#3, Par 5, 524 Yards
Another thing you'll see with the dramatic bunkering at Milwaukee is high firm faces, where typically the ball will fall to the flat bottoms. These bunkers are somewhat reminiscent of some of the bunkers you see in the Australia's sand belt. The third hole turns to the South and goes straight down the western edge of the property. Bunkers flank the landing area both on the area and in the area where players will lay up a second shot. The hole bends to the right after the first shot and then softly back to the left at the end.
#11, Par 4, 375 Yards
The 11th is a dogleg left that follows the shape of a little bend in the River. It might be the flattest hole on the property. Eight large bunkers protect the inside of the dogleg and four more protect the green. The play off the tee is arguable just a lay-up short of the bunkers, as it's very wide in that area. From there, it's still a short iron into a green with a massive false front. As the crow flies, it's only about 305 yards to the front of the green, so I wouldn't be surprised if bombers try to drive this one, but I don't have that shot in my bag.
#1, Par 4, 434 Yards
The opening tee ball at Milwaukee Country Club has to me one of the more intimidating first shots there is. It might not be quite the level of Merion East, where you're teeing off in front of the patio with members having lunch, but this one is smack dab in front of a huge window that is right behind the front desk of the golf shop. I would have to think that the pros are looking out over the first hole much of the day and see tons of shots, both good and bad. So, being such a quiet morning with nobody else around and being the first guy out at 7:30 AM, I figured I was probably being watched.
Add onto that intimidation the fact that this is a 434 yard hole, so it's not just to avoid embarrassment, but you need to hit a good shot just to have a decent chance to score on this opener. Luckily, the hole goes downhill, so you'll get a little distance bonus on your first swing of the day. Looking out over the first hole, a couple things jump out very quickly. First is that the bunkers are quite large--this will be the case all day, and is the case with most Alison courses. Second, is that the fairway is often cut right up to the bunker edges, so there is nothing to stop a rolling ball from tumbling in, if on the wrong line. The hole itself is angled softly from left-to-right and definitely favors a fade off the tee for a right-hander.
#4, Par 3, 181 Yards
The first one-shot hole at Milwaukee completes a four-hole loop that returns back to the clubhouse area. This one almost has a bit of a Redan feel to it, but doesn't completely play like one. The right third of the green is open, but pins on the left side need to carry a deep that troubling bunker to reach the putting surface.
#13, Par 4, 388 Yards
Unfortunately, this is the only picture I snapped on the 13th. The hole bends the the right with a huge bunker on the inside corner of the dogleg. Two bunkers flank the green, which lays near the bank of the River. While it's close to the bank, it's not right up on the edge, as the 14th tee actually lays between the green and the River, so it really shouldn't be in play.
#12, Par 3, 182 Yards
The 12th green, 13th hole, and 14th tee lay on the 10 acres of land that was acquired as part of the Alison renovation project. These lay on the Eastern side of the Milwaukee River. From what I've heard, the holes along the river are very prone to flooding and are difficult to keep firm. The green on the 12th is perched up a bit higher than the water level to protect it from the River, and guarded by three bunkers in the front. This is also a good time to highlight the tee markers at Milwaukee. They fit well with the club's classic feel, as they're wood carved sort of in the shape of a bullet. The blend in perfectly with the benches and other wooden objects around the course. The only thing that differentiates one from the other is a small colored stripe on the bottom. My only issue is that this stripe can be hard to see--make sure you're playing the right set of tees on each hole.
#10, Par 5, 484 Yards
After finishing the front nine, "The Golfer's Porch" is available for refreshments, right by the 10th tee. I'm not sure whether it is staffed in peak season, but when I was there, everything was "on your honor." This was a beautiful old room to take a short break in before heading back out to the second nine. The 10th hole is probably the most famous hole at Milwaukee, playing downhill to a green that is benched wonderfully into the ledge of a hill. Trees have been cleared out left of the green to open up a view of the Milwaukee River as well. Being on the side of a hill, the entire hole slopes from right to left, which makes it difficult to cut off any yardage to shorten the hole's slight dogleg. This is just an outstanding hole.
