The River at Blackwolf Run
The Epitome of Fall in Wisconsin
By Paul Seifert
A true Pete Dye masterpiece, the River at Blackwolf Run is unanimously the second rated course in Wisconsin, and the 47th rated modern golf course in the United States.
Host to the 1998 and 2012 US Women's Opens, Blackwolf Run is perhaps best known for the '98 Open won by Se Ri Pak, whose victory at the Original Championship course (comprised of the original nine holes at Blackwolf Run - nine apiece from the River and Meadow Valleys courses) brought women's golf to a whole new level, and resulted in an insurgence of professional golfers from South Korea and other Asian countries. At the time, Pak was the only South Korean golfer on tour. In 2012, she is one of 45. And television sales to South Korea are the number one source of revenue for the LPGA.
While Pak put Blackwolf Run on the international map, the course was introduced to rave reviews in 1988, being named the number one new course in the United States.
A product of the American Club Resort - owned by Kohler Company - and one of just 36 resorts worldwide to be designated both Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond, the River features beautifully manicured memorial bentgrass fairways and tees, Kentucky bluegrass and fescue rough, and the same seed of A4 bentgrass found on the greens at Augusta.
These greens are the most formidable of many challenges facing golfers at the River. Currently rolling at an eleven and a half on the stimp meter, they were sped up to a blistering fourteen for the Women's Open this past July. Pete Dye's signature parkland course features not only lightning fast greens, but large and dramatically undulating putting surfaces that roll true but are about as difficult to read as a mid-nineteenth century Dickens novel.
There are few subtly breaking putts on the River Course. The slopes are extreme, and putting up and downhill proved to take more touch than I had brought to the course. The most disappointing of these situations was on the par five eighth hole - after finding the front of the green in two, I was excited to have a 40-foot uphill putt, only to four-putt it for bogey.
This weekend was the best possible time to play the River course: The leaves on the trees are in bright shades of yellow, orange and red; the wind was minimal, peaking around eight miles per hour, and the mid-to-upper sixties temperatures were ideal for golf. As Pete Dye says on the opening page of the yardage guide: "There could not be a better natural setting for golf."
Beautiful views of the Sheboygan River come early and often. The opening hole is lined on the left by this substantial river, while a twenty-foot hike through the brush behind the second hole championship tee boxes yields a view of a dammed waterfall that is used unsuccessfully by the salmon to continue their adventure upstream.
Fly fishermen are seen frequently in the shallows of the Sheboygan River, most notably at the thirteenth on the River, and fourteenth on the Meadow Valleys. Fly fishing seems unnecessary at this time of year, as a large net seems like it would work just as well. Then again, golfers don't walk their ball to where they would want it to be and drop it there, only to then walk it to the next spot they would like to be at until they drop it by hand in to the cup. Similarly, fly fishing is a much more sporting challenge.
The salmon are only part of the wildlife found at the River. Three of its most renowned natural population include the two stately swans normally found on Swan Lake, and the red fox that traverses the fairways and clubhouse area surrounding the fourteenth hole. I am told the swans are currently relocated to the Meadow Valleys since the US Women's Open, while the red fox is aging quickly and often seems a bit out of sorts, but still visits the clubhouse area on occasion.
I was disappointed in July to attend the US Women's Open and not see these majestic swans, especially since I told readers in my listing of the top ten par three holes in the state that I believed they would be featured predominantly prior to commercial breaks. They really are amazing to see: When golfers are on the tee boxes, they swim near the tee boxes; when they go to the green, they swim near the green. They seem to be genuine golf enthusiasts. Fortunately, there is plenty of great golf to be found on the Meadow Valleys, too.
A defining characteristic of Pete Dye's courses is his way of forcing golfers to use every club in their bag, and every shape of shot. I have never seen this be more evident than it is at the River. Holes like nine, thirteen and seventeen oblige players to draw their tee shots from right to left - a skill that remains unrefined in my game. Towering trees on the ninth and twelfth leave little opportunity for other shot shapes, although they can be flown with a long and lofted tee shot on nine. Twelve is just next to impossible.
At 7,404 yards from the championship tees (6,865 from the blues, 6,507 from the greens that we played, 6,110 from the whites, and 5,115 from the reds), the River course is long, too. In fact, the Original Championship course at Blackwolf Run was set up for the 2012 US Women's Open at 6,954 yards - the longest course ever played at sea level in the 60-year history of the event. The Andersen Consulting World Championships of Golf played in the mid-nineties played the Original Championship course at a considerably longer distance. As an aside, that event was last won here by my favorite PGA Tour golfer, Ernie Els, in 1997. But, I digress.
One of the most frequent discussions about the River is how it compares to the Straits course at Whistling Straits. While the Straits' splendor revolves primarily around Lake Michigan and the course's rugged terrain, Blackwolf Run's stunning beauty is found in the forests, river and wildlife that abounds. That being said, I have only seen parts of the Straits while there for PGA Championship events and playing the Irish course. I will be playing it next weekend, though, and presume that I should be better educated on all of the differences between the two then.
