The Wisconsin “Pearl” Golf Trip
By Richard Smith, Knoxville, Tennessee
For our 30th wedding anniversary I convinced my lovely wife Ruth to accompany me on a golf trip to the Kohler Resort in Wisconsin and then on to Erin Hills Golf Course, site of the 2017 U.S. Open championship. Ruth has begun to take a liking to golf even though she is a relative beginner. I was looking forward to playing some exciting golf and sharing some new experiences with her.
We were able to get an early morning flight into Milwaukee then we rented a car and drove to Kohler in just under an hour. We played the Irish course first on the day we arrived. There was some bad weather on the way so we moved our tee time up an hour which turned out to be a smart decision.
Bob was our caddy and he, like the other caddies we had during this trip, was an excellent guide around the course. We played as a twosome and basically had the course to ourselves. We played in 3 hours and 15 minutes, just finishing as a bad storm came in and the lightning siren was going off.
Although the Straits course is the most famous layout at Kohler, the Irish course is a well designed, challenging course which is a lot of fun to play. There are a good variety of tee options and if you play the course from the appropriate set of markers you’ll have a very enjoyable day.
The Irish course is just inland from the Straits course so that the Lake Michigan shoreline is not in play. The course has a gentle rolling feel. There is an abundance of sand and water hazards but the course always seems to offer a safe option both off the tee and on the approach. The greens are well contoured and have a huge variety of pin placement options. Many of the holes have openings to the front of the greens allowing run up shots if the ground is firm enough.
There’s a great variety of short and long par fours and par threes. I thought the long dogleg left par four 4th was a very strong hole, but very well designed. An opening to the left of the green allowed an opening for a shot to roll in and the green actually fed to the back right pin placement we were playing to. The short par four 7th was a gentle dogleg right which required a precision shot off the tee leaving a short approach to a well guarded and elevated green.
On the back nine back-to-back par fours at 15 and 16 were outstanding while the short par four 17th played around a lake the entire left side of the hole. The par fives were very interesting. All of them were risk/reward type holes, and if your tee shot was not in the fairway then the layup shot became very difficult.
The Irish course was the perfect combination of fun and challenge. It is an easy course to walk. Although Ruth is fairly new to golf, she enjoyed the course. On a few holes she had an intimidating tee shot over some waste areas, and often times we just moved up past the danger and let her tee off from the fairway. The run up areas to the greens were nice for her. I think the course could use a few more forward tees to encourage new golfers, but the Irish course is manageable for all levels of golfers.
The greens, bunkering and challenges off the tee are all vintage Pete Dye. The Irish seems to me to be a hybrid design between the TPC Sawgrass and the Ocean Course at Kiawah among Dye courses I’ve played. The only downside to the course seemed to be the routing, and all the holes seem to run close to the same direction. We played in a good 15 mph wind, and it seemed like we were either straight downwind or against on every hole. Otherwise this is a fine course and an excellent course to accompany the adjacent Straits course.
After our round we checked in to our accommodations at the Inn on Woodlake. The main hotel on the property, the American Club, was full, probably because so many people were visiting Kohler on their way to the Ryder Cup, which was played the following week. Although the check in and reception areas are very simple, the rooms were excellent. There was a lot of space and the shower was absolutely stunning. Multiple jets threw water at you from multiple angles and to be honest I wanted to stay in the shower all morning.
The next day I played the Straits course while Ruth took in a massage at the spa. She joined me for about half the round on the Straits. I’ve watched the PGA championships at the Straits course so I was familiar with many of the holes, but the course was even more spectacular in person. Pete Dye was able to utilize the Lake Michigan shoreline to construct an amazing set of holes. Even more enjoyable was the fact that the Lake is visible from almost the entire course, making this a setting that nearly rivals Pebble Beach.
Like the Irish course the Straits course has a gentle rolling nature to it but it is very easy to walk. The course has a number of forced carry “do or die” shots, none more dramatic than the approach shot into the 18th green, but most holes offer an opening that can be played to. I really enjoyed the strategic design of all the holes. I was fascinated by how playable the course was even with all of the dramatic shots which we encountered.
The wind was very stiff, probably at least 20 mph most of the day. Unlike the Irish course it seemed that each hole had a slightly different orientation and the wind was mainly across on most holes. This made if very difficult to get the ball close to the hole. In addition the driving areas are not all that wide, so the course really rewards a top flight ball striker. The early stretch of holes 2 through 4 are all on the lake and these holes set the tone for the excellence of this layout.
3 is the first of four excellent par threes. It plays slightly downhill to a green with deep treacherous bunkers to the left but a generous bail out area right. The course returns to the lake on 7, another great par three with bunkers and death to the right, but again a bail out area left. The downhill par four 9th is an outstanding hole with a narrow teeing areas and a green guarded by a deep pot bunker left. I was in that bunker and I might still be there if I hadn’t given up after three tries at getting out. 10 is a short par four, slightly uphill with a number of options off the tee and on the approach. The remaining holes on the back nine are familiar to television viewers and they are a wonderful combination of challenging holes of all length.
