Sort of like those famous potato chips, you can’t eat just one. This is the second of two pieces that The Scrambler turned in five years ago, on the occasion of our first trip to Wisconsin.
Day 2 – After a relaxing afternoon at the American Club followed by a refreshing workout at the SportsCore Complex, Mo’ Golf, the Travellin’ Duff and The Scrambler sat back and reflected on our preliminary Kohler experiences. We were all still in awe of the engineering marvel that was the Irish Course, and had been enjoying the many comforting amenities available to us. Even though I stumbled down the last few holes at the Irish, optimism abounded for our Sunday marathon at Blackwolf Run. The weather forecast was clear of any rain and we were headed to “easier” courses. In contrast to the rugged terrain of the Whistling Straits complex, all the promotional photos of Blackwolf Run portrayed a pastoral and serene setting, with the bright Blue Sheboygan River beautifully framing green fairways, inviting us for a relaxing day.
Sunday morning dawned and the weather was as promised, comfortable enough for shorts at 7:00 am. As we stepped out onto the Clubhouse porch, we overlooked the vistas of the closing holes. I could have never predicted how the serenity of that morning would belie the turbulent 36 holes ahead.
Who is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross?
In Jeopardy!, this would be the correct question to the answer, “The doctor who developed the Five-Stage Grief Model.” With some minor variations from other Grief Models, the five stages one passes through are Shock/Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. On this Sunday, I grieved for the loss of a golf swing, and further, the lost dream of a serene and peaceful day of Golf at Blackwolf Run (don’t despair – there’s a happy ending).
Shock / Denial
The day featured many instances of shock, where I refused to believe this was happening to us. Where did my beautiful Blue Sheboygan go? Hard rains had pummeled Kohler Saturday night, and the peaceful flowing river had transformed into an angry brown raging waterway. The comfortable warmth at 7:00 am gave way to oppressive 90+ degree temperatures, compounded by the moisture from the night’s storms, making for a sweltering journey. The 3+ club winds rolled in after the first 13 holes, complicating club selection even further.
The shocking weather conditions could have all been endured, except for the sudden loss of rhythm and accuracy. An occasional pulled driver is not unusual, but when wedges and 9-irons started missing their targets by 30+ yards, I couldn’t believe that my swing had decided to take yet another unscheduled vacation day.
In this stage, Anger is usually distributed to many undeserving recipients, in an attempt to cope with the loss. I borrowed a page from many PGA players, placing Pete Dye’s designs in the cross-hairs. “I hope this jerk gets some real pleasure from torturing people!” “Pete Dye fell in love with the Cape Hole here – he really needs to mix it up a little.” (An astute observation given my extensive years of architectural experience – I’m sure if Pete reads this, he’ll be sure to call for my input). “How is it possible to play 18 holes with 30 mph winds, and never play downwind?!” Or even the blasphemous “I don’t see what’s so great about this course!”
I never cursed the stupidity of the sport – there are just some things you’re not allowed to do. Even in the darkest times, I always know that the difficulty is what makes Golf’s successes that much sweeter. But those successes seemed so far away that Sunday.
I really didn’t have much to offer as a bargaining chip. In the midst of my despair, I offered to the Golf Gods that I’d be willing to sacrifice 20-30 yards of distance if I could only have better control. I promised to swing much slower if it would only help. But the Golf Gods could see through my empty offer.
Yes, there was a perceptible funk in the Scrambler’s aura. Shortness of written or spoken words is not something I’m often accused of. After I stewed in silence for several minutes, Mo’ Golf told the Duff, “Uh-oh, we’ve lost him.” My depression was not so much aimed at my poor Sunday play, but the fear that I would completely hack up my rare opportunity to play the Straits Course Monday.
There’s no shame in getting your butt kicked by a Pete Dye design – the man has been vexing professionals for years. And there’s certainly no shame in having an off-day with your swing. However, the combination of the two, coupled with extreme weather conditions can lead to a catastrophic experience, a seeming universe away from the serene and peaceful day envisioned.
However, the healing process always seems to start with a change in perspective and bit of reflection. One dramatic stretch of holes near the end of the day initiated the transition, as the great beauty and design separated the Scrambler from his problems. The 12th through 15th holes on the Meadow Valleys course is one of the more memorable stretches you will find anywhere, and forces you to appreciate the greatness of the game and this course.
It also put my struggles into a proper perspective. How many other people get to spend three days playing 4 world-class golf courses with their friends? We faced the challenges together, encouraging each other and rejoicing in shared successes.
Sure, some lingering depression hovered even after that stretch, but the transformative process had started. Now thoroughly separated from the negative associations with a bad swing day, the design of Blackwolf Run can be contemplated and appreciated as yet another example of Pete Dye’s genius.
