SentryWorld’s renovation will trigger a big golf year in Wisconsin

We Illinois golf fanatics had best disregard the state line boundaries. Our neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, isn’t far away – no matter where you live in Illinois – and that’s where the action is these days. It’d be a shame not to enjoy it to the fullest.

For whatever reason, golf progress in Illinois hasn’t kept up with that in Wisconsin. For that matter, no state can match the golf developments in the Badger State over the last few years.

This year the most exciting project is in Stevens Point, where the SentryWorld course has undergone a Robert Trent Jones Jr. renovation. It’ll be unveiled in late summer because ownership wants to show off the new course and its accompanying Sports Center, which also underwent a major upgrading, at the same time.

SentryWorld’s original course was also designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. It opened in 1982, and may have been the first golf destination resort in Wisconsin. The lure then was its Flower Hole, my all-time favorite anywhere and – arguably at least – the most famous golf hole in the Midwest. Adorned with 42,000 flowers, SentryWorld’s Flower Hole was certainly the most colorful anywhere.

Last summer, when I first got wind of the renovation, I was quick to ask Jones about the Flower Hole’s future. He was quick to assure me that it would remain part of the rotation. It remains as No. 16 – a par-3 known more for its beauty than its challenging aspects in the past – and the new scorecard still lists it at 176 yards from the back tee.

In the spring Pete McPartland, president and chief executive officer of Sentry Insurance, unveiled a new logo that brightened the colors of the iconic Flower Hole. That required checking in with Brian Dumler, the head golf professional, on what the hole will look like after the snow melts and the renovation is completed.

“The Flower Hole will be enhanced,’’ he said. “There’ll be more flowers, but I can’t tell how many yet., and the green will be re-shaped.’’

The waiting period for the re-opening will be a long one. The course was closed in April, 2012, and remained closed throughout 2013. Arizona architect John Sather created a dramatic new look for the Sports Center, part of which includes the pro shop for the golf course, while Jones was making his changes.

Dumler revealed that the course has been re-routed with parts of the property not used in the original layout being brought into play. While the famous Flower Hole won’t be altered much, two of the other par-3s – Nos. 3 and 12 – will be. The original course measured 6,950 yards. The new card lists it at 7,237 with a par of 72, rating of 75.1 and slope of 139.

“It was always known as a tough course,’’ said Stephanie Smith, Sentry’s director of corporate communications, “and we want to preserve that challenge. But for the more casual player we wanted a course that was more playable and we’ve done that.’’

Dumler, in his 16th season at SentryWorld, has a unique connection to the famed architect. He began his golf career at Hilldale, in Hoffman Estates, which was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. – the father of the SentryWorld designer. Jones Jr. still considers the original SentryWorld layout “ my Mona Lisa.’’

As intriguing as SentryWorld’s renovation is, bigger developments are on the way in Wisconsin. None are bigger than Sand Valley, the latest project of Chicago’s Mike Keiser. Keiser turned Bandon Dunes into the most popular new golf destination in the country with its array of courses, the number of which is still growing.

The only trouble with Bandon Dunes is that it’s far away – in Oregon. Sand Valley won’t require nearly as much travel. It’s 250 miles from Chicago’s borders. The nearest town to Sand Valley is Rome, but — more specifically, the project is 18 miles from the biggest community, Wisconsin Rapids, and 54 miles from Wisconsin Dells. Focal point of the property is Lake Petenwell.

While it’s exciting to think about, Sand Valley’s opening is down the road a bit. Keiser purchased 1,400 acres on Dec. 17 and hired the architectural team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in January. They’ll begin work on the first course as soon as possible, but it won’t open until 2016.

As was the case at Bandon Dunes, more courses will be added if the first one is successful – and there’s no doubt that it will be. Eventually Sand Valley is projected to have at least four courses.

Want more proof of Wisconsin’s explosion on the world golf scene? Let me remind you that the 2017 U.S. Open will be at Erin Hills, on the outskirts of Milwaukee, and Whistling Straits, in Kohler, will host the PGA Championship (for the third time, no less) in 2015 and the Ryder Cup in 2020.

And these courses aren’t all that old. Erin Hills landed a U.S. Golf Assn. championship before it was even opened to the public. It hosted the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur and also was the venue for the 2011 U.S. Amateur. In 2017 it’ll become the first Wisconsin course to host a U.S. Open.

Over in Kohler, a two-hour drive from the Illinois line, the story isn’t much different. Herb Kohler entered the golf world with the creation of Blackwolf Run in 1988. Kohler liked that Pete Dye design so much he added 18 more holes, creating the River and Meadow Valleys 18-holers. Then Kohler had Dye create Whistling Straits and the Irish Course in Haven, about 15 miles away. Whistling Straits opened in 1998 and Irish in 2000.

All gained world recognition almost instantly. Blackwolf Run opened in 1998, hosted the men’s Andersen Consulting World Championship in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and 2012. Whistling Straits has already been the site of PGA Championships in 2004 and 2010 and the U.S. Senior Open in 2007.

There’s a downside to having all these high-profile courses in the same state. It takes attention away from some other very good locations that have withstood the tests of time.

Grand Geneva Resort, in Lake Geneva, has two quality 18-holers. The Brute, with its 68 bunkers and huge, rolling greens, has long been considered one of the most challenging layouts in the Midwest. The accompanying Highlands course has just as interesting a history. It started as a project in which Jack Nicklaus and Dye were to work together. Bob Cupp transformed the original course in 1996 and it was updated 10 years later by Bob Lohman.

Geneva National, in Delavan, has three 18 holers with designers who are even more famous – Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino.

There’s some other very fine layouts around the state – Trappers Turn and Wild Rock in the Wisconsin Dells, The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls, The Bog in Saukville, Lawsonia in Green Lake, University Ridge in Madison, Castle Course at Northern Bay in Arkdale, Big Fish in Hayward.

The list goes on. Michigan has long been the Midwestern state with the biggest abundance of golf riches. Now may, just maybe, it’s Wisconsin.