#7, Par 5, 481 Yards
After the longer snaking par five third hole, the second par five on the course is shorter and more straight-forward. The entire hole is lays right in front of you, and because of that transparency from the tee, strategy is fairly easy to figure out. The idea line into the green is from the right side of the fairway, which means you need to take on the right fairway bunker on your tee shot. It's about a 230 yard carry to clear the bunker, or you can shape one around it. As long as you put the drive in play, there is a definite opportunity to get your second shot onto the green and make a birdie or better!
#6, Par 4, 409 Yards
The easiest route to safety on the sixth hole is to keep it on the left half the entire way. Large bunkers encroach from the right side toward the middle of the hole in both the landing area and in front of the green.
#16, Par 4, 452 Yards
After playing a nearly 600-yard par five, the 16th hole offers no let-up. It's over 450 yards form the Blue Tees and nearly 490 from the Black Tees. In fact, from the Blue Tees, the yardages of the last four holes at Milwaukee go 585-452-196-426; this is big boy golf to finish. Bunkers on the left of the fairway must be avoided, though if you can drive it down that half of the fairway, you'll save a couple yards of distance on your second shot. two bunkers are well short of the green, which will allow to run the ball up onto the surface.
Milwaukee Country Club is one of the oldest club's in the Midwest. In fact, the club is proud of its heritage, which goes back all the way to 1894--I bought a hat with that date, and only that date, on the front of it. However, while they're not exactly telling a falsehood, using the 1894 date is a bit misleading from a golf standpoint.
Yes, it is completely true that the club was founded in 1894, but it was done so elsewhere in the Milwaukee area. It didn't move to its current River Hills location until 1910. At that time, some members cobbled together some golf holes and a golf course was born. As golf became more popular, the club must have realized that they should bring in someone more professional to build them a course of more merit, so they hired Walter Travis in 1924, who routed a course after the acquisition of 77 more acres of land. For whatever reason, that course was not well likely, and was scrapped in very short order. Only four years later, in 1928, the club hired Charles Alison to build his own version of a course on their land. While you'll see some sources that link Harry Colt to Milwaukee Country Club, because Colt & Alison were something of a partnership, the reality is that Colt did very little work in the United States, and a purist would tell you that he didn't have a thing to do with MCC. Alison was based in Detroit, and did built several notable courses in the Midwest. When he was brought in to work on this property that abuts the Milwaukee River, he asked the club to buy 10 more acres, and built a completely new course, which opened in 1929. After some renovation and restorations, it's that Alison course that exists today--dating back to 1929, not 1894.
I've been in many old clubhouses, but I'm not sure I've been in many that had such an old and classic feel as Milwaukee--and that's a complement. The heavy outer door of the locker room felt like it might have been 100+ years older than the 1910 origination of this River Hills site. Inside was no different. No need for modern updates--this place is all class and charm.
On the day I was to play, I had a 7:30 AM tee time, and in late September, that isn't too long after the sun comes up. When I arrived, around 7:00 AM, it felt like I was the only one on the property. I parked my car in the empty lot, and made my way to the clubhouse to introduce myself. The pro shop door was still locked, as was the locker room. This caused me just a bit of worry--did I get the date/time wrong? However, after knocking, eventually one of the assistant pros welcomed me and showed me to the locker room.
#5, Par 4, 433 Yards
The next seven holes are played, largely in a back-and-forth fashion on land to the South of the clubhouse and west of the Milwaukee River. The land that these holes plays on was from the 77-acre tract that was acquired as part of the Travis routing. The fifth plays over a saddle-style landing area before bending softly to the left into the green.
#9, Par 4, 325 Yards
The finisher of the opening nine is a fun and sporty short par four that plays up the hill and back to the clubhouse. You can hit any club you want from the see, but I'd argue playing safe and short of the bunkers on the right is probably the smart play. From there, you'll have an easy wedge into the hole and avoid being out of position into a well protected green with four bunkers surrounding it and a severe false front on the left. However, if you feel confident, a driver or fairway wood and the left edge of the green works too.
