Kohler, WI - The 1998 U.S. Women's Open, with its epic dual between the sheer power of Se Ri Pak and the endearing smile and artistic short game of Jenny Chuasiriporn, was a treat for women's golf. The tournament was also a boon for the courses at Blackwolf Run, the flagships of what has become in a short time one of the world's most elite golfing destinations.
With the completion of the second nines at the Blackwolf Run River Course and the Blackwolf Run Meadow Valleys Course in 1988 and 1989, respectively, Kohler, WI, and its posh American Club resort entered the fray to host major tournaments.
In 2004, The Straits Course at Whistling Straits, one of the sister courses to the Blackwolf Run Courses, will host the 86th PGA Championship.
But it was here at Blackwolf Run where the history-making construction of four Pete Dye masterpieces first began.
Although usually ranked slightly lower than its sister River Course, The Meadow Valleys Course contains perhaps the best contiguous nine holes on the property. And it is certainly no slacker in its own right: In 2002, Golf Magazine ranked Meadow Valleys number 55 on its "Top 100 You Can Play" list. In 2000 the same publication listed its brilliant, round-breaking 458-yard, par-4 18th as one of the "500 Best Golf Holes in the World."
If there is any weakness to the layout, it is that the front nine holes meander over a high, grassy meadow, while the back nine weave sharply through a series of glacial valleys (hence the course name). Although lovely and technically strong, the front nine doesn't boast many holes that stand out boldly in one's memory the way the back nine does.
But oh man, what an awesome back nine. Immediately upon making the turn, you're plunged (almost traumatically so) into the woods. Whereas trees were few and far between on the front nine, the fairway of the short par-4 dogleg 10th seems narrower than most hallways.
The 522-yard, par-5 11th and 461-yard, par-4 12th lead golfers back up onto the spine of a natural ridge, before dumping them back down into the maze of namesake valleys. While you're up there, though, be sure to take time to appreciate the expansive views offered by these two high-country holes. On the fairway and green of No. 11, it seems like you can see for miles, and the view of the old milking barn that has been converted into a comfort station adds the perfect, artistic touch, so characteristic of Pete Dye-designed layouts.
Holes 12 thru 14 are called Blackwolf Run's "Amen Corner," and anyone who has triple-bogeyed all three of them in a row (ahem), can attest to the demands they place on golfers of any skill level. No. 13, called "Chimney," is especially memorable, with its mesa-like green perched some 30 or more feet above the fairway.
The two par 3s on the back - Nos. 15 (227 yards) and 17 (165 yards) - will undoubtedly provide stories for the 19th hole. The green of No. 15 is pictured on the scorecard, and even though it is the largest on the course, you feel a lot of pressure both to carry your ball over the chasmal gorge fronting it and the yawning emptiness that hugs its left-hand side. Once you're on, though, you had better hope to be on the same half as the pin is cut on, or you'll need to putt into and back out of a four-foot deep trough running from the front to back of the putting surface.
The short 17th also plays over a ravine to a relatively accepting green. The trick here is that right smack-dab in front of the green, are two sentinel maple trees. If the pin is cut front left, your tee ball has to split the uprights. If it's cut anywhere right or back, you have to either go up and over one of the trees, or shape a shot around them. We're of two minds about this hole: Either it's fantastic and fun, or it's tricked-up and gimmicky. Your opinion will likely depend on how you score here.
The Meadow Valleys' piece de resistance is the 18th. Director of Golf Steve Friedlander calls this his favorite hole on the course. "This is another hole where it is critical to hit a perfect tee shot to set up a decent approach over the Sheboygan River onto a huge green," describes Friedlander. Unique here are the two greens - one for ladies, seniors, and high handicappers on the near side of the river, and the regular green on the far side. If you're slicing your driver, it'll play here if it's long enough. Just be sure to follow the tip in the yardage book and take an extra club to get over the river, two extra clubs to get to a back pin placement.
The courses at Blackwolf Run showcase Pete Dye's flexibility, as well as his creativity. Both courses here are cut into glacial parkland, in direct opposition to his two courses at Whistling Straits, where the sandy linksland and dunes were mostly all man-made. "We didn't have to move much dirt, especially on the Meadow Valleys Course," reports Director of Golf Steve Friedlander.
Given the dramatic topography - reminiscent of the best Northern Michigan courses - all Dye had to do was walk the site and picture tee boxes and greens. Imagine John Nash as portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, but instead of codes materializing out of random text, Dye seems to see golf holes rising up out of wild landscapes. Dye is quoted as saying of the property, "There could not be a better natural setting for golf."
For a course architect often associated with layouts jogging over the flatlands of Florida or Indiana, Dye's easy adaptation to the demands of both woods and meadows is a testament to his creative skills. And as always, there are classic Dye flourishes, like the two bridges made from entire flatbed railway cars on holes No. 13 and 14, the railroad ties and sheet-metal buttressing the 14th green, and the cavernous bunker on No. 16 that has two stairways for walking in and out.
The facilities at Blackwolf Run are second to none: The restaurant features everything from oven-roasted ruby trout with Manila clams to a two-inch thick bone-in filet mignon. (And if you can't decide between red meat or fish/poultry, try the charred rare ostrich medallions appetizer - Ostrich, the other red meat!)
The restaurant, bar, and fully-stocked pro-shop all overlook the 18th holes of both the Meadow Valleys and River courses, and the decor of the massive timber clubhouse is an homage to the Native Americans who inhabited the western shore of Lake Michigan for centuries. In fact, the name Blackwolf Run pays tribute to Chief Black Wolf of the Winnebagoes who led his people to defeat a much larger Chippewa and Menominee force and retain the hunting the ground on which the golf courses and Village of Kohler now stand.
These hunting grounds must have been rich indeed, since even today golfers are likely to see more deer during the drive to the first tee of the Meadow Valley Course than many hunters see all throughout deer season.
And although the history of golf in Kohler is a couple dozen centuries shorter than the native history, if The American Club's four courses keep drawing major championships, the golf history could someday be just as rich in its own right.
The Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run
Rates: $148 ($170 with golf cart); Twilight $104 + cart
Walking: Allowed any time
Yardages/Ratings/Slopes: 7142/74.8/143 (black); 6735/73.0/138 (blue); 6169/70.4/132 (white); 5065/69.7/125 (red)
Teaching: Lessons available at extensive practice facilities through the Kohler Golf Academy; watch your credit card limit in the amazing pro shop; watch your liver in the well-stocked bar (the "Uff-Da Stout" is highly recommended)
Practice Facilities: 5
Club House/Pro Shop: 5+
Pace of Play: 4
Par 3's: 4.5
Par 4's: 4.5
Par 5's: 4
Overall Rating: 4.75
October 14, 2002