I just got back from a whirlwind golf trip, and boy are my arms tired! (Sorry, couldn't resist...)
See, the September issue of GOLF Magazine arrived in my mailbox about 10 days ago, and the featured section was the every-other-year "Top 100 Courses You Can Play (in the U.S.)" list.
Six layouts were new to the list this year, and two of them caught my eye: SentryWorld (#78) and the Links course at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia (#87), which sit about 90 minutes apart in central Wisconsin.
I'd heard and read a bit them, but wanted to see them for myself (and for you).
So, last Monday I hopped a flight to investigate these courses and a few other top tracks in the area (more on those others in the coming weeks).
Here's what I found:
When you hear about vacation-worthy golf in Wisconsin, names like Kohler (i.e. Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run, etc.) and Erin Hills dominate. But they're not the only great courses in the area.
In fact, with Sand Valley Golf Resort (Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser's latest project) getting up and running, an "Central Wisconsin Golf Trail" is developing. For example, I heard about multiple groups who regularly start at Kohler and swing down to Erin Hills before calling at Lawsonia and SentryWorld as well. These latter two courses are just about 75 minutes apart, making them easy to include on any trip to the area.
In terms of lodgings, SentryWorld doesn't have rooms on-site, but there are a number of solid chain hotels in the sizable town of Stevens Point.
Lawsonia, on the other hand, resides in a community complete with a conference center and lakeside campground. If roughing it isn't your thing, there are two houses on the property available for rent, both of which sleep up to a dozen golfers.
What struck me most about these two courses, ranked within ten spots of one another on the list, was how different they were, especially considering that they're only about 75 miles apart.
SentryWorld is a trailblazer of the modern era, the first true "destination course" built in the Badger State, owned by a large insurance company, originally designed and recently significantly renovated over the course of a year and a half by world-renowned architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., along with Jay Blasi and Bruce Charlton.
Lawsonia Links, on the other hand, is half a century older, designed by a duo of architects - William Langford and Theodore Moreau - whose work is largely unknown by all but the most conscientious golf course architecture students. A course that only in the last few years has been given the attention and TLC it deserves.
SentryWorld plays through a peaceful, fairly flat parkland setting. Most holes are tree-lined, and water comes into play on a dozen holes. There are flowers everywhere - 63,000 of them reside on the par-3 16th hole alone (see below).
Lawsonia Links enjoys almost completely open terrain, with just a small handful of trees coming into play on the interior of the routing. The only place where you might lose a ball is in the thick fescue grass well off the generous but heaving fairways.
SentryWorld, being a hub of activity for both visitors and Sentry Insurance employees, sports a cavernous clubhouse that even houses indoor tennis courts, one of which is converted into an indoor driving range in the winter. CJ's Restaurant serves craft cocktails as well as a variety of beers, and the menu ranges from a Bratwurst of the Day to sandwiches to steaks and more.
The clubhouse for the Golf Courses at Lawsonia is modest but effective, but its Langford's Pub was nearly full when I finished my round well after 8:00 pm, thanks to its weekly Friday Night Fish Fry (a common occurrence at Wisconsin eateries, I noticed while driving through).
Both courses are challenging but not onerous, with a common emphasis on proper placement around the greens. Short-side yourself at either course and you will be lucky to limp away with a bogey, due to generally quick, firm and sloping greens.
But those same contours that will work against you if you are out of position will help you if you play smartly and execute well. A key aspect of the SentryWorld renovation consisted in building kick-slopes that could be used to feed an approach shot close to the hole from the side or even behind. RTJ Jr. & co. understand that the sight of a player's golf ball rolling toward the cup is a beloved one, so there are many opportunities for just that.
At Lawsonia, similar chances take place within the confines of the greens themselves, many of which perch up above their surroundings and give way to precipitous drop-offs on multiple sides. They tend to have defined tiers, though, like at the short par-3 14th, where you can land your ball well left of the hole and watch it trundle toward the cup.
Par fives are a strength of both layouts, too. At SentryWorld, both par fives on the front nine are reachable, while the two on the back nine are longer but still gettable. The best of the bunch is the fifth, which boomerangs to the left around a lake. If you successfully take an aggressive line off the tee over a corner of the water, you will be rewarded with as little as a long iron to the green, but your heroic second shot must carry the water and skirt a well-placed tree.
There are five three-shotters at Lawsonia Links, with the short fifth hole featuring a downslope in the landing area such that a big drive can leave only an iron for the second shot. The next three come in quick succession: after the par-4 eighth, the golfer alternates par fives and par threes for the next six holes, not reaching another two-shotter until the 15th. This stretch provides the opportunity for some birdies, as solid tee shots and layups will likely put players within short-iron or wedge range of the greens on holes nine, 11 and 13.
Finally, both courses have good reason to be new to the list. SentryWorld was acclaimed when it opened in 1982, but over the ensuing years, a number of other courses seemed to eclipse it in prestige. The renovation effort undertaken by RTJ Jr. & co. has launched the course boldly back into the spotlight, with clean lines, pearly-white bunkers and a fine set of greens.
What GOLF Magazine Gets (Slightly) Wrong
We take all golf course rankings with a few grains of salt, and know that different criteria and tastes within the respective panels can yield different results. But I would be remiss not to mention that I give Lawsonia Links the slight edge over SentryWorld, primarily on the basis of the slightly firmer turf at Lawsonia, as well as the insane jealousy I feel for residents of Green Lake, Wisconsin, who can play the course for as little as $30 (which is the per-player rate the foursome in front of me scored through GolfNow, I learned in the bar).
It's a close call, and reasonable minds can disagree, but given ten rounds to split between the two courses, I'd give Lawsonia Links six of them and SentryWorld four. The strategic bunkering and abrupt grassy berms that affact so many tee shots and approaches are so ingenious and cool-looking that they put Lawsonia over the top for me. Regardless, if you're in central Wisconsin (and you should go - it's an awesome summer golf trip destination), you should absolutely play both of them.
What do you think? Have you played these courses (or plan to)? Please share your thoughts or read what others are saying below!