course, my favorite aspect of the tenth hole at The Harvester is it’s punch bowl green.

Hole 10: Par 4 (470/450/435/305)

With a back pin location, the worst idea here is to play the approach short. The high walls on the back side of this green can be utilized to funnel approaches closer than running the ball up the steep back-to-front green slope.

Hole 10: Par 4 (470/450/435/305)
Hole 10: Par 4 (470/450/435/305)

Mentioned on the course’s website as being Foster’s favorite hole on the course, the eleventh is nicknamed “The Sickle,” and features a subtle right-to-left dogleg in the fairway. Sand traps are set in to the ends of each shot’s target distance, making it important to not out-drive targets.

The eleventh is a beautiful hole that reminds me a lot of several layouts at Sweetgrass in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Hole 11: Par 4 (385/360/340/240)
Hole 11: Par 4 (385/360/340/240)

If eleven reminds me of Sweetgrass, twelve reminds me of another of my favorite golf courses: Wild Rock in the Wisconsin Dells.

The 410 and 390 yards from the back and first in tees, respectively, on the scorecard are a bit deceptive as the fairway runs uphill and to the right. Aiming just right of the oak trees on the left side of the fairway, the approach has to carry a chasm short-right of the green and find a way to stay on the right level.

Hole 12: 410/390/380/260)

The green on twelve is the most undulating one on the entire course at The Harvester, which says a lot. Split in half by a left-to-right sharp ridge, it works heavily from back-to-front.

Hole 12: 410/390/380/260)

With the wind at our back, the thirteenth was a go-for-it type of hole… From 355 yards. We were greeted by a foursome of guys from Connecticut, who were on-site for a stay-and-play at The Harvester and were telling us how excited they were to be there and play it three days in a row. The Harvester is definitely the kind of course that can be played over and over – if only we didn’t have seven and a half hours of driving ahead of us, we would have happily replayed, too.

I hit probably my best drive of the day on thirteen, which had the Connecticut guys going “Who the hell are you people?” As though it happens all the time, I told them “Sometimes it goes where you want it to go.” Twenty or thirty yards out from the green, it was an easy two-putt par.

Hole 13: Par 4 (405/355/335/275)

The outstanding par threes at The Harvester continue on the fourteenth, which has several sets of tee box angles depending on the day. Set up on the left side the day we visited (the other black/blue/white sets of tee boxes are about 100-150 yards right), the tee shot was in to a sharp right-to-left wind and made this 205-yard par three a real brute as we were both concerned about hooking toward the water.

Hole 14: Par 3 (230/205/195/135)
Hole 14: Par 3 (230/205/195/135)
Hole 14: Par 3 (230/205/195/135)

The longest hole on the course, the fifteenth tees up from 650 yards from the championship tees… And is uphill the entire way!

A wide, forgiving fairway is the only thing that makes “Big Hog” even remotely possible to dream of par on. However, the strong wind in our face made that a pipe dream, for sure. Either way, this is a gorgeous, tough golf hole and was a tremendous challenge for both of our games.

Hole 15: Par 5 (650/600/550/480)
 
Hole 15: Par 5 (650/600/550/480)
Hole 15: Par 5 (650/600/550/480)

The beautiful look-back downhill from the green on fifteen:

Hole 15: Par 5 (650/600/550/480)

A 480-yard par four from high atop the same hill shared by the fifteenth green, the sixteenth played with the wind and was almost a reprieve for us after its 600-yard behemoth of a predecessor!

Playing back toward the lake, the sixteenth is heavily downhill and sloped along with its soft dogleg left. Framed by the lake on the horizon, this a gorgeous par four.

Hole 16: Par 4 (530/480/435/350)
Hole 16: Par 4 (530/480/435/350)
Hole 16: Par 4 (530/480/435/350)

The last of the par threes at The Harvester, the seventeenth is an all-flight one-shotter that requires perfect distance and command of ball flight. The lake surrounds three sides of the putting surface, and long is not much better as finding sand will require a downhill shot back toward the water.

Hole 17: Par 3 (180/165/155/110)
Hole 17: Par 3 (180/165/155/110)
I think we both found water on our first tee shots… Brian’s re-tee on 17:
Hole 17: Par 3 (180/165/155/110)
Hole 17: Par 3 (180/165/155/110)

With a fierce wind at our back, Weis and I couldn’t help but contribute a half-dozen or so balls in to the lake on eighteen. We figured the distance was a bit over 300 as the crow flies, but with the huge wind it seemed semi-possible. It turned out not to be, but we did play the rest of the hole pretty well, especially Brian who finished the round with a three-putt par.

Running alongside The Harvester’s largest inland lake, opposite of the tight fairway on nine, the fairway on eighteen is even tighter. A stream flows through two sections of the semi-circular playing surface, and leads to the course’s final green that resides on a beautiful peninsula overlooked by the course’s stately clubhouse.

Hole 18: Par 5 (565/540/525/410)
Hole 18: Par 5 (565/540/525/410)
Hole 18: Par 5 (565/540/525/410)

25 miles northeast of Des Moines, the secluded Harvester location is not exactly the easiest place to get to, but is beyond a doubt worth the travel.

I am actually in the process of trying to find friends to make the trip back to The Prairie Club in Nebraska again this summer, and the golfing experience at The Harvester is one that I would love to try to replicate with a larger group on our way back down.