From what I have seen so far, the two courses are alike only in their course architect (Pete Dye) and owning entity (Kohler Company), their stellar international reputations and high standards for immaculate course conditions. Oh, and both are really expensive!
The River course is featured on both sides of the entranceway in to Blackwolf Run, and Swan Lake resides just outside the entrance to the clubhouse. The vines encumbering the rock walls that terrace this clear inland lake are now bright red and provide a pleasing contrast against the white stone, blue water and green grasses and foliage. The clubhouse has old-world log cabin charm. The detail that goes in to Blackwolf Run makes it a truly special golf experience.
Left of Swan Lake from the clubhouse is Blackwolf Run's practice facility, which features natural grass hitting stations and a chipping green with fairway approach areas and a deep sand trap. Even the chipping green rolls fast. It can be used accurately for putting, although there are obviously dents on the surface. The putting practice green is on the opposite side of Swan Lake and allows for a smoother warm-up experience.
On the way to the first hole of the River course you will pass by a very seldom used tee box. This is the tee box used for the first hole of the Original Championship course, and when used sets up one of the most demanding par four holes I have ever played. Outside of tournament times, though, it is unused and leads to the green of the ninth hole of the Meadow Valleys.
The first hole of the River course runs adjacent to the Sheboygan River on the left, and is heavily mounded on the right. The tall fescue that lines the rough areas envelops anything errant - balls hit into it should not even be searched for. This opening hole is a medium-length par five from the green tees, at 526 yards, and can be hit in two with a couple of long shots. The green area is bunkered on the left and runs toward the river.
Three played as one of the most challenging holes on the course during July's Women's Open. A par four of about 400 yards, the opening to the right-side of the fairway seemingly drops off the face of the earth to a deep sand trap prior to the large tree found in that direction. I witnessed several women hitting this awful location while there for the final round, although at 185 yards from the green tees it did not come in to play for my friend, Mitch, or me. The fairway runs left to right, and tee shots favoring the right side will leave the shortest approach. A 150-yard long sand trap lines the right side of the hole, though, and should be avoided at all costs.
Crossing the driveway of Blackwolf Run after the third hole brings in to view the magnificent Swan Lake and the fourth and fourteenth holes. Four is one of the most harrowing par three tee shots found anywhere: Water runs the entire right side of the hole, and the green and approach area are narrow and abut the lake. It also doesn't help that this hole is a healthy 185 yards from the green tees, but at least it's not the 219 from the blacks. This was the most popular hole watched at this year's Women's Open.
While four is a beautiful par three, five is a magnificent par four. This is the first hole played on the River course that is not part of the Original Championship track - the Original Championship skips five through thirteen and instead rounds Swan Lake to fourteen as its fift. Three times leading up to our round I was told about the tee shot on five, and it did not fail to impress! With highly elevated tee boxes, five is nicknamed "Made in Heaven." Then again, I should have known what was coming, considering I have played this hole many times on Tiger Woods Golf for Playstation 3.
The drive on five is to a wide fairway that is bordered long and left, as well as on the right side by a large sand trap, and right of that trap by the Sheboygan River. The tee shot is relatively simple on this hole. The approach, however, is not. High uphill, the approach plays to a plateau that is cut out of the tree line and drops straight down twenty feet on the right side. This drop is reminiscent of the right side of the green on the "Boxcar Hole" at Lawsonia's Links course, if that helps you picture it better.
The eighth hole on the River course is nicknamed "Hell's Gate." With an elevated tee shot downhill and over trees, the fairway can handle a drive as long as 275 yards. Hit a gentle cut to make this allowable distance longer, but beware the sand traps and tall fescue that are found long. The fairway splits at around 150 yards out, and results in a higher and lower level. The higher level is narrow and is bordered by a drop-off to the river, while the lower level is less intimidating but leads to sand traps and a significantly uphill wedge shot.
If the fairway is hit off the tee, the eighth is very reachable in two. My drive to the rough in front of the middle fairway bunker, for example, left just a five-iron in. While excited about the prospects of having a [long] eagle putt, the green proved to be unyielding in its 32-yard long journey uphill.
Nine is the River course's exemplary risk/reward hole. A short par four, the green can be reached off the tee with a drive of 305 yards. The approach area is littered with deep bunkers, though, and the river borders the entire right side. Tall trees protect against straight drives, making the smart shot a long iron left of them. I lucked out with a four-hybrid over these trees, finding the fairway prior to the central pot bunker and an approach of just 85 yards in. I tried to get a little too cute with the wedge, though, and shaved under the ball en route to yet another five. With a front-right pin location, the green slopes heavily from front to back, and towards the river.
After just one par three on the front nine, the back begins with the first of three on the way in. A sizable marsh makes up the majority of the right side of the fly zone, and is bunkered beyond and to the left. Sand traps are found short, left, long and right of the green, making this long par three a much bigger challenge than it appears from the tees.
