Review: The River Course at Blackwolf Run

Course Name: The River Course at Blackwolf Run

Designer: Pete Dye (1988 – Holes 1-4, 14-18, 1990 – Holes 5-13)

Location: Kohler, Wisconsin

History: Commissioned by billionaire Herb Kohler, Pete Dye completed construction of Blackwolf Run in 1988. This composite course featured today’s Back 9 from the Meadow Valleys Course and holes 1-4 and 14-18 of today’s River Course. Despite receiving Golf Digest’s coveted “Top New Public Course” award, Pete Dye broke up the courses and planned to create 18 more holes. Hole 5-13 of the River Course were completed in August 1990.

Most notably, Blackwolf Run has hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens (1998 and 2012), which were played on the original 1988 design. Si Re Pak won in dramatic fashion in 1998, and her win is credited for popularizing women’s golf in Asia. From 1995 to 1997, the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf hosted a PGA tournament on The River Course. Considered one of the most challenging courses in America, The River has raked in the accolades, including:

  • #15 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #92 on America’s Greatest Golf Courses – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #4 Best Course in Wisconsin – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #19 Best Public Course in America – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #2 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #4 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – Golfweek (2017-2018)

Conditions: 9/10, Just like its sister course The Meadow Valleys, conditioning at The River is some of the best you’ll ever see. The fairways, bunkers, and teeboxes are fantastic and I have especially high praise for the greens. While receptive, these green surfaces were lightning fast and smooth, and simply a joy to putt on.

Value: 3/10, At just north of $300 to play, The River Course is sure to put a dent in your finances, especially if you take a caddie. We played on an all-inclusive package, and felt it was a pretty good deal considering how much each of the courses costs individually.

Scorecard:

Tee                     Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Back                  72            7404               76.2              151

Blue                   72           6865                73.7             144

Green                72           6507                72.1             139

White                72           6110                70.3             132

Red                    72           5115                70.3             125

Best Score: 86 (Blue Tees), 6/29/2017 with Will S.

Front 9 Best: 45 (Blue Tees), 6/29/2017 with Will S.

Back 9 Best: 41 (Blue Tees), 6/29/2017 with Will S.

Hole Descriptions: In stark contrast to Whistling Straits (a course it’s frequently compared to), The River Course at Blackwolf Run is almost entirely natural. These holes are seamlessly routed through the dense forest and snaking Sheboygan River, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more isolated from the rest of the world on a golf course.

This was the last course my friend and I played on our Wisconsin golf trip, and one we expected the most carnage on. Everything I read prior to coming pointed out that The River was the most challenging course in Wisconsin – even more so than Whistling, which I struggled with two days prior. A stout 144 slope seemed to reinforce this notion. After playing, I was pleasantly surprised at how playable, and more importantly how fair The River Course was. This strategy-heavy course requires golfers to choose and execute their shot to navigate the course well. This was my best ball-striking day of the trip, and honestly there’s no better feeling in the world than choosing a ball-flight or line and then perfectly executing the shot. If this is your cup of tea, you will absolutely adore The River as much as I did. While I consider Whistling Straits more penal and challenging, it’s undeniable The River Course has the toughest greens in Wisconsin, and perhaps some of the toughest in the country. Pete Dye designed this course with the philosophy that hitting your approach to 50 feet shouldn’t be rewarded with tap-in pars. Some of the slopes on these greens are ridiculous, and if you get through here without a three-putt, you’re either lying or Jordan Spieth.

The opening hole at The River Course is the longest par 5 at 564 yards. The Sheboygan River lines the entire left side of the hole and thick fescue lines the right side of the landing area. There’s a fairway bunker at 230 yards in the right rough and several on both sides of the lay-up area. A severe right-to-left sloped green makes par a great score here.