With 7,365 yards of championship golf, and a slope/rating of 140/76.0, it is no wonder The Harvester is the toughest and highest rated course in the state of Iowa, and consistently ranked as one of the top 100 in the United States.

The use of elevation here is tremendous, and the way Foster set up many of the holes to work on such interesting angles is unparalleled from what I have played. If anything can compare to this aspect that I have seen, it is probably the way Langford and Moreau set up similar lines and angles on courses like Lawsonia and Ozaukee Country Club. The biggest difference, of course, is that Foster’s work brings those angles and need for strategic approach to a new-era look and feel, and one that I am sure will endure for generations.

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Rhodes, IA
Yardage: Black-7365, Blue-6840, White-6430, Red-5180
Slope/Rating: Black-140/76.0, Blue-132/73.1, White-128/70.8, Red-120/68.9
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $129

My First Piece of Artwork: “The Lone Fir” at Chambers Bay

I have been renovating my home office lately, and last week had the thought that I would love to try my hand at drawing or painting – who knows, maybe I can eventually learn how to draw something that I can hang in my own home?

I have never considered myself to be in any way artistically talented, but found my way over to Michael’s in Germantown, and bought all kinds of things for beginners’ drawing and painting. Who knows what I’ll like? Or if  I’ll like it?
The results: I love it! Especially watercolor. I never knew what watercolor was, so I watched a couple YouTube videos for beginners and gave it a shot this weekend.
I finished my first piece yesterday, of the famous 15th hole at Chambers Bay: “The Lone Fir.”
After the Eisenhower Tree at Augusta was lost two years ago, this fir – the only tree on the course at this season’s US Open site – was named the most iconic tree in all of golf.
I present to you my rendition of “The Lone Fir”:

Golf Course Review: Dismal River, Jack Nicklaus Course (NE)

The Dismal River Club, Nicklaus Course Rankings:

Golf Digest: #5 Nebraska
GolfWeek: #168 US modern

Designer: Jack Nicklaus (2006)

Coupled with our trip to The Prairie Club in Valentine, Nebraska, my friend and mentor in the golf writing industry, Brian Weis and I decided to add one more stop to an absolutely legendary golf trip: Dismal River Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska.

The understated entrance to the Dismal River Club

We went out of our way for hours from Valentine to Mullen, which is locally known to be America’s biggest little city. Hooker County is home to just over 700 residents, and we were driving in Mullen for about 45 minutes (30 of which was on one-lane back roads) before arriving at the Dismal River Club.

Dismal River is rated as one of the finest private golf clubs in the country, and the Jack Nicklaus course is considered to be one of the nation’s most challenging and controversial tracks.

The story goes that when Jack was hired to cultivate this stretch of land in the Dismal River Valley of the Sand Hills, he was told to create the most exciting, challenging course imaginable. With out-of-this-world elevation changes, rolling land and pastures, massive sand, prairie grass and yucca-covered dunes and everything else that goes along with the Sand Hills region, the potential was infinite.

Some say the course is challenging for the point of being challenging. The sand trap in the middle of the uphill green on ten, for example, cannot be seen from the tee boxes but would make for an un-welcomed site if hit in to. This trap makes the green complex like a donut. With a back pin location, I was happy to have flown it left.

Interior sand trap on hole 10: Par 3 (190-95; 160)

“Play like a champion today,” the sign says, and that’s about all that can be done if wanting to “Tame” the Nicklaus course at Dismal River.

“Play Like a Champion Today” sign en route to the Nicklaus course

Outside of the tee boxes, there are very few spots at Dismal River that are level, and that goes doubly for the fairways. For example, take a look at the fairway on one:

Hole 1: Par 4 (433-275; 411)
Uphill fairway on hole 1: Par 4 (433-275; 411)

The second hole tee shot is blind, so trust that it will appear atop the hill. The fairway slopes left to right and a little downhill, with the green being well below the level of the playing surface, making the approach rather daunting.

Hole 2: Par 4 (507-343; 409)

Short and left is the best way to hit the second hole green complex:

Hole 2: Par 4 (507-343; 409)

The first par three on the Nicklaus course has a massive sand trap to the left and a dramatic false front that surrounds the front trap.

Hole 3: Par 3 (188-88; 146)

A look back to the tee boxes from the third hole green complex:

Hole 3: Par 3 (188-88; 146)

The first par five on the Nicklaus course, the fourth is also perhaps the property’s signature hole. The website shows the windmill that guards the flight path toward the green area to be the only spot on the Nicklaus course where water can be found.

This authentic windmill adds great character to the fourth hole, personally, although I have heard some people say they cannot believe a man-made structure was placed where it can block the path of an approach. To me: How does that make it any different than a massive tree, other than that it adds a certain element of rustic charm to the hole and property? I love it.

Hole 4: Par 5 (578-416; 524)

A look at the approach area on four, including the rustic windmill:

Hole 4: Par 5 (578-416; 524)

The uphill par five fifth hole is mostly blind over the front greenside bunker. Account for enough change in elevation, or find the tee shot bounding back down the hill to set up another blind approach.

Hole 5: Par 3 (185-113; 141)
Hole 5: Par 3 (185-113; 141)

One of the most exciting holes on the front nine, the sixth is a short par four with one of the trickiest approaches. The fairway narrows approaching the green before rising sharply to a green perched well above the playing surface. This is a really beautiful golf hole.