While it looks fairly elementary from the tee boxes, the eleventh hole on the River is anything but. The views from the second and third shots are picturesque, to say the least, while the distances over the Sheboygan River are deceivingly long. This is a phenomenal, and phenomenally difficult, par five hole.
Do yourself a favor and do not look at the hole flyover prior to teeing off. The optimal tee shot should be played to the left side of the fairway, although a sand trap is found left 260 yards out. The river runs the full distance of the right side, and narrows the fairway between it and the reservoir found to the left at about 300 yards. The second shot will bring the river in to the equation no matter where the tee shot is played to, and the distance over the river proved to be quite difficult to judge. What I thought was a six-iron over, for example, turned out to be 236 yards. Take a lot more club than originally expected to attack this approach over water.
To me, the eleventh is the most scenic hole on the River course, which is an awfully bold statement. I am told that it is Herb Kohler's favorite, as well.
Thirteen is possibly the hardest par three I have ever played. At 192 yards from the green tees, the wind played toward the Sheboygan River and left no room for error. The hole's layout and the tall timbers for which the hole is named made a right-to-left shot necessary, as the trees are too tall and far away to carry with a long iron. I was warned of that earlier by the starter, Tim, but found out for myself when I had very little confidence in my draw. Adding to the degree of difficulty was a fly fisherman in the shallows of the river, directly in line with my tee shot and the green.
Heading back to Swan Lake, the fourteenth hole at the River plays over the pond and to a narrow fairway that is heavily mounded at 231 yards from the green tees. At 304 yards, the green is drivable, but would require almost 300 yards of carry. Mitch almost made it, but came up about ten yards short. The middle of the green slopes heavily upward and left, making a back pin location challenging to reach.
Fifteen is aptly named "The Sand Pit." One of the largest sand traps outside of the Meadow Valleys course awaits anything hit left under 250 yards, while another trap is found on the right at 228. The green is found in a valley twenty feet below the fairway, and is fronted by another, almost as deep greenside bunker that lies far beneath the putting surface.
"Unter der Linden," or under the Linden, is the moniker for the sixteenth hole on the River course. A left-to-right tee shot can be played long, and will roll downhill and toward the right side of the fairway. The second shot needs to be strategic to allow for an approach either to the left, over, or to the right of the statuesque Linden tree that guards the green from easy approaches. The left side of the green plays all the way up to a wall that drops fifteen feet straight down to the river.
At the US Women's Open, I was watching the action on the par three seventeenth when Lexi Thompson hit a tee shot to the upper-right side fringe. Her playing partner then hit the water, forcing her to use the drop zone, which was on the right side of the tee box - not much relief, huh? Lexi walked over by me, and I said "Nice shot, Lexi." She turned around and looked me in the eyes, smiled and said thank you, to which I replied, "You're, uh, um, you're welcome, Lexi." Then I felt like a creepy old guy.
After playing this hole, though, I can say with certainty that her shot was awfully impressive! Sure, it looks great from the tee, but the seventeenth forces another drawn tee shot that is very difficult to hold. Right of the green is playable, although polluted with deep swales that will require a flop shot to get to the green. The back of the green drops off to a narrow playable area that is six feet below the green's surface, and the left side or short leads to lost balls in the pond that makes up the entire approach zone of this scenic par three.
Eighteen is a gorgeous finishing hole. During tournament play, the sand area that runs almost 400 yards of the fairway on the left side is typically flooded to more heavily penalize bad tee shots. As it is for normal play, though, this trap is penalizing enough as getting out can be a tough task. This final fairway plays right to left to the base of the clubhouse, and shares an incredibly long green that is used for the eighteenths on both the River and Meadow Valleys. The fairway will run on to the green from the right side, but be mindful to not over-hit the approach as anything hit too long can leave putts as long as one hundred feet back.
With a mind-boggling slope of 151 and course rating of 76.2, the River at Blackwolf Run is one of the most challenging, and beautiful golf courses I have ever played.
If you have the money and are looking for the most spectacular golfing experience possible during the Wisconsin Fall season, I highly recommend booking a tee time at the River. A course made famous by the pros who have walked it for decades, the River provides a combination of natural splendor with pristine course conditions that is unrivaled in our great state.
Revised: 10/03/2012 - Article Viewed 36,783 Times
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About: Paul Seifert
Paul Seifert is an often-proclaimed golf addict, and publisher of WiscoSportsAddict, a blog started in August, 2011, as a forum dedicated to reviewing courses and sharing the best of the best in the state with other avid Wisconsin golfers.
Having started playing in Hartland-area leagues at the age of 12, Paul is a classic over-thinker who averages between 80 and 120 rounds per year, and despite carrying a 13-handicap, is committed to the ongoing improvement of his game.
A health care equipment salesman by day, Paul does not claim to be an expert golfer, but is certainly an expert golf enthusiast who loves the sport and enjoys the writing, research, statistics and photography that make for interesting golf conversation.
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