IMG_3677
The intimidating teeshot on the 1st Hole – “Snake”

For such a difficult course, The River is on the shorter side with five par fours under 400 yards. The 2nd hole is one of them at 370 yards, and certainly one of the easier holes out there. Nicknamed “Burial Mounds”, this tight fairway is lined with dense trees that overhang on the left and mounds of fescue on the right. Do whatever it takes to hit the fairway here, as you’ll have no shot otherwise. This green is receptive, but well-protected with four surrounding bunkers.

IMG_3678
It’s not hard to see why the 2nd is named “Burial Mounds”
IMG_3679
My friend’s approach on the 2nd – don’t miss left here

At 410 yards, the par 4 3rd hole is the number 1 handicap, but I don’t really understand why. This dogleg right runs slightly uphill to a generous fairway you have to hit a poor shot to miss. Trees frame the right side of the fairway, and anything right of them will be lost or find a long, hidden bunker which lends the hole its name “Gotcha.” The approach shot here is narrower than the drive, but is receptive to runners. I made par and gained some much needed confidence going forward.

IMG_3680
Stay left of the trees to find a generous fairway
IMG_3681
The approach to the number 1 handicap 4th

At 195 yards, the 4th hole is a gem of a par 3. Swan Lake (usually graced with swans) lines the entire right side of this hole, making for a very intimidating teeshot, especially for those who hit a right-to-left ballflight. This heavily-undulating green is long and narrow, leading to many three-putts.

IMG_3816
The 4th teeshot was one of my favorites on the entire trip

After a long cartride through the dense Wisconsin woods, you make your way to the newest holes at Blackwolf Run (5-13). Many critics prefer the composite course that skips these holes, but that’s hard for me to fathom considering how fantastic the 5th hole is. Easily the best par 4 at The River Course, and arguably one of the best par fours I’ve ever played, this gorgeous downhill hole plays 400 yards. The Sheboygan River looms to the right, while bunkers line both sides of this fairway. More about this hole below.

IMG_3684
The 5th tee is probably the best place for a photo at Blackwolf Run

At only 361 yards, the par 4 6th plays as the easiest hole on the front 9. Accuracy is the key to this blind dogleg right, as drives too far long or left will be lost. I hit 4-iron and only had wedge in, while my partner hit driver high and to the right. We thought his ball was gone, so he hit a provisional just to be safe. When we turned the corner, both his balls were within 5 yards of each other dead smack in the middle of the fairway. Just goes to show you there are multiple ways to get around The River Course.

IMG_3692
The approach to the par 4 6th with the Acuity flag in the background

The 7th hole is one of the most challenging holes on the front playing 401 yards as a tight dogleg left. A deep 120 yard long bunker lines the left side of the fairway all the way to the dogleg and makes for a very challenging approach shot (trust me, I know). This sloping green is guarded by fescue to the left and a deep, deep bunker short right.

IMG_3693
The view from the 7th tee

After being “Made in Heaven” on the 5th hole, you stare down “Hell’s Gate” on the extremely intimidating 8th tee. This dogleg right par 5 is reachable at only 524 yards if (big if) you’re able to hit this fairway. To do this, you need to navigate a blind downhill teeshot over 170 yards of ravine through a chute of trees. Sound easy enough? Once you reach the fairway, you realize it’s more generous than it appeared. The approach shot runs back uphill with two fairways to choose from – an elevated one to the right and a more generous one on the left. I lost my first ball of the day going right off this tee, and don’t feel too bad about it.

IMG_3695
The 8th Tee – the opening to “Hell’s Gate”
IMG_3696
If you look right off the tee, you can see the Kohler Factory in the background
IMG_3697
The approach from the lower left side of the 8th fairway

The only drivable par 4 at The River Course, the devilish 9th hole is also one of the most talked about. In classic Pete Dye fashion, this hole presents players with options off the tee. Going for the green on the right actually looks easier than the fairway, which is on the left sandwiched between trees. The Sheboygan River runs along the right side of this hole, leaving no bailout option for players who go for glory off the tee. I was advised by my caddie to play the hole conservatively to the left, and did so successfully before messing up my approach to this shallow left-to-right sloped green guarded by the river long and large bunker short. Making triple here from 115 out was probably the low-point of my round.