Hole 6: Par 4 (348-233; 305)
 
Hole 6: Par 4 (348-233; 305)
With an elevated tee shot, the key to seven is staying away from the left-side fairway bunker while still being within range of the green as the fairway doglegs from right to left. At 437 yards from the members tees, this is a strong par four.
Hole 7: Par 4 (475-308; 437)
Cattle roam most property lines at Dismal River – this one was watching us finish the seventh hole:
Hole 7: Par 4 (475-308; 437)

Another short par four, the eighth can actually be reached from the tee – Brian did it. The smart play, of course, is to lay up to the fat side of the fairway and leave a short iron in over the mass of sand traps that divide each side.

Hole 8: Par 4 (333-218; 296)

A more conventional drive [than trying to drive the green off the tee] leaves a straightforward approach over sand.

Hole 8: Par 4 (333-218; 296)

Brian’s tee shot, which was on the green under regulation:

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Hole 8: Par 4 (333-218; 296)

A long par five, the front nine finishes downhill with a true three-shotter. Playing around 600 yards, the drive will run out a little, but hitting this green in two would be a monumental achievement given all the sand surrounding it with the exception of a narrow false front on the right.

Hole 9: Par 5 (618-458; 590)
Hole 9: Par 5 (618-458; 590)
Hole 9: Par 5 (618-458; 590)

One of the most polarizing holes on one of the country’s most controversial golf courses, the aforementioned par three tenth features a mostly blind tee shot to a green that is ringed around a craggy, inlaid sand trap.

Hole 10: Par 3 (190-95; 160)
Hole 10: Par 3 (190-95; 160)

The massive green complex on ten falls sharply downhill half-way through the green, as well as off the front-right.

Hole 10: Par 3 (190-95; 160)

Although controversial from a design perspective, I loved the green’s interior trap… Probably because my tee shot did not find it!

A look from the back of the tenth hole green complex, showing the back half of the green and inland bunker:

Hole 10: Par 3 (190-95; 160)

Visibility from many of the tees on the Nicklaus course at Dismal River can be somewhat limited. Keeping with that theme, the par four eleventh plays uphill and then down and right. The fairway actually bowls inward over the fairway’s horizon, making the tee shot much less challenging than it appears from below.

Hole 11: Par 4 (443-318; 401)
Hole 11: Par 4 (443-318; 401)
Hole 11: Par 4 (443-318; 401)

Twelve is a great par five. With a long fairway that juts in and out of the natural grasslands, staying on the fairway is obviously important, but not always easy. There is very little rough area on the Nicklaus course, which sticks well with Nicklaus’s ongoing efforts to design courses that fit well with the land while promoting the utmost in sustainability (for watering, number of different grass cuts, etc.).

Hole 12: Par 5 (572-428; 536)
Hole 12: Par 5 (572-428; 536)
Hole 12: Par 5 (572-428; 536)

The thirteenth is one of the most straight-forward holes on the course at Dismal River. A modest carry over the prairie grass leads to a fairway that ends before a forced carry over native grasses and sand that front the green complex.

Hole 13: Par 4 (400-267; 379)
Hole 13: Par 4 (400-267; 379)
Hole 13: Par 4 (400-267; 379)

Fourteen is a great driving hole! The fairway runs sharply downhill and right, which is troublesome considering the size of the traps that lie in front of the uphill green (not to mention, at 441 yards, it’s bound to be a long approach over them).

Hole 14: Par 4 (515-298; 441)

A mid-length par three, the fifteenth is tricky given the angle of the green (heavy right-to-left) and the sizable trap that resides short-left.

Hole 15: Par 3 (186-102; 161)

We ran in to some fellow traveling golf nuts on the tee box at sixteen, who let us play through and also asked us to snap a picture of their group – we figured we would have them do the same for us:

Hole 15: Par 3 (186-102; 161)

The sixteenth plays left-to-right with a tee box offset from the right side. I always enjoy these kinds of tee shots as they work well with my fade.

Hole 16: Par 4 (425-330; 383)

The recessed green on sixteen is best run up on:

Hole 16: Par 4 (425-330; 383)

A look at the sharp decline from front to back on the sixteenth green complex:

Hole 16: Par 4 (425-330; 383)

The elevated tee boxes on seventeen play out to the left alongside the dramatic sand hills in the distance.

Hole 17: Par 4 (457-324; 413)
Hole 17: Par 4 (457-324; 413)

Bending right-to-left and downhill, the seventeenth is again approached in a recessed green complex.

Hole 17: Par 4 (457-324; 413)
Hole 17: Par 4 (457-324; 413)

Quite possibly the most beautiful, and also intimidating, tee shot I have seen in my entire life is found at the eighteenth on the Nicklaus course at Dismal River.

The cart ride to the tee boxes takes a few minutes of winding uphill. When the teeing areas finally appear and this amazing vista shown below is unveiled… WOW!

Hole 18: Par 5 (515-351; 505)

The first thing you’ll notice is the elevation: It’s tremendous! The second thing: The vast ocean of sand that lines the left side of the green. The third: The right side is for all intents and purposes dead. Then, “I’m going to have to get the ball somehow on to that fairway, and then up that giant hill in three shots. Really?”

