Any list of greatest Midwest golf resorts must include French Lick Resort

Golf resorts in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions are often overlooked in favor of southern or coastal golf getaways. But some of the best family golf vacation spots in the nation – and some of the best deals – can be found in America’s heartland.

One Midwest golf resort that arguably more history and pedigree than any other is French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. French Lick Resort (which includes the historic French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel) is the only golf resort in the world at which masterpiece courses by both Donald Ross and Pete Dye co-exist. And it has a history like no other.

West Baden Springs Hotel was dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” when it was opened in 1902. Looking like a fantastical drawing from a Jules Verne novel, the hotel had been built on a budget of $414,000 in just 277 days, and it was the largest free-span dome on earth until the Houston Astrodome opened in 1969.

From the outside, West Baden Springs Hotel looks like a cross between a circus tent and The Taj Mahal. From the inside, it looks like a grand Venetian Palazzo.

Along with the French Lick Springs Resort and its acclaimed Donald Ross golf course, West Baden Springs Hotel was literally one of America’s most popular vacation retreats from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. What happened in the 1930s? There was a little dip in the economy called The Great Depression. The resultant privation triggered a morality shift as well. Gaming was outlawed, and the casino at French Lick closed up. Railway lines, which carried five trains full of visitors per day to French Lick from Chicago, were usurped first by state highways and then by interstate freeways, none of which came near the area. No longer would major golf tournaments be played on the classic Ross course, and the once-steady parade of Hollywood stars and U.S. presidents escaping to southern Indiana ended with little fanfare. At one point, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” West Baden Springs Hotel was sold for one dollar, and then allowed to slouch for decades into a dangerous state of disrepair.

2005 was a turning point for French Lick, though. The Indiana-based Cook Group purchased both hotels and facilities (including the Ross Course). Gaming laws changed, allowing the Cook Group to open a casino again in the French Lick Springs Hotel. Gaming revenue funded a $500 million renovation of French Lick Springs, West Baden Springs, their lavish spas, and the Donald Ross Course.

The pièce de résistance of the renovation—as far as golfers are concerned, anyway—was the contacting of Pete Dye, who gladly accepted the task of turning a hilly, forested swath of land on the hilltop overlooking French Lick Springs Hotel into the one—and only—course bearing his name: The Pete Dye Course at French Lick.

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick sits atop some of the most beautiful ridgelines anywhere in the Midwest.

Whether you’re a golfer, a gambler, a rider, or a relaxer, there’s a wealth of activities available in at this surprising luxury resort.


When I first visited the French Lick Springs Hotel (around 1999), there were two courses, the Valley Course and the Hill Course. The Valley Course was a Tom Bendalow design that has since been remade as a 9-hole family, learner’s, and instructional course. The teaching and practice facilities at the Valley Links and Learning Center, directly adjacent to the hotel, are now first-rate.

The Hill Course, renamed The Donald Ross Course, is a 1917 Ross classic on which Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. Measuring 7,030 yards from the tips (par 70), the Ross Course benefited from the resort-wide renovation, including a $1 million-dollar upgrade of the clubhouse alone. The original Ross design was restored, including 30 previously filled-in bunkers, squared off greens, and completely rebuilt tee boxes. The black tees (6,517 yards) are the original tees, and aside from a pond on holes 11 and 14, the present-day design is as close to the Ross original as ever.

The sinusoidal landscape upon which The Donald Ross Course is situated makes for some wonderful vistas (here, on the 10th tee) and difficult club selections.

After your round, take time for a cool drink on the Ross Clubhouse veranda.

The hallmark of the Ross design is the elevation change from fairway to green on just about every hole. This old-school defense is extremely effective – at least against golf writers who can’t figure out to add one to two clubs on every approach shot until, oh, the 17th hole or so. If you’re as dense as me, you’ll come up short time and time again. Add this to the one- to two-club penalty from the thick rough, and you’ve got some serious issues with choosing the right stick. And if you don’t take enough club, balls can roll 40 yards from the front fringes back into the fairways.

Besides deceiving distances, the Ross Course features devilish greens with some radical slopes and mounds and wonderful vistas across the valley. Visitors to French Lick may be mesmerized by the Pete Dye Course, but they shouldn’t overlook the Ross Course, which holds its own against the modern masterpiece in terms of shot value. The collection of par-3s is especially beastly; three of the four require at least a hybrid from most players, even from the regular men’s tees.

The 8th green on The Ross Course has three levels. Putts from above the hole to a front pin can easily roll off the front and down into the valley.

The 10th hole on The Ross Course (left) plays down from the tee and then back up to the green. The 14th (right) plays uphill off the tee, over a hill, and then steeply down to the green.

As for the Pete Dye Course, according to pretty much every American golf publication, Dye’s eponymous gem was the best new course of 2009. Over 2 million cubic yards of earth were moved in the creation of the course, which hurtles and dips across a landscape that, according to Dye, “was as severe as I’ve ever worked.”

The view from the Dye Course clubhouse really brings home the severity, and serenity, of the course setting.

The result is an 8,102-yard brute with a rating and slope of 80.0/148 from the tips. Golfers who want to experience the best course in Indiana, and arguably one of the best in the nation, will need to pony up some serious cash for the pleasure of being thrashed about by a design that is arguably Dye’s most difficult track. But the challenge and views are so marvelous, that the splurge is recommended for all devoted players. There are also a number of stay-and-play packages that allow for play at one or both Ross and Dye courses, and even the nearby Sultan’s Run in Jasper, Indiana, at rates that may not be cheap, but also won’t break the bank.

The Dye Course is not only a darling of the media, but also of the USGA and PGA. The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship was played on the course, and the U.S. Women’s Senior Open has been played here the past three years (ever since the long-awaited championship was first sanctioned). The one barrier to hosting a larger tournament is the location, which is still nowhere near a major highway. And despite the 243 guest rooms in the West Baden Springs Hotel and 443 at the French Lick Springs Hotel, and 71 new rooms in the just-opened Valley Tower (see below), there wouldn’t be sufficient accommodations to host a regular PGA Tour stop, much less a major…yet.

Based solely on the merits of the Dye course, though, the various tours are still figuring how to work out logistical concerns. At the press conference for the 43rd PGA Professional Championship, Dye was asked whether this course or Dye’s Straits Course at Whistling Straits—site of three PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup—is the better design.

“Since Mr. Kohler isn’t here,” said Dye in his inimical deadpan, “this is a much better course than Whistling Straits.”

What makes the course so special? First of all, according to Dye, there’s a “new kind of rough here—fairway fescue.” This rough is “meant to be kept short and played out of, so the fairways can be made much more narrow if necessary.”

