Big Golf Dreams at Blackwolf Run
by John Schneider
Want a fantastic way to spend a day away from work? Try golfing 36 holes at Blackwolf Run. That was the way I spent a recent Friday this summer. Located in Kohler, Wisconsin, about an hour North of Milwaukee, Blackwolf Run is a dream for the true golf fan. At the end of the day your score might not be a dream, but the courses, conditions, layout, nature, environment, and hospitality will remain in your dreams for quite a while.
Blackwolf Run, along with Whistling Straits, is part of the golf Mecca that was created by Herb Kohler and the Kohler Company (home of the Kohler kitchen / bathroom faucets and toilets found worldwide, and, yes, they even named the village after the company). The Blackwolf Run complex consists of two 18 hole layouts; the River course and the Meadow Valleys course. Both are distinctively unique and individually ranked among the best in America. Golf Digest ranked the River course number 15 on the “2011-12 America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses”. The Meadow Valleys course was ranked an extremely respectable number 60. Only days before I ventured out to Blackwolf Run, the complex hosted the United States Women’s Open major championship tournament. The 2012 championship (http://www.usga.org/ChampEventSite.aspx?id=2147487117), using 9 holes from each of the 2 courses, was won by Na Yeon Choi. This was the second time that Blackwolf Run hosted the US Women’s Open. In 1998 Se Ri Pak won the US Women’s Open after 20-hole Monday playoff over amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn (the Open plus the McDonald’s LPGA Championship gave Se Ri Pak two major victories in her rookie season). Additionally this course was the host of the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf in 1997 (Ernie Els), 1996 (Greg Norman), and 1995 (Mark McCumber).
The course initially opened in 1988 with 18 holes and immediately was named that year’s “Best New Public Course” by Golf Digest magazine. The final 18 holes were completed in 1990. Pete Dye designed all of the holes using the Sheboygan River and dramatic glacial elevation changes to create this gem. The River course naturally follows the river which allows water to come into play on 13 of the holes. The Meadow Valleys course gives players a break from the water, but rolling elevation changes and prairie grass is everywhere in sight. The bent grass fairways of Blackwolf Run make up what surely has to be one of Pete Dye’s best creations.
My buddy Jim and I arrived at the course about an hour before our tee time and were greeted at the bag drop by extremely friendly and helpful staff. Within a few short minutes we were setup on our cart and off to the range. The range, practice greens, locker room, and golf shop were all in perfect order. Clearly the staff and the facilities were there to make sure we had a great time and had everything prepared for us to enjoy the day. Excited and anxious, I was ready to start the golf day on the River course; the Meadow Valleys course would be the afternoon challenge. A 36-hole Friday golf outing sure beats an 8-hour day working, and the bonus kicker was that the weather was absolutely dead-on perfect.
The River course can play 7,400 yards with a 76.2 rating and a slope of 151 if playing from the black tees. Even with the beautiful sunshine and golf-induced endorphin rush, my 12 handicap was not going to allow me to play the black tees. Five separate tee boxes exist to allow everyone the appropriate challenge. For this round Jim and I played the white tees which have a 70.3 rating and 132 slope. At the first tee box we were joined by Don and MaryAnn who traveled from New Jersey to golf here and our foursome was established. With a quick snap of my driver I started the day lying nicely in the middle of the fairway on hole 1. Unfortunately my game abandoned me for a few holes after my first tee shot, but it is always nice to start the round in the fairway. With water and elevation changes everywhere, accuracy with a driver and long irons is a must. The greens, as one would expect, are normally pretty fast at Blackwolf Run. With the US Open only a few days in the past, they were playing at PGA speeds. While fast they were true and fair, unfortunately for this round I carded four dreaded 3-putt greens. The #1 handicap hole on the course, hole 3 called “Gotcha”, requires a great drive that stays out of the huge sand bunker that runs 125 yards down the right side of the fairway approaching the green. Both Jim and I had great drives that left us 80 or so yards to the green, but it was Jim that owned the hole by sinking his 10 foot putt for birdie. Number 5, called “Made in Heaven”, was my favorite hole. The extremely elevated tee box allows a stunning view of the hole below and beyond. The drive here, aided by the elevation, will naturally (hopefully) be huge, but it must be on the left side to stay away from the large fairway bunker. Landing well down the fairway after a good tee shot will not complete this hole. The elevation to the flagstick here seems to be almost as high as the tee box leaving a second shot with a view to the approachable green. A miss from here by a just a few feet to the right will result in a ball rolling heartbreakingly down the 60ish foot drop towards the water. Don had a sturdy chip shot from down there that seemed like it would never get high enough. The River course ends with “Dyehard”, clearly named after Pete Dye, which is a 510 yard long par 4 that brought us up back to the huge and beautiful clubhouse made from Canadian pines. Interestingly, hole 18 on the River course shares a huge green with hole 18 from the Meadow Valleys course. My Titleist was on the green in regulation and only 10 feet from the pin; unfortunately the wrong pin and was left with a put that had to be 100 feet (there was one of my 3-putts). A good score on the River course requires the ball to stay in play; unfortunately my 4 penalties led me to shoot 95 (missing my goal of shooting in the 80s).