You may remember that Blackwolf Run hosted the 1998 US Women’s Open, highlighted by the duel between young stars Se Ri Pak and Jenny Chuasiriporn. The Championship course was actually a composite of the River Course (9 holes) and Meadow Valleys Course (8 holes), plus one “hybrid” hole played cross country from the Clubhouse over to the Meadow Valleys 10th green.
Unlike the Whistling Straits complex, where both courses have the same Irish Coastal feel, the two designs at Blackwolf Run vary greatly, moving from a River Woodland to a sweeping and undulating landscape. All the courses are a testament to Dye’s ability to create unique designs that blend with a variety of canvases.
Perhaps the one word most associated with the River Course design is “options.” The River course is not overly long, topping out at less than 7,000 yards, and only 6,600 yards from the Blue tees. There are seven par fours playing less than 400 yards, including four under 350 yards. With this type of design, Driver is not the automatic tee-shot of choice, and the use of long-irons, hybrids, or fairway metals is a valid selection on a number of holes. However, Dye certainly doesn’t take the Driver out of your hands. As any well-designed course should, the River Course rewards players who take a little extra risk off the tee, often by opening up preferable angles to well-protected greens.
Perhaps the hole with the most options is the 316 yard 9th, “Cathedral Spires”, a dog-leg right Par 4 which features a stand of tall trees in the center of the driving area, and the Sheboygan River down the entire right side. Avoiding the trees left leaves a longer approach, but the view of the green is partially obstructed by high banked bunkers and elevation changes. Challenging the spire of trees leaves a shorter approach and better view of the green, but brings more fairway bunkers into play. Those hearty enough to attempt driving the green play right of the trees, but face the added risk of the river. Holes such as these prove that a Par-4 does not need to push 450 yards to provide a memorable challenge.
Options off the tee are not limited to the shorter Par 4s. “Long-Lagoon,” the 433 yard 12th, features two distinct landing areas. To the right is a safe landing area, but leaves a longer second shot that must also flirt with the river and rough that cuts into the right side of the hole near the green. Those willing to challenge the lagoon for the left landing area risk a forced 220 yard carry, but are rewarded with a shorter approach and more accessible green.
The options certainly don’t end once your tee shots are away. One theme that stood out to the Scrambler at all Pete Dye’s Kohler designs was the amount of strategy required on the second shots for all Par 5s. On many Western New York Courses, there is little thought required, as we usually just hit a fairway wood towards the green and get as close as we can. The Par 5s at Kohler force you to assess multiple options and commit to a shot, usually through the use of angled fairways, split-fairways, double-doglegs, or cross hazards that don’t allow you to “almost” catch your 3 wood perfectly.
On the 512 yard 8th (“Hell’s Gate”), a decent drive may leave a 230 yard approach. Going for the green requires you to flirt with the River running close to the right side of the fairway. Guarding a little left will kick you down a sharp bank, requiring a difficult uphill recovery from either heavy rough or sand. If you choose to lay-up, the split level fairway requires a choice. The upper right landing area brings the River into play, but leaves an unobstructed view of the green. The lower left fairway option is safer, but requires a delicate third shot to an elevated green.
The second shot on the 540 yard 11th requires a “cape-like” decision, choosing how much of the Sheboygan you want to challenge in an effort to shorten your approach. The double-dogleg 16th Hole (“Unter de Linden”) features a solitary tree approximately 75 yards short of the green, leaving several options to play left, right or over the sentinel Linden.
Overall, the variety of options makes the River Course a true shot-makers’ paradise which has consistently ranked in the Top 15 public access designs in the United States.
Meadow Valleys Course
Just as you seemed to travel through space crossing from Wisconsin Farmland to the Irish Coast at the Whistling Straits entrance, the transition from the River Course to the Meadow Valleys Course can be just as shocking. Compared to the somewhat restricted feeling at the River Course, the Meadow Valleys course features vast expanses of open space. Between the 11th and 12th holes is a windswept prairie, with only a large barn (converted into a rest station) dotting the landscape. Surveying the vista from the 12th green was one of the most unique experiences of the weekend.
Except for the extremely tight 10th hole carved through the trees (think Blue #2 and #3 at International Country Club), the first 12 holes play over a sweeping and gently rolling Meadow, completely exposed to the heavy winds. With the large areas, there are a variety of angles that can be taken, with Dye using large mounds to obstruct your view on several occasions, most notably on the Par 5 4th hole. Severely contoured greens force you to choose your angle of attack carefully, as many three-putts await an approach improperly placed.