Second, there is literally every sort of bunker I’ve ever seen on any other course in the world: pill box, pot, coffin, flashfaced, waste—you name it.

Dye Course, 4th Hole — you do NOT want to be in the bunker to the left (and well below) the green.

Third, taking full advantage of the hilly landscape, Dye has dabbled with elevation changes from tee to green like a wizard dabbles in the Black Arts. Many of the elevated greens appear from the fairway to simply disappear into nothingness, making the approach shot on nearly every hole nerve-wracking.

Holes 2, 6, and 12 (left to right) are some of the best examples of the many “infinity greens” on The Dye Course.

In Dye’s own words, “It is an entirely different kind of course than anything I’ve ever done.”

For the first-time visitor, it is a course that grabs you by the collar on the opening hole and doesn’t let go. The 519-yard, par-4 1st features a 50+ foot drop from the tees to the fairway, which curls right to left around a pond.

On the tee of 1st Hole on The Dye Course, you feel like you’re perched on the edge of an abyss, and there is nothing to do but swing.

You’re thrown directly into the fire on the first tee, and the challenge doesn’t end until you’ve successfully navigated the 657-yard, par-5 18th, whose ribbon-like fairway snakes along a ridge to a massive elevated green.

The 18th on The Dye Course is a long par 5. Don’t try to carry the ravine to reach in two. Just. Don’t.

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick anchors a seven-course Dye Golf Trail, which stretches from the Purdue Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., in the north down to French Lick. Golfers not familiar with the fine courses in the Hoosier State will be bedazzled by the variety, depth, and quality of “Midwestern” golf.


Should you be one of those weirdos who needs more than golf to make you happy, French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs can satiate any craving for non-golf entertainment that may possess you.

The spa culture in French Lick has its roots at the very founding of the resort. “There must be something in the water” is literally the explanation for why the resorts even exist. Both the French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel sit atop natural springs, as the names suggest. The Pluto Water of French Lick and the spring water of West Baden were strongly laxative and believed to cure whatever ailed you. Eventually, the Pluto Water was also outlawed, however, when it was discovered that it contained such high levels of lithium so as to be beyond “restorative” (to put it mildly). But man, was that water popular back in the day. Author Chris Bundy likened French Lick to the Disney World of the late 1800s, saying that if Europeans could afford to visit the U.S., “it was assumed that they’d come to French Lick.”

Today, both hotels have world-class spas, featuring treatments with the famous, magical water (lithium removed, for your safety and sanity).

One mania that not even lithium could cure is gambling. The casino at French Lick was Indiana’s first land-based casino, and just about any game of chance you can imagine can be found on the 51,000-square-foot single-level gaming floor. My biggest slot-machine win ever happened here ($75!). I cashed out and had an excellent dinner in the Power Plant Bar & Grill (one of my favorite pubs in all Indiana). The casino now also offers a sportsbook along with an adjacent sports-viewing lounge. All of these new features complement the new Valley Tower, which houses 71 palatially appointed rooms and suites, and a new bar, within easy reach of the casino and aforementioned sportsbook.

Other activities include horse-back riding at the resort’s stables, bowling in the basement alleys, kids’ activities in the Just for Kids hangout, bike rentals, swimming pools (the original mechanical retracting glass dome is sadly gone, however), golf academies, and any number of concerts and shows hosted by the casino. French Lick Springs and West Baden also house boutique shopping, wineries, and many options for dining and drinking.

The verdict on French Lick Resort and West Baden Hotel

As you drive into the still rather isolated valley that holds West Baden and French Lick, you can almost feel the hands of time turning back. Strolling through the historic grounds of the hotels, taking a treatment at the spas, or rocking on the front porch with an icy beverage transports you fully back in the early years of the past century. You almost expect Al Capone or Diamond Jim Brady to wander past. If the ghosts of Gilded Age Past start rattling at your heels, though, the new Valley Tower surrounds you with modern comforts. And the immaculate, unique golf links are literally timeless. No other Midwestern golf resort feels quite like this, and no other resort anywhere pairs Donald Ross with Pete Dye.

TimberStone Golf Course at Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort: Gateway to the UP

Iron Mountain sounds like a name borrowed from a fantasy novel populated with elves and titans and dragons. But Iron Mountain, Michigan, is a real place. It lies just across the Menominee River, which marks the state line between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or UP). Instead of mythical beings, Iron Mountain is populated with sports legends, or at least so it seems, given that it is the hometown of Michigan State Men’s Basketball coach Tom Izzo and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci. Iron Mountain’s location allows it to bill itself as “Gateway to the UP” – in fact, it is one of the few towns in Michigan that is in the Central Time Zone.

So Iron Mountain is real, as is the somewhat far-off land called The UP. But Michigan golf actually is fantastic, with over 650 public golf courses occupying some of the most dynamic landscapes you will find in the US. For golfers venturing into this fantastical world of Michigan golf—and in particular UP golf—TimberStone Golf Course at Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort in Iron Mountain is an ideal gateway.

TimberStone Golf Course measures from 5,060 yards to 6,938 yards, with six teeing options for players of all calibers. The Jerry Matthews design meanders up, around, and down the resort’s namesake Pine Mountain. It was listed as one of America’s best courses in 2109 by Golf Digest, and has been ranked as the 6th-best course in the state by Golfweek. Upon opening in the thick of the “golf boom” in 1998, TimberStone was ranked as 3rd-best “New Upscale Public” course in America, also by Golf Digest.

Matthews, who passed away at age 88 just days after I visited TimberStone, was known as the Johnny Appleseed of Michigan golf. He is single-handedly responsible for designing nearly 100 of those 650 public Michigan courses and over 200 courses nationwide. No one understood Michigan topography, soil, and climate like Matthews. This deep understanding of the Great Lakes State’s golf terroir allowed him to lay out courses atop the land. He was not a sculptor, as many golf course architects are described, but rather a papier mâché artist, contouring layers of fairways and greens across the frame that Mother Nature had provided for him.  

TimberStone Golf Course is considered by many to be one of his finest works, as every hole feels like it “fits” into the rugged landscape seamlessly, as if it had always been there – from time immemorial, when dragons did prowl Iron Mountain.

Playing TimberStone Golf Course

In a 2003 interview with Matthews, I asked whom he had in mind when he designed courses, and his answer was clear: “I design courses with 70 percent or more of players in mind. I’m not trying to test the pros in my designs.” But this doesn’t mean his courses are pushovers. The slope rating from the tips at TimberStone is a whopping 150. Again, the land dictates the layout and the strategy involved for navigating each hole.