#2, Par 4, 423 Yards
The weather forecast on this Friday morning was not ideal and there would be a good chance of rain most of the day. We would get a couple short showers, but generally stayed dry most of the way. That wouldn't be the case for my afternoon round, but that's a completely different story. After making a complete mess of the first hole, I had to settle down to try to salvage a decent round. Facing a 420+ yard hole didn't make that easy. The landing area is partially obscured but a drive down the right half will leave you the shortest shot into this dogleg right. A bunker protects the inside of the dogleg, with two much bunkers straddling the green.
The Golf Bucket List
#17, Par 3, 196 Yards
At 232 yards from the Black Tees, I was glad I decided not to play the tips on this hole, and throughout really. The hole is a reverse Redan, with a slope to the left of the green that will kick shots onto the putting surface. Playing uphill adds an extra amount of length.
I think the old green used to be in the open field area to the right of this picture:
#8, Par 3, 174 Yards
To me, the eighth hole is an outstanding par three. The skyline green challenges depth perception, and the gigantic bunkers (especially the left one) that defend the green make for unsettling shot into the green. With the scale of the bunkers being so large, it makes the green feel like it's even smaller than it is. The second picture shows a good example of the flatness of the bunker floors.
#14, Par 4, 411 Yards
The 14th hole plays out of the Alison-acquired land plot and back to the original property. The green was relocated fairly recently at the recommendation of a Tom Doak Master Plan and moved to the left. My assumption is that it was done so for agronomic reasons to more it away from the River and avoid flooding risk? The hole would have been a slight dogleg right in the past, but now plays straight-away and is arguably less interesting than it could be.
My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
After changing my shoes, I grabbed a cart and took a short ride to the practice range. My caddie wasn't even on the property yet, so there was no hurry. The practice area was actually quite impressive, with a short game area, practice bunkers, and a couple levels of fairway of hitting area to get your loosened up and ready to go. After hitting some balls, there was a putting green in the practice area, and also a green right in the front circle in front of the clubhouse. I decided to roll some putts right in front of the clubhouse, so I would be able to see when my caddie arrived and have a better feel for when it was time to go.
When I got the go-ahead to head to the first tee, I had a decision to make on what tees to play. This was to be my first of two rounds on this Friday morning, so I didn't want to overdo it for the morning round. My definition of overdoing it was playing the Black Tees, which were 7,097 yards with a slope of 132 and rating of 74.0 and a par of 72. However, I was willing to take on a course that was a bit longer than my usual comfort zone, and decided to play the next set of tees up; the Blue Tees, which were still a stout 6,883 yards, a rating of 72.9 and slope of 130. On several holes, the Black and Blue tees were exactly the same, so I thought this would be a fair test for me. I'll quote those Blue Tees below:
#18, Par 4, 426 Yards
The final hole at Milwaukee will challenge every aspect of your game--a true final exam. it plays over the crest of a hill and requires a good drive to clear the bunkers and have any few of the hole. From there, it's downhill to an incredibly difficult putting surface. Add to that the intimidation of going long, for on this one the grass behind the green is completely shaved and runs downhill all the way to the clubhouse. If your approach goes long, there is a fair chance it will end up at the edge of the building.
#15, Par 5, 585 Yards
The 15th hole is the last par five on the course and far-and-away the longest as well. It will be a true three-shot hole for all but the longest hitters. The River is most in play on the first shot, and less so on the second shot, but making you you keep it away from the right side is key throughout. The left half of the fairway is ideal through the hole, which probably explains why all the bunkers prior to the green are on the left side.
Milwaukee Country Club is just a terrific course. It flies well under the radar, possibly because it doesn't have the championship pedigree of some of the other nearby courses. Major championships in Wisconsin have all gone to the modern public courses of Whistling Straits and Erin Hills rather than heading to a sportier club like this. I'm sure a 7,100 yard course wouldn't be a popular choice for a major these days, so that ship has probably sailed. Hosting the 1969 Walker Cup will have to do for this membership, and if you look at the list of club's who have hosted Walker Cups, that might be more impressive than holding a US Open at the end of the day.
After finishing up at Milwaukee, I was to head down to the Chicago suburbs to take on Skokie CC. However, weather got in the way there. Shortly after finishing my morning round, the skies opened up, and it would rain for much of the remainder of the day. I got lucky to be able to get my round in at Milwaukee and am thrilled that I was able to do so!