“Jack’s Shack,” a post-round bar and grille, resides above the eighteenth hole to the right. The drive back to the clubhouse is a little lengthy, and who wouldn’t first love to have a drink overlooking this spectacular golf course? It was, unfortunately, closed while we were onsite. We also had a daunting 14-hour drive hanging over our heads after finishing the round, which would put us back in Milwaukee with about an hour left before I would have to be at work.

Hole 18: Par 5 (515-351; 505)

My tee shot on eighteen – “He hauls off and hits one – a big hitter that Lama – straight in to the crevice of a ten thousand foot glacier.” I obviously hit the middle of the desert on the left, which might as well have been the crevice of a ten thousand foot glacier…

Hole 18: Par 5 (515-351; 505)
 
Brian’s tee shot on eighteen:
Hole 18: Par 5 (515-351; 505)
 
Continuing the uphill climb to the green…
Hole 18: Par 5 (515-351; 505)

… And almost there:

Hole 18: Par 5 (515-351; 505)

I consider myself to be blessed for all of the amazing opportunities that I have been allowed during my “Golf writing career.” Dismal River, and our entire Sand Hills experience including The Prairie Club, is among the very best golf I have ever been blessed to play.

If you ever have the chance to play Dismal River, play it. This is a bold statement I am about to make, but the Dismal River golfing experience was WELL worth driving hours in the opposite direction before our trip back!

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Mullen, NE
Yardage: Tips-7368, Members-6638, Forward-4965
Slope/Rating: Tips-149/77.0, Members-139/73.2, Forward-135/69.6
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: Private

Golf Course Review: Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys

Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys Course Rankings:

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

Designer: Pete Dye (1998)

The Meadow Valleys golf course at Blackwolf Run is GolfWeek’s number eight public course in the state of Wisconsin, and Golf Digest’s number 62 overall rated public course in the country.

As part of the Blackwolf Run golf facility, the Meadow Valleys features nine of the eighteen holes played for the “Original Championship” golf course – the course played during the late-nineties’ World Golf Championships at Blackwolf Run (won by Mark McCumber, Greg Norman, and Ernie Els), and then for the US Women’s Opens of 1998 and 2012.

The Original Championship course plays slightly different than the River or Meadow Valleys courses, regardless of the routing. For example, the Original Championship course starts out next to the clubhouse and plays out to the green of the tenth hole on the Meadow Valleys – the one hole on the course that I would personally throw away.

While the River course is the number fourteen rated public course in the country, and the undisputed king of the Blackwolf Run golf complex, the Meadow Valleys is a fantastic course in its own right, and actually includes some of the most beautiful holes included in the championship track – especially the thirteenth through fifteenth on the Meadow Valleys.

The course starts off with a fairly intimidating tee shot, or at least it was from the black tees! With water on the right and long fescue encompassing the left side of the driving area and long, this is a hole where the old “Breakfast ball” might have to be taken.

Hole 1: Par 4 (392/368/349/335/281)
 
The second hole is a bit easier off the tee than the first, and is best approached from the right side. Traps on the left side need to be avoided to have a chance at hitting this highly elevated green in two.
 
Hole 2: Par 4 (402/392/385/375/278)
Hole 2: Par 4 (402/392/385/375/278)
 
A mid-length par three, the third hole does not look like much from the tees, but somehow played very difficult for our group – no one was able to hit the green from 182. The left side is the best line to keep away from the traps and deep waste areas right.
 
Hole 3: Par 3 (182/176/158/142/110)
 
With a massive fairway trap directly in front of the tees, and a split fairway on each side, drivers need to make up their mind before teeing off on four. Hit the huge sand feature and do your best to get out. I thought I could play a long iron out, twice, which resulted in my fourth shot being played from just beyond the sand.
The fairway then runs out and right, with large mounds shrouding a recessed green area.
 
Hole 4: Par 5 (565/539/516/473/428)
Hole 4: Par 5 (565/539/516/473/428)
 
The fifth hole tee shot is best played toward the left tree of the big oaks that front the green complex. The approach area between them is narrow, as is the green, and it slopes heavily from right to left.
 
Hole 5: Par 4 (403/380/362/340/314)
 
The sixth is a long par four. The left side of the driving area does not look appealing off the tee, but the closer the tee shot is to the left side in the fairway, the closer it will be to the green (and the less sand that will have to be taken on to hit it).
Hole 6: Par 4 (475/470/444/406/341)
 
Hole 6: Par 4 (475/470/444/406/341)

The par five seventh plays toward the world’s tallest symbol of freedom: The 400-foot tall American flag at Acuity Insurance. The flag, in fact, can be seen from almost anywhere on both the Meadow Valleys and River golf courses at Blackwolf Run.

The fairway trap that cuts through from the right side of the hole’s playing area is within driving distance, but the most important shot on this hole is the second: Keep it dry.

Hole 7: Par 5 (520/494/488/475/426)
Hole 7: Par 5 (520/494/488/475/426)
 
Here is where I personally started regretting our decision to play the tips on the Meadow Valleys course. With strong winds, we brought our carts around to the eighth hole tee boxes, and looked farther back. Then farther…
The eighth played straight in to the teeth of the wind, with water left and short and a forced carry of 225-plus yards. Good luck. Only one person did not lose a ball on this hole, and I lost two (my second attempt was with driver).
 