The 359-yard, par-4 1st is the proverbial “gentle handshake,” as it plays downhill and doglegs left to right slightly off the tee and to the green, accommodating recreational players’ predominant shot shape. But then the 434-yard, par-4 2nd greets you with its narrow tree-lined fairway that slopes sharply to the left into bunkers and woods.

TimberStone, Hole 2 tee shot

Matthews was known for seeking out spots for elevated tees and greens. He understood how much recreational players enjoy hitting driver and watching their shots fly majestically down toward the fairways. He preferred to avoid lay-ups off the tee and blind landing areas. Nevertheless, when the land dictated strategic play and prudent club choices, that’s what you get. For example, on the 501-yard, par-5 5th, water lurking close off the tee on the left may force longer hitters with less control to take less than driver to ensure they stay dry. The same goes for the 414-yard 6th, the number-one handicap hole, with water all left and a “peninsular” fairway that calls for precise aim and power. Players from more forward tees might be wise to club down in order to find the fat part of the peninsula.

TimberStone, Hole 5
TimberStone, Hole 6 approach

On the back nine, several more elevated tees will delight players on both short and long holes. The one-two punch of the 215-yard 17th and 625-yard 18th – both memorable downhill tee shots – promise to cap off this prototypical Northern Michigan round. The trisected 18th fairway in particular requires not just power, but also planning and execution to plot out your path from each section of fairway to the next, avoiding ditches and water along the way.

TimberStone, Hole 17 — Choose your club wisely, as the elevation takes at least thirty yards off the shot. And do NOT go right!
TimberStone, Hole 18 — The fairway tumbles down over several rock ledges.

The verdict

TimberStone Golf Course is a quintessential Northern Michigan experience: wilderness, elevation changes, flawless playing conditions. Another typical Michigan aspect of TimberStone is value. The highest peak-season green fee is $129 with cart. That works out to about $7.17 per hole. There’s not a single hole here that doesn’t warrant at least that price, from any set of tees. Matthews was committed to ensuring all his courses delivered enjoyment and challenge from every tee box, for all players. He will be greatly missed, but his contribution to Michigan golf will live on for decades to come.

Logistics, Victuals, and Libations

Of course Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort is a logical place to stay right in Iron Mountain. If you are thinking of widening your range, though, consider exploring the UP from the Island Resort and Casino in Harris, which is only about 30 minutes from TimberStone. The resort’s “Perfect Foursome” stay-and-play package includes rounds at TimberStone, both Island Resort Courses (Sweetgrass and Sage Run), and the stunning Mike DeVries layout, Greywalls in Marquette.

The drive from Chicago to Iron Mountain is only about 5 hours, shorter actually than from Detroit, which is about 6.5. The closest airport is in Escanaba (45 min), and Marquette (1.5 hrs) and Green Bay (2 hrs) are also within reach.

After your round, be sure to stop into Famer’s Restaurant at the Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort. It’s a rather magnificent round-barn-like space packed full with UP sports memorabilia, from Izzo and Mariucci to numerous Olympians and dozens of professional and college athletes with connections to the UP.

Greywalls in Marquette, Michigan: Nothing like you’ve ever seen

Lake Superior is so large and deep that it could contain all of the other Great Lakes plus three more the size of Lake Eerie. As immortalized in the classic Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Lake Superior can be unforgiving, with 100-foot walls of icy gray water pounding ships and shore during winter storms.

On the shores of Lake Superior lies Greywalls, a golf course that matches the natural splendor – and some of the dread – of the lake itself. This 6,828-yard Mike DeVries masterpiece traverses the craggiest, roughest terrain you will find on any golf course east of The Rockies. Just driving a golf cart on some of sections of the paved path feels like an extreme sport. The only flat lie I can remember from my round was my third shot on the par-5 18th hole – and I remember every shot at Greywalls because it is one of the most memorable courses I’ve ever experienced.

The sun sets behind the 9th green at Greywalls, and beyond the waters of Lake Superior (courtesy Brian Walters)

Playing Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club

Greywalls is the second course at the Marquette Golf Club in Marquette, on the north shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or UP). The original “Heritage” course at Marquette Golf Club dates back to 1926. This Langford and Gill classic was so popular amongst the golf-crazed and summer-starved denizens of the UP and throngs of summer visitors that the club enlisted DeVries to lay out a course on an adjacent 153-acre plot in 2002 – a course that could never have even been imagined in 1926, when oxen and a solitary steam shovel were the earth-moving tools.

In 2005, the new 18 holes opened to the public under the moniker of Greywalls, so-named because of the many sheer limestone walls that the course weaves through, vaults over, and tumbles down.

From the clubhouse, it’s quite a drive ever-upward to the first tee, which overlooks Lake Superior. On a clear day, you can see over 50 miles away to the Pictured Rocks in Munising. The course is laid out in two loops, with 1st and 10th tees and 9th and 18th greens at the highest point of the property, along with a well-stocked half-way house. The elevation here is such that you might not realize that the crystalline lake water is not just a continuation of the equally blue sky.

There’s an old golf cliché about the first hole of a course being “a gentle handshake.” At Greywalls, the 579-yard, par-5 1st is the number-one handicap hole – it’s a powerful slap right in the chops. It requires a long carry off the tee to a rollercoaster of a fairway. I found the short grass with my drive, but between two eight-foot “waves” in the fairway where I was unable to see beyond five feet in front of me. It was like a turfgrass version of “the perfect storm.”  

At the 425-yard, par-4 2nd – the number-three handicap hole – you get another sharp smack in the face. The fairway slopes left to right, and disappears altogether on the right as you approach the green. Basically anything right from tee to green is dead. After these first two holes, you’re wide awake, no matter how early your tee time.

Greywalls, Hole 1 — Those wave in the fairway are at least 7 feet high
Greywalls, Hole 2 — the right rough is NOT the place to try to come into the green from.

At the 312-yard, par-4 5th, the name “Greywalls” is really driven home, as the green is surrounded by exposed rock cliffs. And the 188-yard 6th hole looks more like 288 yards from the tees; there should be a photo of it in the dictionary under the word “daunting.”

Tee shot at the short par-4 5th of Greywalls (aim at that lone tall tree in the middle)
Navigate the tee shot on the 5th, and this is your approach. As you exit past the grey wall on the right, ring the bell to let the group behind know you’ve cleared the green.
Greywalls, Hole 6 — one of the most daunting par 3 tee shots in recent memory (looks a lot longer than 188 yards!)

The back nine is no less exhilarating. The 336-yard, par-4 10th presents players with a decision to go left or right – or so you think. I blasted a good drive up the right side to the top of a steep hill. When I arrived at where I thought my ball was, I discovered that it had rolled some 85 yards down and backwards to the left edge of the fairway. The 491-yard 12th is a real big-boy par 4 whose downhill routing is counteracted by the prevailing cold wind off Lake Superior, and the fairway is full of bunkers to boot. (Speaking of which, you’ll much rather be in the sand than in the fescue “eyelashes” encircling all the bunkers.)