One large lake enters into play on the 7th, 8th and 9th holes, with the scariest being the 188 yard 8th, nicknamed “Wet & Wild.” The water guarding the entire left side provides the “Wet,”, while the whipping winds from the left make for a “Wild” ride, especially if you elect to play over the hazard and pray for some wind assistance.
While there may not be jaw-dropping elevation changes or significant geographic features, the essence of the Meadow portion is the feel of being in the middle of a large wind-swept prairie, very much alone to commune with nature. The only real indication of civilization on the Meadow holes is the “Largest Flag in the United States” which towers 338 feet above nearby Sheboygan, and at 7,200 square feet can be seen from miles away throughout the course.
The path from the 12th green to 13th tee features yet another geographic metamorphosis, as the Valleys portion of the course emerges with a series of ravines and dramatic elevation changes. The opening trio of Valley holes holds up against any other sequence in the entire Kohler kingdom.
The 13th is a mere 335 yards, but steadily climbs from tee to green. Nicknamed “Chimney”, the green doesn’t just sit at the top of the hill – that wouldn’t be high enough. The 13th putting surface climbs even further, setting atop a 20 foot plateau at the top of the hill. Think Country Club of Buffalo’s “Volcano Hole” being placed on the 18th green at CCB. Only the purest iron approach will cling to this tricky surface.
As the saying goes “What goes up, must come down.” The 409 yard 14th hole is not called “Spinning Wheel”, but sweeps back down to the right, revealing one of the prettiest downhill approaches you will ever encounter. With a ravine providing the backdrop, the green sits 40 feet below the fairway, wrapped on three sides by Weeden Creek. With its unmatched beauty, “Nature’s Course” is one of the most photographed holes in Wisconsin.
As the three of us drove away from the 14th, we assumed we had reached the high point and talked about how great “Nature’s Course” was. However, as we pulled up to the next tee, Mo’ Golf could be heard, “Guys, you won’t believe this” followed by “Wow, would you look at that!”
After a demanding uphill trek followed by a gorgeous downhill sweep, it would take a special “flat” shot to complete this cycle of holes. Finding a level hole in the league with this set-up would be a stretch, but the 15th hole actually crescendos to a fortissimo finale. One of the more ironically named holes, “Mercy” is a 196 yard par 3, all over a glacial ravine and usually played into the wind, with “no mercy” granted to the poorly struck attempt. A truly heroic par 3, the 15th leaves a lasting impression on all those who pass through the Meadow Valleys layout.
While it is difficult to maintain such a breathtaking pace in design, the last three holes certainly don’t disappoint, with the 16th featuring one of Pete Dye’s famous Acre-sized greenside bunkers (ala PGA West), the par 3 17th over a less dramatic ravine and solitary Maple Tree, and the closing hole featuring a final approach over the Sheboygan River against the backdrop of the Blackwolf Run Clubhouse.
Ability to Scramble
Compared to the Irish Course, Blackwolf Run is much more punitive to the wayward drive, essentially eliminating the hopes of a recovery. Water abounds everywhere on the River Course, with penalty strokes adding insult to the lost $3 Titleist. Even on the Meadow Valleys, water is less prevalent, but the grasses framing the holes are knee high, usually resulting in a lost ball or, at best, an unplayable lie.
Scramble of the Day
It’s often said that adversity is just an opportunity to shine, so it was an “opportunistic” round, to say the least. On the 429 yard 9th at Meadow Valleys, my drive was pulled a touch, ending up a foot inside the tall grass, and behind a large Maple Tree, some 180 yards out. The Scramble attempted to hit Driver from the rough to keep the ball below the tree, and still chase down the fairway. Unfortunately, the ball was close enough to the high grass to interfere with the downswing, leaving a 100 yard shot from a perched rough lie on the side of a fairway bunker, all into a 30 mph crosswind. As the full swing wasn’t working, it was time to get creative. The Scrambler elected the “long pitch” with a 5 iron, which seemed to float in the wind 15 feet off the ground and dropped softly next to the pin, 4 feet away.
At the Meadow Valleys course, the honor would have to be a three way tie among the trio of holes described above.
On the River Course, aesthetics was the primary determinant, with the 388 yard 5th hole getting the honor. Named “Made in Heaven”, this hole features an elevated tee overlooking the valley below, guarded on the right by the ubiquitous Sheboygan River. After descending into the valley, your approach is to a plateau green sitting at an angle to the fairway, adding both beauty and strategic elements.
To find out more about Blackwolf Run, visit DestinationKohler.com, and follow the “Golf” links to see the variety of world-caliber Golf available.
Our three day adventure wraps up on Monday, traversing the Straits Course that hosted the 2004 PGA Championship. Stay tuned to BuffaloGolfer.com for more on the Golf adventures of Mo’ Golf, Travellin’ Duff and the Scrambler.