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I've probably been a bit too critical of this course in my review, and that's probably from the mood that Pete Dye can put you in after playing his courses. I've played a bunch of them, and I'd argue that this is probable the toughest of his famous tracks. Just no room for error. However, it's definitely worth playing and is a beautiful four or more hours in the upper Midwest. Just be patient and try not to get too beaten up, and you'll enjoy the round.
#11, "Rise and Fall," Par 5, 536 Yards
There's no sugar-coating it...this is a hard hole! It's a hard hole, and I only played it from the green tees; from the tips it's 621 yards! It's a hard dogleg right with the Sheboygan River all the way down the right. The landing area for the second shot is pencil thin and must carry some of the river and negotiate trees right around the landing zone. Left of those trees is the safe play. To be honest, the landing zone is too thin in my opinion, and borders on being a little unfair. Pete Dye has always been outspoken on how fairness it not necessary in a golf course design. This hole is an example of where he puts that mantra to the test.
#12, "Long Lagoon," Par 4, 423 Yards
The first really long par 4 on the course. The carry on a straight line and over the water seems to be longer than it measures, but that's the idea line. Going right is the safer play but leaves a tougher angle and longer shot into the green. On this hole, you just have to step up and "bring it."
#13, "Tall Timber," Par 4, 192 Yards
This is the last of a three-hole stretch that is very unforgiving. This is another hole that I'd argue might be too tough for the average golfer. Tall, mature trees block the left half of the green with the River on the right. The ideal shot is a high draw with a long iron or hybrid...how many amateurs have that shot? Well, regardless, the hole is here and you have to play it. Good luck
#14, "Blind Alley," Par 4, 304 Yards
Finally a scoring chance and now we're back on the original Blackwolf Run routing. Anything over about 225 yards starts to get pretty risky, to this short par 4 with a Swan Lake protecting the right side the whole way. A birdie is realistic just be getting it out into the fairway, so I wouldn't take on too much risk if I were you.
#15, "The Sand Pit," Par 4, 346 Yards
Another hole to just play it safe and get it on the fairway. The approach is downhill and over a tough bunker to a square-ish green. There's room on the right if you don't have a good lie to carry that bunker.
#16, "Unter Der Linden," Par 5, 540 Yards
This is another cool hole, but my criticism is similar to the 9th hole in that it's just a little too long to leave much of a risk/reward decision on the second shot. A large linden tree guards the right half of the green on and shot at the green, but it's just too long and too dangerous to consider trying it from where your drive will likely be. Anything short of the green on this angle will find the river. So, lay up to the right, and at a distance that will avoid the tree on your third shot.
#17, "Snapping Turtle," Par 3, 168 Yards
After the template Pete Dye par 5 on the 16th, we're now faced with the template par 3, 17th (Dye seems to finish every course with a routing that goes Par 5, 3, and 4). This one is a mirror image of #4, with a lake down the left side the hole way. Another high draw is the best play.
#18, "Dyehard," Par 4, 440 Yards
A long par 4 to finish. This one played downwind when I was there, so it played a lot shorter than the scorecard. The cool thing on this hole is the area left of the fairway. As you can see in Dan Perry's picture, the hole used to have a valley of winding bunkers the whole way down the left side. However, when I played it, this was changed to being one huge bunker. Then, when the USGA comes to town, they actually flood the bunker and make it a pond (Se Ri Pak famously played out of the water en route to winning the 1998 US Womens Open) . Whatever it looks like when you're there, avoid it! The green is huge, because it's shared with the 9th of the Meadow Valley's course.
#10, "River and Marsh," Par 3, 194 Yards
This is only the second par 3 on the course (The front nine is a rare par 37), and it's a bit of a breather relatively speaking. The hole is all right in front of you and there's no real decision to be made. Plenty of bailout short and left to avoid the bunkers that surround this green. This hole was the first time I saw fisherman today.
#7, "Glencary," Par 4, 374 Yards
Wide off the tee, tight by the green. This one is almost a 90 degree dogleg left, so a driver down the left will leave the shortest approach into the green. As usual, woods and tall grass is pretty close to the green, so precision is required.
#8, "Hell's Gate," 492 Yards
This is one of a handful of holes where it's a major advantage to have played here before. From off the tee, it looks like you're hitting out of a chute, and into a small landing area on his long dogleg right. However, once you've played this hole, you learn that this TONS of room to the right over the trees. There's nothing wrong with hitting it to where you can see it--a strategy I'm always fond of, especially in tournament golf. However, if you hit a driver over the trees, you can likely have a mid iron into the green. If you play it safe, the challenge comes from the second shot where you have a split-level fairway to the lay-up zone. The upper level leaves the best view of the green for the third shot, but also brings the woods into play (typical Pete Dye design). This one is classic Pete Dye risk/reward.
#9, "Cathedral Spires," Par 4, 316 Yards
This is sort of an odd hole. Dye gives you another risk/reward decision (sort of). Aiming down the left is the safe line, but leaves a toughest view for your approach. Aiming straight at the green is an option, but frankly a stupid one. I tried it, just because I was out of the tournament I was playing in and was curious. I hit the first drive just barely on the edge of the river, and the next drive right into the landing area, but I don't enough distance to get to the green and wasn't sure I really had much of an advantage from that landing area. What makes this hole odd in my opinion, is he made it just a little too long to give you a real decision off the tee. I think a shorter hole would make this more of a decision. Even more, it's 361 yards from the tips, so there isn't much of a decision at all from there. Not sure I get it.