The 533-yard, par-5 18th is simply a bonkers closer, with a blind landing area in a mogul-riddled ravine. Your second shot is to a landing area as wide as a football field and as flat – again, this is literally the first level lie I found on the entire course.

Greywalls, Hole 12
Greaywalls, Hole 18 — the end of a wild, wild ride

The Verdict

According to Marc Gilmore, Head Golf Professional at Greywalls, there are about 600 members at Greywalls, and most are local. If I lived in Marquette, I would be one, and I would play here daily – and I guarantee I would never have the same shot twice. “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you” is the Michigan state motto. The Greywalls motto should be, “If you seek a flat lie, good luck with that.”

Despite the stout challenge, Greywalls is an unmitigated pleasure to play – and a thrilling pleasure at that. Peak season green fees are $180, which comes out to $10 a hole. There is not one single hole on the course that is not worth $10, as there is not a single hole here like any you have played before.

Logistics, Victuals, and Libations

Marquette has its own airport, so if you’re thinking about staying local, it’s an obvious choice. There are numerous restaurants and other attractions in the UP’s largest city to keep you busy. The Vierling is perhaps the city’s most popular restaurant and watering hole, so make a reservation. For a sampling of local brews, check out Ore Dock Brewing Co., which is just a couple blocks from The Vierling. Ore Dock doesn’t serve food, but there will likely be a food truck nearby, so you can order grub while sipping a beer or two outside or inside.

If you’re thinking of expanding your range, though, consider exploring the UP from the Island Resort and Casino in Harris, which is only about a 1.5 hour drive from Greywalls. The resort’s “Perfect Foursome” stay-and-play package includes rounds at Greywalls, both Island Resort Courses (Sweetgrass and Sage Run), and TimberStone Golf Course in Iron Mountain .

Tee UP: Island Resort and Casino’s Sweetgrass and Sage Run Golf Courses

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – known as The UP – is thought of as a dense wilderness inhabited by more black bears, gray wolves, and white-tailed deer than people. There’s a reason for this: there are actually far more bears, wolves, and deer than people in the UP. So naturally, the UP is a paradise for campers, hikers, hunters, and anglers. But it’s also home to more domesticated attractions, including golf – that paradoxical outdoor sport that is played by millions of indoorsy people. And there is no more luxurious home base for golfers looking to sample the rugged beauty of the UP while batting a tiny white ball around manicured fairways than Island Resort and Casino in Harris. With two of the state’s top courses on-property, Island Resort and Casino is the perfect place to “tee UP.”

Island Resort and Casino (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)

 Sweetgrass Golf Club

Sweetgrass Golf Club – named after the traditional Potawatomi medicinal herb that is planted bountifully throughout the course – opened in 2007 to rave reviews. The Paul Albanese design, which measures from 5,075 to 7,275 yards, was named as one of America’s Best New Courses in 2009 by Golf Digest and is routinely found on lists of the top-ten courses in the state. In 2022, it was named the 2022 National Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association.

Sweetgrass lies adjacent to the resort and casino and is visible from the rooms on the top floors. Generous bentgrass fairways are bordered by juicy bluegrass rough and tufts of sweetgrass and fescue. It is relatively flat and windswept – infrequent characteristics for UP golf courses – and is also perfectly walkable, which is likewise not usual for UP courses, where the landscape often necessitates long walks between holes and steep climbs to tees. Not here, though, which is one reason Sweetgrass hosts the EPSON Tour’s Island Resort Championship, a major stop on the Road to the LPGA.

The other reason is the masterful architectural flourishes Albanese incorporated into the design. These features, which hearken back to some of golf history’s most iconic holes, are prominent in the green complexes. At the 469-yard, par-4 4th, you’ll find a reverse Redan green, running downhill from front to back right, away from what will likely be a very long approach shot. At the 230-yard, par-3 7th, the traditional Redan runs front-to-back again, but this time off to the left.

Sweetgrass Golf Club, 9th Hole, with resort in the distance

On the back nine, golfers are treated to a classic Biarritz green on the 214-yard 12th, with a six-foot deep swale between the front and back portions of the massive putting surface. Hope that the pin is cut in that swale or at the front when you play, because it is incredibly difficult to get your tee shot all the way to the back of the green. At the 168-yard 15th, precision is required to land and stop your ball on the island green that players access via a picturesque trestle bridge.

Sweetgrass Golf Club, 12th tee
Sweetgrass Golf Club, Hole 15 island green (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)
Sweetgrass, Hole 18 — Stay left all the way back to the double green that is shared with Hole 9.

Sage Run Golf Course

Named after another traditional Potawatomi medicinal herb, Sage Run Golf Course opened in 2018 and was selected as one of the “Best New” golf courses in America by Golf Digest. Sage Run is located just five minutes from the main resort property, and tumbles and heaves through dense stands of towering hardwoods. Measuring between 5,231 and 7,375 yards, it is a staunch test for some of the nation’s top collegiate golfers as the annual host course of the Island Resort Collegiate Championship.

Sage Run, Hole 9 (courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)

Sage Run was also designed by Paul Albanese. It is rare for a resort to have two courses by the same architect, as golfers enjoy variety. But Albanese has done a truly brilliant job executing two completely different design philosophies and styles. Whereas Sweetgrass has traditional features and incorporates historical aspects of design, Sage Run has a rugged, even wild, feel from the first tee to the final green. “Ribbon” teeing grounds run in long strips from the back to forward tees, allowing for enormous flexibility in yardages. Both fairways and rough are hearty bluegrass, while tees and greens are creeping bent. These turfgrass varietals combine to create a pristine yet natural look, and allow for a maintenance budget that is some $200,000 lower annually than Sweetgrass’s, while still maintaining impeccable playing conditions.

Sage Run’s greens are among the most difficult to navigate that I have ever played. They are firm and fast – running around 13 on the Stimp meter. By the time I had finished the 5th hole at Sage Run, I had already three-putted four times – as many as I had in my previous two rounds combined. Along with being firm and fast, the greens here are devilishly contoured, with multiple run-offs and false fronts and sides (see the photo of Hole 3 below). My playing partners and I all putted off the green at least once.

Perhaps most vexing – and masochistically enjoyable, I admit – is the fact that most of the putting surfaces are blind or semi-blind. Several of the par 3s are “surprise” holes, straight uphill: Hit your shot and then go see where it’s ended up. Who knows? Maybe in the hole!

