Before Whistling Straits. Before Erin Hills. Before Wild Rock. Before Sand Valley.
Before all of these Wisconsin “destination” golf courses, there was SentryWorld.
SentryWorld debuted in 1982 in Stevens Point, when Sentry Insurance commissioned Robert Trent Jones, Jr., to build a course to cater to locals and business colleagues as well as attract golfers from the entire Midwest. In 2013, Jones and his team returned to renovate the layout. When it reopened in 2015, SentryWorld joined some of those upstart “destination” Wisconsin courses on numerous “Top 100 You Can Play” lists thanks to rebuilt bunkers, a new routing, and fully restructured green complexes.
Jones’s crew returned once again in 2020 and 2021 to make a few more tweaks to the course in anticipation of the 43rd U.S. Senior Open, which will be held June 29-July 2, 2023, the third USGA championship to be contested here. On top of the course upgrades, further “destination” features have been added, including two refreshment stations on the course, each of which players pass two times in the round, and the luxurious Inn at SentryWorld, overlooking the 18th fairway. Add these to the existing fieldhouse and multiple dining options, and SentryWorld is once again flexing its muscles as a premier golf destination.
Not only is SentryWorld a destination course, but it also offers perhaps the best “country club-for-a-day” experience I’ve ever had. Greens fees are $275, all inclusive. Director of Golf Danny Rainbow explained just how “all inclusive” it is.
“Of course GPS carts and range balls are included,” says Rainbow. “So is all food and drink on the course. There will be chefs and bartenders in the refreshment stations [which will replace the temporary tents once final construction is complete] to make whatever you want as you wait. No payment necessary, and no tips.”
“Wait, what? Anything?” asked a certain disbelieving golf writer.
“Anything,” reassured Rainbow. Because this seemed too good to be true, that golf writer had to ask a couple more times out on the course, and Rainbow—the nicest director of golf you will find anywhere—patiently reassured him every time.
Another innovation Rainbow has implemented are 20-minute intervals between tee times, rather than the customary 8- or 10-minute intervals. This means that you will likely not see another group ahead of or behind you during your round, even if you stop into the snack shacks four times for freshly-grilled burgers and custom cocktails.
Beyond the sumptuous victuals and relaxed pace of play, the course itself packs a smorgasbord of challenge and beauty into 200 acres. There are five tee boxes and four combination tee sets such that players can choose a comfortable yardage from 4,652 yards all the way up to 7,320 yards. The greens, which run between 11.5 and 13 on the Stimp meter, are brilliantly contoured and the bunkers are almost blindingly white. In 1982, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., went so far as to call the 204-yard, par-3 16th – aka “The Flower Hole” – his “Mona Lisa,” with 33,000 flowers surrounding the idyllic green. In the 2013-2014 redesign, 1,000 trees were removed to improve sight lines and make off-line shots easier to find and play.
But don’t let the beauty and pristine conditioning fool you – SentryWorld has some sharp teeth, too. Jones, Jr., fully embraces his father’s mantra of “easy bogey, difficult par.” Unless players choose wildly inappropriate tees, there will be plenty of scoring opportunities. But this doesn’t mean that low scores will materialize. For example, on the par-5 5th, the number-one handicap hole, players face a crescent-shaped cape hole around a lake with a huge tree guarding the approach. Pick your line wisely off the tee, and you’ll have a nice look to make the green in two shots. I was over the green in two, actually, in a bunker behind the green. Three shots later, I had to settle for par. Danny Rainbow, on the other hand, dunked his tee shot, reteed and reclubbed, and hit his third next to my drive. He stuck his approach and made the putt for a rare eagle-par.
The par-5 9th is similarly difficult, despite only measuring 501 from the championship tees. There’s a stream that meanders down the right side of the fairway before splitting it further toward the green. The green complex is magnificently devious, just as likely to punish two good shots as to reward them.
The 436-yard 18th is a stout two-shot closer with OB (and The Inn) left and a completely new green complex, sternly bunkered and elevated above the fairway so that some parts of the green are blind, depending on your angle.
In short, SentryWorld is quite brilliant in conceptualization and in execution. It is extremely difficult to design a “destination” resort course that is also capable of challenging top players in a U.S. Open, “senior” or otherwise. One of the newer USGA-requested tweaks was that fairways would be shaved leading up to the edges of bunkers and that the bunker lips would be rounded to encourage balls to funnel into them. Another one was a few green alterations, creating some narrow fingers for pin positions accessible to only some of the best players in the world.
The Inn at SentryWorld
The Inn at SentryWorld opened in March, 2022, and when I visited, it still had that new-inn smell. Everything was crisp and immaculate. I would call the motif “northwoods chic,” first-class luxury framed by charming rusticity. Rates are around $255 per night, depending on room type. I know the mattresses are all new—like the entire inn—but nevertheless, my bed ranked easily in the top three most comfortable I’ve ever experienced on a golf trip.
The Fieldhouse, connecting to The Inn via a covered outdoor promenade more reminiscent of northern Italy than northern Wisconsin, houses indoor tennis and volleyball courts, golf simulators, meeting and event space, the pro shop, and the cavernous PJ’s restaurant and pub, perfect for a casual post-round drink or meal. If you’re in the mood for a formal dining experience, Muse at SentryWorld delivers gourmet fare in an elegant atmosphere.
SentryWorld is not only ready for the best senior players in the world in 2023, it’s ready for players of all skill levels now. Walking is allowed, and there is a caddie program if golfers call ahead to arrange for a caddie. With the addition of The Inn, SentryWorld is ideal for weekend getaways, weddings, events, and family vacations, too. The all-inclusive greens fees make the original Wisconsin destination course one of the most reasonably priced, too.