KOHLER, WI - There may be no other golf destination in the world where the handiwork of one course architect is showcased in the way that The American Club showcases Pete Dye's designs at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.
More impressive, from purely a design standpoint, is that the two courses at Whistling Straits - The Straits Course and The Irish Course - differ so radically from the two at Blackwolf Run - The Meadow Valleys Course and The River Course. Whereas the Whistling Straits courses were sculpted out of some 70,000 odd truckloads of sand and earth to create perfect Old World links, the Blackwolf Run courses were painted in light strokes onto a landscape perfectly suited to rolling, woodsy New World tracks.
The River Course at Blackwolf Run - which, along with The Meadow Valleys Course hosted the 1998 U.S. Women's Open - has consistently earned a five-star rating from Golf Digest, and in 2002 was ranked by Golf Magazine as number 11 on the "Top 100 You Can Play" list. And despite the fact that it looks so much more familiar to Americans than the wild linksland courses, for the average golfer The River Course might just be the toughest of the four Dye masterpieces at The American Club.
On both of the Blackwolf Run Courses, Pete Dye admits that he " put a gambling element into the course[s], where the player will be greatly rewarded for taking a chance, but penalized if the gamble fails." And with water on 13 holes of The River Course, plenty of foliage, and some sand bunkers so deep they have stairs leading in and out, there are as many ways to lose strokes here as there are to lose money in a casino.
From the championship tees, the course plays 6991 yards, but can be stretched to over 7,100, as it was when it hosted the Anderson World Golf Championships from 1995-98. Although there are three more sets of tees, shortening the course down to 5115 yards, golfers of every level will be challenged to keep the ball in play and, moreover, to pay attention to their yardage books to find the easiest angles into the numerous tucked and well-guarded greens.
Hole No. 3 (461 yards, par 4) is rated as the hardest hole on the course, so golfers don't have much time to get warm before being tested. The key here is to keep your drive from the gorgeous, elevated tees left to avoid an extensive fairway bunker to the right, running from the 170-yard marker all the way to the green. A little local knowledge: The left side is a "No lift, no penalty" area, so if you stray across the cart path into the wild flowers, you get a free drop.
No. 8 (521 yards, par 5) features one of the three most intimidating tee shots on the course, through a 'V' of tree branches and over a valley to a fairway far below. The fairway here splits 100 yards from the green, offering a choice: The low side is safer, but then requires an uphill approach over a deep bunker. The high side allows a view of the green, but trees threaten to engulf balls hit even slightly to the right.
No. 11 (560 yards) is a tremendous, sweeping three-shot par 5 that hugs the riverbank along the right. The serpentine, left-to-right curving fairway is pinched almost to a close at the 200-yard marker by more water on the left. The landing area is sufficient from the tee, but you need to be on the left-hand side of the fairway in order to have a reasonable lay-up that won't have to traverse the river.
From No. 12 (465 yards, par 4) onward, it feels as if The River Course is carrying a grudge against you. The 12th is probably the toughest driving hole, with a forced carry over water and sand to an irregularly shaped fairway, where a pot bunker can swallow up your ball even if it clears the water safely.
No. 13 (205 yards, par 3) is a hole where the odds are really stacked against players who chose to tee off on the black or blue tees. From these, a high fade over a stand of tall trees or a precise draw out over the churning, rocky river is required to find the green. If you're struggling at all with your game, this hole can, quite frankly, be too hard for all but the lowest handicapper; there appears, quite simply, to be no place to aim. From the white and red tees, those damnable trees are removed from play, however.
No. 16 (560 yards, par 5) is the favorite hole of Steve Friedlander, General Manager and Director of Golf at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. "The tee shot needs to be perfect on the 16th to give you more options on the second and then the second has to be placed where you have a clear shot at the hole because of the tree about 100 yards out and the Sheboygan river running alongside the green," advises Friedlander.
The long par-4 18th plays to a green that is nestled thirty feet below the 39,923 square foot log clubhouse. Depending on the light - and how well the course has treated you - the enormous timber structure can look like either a safe haven or the war lodge of a rival tribe.
Apart from the clubhouse (with its superb restaurant and bar, complete pro shop, and banquet facilities) and the impeccable service one expects from a Golf Magazine Gold Medal resort, Blackwolf Run, along with Whistling Straits, offer something no other single golf resort can: Four of the top 100 public courses in the nation, all by one remarkably adaptable architect.
General Manager and Director of Golf Steve Friedlander, cannot think of a comparable collection of courses anywhere. "Jack Nicklaus has several [layouts] at Desert Mountain," Friedlander says, "but those five courses are private, and all more or less desert layouts."
At Kohler and nearby Haven, Wisconsin, Pete Dye has turned two completely distinct landscapes into two world-class links layouts and two world-class American parkland layouts. Any one could serve alone as the centerpiece of a respectable golf resort. The four together, however, are what makes The American Club at Kohler one of the top ten golf destinations in the entire world.
The River Course at Blackwolf Run
Rates: $173 ($195 with golf cart); Twilight $121 + cart
Walking: Allowed any time
Yardages/Ratings/Slopes: 6991/74.9/151 (black); 6607/73.2/146 (blue); 6110/70.9/137 (white); 5117/70.7/128 (red)
Turf: Greens, tees, fairways - bent grass; rough - bluegrass
Misc.: 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); restaurant excellent for everything from snacks to gourmet dinners.
Practice Facilities: 5
Club House/Pro Shop: 5+
Pace of Play: 3.75
Par 3's: 4.75
Par 4's: 4.5
Par 5's: 5
Overall Rating: 4.75 (despite cost and pace)
October 17, 2002