Hole 8: Par 3 (240/187/176/160/112)
 
The Meadow Valleys gritted its teeth at us even more on the par four ninth hole: A 485-yard two-shotter with a very demanding tee shot. Keep the ball just right of the left-side treeline, but left of the huge recessed trap that fronts the fairway. Easy.
The second shot takes on the same pond that was played on eight, with the only bailout areas left or short.
 
Hole 9: Par 4 (485/462/432/413/307)
Hole 9: Par 4 (485/462/432/413/307)
 
To me, Pete Dye always has one hole that does not make sense with the course. At the Meadow Valleys course, this is the tenth. If there was a competition for the hardest short par four in the world, my opinion is that this might be it.
Golfers are literally shrouded in a canopy of a tee box with what appears to be a long chute no more than 10-15 yards wide and trees/leaves everywhere, and have to blast their way out without hitting either a draw or a fade (either would hit the treeline and almost inevitably result in a lost ball).
If and when players get out of the forested start to the tenth, the finish is not much easier: Plenty of sand, and a massive drop-off on the left side of the putting surface that falls to the approach area of the opening hole on the Original Championship course: The original 18 holes of Blackwolf Run that are played for PGA/USGA and LPGA tournaments.
With the clubhouse on the horizon, it is at least a beautiful look-back.
 
Hole 10: Par 4 (382/366/330/320/242)
Hole 10: Par 4 (382/366/330/320/242)
 
Getting back out in to open terrain again, the eleventh is a much more friendly hole – a par five of medium range whose biggest hazard is the gigantic (although not the largest on the course) sand trap that makes up the left side of the driving area.
 
Hole 11: Par 5 (522/514/495/487/460)
 
You will notice a large cow-milking barn to the left during the drive to the twelfth hole. This is actually the restroom – an authentic, charming feel that does not go unnoticed.
The twelfth is one of my favorite driving holes on the Meadow Valleys, as everything is out in front of you and downhill. There is plenty of trouble, sure, but something about it looks awesome and drivable. The green falls hard toward the left side, so the approach should be to the middle/right to avoid the falloff left.
 
Hole 12: Par 4 (461/438/407/395/327)

The approach is not as simple or inviting. The left side is dead, and the mounds right and deep rough make for an intimidating approach.

Hole 12: Par 4 (461/438/407/395/327)
 
Thirteen is a very interesting par four. While driver can be hit off the tee, it will have to be played over the left side traps or else drawn down the fairway.
The characteristic of the thirteenth that makes it so memorable is the green complex: Risen high above the playing surface, the volcano-like green complex can be very tough to hit and hold with anything more than wedge.
 
Hole 13: Par 4 (341/335/313/304/233)
Hole 13: Par 4 (341/335/313/304/233)
Hole 13: Par 4 (341/335/313/304/233)
 
Quite possibly the most beautiful golf hole I have ever played, the fourteenth at Meadow Valleys is nicknamed “Nature’s Course.” From the elevated tee boxes, the Sheboygan River looms right, as well as on most days a number of fly fishermen trying to catch salmon and trout.
The tree-lined fairway plays slightly right to left from the tees, then veers sharply downhill and to the right on the approach. Driver can be used, but probably not from the forward tees. Hit it straight and aim for the middle of the fairway, in hopes of catching a charitable downhill run-out.
The green is vast, and is surrounded on three sides by the river, as well as a charming  bridge fashioned from an old flat-bed train car. Anything that misses this huge green is destined to fall dramatically from the playing surface in to the river.
 
Hole 14: Par 4 (423/409/384/376/293)
Hole 14: Par 4 (423/409/384/376/293)
 
The fourteenth is probably best viewed from the forward tees on the fifteenth hole, as seen here:
 
Hole 14: Par 4 (423/409/384/376/293)
 
The walk back to the fifteenth’s black tees was another sobering experience: If eight was intimidating, this was just a joke. To me, it said: “As a 10.0 handicap, I should probably not be playing the tips!”
[“Hash-tag-‘Play-it-forward'”]
With a 230-plus yard carry straight in to the howling wind, this was a nearly impossible shot. Again, all of us lost balls except for Ross, and dropped nearer to the green. This is probably a good time to mention that I was the highest handicap in our group – Jeremy and Ross are both ~ 3-4, Michael is ~ 8, and I am by far the worst player of the group. This is seriously a PGA caliber par three.
The fifteenth is the signature hole on the Meadow Valleys: It is the hole featured on their scorecard and on the course web site’s main page.
 
Hole 15: Par 3 (227/196/189/150/103)

The longest par five on the course, the sixteenth is nicknamed “Rolling Thunder.” The tee shot from the tips requires a whole lot of length to clear the hill that fronts the fairway and landing zone, then fires right green-ward. Stay well right of the small barn off the tee.

Be smart on the second shot to avoid the largest sand trap at all of Blackwolf Run, lingering short-right and along the entire right side of the green.

 
Hole 16: Par 5 (590/544/487/478/415)
Hole 16: Par 5 (590/544/487/478/415)
 
Probably the easiest par three on the Meadow Valleys course, the seventeenth is deemed “Maple Syrup,” named after the massive maple trees that front the green area. Avoid these trees, and enjoy a reasonable distance of 165-182.
A high shot shape is preferred here in order to clear the treeline.
 