Sage Run, Hole 3 — a blind green, even standing just short of it
Sage Run, Hole 4 — Players can’t see the green from the fairway on this long par 4.
Sage Run, Hole 12 — Bunkering, elevation, and an occluded green all add to the difficulty of this approach

In fact, if there’s one defining feature of Sage Run, it is the element of surprise: Nearly every hole consists of a blind landing area from the tee, a blind approach, a blind green, or all three. The 348-yard, par-4 16th, for example, presents an uphill tee shot to a saddleback fairway to a completely occluded green you can actually hit with a big drive. At the colossal 635-yard, par-5 18th, you can actually see the landing area off the tee (this is so rare that it made my notes), but the landing area for your lay up (and you will be laying up, no matter the tees you play) is totally blind.

Sage Run, Hole 13 — One of the few holes that is fully visible from the tee.
Sage Run, Hole 18 — A brilliant, demanding closing hole

Island Resort and Casino boasts two courses named to Golfweek’s list of “Top 50 Casino Courses in America.” They stand in sharp contrast to each other in terms of style and playing characteristics. You may love one or both, but you will definitely remember both. My advice would be to start with Sweetgrass to get warmed up, and then tackle Sage Run, where bad shots—and maybe even some good shots—can be harshly punished.

But hey, that’s the nature of the rugged spit of land they call The UP. It’s wild, it’s rough, it’s beautiful. Most of all, it’s fun—so “Tee UP!”

Eagles — gno, in Potawatomi — carved from the trees at Sweetgrass

Island Resort and Casino is a Sure Bet for Golf in Michigan’s UP

“Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circum spice” is Michigan’s state motto. If you don’t happen to read Latin, the English translation is, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” And a more apt state motto you will not find. No matter where you are standing in Michigan, you’re on a peninsula. The lower peninsula is the “mitten” most people picture when they think of Michigan. The upper peninsula, aka The UP (usually pronounced “Da Yu-Pee”), is a rugged spike connected to the lower peninsula by the Mackinac Bridge (the 5th-longest suspension bridge in the world) and to Wisconsin by land. The UP shares many characteristics with the lower peninsula, but also has an atmosphere and ethos all its own. One characteristic it shares with the rest of the Great Lakes State is spectacular golf.

Golfers unfamiliar with the Great Lakes region may be intimidated by visions of winter blizzards, but the five months from May through September—with maybe a couple bonus weeks on either end—are prime golf season. And because Michigan is on the bleeding edge of the Eastern time zone, mid-summer light hangs on until nearly 11pm.

The UP offers topography unique in the Eastern U.S.: dramatic elevation, sheer rock cliffs, vistas across hardwood forests and over the seemingly endless expanses of the Great Lakes. For golfers in the know – or those curious about a new destination – there is one obvious choice for a home base in the UP: Island Resort and Casino. Located in Harris, Island Resort and Casino actually lies on the line between Eastern and Central time zones, and the resort vibe is equally Januslike. Island is one of the largest casino, golf, and entertainment resorts in the Midwest, with every amenity imaginable: Drift Spa, indoor waterpark, golf, exhaustive gaming options, fine dining, convention center, national headliner entertainment. With the addition of the North Tower, opened in 2022, the resort now has over 450 guest rooms, including new golf suites.

Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino
Horizons Steakhouse (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)
Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino

At the same time, there is a deep history here, and a local, family atmosphere deriving from the resort’s full ownership by the Hannahville Indian Community. The Potawatomi community, established in the early 1830s by Peter and Hannah Marksman for Potawatomi people who had escaped the forced marches of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, has remained strong and proud ever since. Potawatomi means “Keepers of the Fire,” and the casino resort is a shining symbol of that fire, their resolve to not just survive, but to thrive.

Golf at Island Resort and Casino

Island Resort and Casino boasts two 18-hole championship golf courses, both of which were recently ranked among the top 50 casino courses in American by Golfweek. Both courses were designed by Paul Albanese, but nevertheless contrast sharply in feel and philosophy.

Sweetgrass Golf Club opened in 2007 and has been ranked by multiple golf publications as one of the top-ten courses in the golf-rich state of Michigan, including inclusion among Golf Digest’s Best New Public Golf Courses in 2009. Many of the holes pay homage to classic golf course architectural features, including Redan, Biarritz, island, and double green complexes. At the same time, holes are named after traditional Potawatomi clans, villages, medicines, and symbols. Sweetgrass, itself named after a traditional medicinal herb that is planted throughout the course, hosts the EPSON Tour’s Island Resort Championship, one of the major events on the Road to the LPGA.

asino)Sweetgrass Golf Club (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and C

Sage Run opened in 2018 and was also ranked by Golf Digest as one of the Best New Courses in America. Located just five minutes away from the main resort property, Sage Run has a more rugged feel, with fescue-lined fairways pocked with massive flash-faced bunkers that rise and tumble through hardwood forests. Sage Run hosts the Island Resort Collegiate Championship annually, which draws a dozen of the best college teams and players in the nation.

Sage Run Golf Course (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)

The Perfect Foursome

Island Resort and Casino has partnered with two other legendary UP golf courses, Greywalls in Marquette and TimberStone Golf Course in Iron Mountain. Both of these breathtaking layouts have been ranked in the top-10 courses in the state, and fully customizable stay-and-play packages are available. At Greywalls, players will marvel at panoramic views of Lake Superior and maybe fear a little for their lives as they traverse the jagged, heaving landscape. At Timberstone, players will find one dramatic tee shot after another as the course wends its way up and back down Iron Mountain. Depending on options and season, prices for this supremely memorable golf experience range from $95-$758, and it’s a steal at either end of that range.

As someone who began seriously playing golf at age 30 in Michigan, I feel like the state motto could just as aptly be “If you seek a pleasant fairway, look around you.” There are over 650 public golf courses in the state alone (not counting a myriad private clubs). The four bundled in Island Resort’s “Perfect Foursome” are honestly among the very best.

Logistics, Victuals, and Libations

The drive from Chicago to Island Resort and Casino is only about 5.5 hours, shorter actually than from Detroit, which is about 6. The closest airport is in Escanaba (15 min), and Marquette (1.5 hrs) and Green Bay (2.5 hrs) are also within reach.

Be sure to book at least one dinner at Horizon’s Steakhouse in the resort’s new North Tower. The crab cakes are a highly-recommended appetizer. Off-property, Stonehouse Restaurant in Escanaba is a local favorite—and wildly popular, so it would be wise to make a reservation.