#5, "Made in Heaven," Par 4, 388 Yards
After a long long drive from the 4th green to the 5th tee (This starts the newer 9 holes), you arrive at probably the most beautiful hole on the River. The elevated tee box overlooks a gorgeous landscape, with the River on the right side. The approach is to a plateau green where distance control is key. Short will end up on the hill approaching the green, with long being even worst, with a downhill lie or in the woods.
#6, "Jackknife," Par 4, 333 Yards
There's room here to get aggressive if you choose, but my advice if you're playing the River Course for the first time would be to hit the ball to where you can see it. The hole goes well right, but there's plenty of trouble and a smaller landing area as you get closer to the green. From the green tees, it's about 240 through the fairway, so just knock something out there about 200 yards or so, take a wedge into the green and move on.
#3, "Gotcha," Par 4, 395 Yards
The first really tough hole on the River. This one likely requires a driver off the tee. There's room off the tee as long as you don't stray too far left. From the green tees, it 's around 230 to be safely clear of the trees on the right side. A fairly sharp dogleg right on the second shot with a long bunker stretching all the way down the right side from 150 yards out to the right side of the green. Missing the green left puts you in huge mounds and thick grass, so believe it or not, a miss in the bunker is probably the bailout. An approach to the back half of the green leaves the widest landing area.
#4, "Swan Lake," Par 3, 185 Yards
This aptly named hole features swans and a long carry over a lake straddled by the 4th and 14th holes. From the green tees, the angle is more player-friendly. There is ample bailout room to the left as long as it isn't long left. This one much nastier from the tips--219 yards from an angle that's all carry over the lake.
#1, "Snake," Par 5, 526 Yards
A great look into what you're going to see on your round at the River Course. You're immediately introduced to the Sheboygan River on the left side. However, in typical Pete Dye fashion, this is a relatively tame start to the round. There is ample width off the tee, especially since the fairway only trouble on the right side (fairway bunker) is only a 220 yard carry from the green tees. From the middle of the fairway, it's possible to have a go at the long and narrow green in two, but I probably wouldn't advise it. The landing area really tightens around the green with a bunker left of the green and thick deep grass to the right. Going for the green could certainly be rewarding, but it's a good amount of risk, and a lay-up presents a pretty easy par or maybe better. On this course, take your pars when they're presented to you.
#2, "Burial Mounds," Par 4, 355 Yards
Hit your straight club off the tee, whatever that is. High and penal grass mounds are most of the way down the right side of the hole and dense woods are very tight against the left side. Anything off the fairway is a likely bogey, so hit whatever you can put on the short grass. The green is fairly wide but quite shallow, so choose your approach club carefully. Long is very bad.
I've already written a review of Whistling Straits that covers part of the American Club, so I'd rather not repeat that. With that said, it's impossible to write about Blackwolf Run without at least acknowledging that this is part of a four course resort developed by Herb Kohler, known as the American Club. While Whistling Straits probably gets more press and is better known, it was Blackwolf Run that was here first, and Blackwolf Run that started Herb Kohler's foray into golf course ownership. When Blackwolf Run was first developed and opened, it was different that it is today. In fact, the first golf course at Blackwolf Run is the composite course was used in the 2012 US Womens Open--a routing that combines 9 holes of what is now the Meadow Valleys Course, with 9 holes of what is now the River Course. Said another way, the original 18 holes at Blackwolf Run are what is now the back nine of the Meadow Valleys course, along with holes 1-4 and 14-18 of the River Course. When they decided to build a second golf course at Blackwolf run, they split up this fantastic routing and build 18 new holes
If that makes any sense, great. If not (which It probably doesn't)--long story short, The River Course has 9 holes from the original design, and 9 newer holes. What's left is a great collection of golf holes, and in most ways, you'd never know that this wasn't the routing all along. If you look at an overhead map of the course, it's obvious what were the original nine holes and what are the new nine holes, but when it comes to flow, the course works well.
Pete Dye didn't skimp on his usual trademarks on this one. The River course is tough, and very penal for shots hit off line. Where many of today's designs have tall wispy grass on either side, Blackwolf Run is far less forgiving. It has tall, thick, dense grass. If you stray off line and get into this stuff, the number one challenge is to find it. Only after you find it, can you finally worry about hitting it, and usually it's a wedge out at best, with a fractured wrist being a bigger concern than where the ball ends up. The tall grass is NASTY.
Then there's the Sheboygan River. It winds around much of the River Course. In fact, water comes into play on 14 holes of the River Course, with the Sheboygan River itself being the hazard in most cases. What's cool about this river, is that you'll likely see fisherman in it during the day. This is a very "outdoorsy" part of the country, and you can feel it at Blackwolf Run. The clubhouse itself feels more like a hunting lodge than it does a golf clubhouse. The experience really makes you feel like you're part of nature for the day. The course is definitely separated from civilization--peaceful, and serene. But don't get too calm or distracted by nature, lest Pete Dye reach out and beat you up.
Unfortunately, I made the cardinal sin during my round at Blackwolf Run, in that I didn't bring a backup battery for my camera, and I paid for it when my batter started to die half-way through the front nine. The result is a very limited number of pictures. The good thing is that the American Club website does a fantastic job of providing pictures and hole descriptions on their website. Like the other courses at Kohler. In addition, I would recommend checking out the pictures and reviews done by Dan Perry. I haven't met Dan, but really enjoy his site.
I played the Green Tees here, which stretch to 6,507 yards and play to a rating/slope of 72.1/139 and to a par of 72. From the tips, it is 7,404 yards, 76.2/151. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy!
#11, Top 100 Courses You Can Play (2012)
#89, Top 100 Courses in the U.S. (2013)
#14, America's 100 Greatest Public Courses (2013-2014)
#91, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2015-2016)
#4, Best in the State of Wisconsin (2013-2014)