During the break between rounds of golf we had the opportunity to get lunch at the Blackwolf Run restaurant. Sitting outside on the patio we ate gourmet sandwiches while enjoying a panoramic view of the golf course and the combined massive 18th hole green. While eating and relaxing I could not help but wonder what the people were thinking about my 100 foot putt attempt from a few minutes ago. Again the service and food was without flaws.
The Meadow Valleys course took us away from the Sheboygan River, but not away from the glacier valleys and rising moraines. We were able to spray the ball a little more on this course, but there is still a need to play in control to salvage any kind of score. Traveling too far out of the fairway will land golfers in the meadows with either a lost ball or a wedge back to the short stuff. I lost count of the number of greens that were elevated; they were wonderfully challenging and scenic. If any shots were slightly off target the ball would roll and roll away. The championship tees on this course run 7,250 yards with a 75.1 rating and a 145 slope. Just like the River course, the Meadow Valleys course has 5 separate tee boxes to allow golfers to play the course according to their individual skill levels. For our afternoon round on the Meadows Jim and I played the Green tees which have a 71.5 rating and slope of 136. For this round we were joined by Brenen who is from Texas, but while on business in Wisconsin had to give Blackwolf Run and Straits a try. While golfing with Brenen he explained to me how his wife founded and runs the Ten Doves Charity to help children in dire need and they use a golf instructional book called Precise Golfer (authored by Brian Morris, Sr.) to help promote the charity. Check out http://www.precisegolfer.org/ for more information Even though the course worked its way around the meadows it seemed that we were always alone and had the whole place to ourselves. No holes were back to back and each one seemed to be its own unique challenge. Holes 13, 14, and 15 were really enjoyable to me. “Chimney” (#13) contains a huge valley of waste area about 100 yards short of the extremely elevated green. A good drive and even a better wedge together in combination are needed to even think about getting a par. “Nature’s Course” (#14) has a dogleg right and a big drive setups up a 140 yard shot down to the green (that is wrapped by a large creek). I loved the clever use of a flatbed railroad car as the bridge crossing the creek. “Mercy” (#15) is a shorter par 3 that requires a player to hit the green or be lost in the 50-75 foot waste area valley. All three from our group had beautiful tee shots; with my 8 iron shot landing really close to the pin, but was not visible from the tee box. After driving to the green and initially seeing only 2 of the 3 golf balls on the dance floor my mind was getting excited. Could I be living the dream with an Ace? Nope, it was 6 feet away, a good shot, but not the dream shot. The last hole, “Salmon Trap” is a wonderful finishing hole. A great drive sets up a forced 135 yard carry over the wide and arching Sheboygan River; here there is no room to hit a second shot short. As mentioned earlier, hole 18 on both the Blackwolf Run courses share a gigantic green that is overlooked by the mammoth log cabin styled clubhouse. Lucky this time my approach shot was closer to the correct pin. My desire / goal / dream of scoring in the 80s was met on this course, but it took a lot of work.
Herb Kohler and the Kohler Company have made this Wisconsin area one of the best places in the world (yes, I said world) to come for a golf vacation. I know people are laughing and saying “Wisconsin??? What dream world do you live in?”, but here is the deal. Besides these two great Blackwolf Run courses, only a few miles away Kohler owns and operates the Whistling Straits golf courses. There the Straits course is ranked #3 by Golf Digest and host of the 2004 & 2010 PGA Championship, and the Irish course is ranked #30 by Golf Digest. Besides the four Kohler owned courses ranked in the top 100, The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course that is ranked #86 by Golf Digest) is located within a few miles and Erin Hills (host of the 2011 US Amateur and the 2017 US Men’s Open) is located 60 miles away.
Blackwolf Run (http://blackwolfrun.com; 1-800-334-2838) is a fantastic venue for a long golf weekend. The American Club Resort (http://www.americanclubresort.com), a five diamond facility, is associated with the golf course and offers many different types of accommodations and golf packages. Golfers at Blackwolf Run are allowed to walk or take carts on the course. Caddy and forecaddie services, with very knowledgeable individuals, are also available to further improve the golfing experience. Golf is pretty expensive here but how often, if ever, does anyone in the Midwest get to play courses that are this challenging and this highly rated. Take the opportunity to play both of these courses and you will not be disappointed.
Published August 2012