The Forge at Palmer Hills: The family that putts together has fun together

The Quad Cities of Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, offer bountiful golf. Nearby Silvis, Illinois, even hosts a PGA Tour Event, The John Deere Classic, at the spectacular TPC at Deere Run. But the area’s courses don’t just cater to the core golf demographic. There are also plenty of opportunities for novices, juniors, seniors, and the “golf-curious” to explore and experience beautiful facilities without investing hours of time or hundreds of dollars.

Most people don’t realize that St. Andrew’s Links in Scotland is a massive municipal facility. Similarly, the Quad Cities’ municipal courses epitomize the best of America’s daily fee, public-access, community-owned golf, carrying on the long history of accessible, affordable golf. Palmer Hills in Bettendorf is one of the best examples in the nation of a municipal facility that feels and looks like a country club. With the addition of The Forge, its new 18-hole putting course, Palmer Hills seeks to engage even a wider swath of the golf-curious public.

The Forge at Palmer Hills is an 18-hole putting course laid out over four enormous bentgrass greens.

Palmer Hills Golf Course is a William J. Spear design that opened in 1974. The par-71 layout stretches to just over 6,500 yards from the back tees, and has served as the venue for multiple local and state championships. It’s the home course for local high school teams, as well as the training ground of one of last year’s Drive, Chip, and Putt competitors, who competed in the finals at Augusta National. About 14 years ago, the clubhouse was completely redone, and the Palmer Grill draws large crowds of non-golfers for its lunch and brunch specials. Conditions rival those of any course in the area, including private clubs. Nevertheless, green fees max out at just $46 (with cart) on weekends.

Head Greenkeeper, Brian Hickey, has a degree in turf management from Iowa State and has earned awards from national greenkeepers’ associations for his stellar work at Palmer Hills. Under his watch, the course has expanded the driving range and practice facilities as well as added The Forge.

The Forge itself consists of 4 separate greens, the second of which measures 30,000 square yards. Each green contains at least a couple of the 18 holes, which are routed out and back. Tee stands and holes are placed daily in new positions to reduce wear, and tee markers are designed with extremely useful drink holders. (A putting course is ideally suited for pairing libations and competition, after all.) The pristine bentgrass greens run at the same speed as the main course, right around 11 on the Stimp meter.

Custom-made tee markers at The Forge also provide handy places to hold your drinks.

There is no par on any hole – the scores just are whatever they are, harkening back again to the roots of golf when par didn’t exist. The flexible routings at The Forge bring to mind The Loop, the reversible Tom Doak course in Roscommon, Michigan, which plays in both directions, alternating from day to day. Tee boxes there are also just sort of positioned in the ground daily at various spots.

At just $8 for adults and $5 for kids, the tournament-quality putting course is competitively priced with and far more enjoyable than your standard “putt-putt” golf courses. There can be some severe breaks, but nothing is tricked up – players of The Forge will get a feel for what it’s like to putt on a REAL golf course, and might just catch the bug to get out and try the full-sized course. The lovely views from parts of The Forge onto the championship course are also quite enticing.

From The Forge, the view of the 14th tee of the main course provides the golf-curious with a taste of the beauty of Palmer Hills.

“Golf” means different things to different people. But golf should NOT mean exclusivity or inaccessibility to anyone. Municipal courses like Palmer Hills stand as exemplars of what golf can mean to everyone: accessible family fun in a beautiful, sustainable environment. The main course has instituted a new teeing system that allows for enormous flexibility in teeing forward, allowing for a more pleasant and competitive experience for seniors and beginners. And The Forge serves as a gateway for anyone—golfer or not—to experience this jewel of the Bettendorf Parks system.

The future is bright for Kokopelli Golf Club in Marion, IL

(Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

Kokopelli Golf Club in Marion has seen its share of ups and downs over the past 25 years. The Steve Smyers design has seen multiple changes in ownership since its founding, including a group that included Smyers himself. The most recent owners are Rodney Cabaness and Shad Zimbro, local businessmen who have been at the helm for nearly two years. And they are revamping, reinvigorating, and reimagining everything from the restaurant to stay-and-play packages to bunkers and tees to the course’s social media presence – top to bottom, soup to nuts.

Opened in 1996 to great acclaim and anticipation, Kokopelli Golf Club takes full advantage of the 210-acre property. A former coal strip-mine, the land heaves and falls, and a gaping ravine grabs wayward shots on a number of holes.

The unique topography, along with the difficult grass-growing climate and soil type, however, engendered problems early on. There were also man-made faults in the course construction, which worsened over time. For example, many of the 98 original bunkers were not fitted with proper drains, and the silty clay soil beneath the sand and clogged them, creating gloppy messes every time it rained.

There are still 76 bunkers dotting Kokopelli’s rolling landscape.

Although some of these issues were addressed over the years by previous owners, Cabaness and Zimbro – owners of a local Harley-Davidson dealership, Rent One minor-league baseball park adjacent the course, and several other businesses – are committing impressive resources and as much time as necessary to address the remaining ones. Some of the problematic bunkers have been or are being removed or repositioned (there are now 76), and all are being rebuilt with the Billy Bunker System. Tees have been stretched out on several holes, and priority has been given to maintenance, with a new fleet of mowers and associated equipment. Smyers doesn’t believe in water on golf courses unless it is a natural feature of the land, so the original layout had none, aside from the quarry lake that hugs the 5th green. The new team is finding low spots on the course – such as between the tee and the fairway on 12 – and digging out some water features, too.

The par-3 5th Hole at Kokopelli Golf Club

Player experience is also being enhanced in other ways. There’s a fleet of new electric chrome-wheeled golf carts with GPS and integrated Bluetooth – you can take phone calls and play music right through your cart. In the clubhouse, players find craft cocktails and a completely new gourmet menu in The Turn. When you convince a local chef to close down his restaurant and take over your restaurant, you signal a real commitment to providing a first-class dining experience.

Literally everywhere you look on the course—and beyond it—you will find improvements in progress or in planning. Kaitlyn McCurdy, Kokopelli’s golf and social media/marketing manager, describes the continuous work as “Mind-blowing and exciting.” Says McCurdy, “We are planning and working towards making Kokopelli Golf Course your oasis and ‘The Destination of Southern Illinois.’”

Playing Kokopelli

Kokopelli Golf Club plays to a par of 71, and from the championship tees, it stretches to 6,992 yards. But this could change. Iterative tinkering has necessitated several rounds of new ratings and scorecards. As a result, the GPS in the carts needs to be updated, as some holes were about 10 yards off. That GPS is indispensable, too, as Smyers plays with your depth perception throughout the course. Just about every approach looks longer (and occasionally shorter) than it really is. I cannot recall any course that was not designed by Pete Dye that messes with your eyes as much.