Hole 17: Par 3 (182/165/152/138/92)
 
I absolutely love the finish on the Meadow Valleys course! Teeing off beside the Sheboygan River, a long driver can only be played if staying well left of the river crossing. The second shot is the true beauty of this finishing hole, as the longer the tee shot is, the shorter the distance to carry the river will be.
Nicknamed “Salmon Trap,” the eighteenth actually has two greens: One for the ladies (that does not cross the river), and a colossal shared double-green with the eighteenth on the River course for the men.
 
Hole 18: Par 4 (458/395/383/373/303)
Hole 18: Par 4 (458/395/383/373/303)
Hole 18: Par 4 (458/395/383/373/303)
Hole 18: Par 4 (458/395/383/373/303)
Hole 18: Par 4 (458/395/383/373/303)
 

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Kohler, WI
Yardage: Black-7165, Blue-6735, White-6236, Red-5065
Slope/Rating: Black-144/74.6, Blue-138/72.6, White-132/70.1, Red-120/66.1
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $220 (including cart)

Golf Course Review: Whistling Straits, Straits Course

Whistling Straits, Straits Course Rankings:

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

Designer: Pete Dye (1997)

Currently rated the number two public golf course in the United States, and number four overall behind just Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes and Friar’s Head, the Straits course at Whistling Straits has amassed a big-time resume in a very short period of time.

As one of the truly elite golfing destinations in the world, the Straits has hosted the 2004 PGA Championship, 2007 US Senior Open, 2010 PGA Championship, next year’s PGA Championship, and the much-anticipated 2020 Ryder Cup.

I remember sitting in the rough off of the 16th fairway with my friends Mike and Jason for the final round of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, thinking to myself, “I have got to play this course sometime,” and “This place looks absolutely impossible.”

It was in that rough that I almost had my head taken off by Chris DiMarco’s errant tee shot on the 16th (I literally heard it whiz by my head). He led the tournament at that time, and the TV cameras and crowds swarmed our area. Being one year out of college, I was hung over on that Sunday, and it was warm and I’m sure I thought it was an inconvenience to move out of the way so the impending doom that was about to occur next to us could take place: DiMarco’s next swing duck-hooked toward Lake Michigan, along with his hopes for a PGA Championship and $6.25 million. Vijay Singh would go on to win the PGA Championship in a playoff against DiMarco and Justin Leonard that year.

The 2010 PGA Championship delivered even more excitement when Martin Kaymer won his first major championship in a three-hole playoff over Bubba Watson. Maybe the most memorable moment of the 2010 tournament, though, involved Dustin Johnson, who missed taking part in that playoff after grounding his club on the 18th hole in one of the 967 bunkers on the Straits course. This “Bunker” was little more than a patch of dirt that had been trampled over for days by tournament attendees. Under a Local Rule that was instituted for the event (and will stay in place for the 2015 PGA Championship), Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty and therefore was disqualified from the playoff.

Of course, big tournaments are nothing new to Whistling Straits or to Kohler golf courses, in general, including:

  • 1995 Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf, US Championship at Blackwolf Run, River course (Winner: Mark McCumber)
  • 1996 Andersen Consulting WCG-US, River (Greg Norman)
  • 1997 Andersen Consulting WCG-US, River (Ernie Els)
  • 1998 US Women’s Open, River (Se Ri Pak)
  • 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Straits course (Vijay Singh)
  • 2007 US Senior Open, Straits (Brad Bryant)
  • 2010 PGA Championship, Straits (Martin Kaymer)
  • 2012 US Women’s Open, River (Na Yeon Choi)
  • 2015 PGA Championship, Straits
  • 2020 Ryder Cup, Straits

The Straits course delivers world-class excitement in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world for a championship golf course: On a two-mile stretch of coast on Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

Designed to have the look and feel of the legendary links courses of Scotland and Ireland, the Straits is a fine fescue facility from tee to green, with great use of elevation and sand and wasteland all around. A stream runs through parts of the course, and several inland ponds make its one inland par five, aptly nicknamed “Snake,” one of the toughest holes on the course.

Over 800,000 cubic yards of local sand and dirt were moved in the construction of the course, transitioning it from what was in the 1950’s “Camp Haven” (an anti-aircraft training facility complete with missile silos and an airfield) in to the present day pinnacle of the Kohler golf mecca.

While tons of dirt were moved to create the terrain, it could not look and feel more natural.

From the tees, fairways look miniscule and impossible to hit. They are typically quite wide, though, and the fine fescue rolls out well. With tips around 7,800 yards, you will hear some people say it plays longer because of the ever-present winds off the lake. Meanwhile, others say it plays shorter because of the roll-outs. It depends on the day and wind conditions, of course, but I actually lean toward it playing slightly shorter.

My foursome played the course from 7,142 yards, and none of us found the distance to be overwhelming. Our second group played it from the tips at 7,790, and said the same, although only two of them broke 90.

Me, Jeff, Mark, Kyle and Jason on the 7th tee

We had a rather calm day, which is not normal for the Straits. With the wind howling, I can imagine it would play considerably longer.

The Straits course starts off on both one and ten very similarly to the way the Irish starts: Both heading out from the clubhouse on one, with the lake on the horizon. The tenth on each course is sharply uphill toward the lake, with fairways running right to left.

One is a fairly simple par four, with a narrow looking fairway that leans slightly left. The green, like most on the course, is flanked by deep sand traps and mounding that make precise points of entry a must.

