ARKDALE, Wis. - About 30 minutes north of the Wisconsin Dells in what is referred to as the Upper Dells, golfers will find a completely unexpected treat: TPC at Sawgrass.
In fact, they will also find Augusta National, Oakland Hills, Firestone Country Club, Oakmont and Bay Hill.
Lest you think you've fallen through Alice's rabbit-hole in the Wisconsin north woods, I should explain that what you've found way out here is Northern Bay Golf Resort and Marina. The golf course at Northern Bay was designed by Matt Mootz and Tour 18, a Houston, Texas, operation specializing in replica holes and courses.
Although replica golf courses can, and often do, end up as kitschy melanges of unconvincing copies, Northern Bay is unique in that there are only seven replica holes. To its undying credit, the course's other 11 holes are all extremely strong and scenic. In fact, a few of them might even be more memorable than some of the replicas.
How Northern Bay plays
This year marks Northern Bay's fourth full year of operation. Ninety percent of play comes from Wisconsin Dells visitors, according to Head Professional Chris Paitrick, and thus it has all of the features of a resort-style course: Generous fairways and large greens with not many blind shots.
"It's all out there in front of you," says Paitrick, "but just being on the green doesn't guarantee a two-putt."
Fifteen holes wander through some pretty thick timber, and there is some distance between tees and greens; however, walking is allowed after 2 pm.
The golf course starts off a bit blandly, with a flat 345-yard par 4 bracketed by resort condos. But then things start to get very interesting. The 223-yard second presents you with a tee shot over wetlands to a green guarded by a sentinel pine on the right. It is a very strong par 3.
The first replica hole is the 170-yard third, which mimics the famed 16th at Augusta National. Interestingly, this is the weakest of the replica holes, being shoehorned after the excellent par-3 second and having more condos along the left side (condos at Augusta?!).
Aside from the 10th hole, a spot-on replica of the infamous 132-yard 17th at TPC Sawgrass with its island green, the other replica holes fit nicely into the tasty, meaty smorgasbord that is Northern Bay. As wonderful as the 465-yard fourth (No. 5 at Oakland Hills), 625-yard sixth (No. 16 at Firestone) and 510-yard 11th (No. 13 at Augusta) are, I would put the golf course's own 543-yard eighth, 401-yard 13th and 641-yard 15th up against them any day.
My favorite replica was the 433-yard 12th, which features the famed "Church Pew" bunker from Oakmont's third hole. From the elevated tees, this hole looks exactly like it does on TV, and up close, you really see why even the pros hate ending up in the "pews."
Arguably the best replica hole is saved for last, though, as the 462-yard, par-4 18th is a dead-wringer for the 18th at Bay Hill. After recalling how many pros rinse their approaches at Bay Hill, you won't feel nearly as bad if you do the same here.
The verdict on Northern Bay Golf Resort and Marina
Northern Bay Golf Resort and Marina is a remarkable gift to golfers in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. It would be a very enjoyable course even without replica holes, but the addition of the seven copies ratchets up the memorability and the fun. Given the quality of the course, the $65-$95 greens fees are well worth it.
Service was exceptional, except for the dining experience, when pre-ordering through the GPS system on the cart resulted in an ice-cold brat, the bottom of the chip bag and slow service.
One piece of advice, though: When you get to 10 (replica of the 17th at Sawgrass), take your time. Don't let the foursome behind you charge past as you're forcing down your cold brat and then stand there refusing to play through while you rush to hit. Tell them to either play through or move back and wait. How many times do you get to hit that shot, after all?
As mentioned, most play comes from visitors to The Wisconsin Dells, but Northern Bay offers its own villas (30), and resort-style accommodations (suites and condos). The marina is on Castle Rock Lake, the fourth largest in Wisconsin, and Pettenwell Lake is nearby. There are also a swimming pool and tennis courts on-site, and the resort offers some excellent stay-and-play packages, especially before and after the two-month-long peak-season (mid-June thru mid-August).