On the front side, the strip mine pit comes into play quite picturesquely on the 426-yard 4th, where, depending on which tee box you choose, you might need to carry a large portion of the yawning morass. At present, the fairway is occluded by brush and trees growing up from the pit, but the plan is to shave them down so players can see most of the fairway, even form the tips. Even so, keeping everything well right of the pit is critical here, as it runs from tee to green.

The par-4 4th Hole at Kokopelli is pretty but dangerous any time of the day. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

The picturesque 146-yard 5th is about as daunting as a short par-3 can be, as the green is 40 feet below the tees and the putting surface is framed by water front, left, and some of the back. Club selection is critical. (Pro tip from McCurdy, a Marion HS golf stand-out: Use the US flag at the house on the hill behind the green rather than the flagstick to check the wind.)

Locals know to try to go low on the front side, as the back is considerably harder. The stretch of holes from 11-13, in particular, serve up one tricky tee shot after another, in terms of club selection, line, blind landing areas, and hazards. In fact, there are a good five or six mostly blind tee shots throughout the course, so again, that GPS is very handy.

The 9th green ends the “easier” part of Kokopelli. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)
And the 19th green is where the back-nine adventure begins.

The 525-yard par-5 closing hole is one of those blind shots, playing uphill over some fairway bunkers. A good drive sets you up for an eagle chance, but unless you’re knowledgeable or lucky, chances are you’ll be laying up from left of the fairway to the mounded, undulating green.

The best opportunities for birdies at Kokopelli are the four par 3s, which rank 15-18 in terms of their handicaps, yet there are always plenty of risks. The 204-yard 17th, the postcard hole on the back side, plays a bit downhill but is encircled with bunkers and mounding. Missing the green in the wrong spot makes for a tough bogey, not to mention par.

The par-3 17th at Kokopelli is as artistic as it is challenging.

Upgrading everything

As mentioned, the new owners are working and investing continuously in upgrading every aspect of the player’s experience. Three houses behind the 4th green have been purchased and are being renovated to accommodate groups of 6-8 right on the property.

The Turn restaurant offers pub fair to fine dining options, and plans are in place to expand and grow to allow for bigger groups, with more room for patrons to enjoy the best dining experience in town.

The Bacon Jam Burger at The Turn — with pickle fries! — hits the spot after a round.

Because Marion is so far south, most winters are warm enough to get out at least now and then all year. The owners are installing Turf Hound Product hitting mats at the practice range (which is also being expanded to resemble a circular stadium-style range) that will be open year-round, and there is a simulator in the Koko Simulator Suite in the clubhouse for cold snaps and rainy days.

The Koko Simulator Suite in the Kokopelli clubhouse is great for rainy days. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

The verdict

From day one, Kokopelli Golf Club has had enormous potential. It has hosted numerous regional and state championships over the years. Now, though, its full potential is being realized. At present, rates are just $49 with cart on weekdays and $59 on weekends, which is a bargain. Once all the improvements have come to fruition, rates may go up, but the extent of the upgrades will almost certainly be worth the price of admission, whatever the rate.

Kokopelli Golf Club has its sights on becoming THE Southern Illinois Golf Destination. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

Grand Geneva Resort and Spa: From bunnies to birdies

The Lake Geneva area of southern Wisconsin has been the preferred getaway for Chicagoans ever since 1871, when Chicago burned and industrialist families fled the remains of the city smoldering in the sweltering summer heat. The shores of Lake Geneva are lined with the “summer cottages” of families with names like Wrigley and Maytag – “cottages” with bedrooms numbering well into the double-digits.

In 1968, another famous Chicago millionaire – Hugh Hefner – opened the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Movie, sports, and TV stars flocked to the resort to enjoy the amenities of the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired resort. There they found first-class service, gourmet dining, and a host of outdoor activities, including 36 holes of championship golf.

Today, the Grand Geneva Resort maintains the tradition of excellence in a completely family-friendly environment, with upgraded facilities and even more outdoor activities. Along with horseback riding, zip-lining, mountain biking, tennis, swimming, skiing, snowmobiling, and the total relaxation of the WELL Spa, golf remains the centerpiece of the picturesque property.

One of the many memorable tee shots on The Highlands course

It is rare to find a Midwestern golf destination with two courses designed by very different course architects. The Highlands (originally dubbed The Briar Patch) was one of the earliest Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye collaborations. The Brute was laid out by Robert Bruce Harris, who was one of the more underrated Midwestern golf course architects of the second half of the 20th century. About 20% of play comes from resort guests, about 50% from day-trippers from Chicago, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, and the rest are members. Standard rack rates hover around $160 in peak season, but there are fabulous stay-and-play packages, some of which include unlimited golf or even “free” golf during certain seasons when booking a room at the resort.

Playing The Highlands

Early Nicklaus-Dye designs were notoriously difficult, and The Briar Patch was one of them. In the 1990s, Bob Cupp and Bob Lohman pruned the sharpest thorns from the course, and the redesigned layout was renamed The Highlands. At 6,625 yards from the back tees, length is not the only – or even main – defense here. Only four par 4s stretch to 400+ yards from the tips, and only two do so from the “members’” tees (including the stout 461/450-yard 9th). So club selection, shot-making, and ball placement are all vital to scoring. The Nicklaus-Dye strategic game is strong here.

One highlight is the bucolic 192-yard, par-3 4th, where the tee shot is nearly all carry over wetlands and a stream to a wide but shallow bowl of a green. Choose the right club and find the green for par; miss it, and a double-bogey or worse awaits.

Choose your club wisely at the par-3 4th hole on The Highlands.

On the back side, the 594-yard 11th stands out. It is a snaking par-5 with an awkward landing area off the tee. The elevated green resists shots of any length, especially foolhardy second shots. The putting surface is long and narrow, and it is set at an angle such that only a perfectly placed lay-up towards the front will have a chance to hold. If the pin is down front, where the surface is rather devilishly mounded, even a short wedge might trickle off.

The 11th hole on The Highlands is a strategic and difficult par 5.

Although The Highlands allows for some wayward drives today thanks to the 1990s redesign, its softened name belies its difficulty from tee to green.

Playing The Brute

The Brute is longer than The Highlands at 7,029 yards from the tips, and it is rated over 2 strokes more difficult (74.3 vs. 72.0), hence its moniker. Course architect Robert Bruce Harris was a master at what is now revered as “natural” course design. He largely allowed the land’s natural contours and flow dictate routing and shaping, and he could design interesting courses conforming to whatever budget he was given. In 1968, Hugh Hefner had a pretty large budget.

The tee shot on the 9th hole of The Brute is a fun, and challenging, one. How close to the water will you dare to get?