Hole 1: Par 4 (493/405/370/361/325)
Hole 1: Par 4 (493/405/370/361/325)

Two is a fantastic par five, measuring 597 from the tips and 533 from the blues. With the lake running parallel to the fairway, it is an intimidating tee shot that actually has much more room for error than it looks from the tees. Keeping the ball left of the largest mound right of the fairway should ensure a clear look at the second shot, which can be laid up well right of the green to stay safe. The infinity look of the green against the lake is beautiful.

Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)
Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)
Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)

The first par three on the Straits course, the third is named simply “O’ man.” You wouldn’t believe it from seeing the following picture, but this might be the easiest par three on the course – there are probably more spots to miss-hit to than on any others.

Hole 3: Par 3 (188/180/166/154/111)

The second of six par fours measuring over 400 yards from the blue tees, the fourth continues a wonderful trek along Lake Michigan’s shoreline to the southernmost point of the Straits course, ending uphill with wasteland and sand traps seemingly everywhere, and with the lake on the left. The large trap on the hillside beyond the green that looks like the state of Texas is the best aiming point off the tee.

Hole 4: Par 4 (494/451/414/404/354)

The fifth is the only hole on the Straits course that I don’t completely love. Bringing in to play the course’s two ponds, “Snake” is a tough par five with a ton of bite, meandering inland with a double-dogleg around water and finishing on a small point.

The reason I say I don’t love it is that it has a very different feel and character from the rest of the course. To me, it doesn’t fit. It certainly does require players’ attention on each swing to avoid putting up big numbers, though.

Hole 5: Par 5 (603/563/543/527/459)
Hole 5: Par 5 (603/563/543/527/459)

The greatest feature of the sixth hole is the fly zone above the approach. The green is heavily raised, and falls off in all directions but left. The front-left sand trap that my friend Kyle found, especially, can be brutal.

Drive the left side of the fairway and have a good look at the green, but from anywhere else it’s pretty much guesswork with a blind approach.

Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)
Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)
Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)

Kyle posted a similar picture to Facebook with one word of commentary: “#screwed.” Yup.

Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)

The second par three on the course, and the second longest, the seventh is a wonderful one-shotter nicknamed “Shipwreck.” With the lake enveloping the right side of the hole, the smart play is to the front-left of the green.

Hole 7: Par 3 (221/205/185/172/132)

Robert getting us a distance of 205 on the seventh:

Hole 7: Par 3 (221/205/185/172/132)

The eighth is a tough driving hole, with sand traps lining the left side of the fairway and wasteland and side-ward lies inviting drivers to hit right. Find the fairway, and aim to lay up to the front-left of the green to roll on safely.

Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)

Kyle hitting another bomb in the fairway:

Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)
Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)

The front nine finishes with a very cool downhill par four, nicknamed “Down and Dirty.” The driving area is not overly difficult to stay within, but the rough is hellish. I just missed the fairway, for example, and was buried deep in the grass. My next shot then pulled the club face closed and fired in to the sand, underneath the back lip. That barely got out in to the deepest fescue I’d ever seen, and from there I was simply lucky to get the ball 10 yards to the right back in to the fairway.

This is pretty common for the Straits course: Keep the ball moving in front of you; when it starts heading off to the sides, chances are that hole will finish with a crooked number.

Hole 9: Par 4 (442/412/384/371/347)
Hole 9: Par 4 (442/412/384/371/347)

The back nine starts with a tough driving hole: Like on the tenth at the Irish course at Whistling Straits, it is uphill and leaning left. A draw is definitely preferred, if you can play it.

Hole 10 on the Irish course: Par 4

Long hitters are rewarded heavily on this hole, as anything beneath the huge swell in the fairway is mostly blind to the green, while anything above it has a great look.

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

Jeff and Kyle’s tee shots did not make it to the crest of the hill:

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

My tee shot in green light position above the crest:

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

To me, the eleventh might be the hardest overall hole on the Straits. A viciously long par five, the layup areas are fraught with hazards and the green area is uphill and challenging to hold.

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

When it comes to adding charm and character to a golf course, can you imagine any better way than to populate it with the Scottish blackheaded sheep that populate the courses the Straits was built to mirror? Indigenous to Scotland, flocks roam freely on the Straits and Irish courses, and make for a very cool experience when they visit your group.

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Kyle putting with a herd of Scottish blackheaded sheep in the background:

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Greg, Michael, Ross and Dan playing up on eleven:

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Maybe my favorite par three at the Straits is one very rarely talked about: The twelfth. This green is massive from front-left to back-right, allowing for all kinds of variations on length and pin placements.

Let’s hope for a back-right shore-hugging Sunday pin next year!

Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)
Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)

Michael hitting to the twelfth green from the black tee boxes (on the horizon, taken from near the thirteenth hole tee boxes):

Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)

Appropriately named “Cliff Hanger,” the thirteenth is a fantastic par four that directly abuts the shoreline. The green is below the fairway, begging players to run their approach shots on.

Hole 13: Par 4 (402/389/364/336/319)
Hole 13: Par 4 (402/389/364/336/319)

The easiest non-par three on the course, fourteen comes back inland with a much simpler yardage of 360 from the blue tees. A dogleg left par four, make sure to make par here before getting to a much longer fifteenth!

Hole 14: Par 4 (396/360/346/332/271)

Hopefully you enjoyed the wedge in on fourteen, because unless it’s your third or fourth shot, that experience will not be repeated on fifteen!

