STEVENS POINT, Wisconsin – Sentry Insurance entered the golf business in 1982 and drew immediate attention for one reason. It’s par-3 sixteenth hole was – at least arguably – the most beautiful hole in golf.
The hole that architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his associate, Bruce Charleton, created wasn’t a tough one, but it had over 30,000 flowers on it so it was very easy to look at – and it still is.
Back then the course simply had 17 other holes, and now – after a trying 10 years – it has much more than that. Jones and Charleton did one renovation of the course in 2012-13 with Wisconsin architect Jay Blasi helping out, and then Jones and Charleton returned in February of 2020 to expand on what they’d done after the resort landed the 2023 U.S. Senior Open.
In effect the course – the only 18-holer on the property – was shut down twice, for two-years each time, over a 10-year period. The accompanying Inn was also almost completely rebuilt as well so, obviously, the first golf destination resort in Wisconsin history was a quiet place for a substantial period.
“That brings back a moment in time when there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears,’’ said Mike James, the resort’s general manager who came on the scene in 2014. “It’s been pedal to the metal on improvement projects to make SentryWorld as good as it possibly can be – and it’s been fun over the years seeing where SentryWorld was and where it is today.’’
James declined to give a cost figure on all the work that has been done on the golf course and in the creation of a beautiful boutique hotel, but he’s convinced “it was money well spent.’’
Jones called the parkland-style course “My Mona Lisa,’’ when it opened 40 years ago. His work there in the first renovation – it’s called a “re-imagining’’ now – resulted in water coming into play on 12 holes. At that time the restaurant and banquet hall were also completely redone.
The “re-imagining’’ was created in 2012 and 2013, and the course re-opened in 2014. Most striking was the building of the terracotta colored cart paths. The iconic Flower Hole remains, with 33,000 flowers planted over two days every June. Each year there’s a new palette, with the color scheme and design changing.
Then, in February of 2020 — a month before the U.S. Golf Association announced that SentryWorld would host the 2023 U.S. Senior Open and the pandemic shut down the PGA Tour and most of the golf world — the second renovation began.
“We closed due to Covid and took advantage of that time to make more improvements,’’ said James. “In a weird way the pandemic afforded us the opportunity to make changes when there weren’t golfers on the course.’’
The major project this time involved the installation of the Sub Air irrigation system on every green.
Both the pandemic and the landing of the big tournament played a role in what was happening at the resort.
“It’s hard to tell how we would have progressed,’’ said James, “but the championship means so much to us. They don’t hand those tournaments to just anybody. As for the pandemic, we’re a destination facility and wanted to be careful. We wanted to protect our staff and customers.’’
The Inn, with a unique Frank Lloyd Wright architectural flavor in its design, didn’t open until March 29 of this year and it isn’t there because of the one golf tournament.
“It was done for the benefit of SentryWorld’s general business and Sentry Insurance’s business,’’ said James. “It was a business decision made without regard to the U.S. Senior Open, although it will be utilized for the championship.’’
Last touches on the course are still to be made, and the two new refreshment stations just opened on July 12. SentryWorld went on the clock for its Senior Open as soon as this year’s version at Saucon Valley, in Pennsylvania, was completed.
The event will be contested on SentryWorld’s course from June 29 to July 2 in 2023. It’ll be the third U.S. Golf Association national championship played at the resort.
“No doubt it’ll bring the spotlight on SentryWorld,’’ said James. “It’ll be broadcast in 125 countries around the world, and having the best players in the world playing our golf course is an honor.’’
It goes beyond that, however. Other big championships have been held in Wisconsin – at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits in Kohler and Erin Hills in particular – but this will be the first such event in the central part of the state.
“It’ll have a $20 million-plus impact to the area, and that’s significant,’’ said James. “We want to give the players a great experience and have the community, the state and the region experience this. Once the final putt drops we’ll start thinking about what else we can do.’’