IMG_3698
Going for the green is tantalizing but the smart play is to the left

The 10th hole is unique in several ways. First, it’s a par 3 which might make the observant golfer realize the back 9 plays as a par 35. Second, it feels like you’re nowhere near the clubhouse, a consequence of the fact that holes 5-13 were added later. At 204 yards, this challenging hole requires a straight shot to avoid numerous greenside bunkers and water to the right. This hole also features one of the most challenging greens on the course.

IMG_3700
The long par 3 10th – “River and Marsh”

The consensus best par 5 at The River Course, the 560 yard dogleg right is a formidable three-shot hole that requires three accurate shots to have a chance at par. The drive here is fairly open, but you’ll find the river or bunkers if you go right of the right trees. From the fairway, this hole turns sharply right, with the river hugging the right side of the hole the entire way. More on this fantastic hole below.

IMG_3701
The view from the 11th tee

At a behemoth 465 yards, the par 4 12th is the number 2 handicap and in my estimation the most challenging hole at The River Course. Called “Long Lagoon”, this hole requires a carry over water to reach the fairway. If you bail out right, you don’t need to carry as much but you’ll have almost no shot to this tiny green. If you decide to carry the entire lagoon on the left, you need a carry of at least 220 yards. A large bunker in the middle of the fairway 250 yards off the tee borders on unfair. This green is guarded by the river on the right and bunkers deep left. A par here feels like a birdie.

IMG_3703
Driver is needed on the forced carry 12th – “Long Lagoon”

At 205 yards, the 13th is the longest par 3 at The River and undoubtedly the most challenging. With the river lining the entire right side and tall trees blocking out some of the green, many view this hole as unfair. Me personally? I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly one of the hardest one-shotters I’ve ever played.

After a long drive through the woods and under a tunnel, you reach the original Blackwolf Run holes for the final stretch. The 14th is the shortest par 4 at The River Course at only 310 yards. Despite its length, this hole can lead to some carnage with an extremely skinny fairway bordered on the right by Swan Lake. Mounds on the left will give you a blind second shot, but are undeniably better than being in the water. This long, narrow green is one of the most sloping on the course; When I played, the pin was front left and I literally had to aim my first putt 20 feet to the right to two-putt.

IMG_3706
The intimidating 14th teeshot

One of my pet peeves is when golf courses that automatically make par threes the lowest handicapped holes because they’re short. With some of the hardest par threes I’ve ever played, The River Course feels the same way and makes the actual easiest hole the 18th handicap – the 15th “The Sand Pit.” Playing downhill at 354 yards, this straightaway par 4 is a one of the few good birdie chances out here if you can avoid several large fairway bunkers. One particularly devastating bunker lies short left of the green.

IMG_3707
The par 4 15th – “The Sand Pit”
IMG_3708
Whatever you do, avoid the bunker short left on 15

I seriously considered placing the 560 yard par 5 16th as the best par 5 at The River. Perhaps this is because I played this strategic hole literally perfect for a tap-in birdie, but I digress. A straight drive is needed here to avoid trees on the right and a deep, 130 yard long bunker on the left side of the fairway. The fun really starts on the lay-up, as this fairway snakes left-to-right around the river. A tall linden tree on the edge of the river forces players to choose to go left or right of it to avoid being blocked out. The approach shot from the left plays over the river to diagonal green perched on railroad ties above the river.

IMG_3710
The 16th from the fairway. Avoid being blocked out by the linden tree

The shortest hole at The River Course is the 175 yard par 3 17th. The hole still packs a punch, however, with a carry over water the entire way to a diagonal green. The only acceptable miss here is short right.