When the PGA Championship was last played on the Straits course, the fifteenth was at the time the longest par four ever played in a major championship. At 503 yards from the black tees, that makes sense.

I hit driver to the left side of the fairway during our round, followed by a flushed three-hybrid that luckily rolled to about five feet from the pin, and made it. Our caddies, Mark and Robert, said it was the first birdie they’ve seen on that hole this season.

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)
Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)

Probably the coolest picture taken of the day: Jason, Robert, Kyle and Jeff approaching the fifteenth green and a crossing group of Scottish blackheaded sheep:

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)
Scottish blackheaded sheep herd passing us on 15

My leave from 237 out is just left of Jeff’s putt – thankfully it went in! #GolfFlow

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)

Heading back to the lake, sixteen is a very famous hole on the Straits course. It has always proved to be a pivotal hole in major championships, including for Chris DiMarco when his ball nearly decapitated me in 2004.

As you can see from the spots that my shots found during our round, there are plenty of bad places to be found on the sixteenth (several of my lies are shown), but there are not many ways to lose a ball unless it is in deep fescue.

The sixteenth, known as “Endless Bite,” forges along the Lake Michigan coastline, and takes on a very difficult green complex for professionals going for it in two.

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)
Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

My tee shot:

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

… And the next shot…

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

The legend of the seventeenth goes like this: At every course that Pete Dye designs, he allows his wife, Alice, to design one par three. This was the seventeenth for the Straits course, and she must have been angry with him that day!

The seventeenth, quite possibly the signature hole on the Straits course and one of the most beloved par threes in the state of Wisconsin, is a brutally long par three with very few spots to miss. The lake lingers left of the playing area, and huge mounds front the right entrance and entire right side of the putting surface.

The misses here are short and/or long-right, as the mounds right of the green can help carom slightly wayward shots toward the putting surface.

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)
 
Jason’s tee shot on seventeen:
Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)

Kyle’s tee shot on seventeen:

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)
Jeff’s tee shot on seventeen:
Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)

The finishing hole on the Straits could very well be one of the toughest holes in the world. Par on this 520/487-yard behemoth, which is set to be four, should be considered a monumental task, but will I’m sure be required on Sunday of the 2015 PGA Championship for whoever hopes to take home the Wanamaker Trophy.

Nicknamed “Dyeabolical,” after Pete Dye, of course, the eighteenth is 520 yards from the black tees, which are located behind and well below the blues, shown here:

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

The tee shot from the blue tees on eighteen:

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

The long approach from anywhere on the upper-right fairway is best targeted right of the clubhouse in the distance. Anything left of that is likely to find the stream or wasteland (better shown in the second and third pictures below):

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

Michael, Greg (great hat wave!), Ross and Dan following a “Triumphant round” playing the tips:

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

[From my original review of the Straits Course, which I decided to wait out on until I had a chance to play it during better conditions:

The weather was supposed to be amazing last Thursday, May 8. The sun was shining and temperatures reached the low-to-mid 80’s in Menomonee Falls, where I live, and my hope was that it would be similar lake-side by Sheboygan. I checked the extended forecast every day for weeks leading up to our round, and it looked like we were going to luck out.

As my friend, Norm, and I neared the course, we started noticing huge swarms of gnats above the back roads that lead to the Kohler property, making us nervous that even though we got a good day we would be hit hard with another natural impediment: Bugs.

The bugs were almost nonexistent on the course, but the weather was far from perfect. While three out of the four in our group wore shorts, the caddies wore windbreakers, gloves and winter hats. They must have thought we were nuts on this 50-degree day lake-side.]

As a volunteer for next year’s 2015 PGA Championship at the Straits, I did get the opportunity to play this legendary course again, on August 10, 2014 – exactly one year from the opening round of the 2015 PGA Championship.

The Straits was in nothing less than brilliant condition, and certainly provided a far better golfing experience.

I was very impressed with the Straits’ caddy experience during our May round, but felt a little ripped off even though I was paying about half of what it would normally cost to play the course during regular season. Considering the shape the course was in, it almost shouldn’t have even been played on in May. I am very happy we were able to replay it at a reduced rate, as I can see now how tremendous of a golf course Whistling Straits truly is.

If you are curious about volunteering for the 2015 tournament: When you sign up you are also allowed heavily discounted tee times, which include $150 for the Straits course (plus caddy for $60/player and tip), $100 for the River course at Blackwolf Run (including cart), and $80 apiece for the Irish and Meadow Valleys courses (both include cart). All of these are tremendous deals.

It does cost around $200 to register as a volunteer, but includes the week’s access, all the equipment/apparel needed, and access to these discounted greens fees for up to two foursomes during specific time frames leading up to August of next year. Unfortunately, this year’s time frame did end this past weekend (we played the Straits on the last day of the deal, and the other three during previous weekends).

While on-site, I certainly recommend also checking out the Straits’ sister course, the Irish, which runs alongside and inland of the Straits track. If you have not had a chance to check out my review on the Irish yet, please do so here:


Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Haven, WI
Yardage: Black-7790, Blue-7142, Green-6663, White-6360, Red-5564
Slope/Rating: Black-152/77.2, Blue-145/74.2, Green-141/71.9, White-137/70.4, Red-129/66.4
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $370 (plus $60 for caddy and $40 minimum recommended tip)