The Brute features numerous blind shots off the tees and occasionally elsewhere, so the GPS in the golf carts is extremely helpful. There is plenty of water and woods to swallow misbehaving golf balls. And the greens are a mixture of turtlebacks and potato chips, varying widely in size. There are some stark elevation changes from tee to fairway – most notably at the 500-yard par-5 11th, which teeters at the highest point of the property. Perhaps the most visually striking feature of The Brute is the bunkering: many bunkers are enormous, shallow circles that resemble gigantic dinner plates.

The wide, shallow bunkers on The Brute make for a lot of long bunker shots, even in greenside hazards.

Although power is at more of a premium here than on The Highlands, shot-making is still critical. At the 374-yard 3rd, for example, the steeply downhill fairway only levels out as it is pinched off to about 15 yards wide between two ponds. It is from here where you have the best chance to land your second shot on the domed green perched some 30 feet back up above the ideal landing spot. Stay too short off the tee, you’ll have a severely downhill lie for your second. Miss the flat spot right or left, you’ll be wet.

That sliver of fairway between the ponds is the ideal place to hit your second shot to the 3rd green on The Brute.

The closing three holes are where you’ll experience both the “beauty” and the “brute” of Harris’s design. The 190-yard 16th is a lovely par 3 playing from an elevated tee to an elevated green. The 420-yard 17th presents a gorgeous tee shot to a fairway set at an uncomfortable angle across the corner of a fountained pond. The 464-yard 18th rewards even a hammered drive with a long approach. If you do find the enormous green with your second (or third) shot, this is a very easy green to three-putt.

The tee shot on the 17th of The Brute calls for a big power fade…or a draw out over the pond back into the fairway.
The 18th green on The Brute is probably the largest on the course — the site of my only 3-putt of the day.

The Resort

As noted, the resort itself pays homage to Wright’s Prairie style – long, low, horizontal lines, mixtures of textures and materials, and strong central geometric features. Moving between floors and buildings can be somewhat disorienting, but the plentiful signage reassures you that people like Sonny and Cher and Sammy Davis, Jr., used to get turned around in the same hallways.

The rooms have been updated and retrofitted with all the modern amenities. If you spring for a suite—some of which overlook The Brute – you’ll have plenty of room to spare.

Dining options are plentiful, with the Grand Café offering fine seasonal fare, and the Geneva ChopHouse serving up fine dining options. The bar in the main lobby overlooking the pool is a classy and classic place for a pre- or post-dinner drink.

Whenever I bring up the Grand Geneva Resort to an older golfing buddy of mine, he regales me (again…and again) with the story of how he hung out with Axl Rose and Stephanie Seymour at the pool during a golf trip to the resort in the early 1990s. I can’t promise a brush with the rich and famous today, but I can guarantee a luxurious, historic vacation – and golf! – experience in the heart of the Midwest.

Behind the 3rd green of The Brute

SentryWorld reasserts dominance in Wisconsin destination golf

Before Whistling Straits. Before Erin Hills. Before Wild Rock. Before Sand Valley.

Before all of these Wisconsin “destination” golf courses, there was SentryWorld.

The 2023 U.S. Senior Open will culminate on the 18th green of SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

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.

The Inn at SentryWorld, which opened in March, 2022, blends first-class comfort with rustic charm.

Playing SentryWorld

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.

Course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., called the par-3 16th at SentryWorld “My Mona Lisa.” Today, the staff call it “The Flower Hole” because of the 33,000 flowers planted around it every season. They’ll be in full bloom for the 2023 U.S. Senior Open.

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.

If you pick your club and line correctly off the tee of the par-5 5th, you’ll need to contend with the tower tree that stands “sentry” at the green on your second shot.
Sometimes the best vantage point for truly brilliant holes is behind the green, like here behind the 5th.

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.  

It’s rare for the four most difficult holes on a course be the par 5s, especially when only one is over 600 yards. The stream meandering through the 9th at SentryWorld provides plenty of strategic difficulty.

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.

Not much room for error short or long at the par-4 4th.
The 611-yard 10th is the third-hardest hole on SentryWorld and the only par 5 to stretch to over 600 yards from the tips..

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.

Comfy beds and great views of the 18th hole at The Inn at SentryWorld
The patios at The Inn are great for watching the day, and golfers, go by.

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.

The verdict

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.

Honma TW757 Fairway Woods boast tradition and tech

Japan is a golf-crazed nation. The sport is associated with status, leisure, and wealth. When I lived there in the early and mid 1990s, I would sometimes spend $200 in an evening just at a driving range–and the range was packed with golf nuts like me.

Honma is one of the top golf equipment companies in Japan, and it has the second-largest following outside of the Land of the Rising Sun, after Mizuno. Dozens of players on professional tours around the world fill their bags with Honma’s high-tech, high-performance sticks.

Honma’s TW757 line includes drivers, fairway woods, hybrids, and irons. Because fairway woods are particularly difficult for amateurs to strike consistently, this is an excellent entry point into Honma equipment – if the fairway woods perform for you, you can be confident the rest of the clubs will, too.

For a decade, my 3-wood – which used to be one of my favorite clubs – has been balky. It seems I can only hit low hooks. So I was eager to test the Honma TW757 3W ($415) to see if it would address this chronically dismal state of affairs.

How it plays

The TW757 3-wood has 15 degrees of loft and a 175cc clubhead constructed of a 455 maraging steel cupped face and an ultra-light carbon fiber crown. Honma builds all of its own graphite shafts in its Sakata plant, so even the stock Vizard shaft for TW757 is precisely tuned for performance with Honma clubheads.

There’s a slot on the sole parallel to the face to expand the effective hitting area and maintain ballspeed even on mishits. The center of gravity is extremely low and deep (with a standard 9-gram tungsten weight at the back of the sole). This weighting scheme delivers the most solid, powerful-feeling strikes I have ever experienced with a 3W. The compact head feels like a true fairway wood, unlike the oversized semi-drivers some companies call “fairway woods,” so contact from the fairway or rough is extremely consistent.

Most importantly for me, though, I’m finally once again able to get the TW757 in the air. I can even hit a high cut with it – something I have been vexingly unable to do for so many years now. At least, I can hit that shot on the (much cheaper American) driving range; we’ll see if I can transfer it to the course regularly. In any case, confidence is beginning to return to my long game.

The verdict

Golf is a passion in Japan, and Honma builds top-quality clubs to fuel that passion. The TW757 fairway woods are rock-solid, with tour-proven performance and power. I’ve even hit it off the tee a few times on the course to see how it stacks up to my driver, and the distances are not that different. It makes the round much more fun to have confidence once again to stand 250 yards out from a par-5 green and think, “Gambatte-yo!” – “Go for it!” in Japanese.