IMG_3711
The par 3 17th – “Snapping Turtle”

Many golfers will limp into the 18th only to be greeted with the longest par 4 on the course at 470 yards. Named “Dyehard,” this monstrous hole features a bunker that runs nearly 400 yards down the entire left side of the hole. Some days, the course purposely floods the bunker, making a difficult hole that much more difficult. This giant green is guarded on the left by the river and shared with the 18th at the Meadow Valleys Course. I was feeling pretty good getting on this green in two with a 6-iron only to leave with my fourth three-putt of the day.

IMG_3712
The 18th left bunker runs from the tee all the way to the green
IMG_3713
The beautiful clubhouse overlooks the 18th green

Best Par 3: 13th Hole, “Tall Timber”, 205 yards, 10th handicap. The 13th at The River is one of the most challenging one-shotters you’ll ever play, and one that polarizes the golfing community. If you play from the Green, Blue, or Black Tees, this long hole plays over the Sheboygan River to a peninsular green that juts out into the river. The kicker? Tall trees on the left appear to block out part of the green, forcing the player to hit either a high ball or right-to-left ballflight over the river. Like the 17th at Meadow Valleys, I personally found the trees to be more of a visual challenge than actual one, but many golfers bail out right in the river because of these trees.

IMG_3705
With long iron or hybrid, this is one of the hardest par threes you’ll ever face

Best Par 4: 5th Hole, “Made in Heaven”, 400 yards, 3rd handicap. Aptly named, you’ll feel like you’re in heaven as you stand tall on this elevated teebox. Below you lies one of the most beautiful par fours you’ll ever play, and my personal favorite on the entire Wisconsin golf trip. With the Sheboygan River flowing down the entire right side, and beautifully positioned fairway bunkers surrounding this snaking fairway, there is plenty of danger. Your approach runs back uphill to an extremely undulating, elevated green. I played the hole pretty much perfectly tee-to-green and three-putted from 15 feet, leaving me deflated.

IMG_3688
The natural beauty of the 5th hole cannot be understated

Best Par 5: 11th Hole, “Rise and Fall”, 560 yards, 6th handicap. With the Sheboygan River hugging the entire right side of this sharp dogleg right, water comes into play on the drive, lay-up, and approach shot. Like the par 5 16th, this hole is a perfect example of the strategy you must employ to score well at The River Course. It is entirely up to you how much how want to cut the corner on the lay-up – balls further right will have to carry the river while balls bailed out left will have to avoid a difficult bunker on the left side of the fairway 90 yards from the green. Apparently, this is Herb Kohler’s favorite hole, and I don’t blame him.

IMG_3702
The lay-up on 11 – entirely up to you how you want to attack it

General Comments: As one would expect with a championship golf course like Blackwolf Run, the practice facilities are top-notch, with a grass driving range full of unlimited NXT Tours, a short-game facility, and a large putting green. We were a twosome stuck behind a foursome all day, but marshals were on top of it and asked us several times if we wanted them to say something to the group ahead. This course is almost impossible to walk, but having a forecaddie with cart is an option, and I highly recommend this. Shout out to our caddie Zach (hope you’re reading this buddy) for his reads on some of the hardest greens you’ll ever see.

The clubhouse is world-class, with a great restaurant overlooking the course, state-of-the-art locker rooms, and a fully stocked proshop. Despite being such a new course, the clubhouse pays homage to the course’s namesake, Chief Black Wolf of the Winnebago Tribe and feels like it’s been there for centuries. You know you’re at a special place staring at pictures from the U.S. Women’s Opens and Golf Digest accolades that adorn the walls.

IMG_3517
The large grass driving range at Blackwolf Run
Verdict:  The River Course at Blackwolf Run is a special test of golf and one that will likely frustrate the average golfer. However, shotmakers will love playing this gem over and over, and many golfers actually prefer it to Whistling Straits. I don’t think I’ve ever played a course that made me think so hard on every shot, and thus I salute Pete Dye for creating a cerebral golfer’s paradise in The River Course.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s