The Straits course is a quality championship course. The course is much more spectacular in person than on television, which is the same way I felt when I first played Pebble Beach. Truth be told I think this course is in the same category as Pebble in regards to beauty as well as the quality of the golf. In order to score well a player has to have all aspects of their game working well. The driving lines are tight but manageable. The greens are defended by some severe hazards, but a bail out area always seems available.The greens have typical Dye contours and they are difficult to putt, but they are never outrageous. My playing companions were two ladies from Arizona and John Edmund from Aberdeen Scotland. We all enjoyed the course tremendously and it was very manageable for the ladies. I think Ruth would have enjoyed the course and I would encourage her to play when we return.
Our last round at Kohler was on the River course at Blackwolf Run. The Straits and Irish course are about 15 minutes away from the main area of the Kohler resort while the River course and the Meadow Valley courses are closer. The River course is a spectacular inland course running around the Sheboygan River. The river is in play on 14 of the 18 holes. The river runs hard by the left side of the first hole and sets the tone for the entire round. The course has two distinct areas. Holes 1-4 are part of the original 18 Dye designed, as are holes 14 though 18. These holes are somewhat flatter, but not lacking in character. Holes 5 through 13 are up and around a significant ridge which brings into play some of the most spectacular views and shots imaginable. Hole 5 is called “Made in Heaven” and this is simply one of the most beautiful and spectacular holes I’ve ever played. 8 is a great par five where the drive is hit off an elevated tee and the hole then turns right to a split fairway allowing a number of strategic options. 9 is a marvelous short par four with all kinds of options off the tee.11 is a very tough par five with bends along the river which guards the entire right side of the hole.
All in all I like the newer holes better, but unfortunately because of the elevation changes and distances between holes the course is really not one you can walk. Despite the difficulty of the course my wife enjoyed the layout both because of the beauty and the fact that Dye, once again, does give an opening to most of the greens. The course could probably use another set of tees slightly forward for less experienced golfers, but this is not a big issue. In addition, the course is almost impossible to walk because of the elevation changes and the distances between holes in the newer portion of the course.Regardless this is a spectacular layout and one of Pete Dye's best efforts.
A word needs to be said about the outstanding service at the Kohler resort. Every employee was friendly and helpful. Our round at the River course was on our anniversary and everyone there knew about it, even the girl at the beverage shack between holes 8 and 12. This is the type of first class service you would expect at a resort of this quality and Kohler consistently delivered.
Erin Hills is about an hour drive from Kohler. It is in an isolated area of the Wisconsin countryside. We stayed in nearby Hartford but there are rooms on the grounds. The clubhouse is magnificent and the food at the clubhouse is first class.
The course is slated to host the 2017 U.S. Open and it certainly has the look and feel of a championship layout. Apparently very little dirt was moved and the result is a very natural feeling and beautiful golf course.
The holes have reasonably generous fairways guarded by well placed bunkers and the holes are defined by acres of thick fescue grass. The routing rolls through some impressive elevation changes. The course reminds me of some of the wild links on the west coast of Ireland such as Enniscrone and Carne. If the ground were firm it would certainly play like a links course but I don’t think the base is firm enough to allow that. Regardless each hole has a wonderful isolated feel and sometimes you feel like there is no one else on the course.
There are a number of great holes. The short second offers a number of strategic options right off the bat. Consistent with the short length of the hole the green is an inverted saucer that demands a precise approach. Birdies are available here but bogey lurks for a lazy tee shot or approach. 4 is a very demanding par four with sharp drop offs front and back on the right side of the green. This is one of the most demanding approaches on the course. The short par three 9th appears easy but is anything but. The green is treacherous and is guarded by immense bunkers. This will be an interesting hole to watch in the U.S. Open. Apparently it played the most difficult hole during the U.S. Amateur despite having a maximum length of 165 yards.
There are a number of nice holes on the back nine starting with the long 10th, an uphill par four which played directly into the wind. 14 is a great risk reward par five with a massive slope on the right side of the green. 15 is a short par four that will probably be a personal favorite since I holed out a 9 iron from 135 yards for an eagle 2! 18 is a massive par five, slightly uphill where each shot most be played carefully and with foresight. A great finish to a great course.
If the USGA doesn’t mess up the golf course and tournament, Erin Hills should be a fitting site for the U.S. Open. If the wind blows scores could go sky high since the fescue rough is absolutely brutal.
Our trip was at the end of September, which was a perfect time to visit. Temperatures were around 60 F. The wind blew harder than usual, probably due to the front which came in from the north and affected the preparation week of the Ryder Cup at Minneapolis. Kohler is an outstanding resort and all the courses we played were of the highest caliber. We had great caddies at all the venues with excellent accommodations and dining. I would encourage golfers of all skill levels to try and make the trek to this area. My wife is a relative beginner but we both had a wonderful time. This was one of my favorite golf trips ever.
To read my reviews for each course, click on the links below:Erin Hills