River at Blackwolf Run Course Review

The fifth at the Blackwolf Run River Course is a 427 (376) yard par 4.
The fifth at the Blackwolf Run River Course is a 427 (376) yard par 4.

River at Blackwolf Run Course Review

River At Blackwolf Run
Grade: A+
Teacher’s Comments: Enjoyable. Immaculate.

One of four championship courses at Kohler’s American Club Resort,  The River at Blackwolf Run plays in and around the wide plain of the meandering Sheboygan River. This riverlands course is quite pretty, with water in view on thirteen of the eighteen holes. I also thought it was a great deal of fun to play.

The River At Blackwolf Run is — like its sister course, the Meadows, and Kohler’s nearby Whistling Straits — a Pete Dye design. A combination of holes at The River and The Meadows at Blackwolf Run have been used for several championships, including the US Women’s Opens in 1998 and 2012, and the Andersen Consulting World Golf Championships in 1995, 1996 and 1997. Greg Norman, Ernie Els, and Se Ri Pak were winners there.

I mentioned that I played a Dye course at Kohler to a couple of golfing friends. Their first reaction was “that had to be tough.” Pete Dye courses are supposed to have diabolical greens, sand traps like the maws of sharks, maelstrom water hazards, walls of railroad ties, treacherously narrowing fairways, and mounding that rises to toss your balls aside. By reputation, a Pete Dye course requires a player to hit small, precise targets to survive. Survival is also said to be the best a player can hope for.

The River at Blackwolf Run did not feel at all like that to me. Playing from the correct tees for my game, I made my way around The River at Blackwolf Run to a score well within my usual game. More importantly, I had fun.

There are five sets of tees at the River at Blackwolf Run, and a sixth that combines two of the other sets of tees. From the tips, the course stretches to 7, 404, while playing to a 151/76.2. The men’s forward tees — the whites — measure 6, 110 and play to a 132/70.3. The shortest tees are red, at 5, 115. The River At Blackwolf Run also offers a White/Red combination tee on the scorecard. at 5, 602. Players using these “imaginary” tees will play some holes from the White tees, and others from the Red, as indicated on the scorecard.

The eighteenth at Blackwolf Run River Course is a 510 (415) yard par 5.
The eighteenth at Blackwolf Run River Course is a 510 (415) yard par 5.

I count some sixty bunkers on The River at Blackwolf Run, but that number is a little deceptive. A great many simply were not in play from my tees — either being too far, or too close. On the other hand, a half dozen of those bunkers are absolutely enormous. The sand on eighteen, for example, runs nearly the entire left side of the 510 yard par five. The trap on the right side of three runs half the length of the 468 yard par four.

The thirteenth on the Blackwolf Run River Course is a 231 yard par 3 from the tips.
The thirteenth on the Blackwolf Run River Course is a 231 yard par 3 from the tips.

Similarly, although there is water in sight on thirteen of the eighteen holes, it only really threatens a golfer on five of those. With judicious play, even those five can be managed.

The one exception just might be the thirteenth. Channeling Dye’s famous island green at Sawgrass, the thirteenth is a peninsula in the Sheboygan River, guarded left by trees, and right by the river.  From the tips, the shot is a 200 plus yard death trap.

However, from the more forward tees, the holes is quite reasonable, shifting the shot to the left of the treeline and taking the water out of play.

From the white tees, the thirteenth at the Blackwolf Run River Course measures 150 yards and has a much less difficult line.
From the white tees, the thirteenth at the Blackwolf Run River Course measures 150 yards and has a much less difficult line.

Because it was there, I tried the hole from the tips. My plan was to hit a fade over the trees left back to the green. I clipped the trees instead, and the ball landed in the fairway for the other tees. From there, it was a wedge and a two-putt for bogey.

A second ball from the more forward tees to the left of the trees resulted in par.

The thirteenth at The River At Blackwolf Run is a good example of how important it is to play from the correct tees. A talented and experienced architect like Pete Dye uses the tee positions to create holes that are accessible to all skill levels. No architect or owner wants a course that unduly punishes players. Punishing courses are no fun, slow down play and discourage repeat play.

The Blackwolf Run River Course's third is a 468 (389) yard par 4.
The Blackwolf Run River Course’s third is a 468 (389) yard par 4.

The third is another example of how tees delineate the difference between agony and fun at The River at Blackwolf Run. The group ahead of me — composed of guys my age or older — played from the back tees, and not a single one of them made the plateau. Two bounced their shots off the embankment right into the sand. They were, no doubt, taking Pete Dye’s name in vain (fortunately, they let me through on the next hole — probably at their caddies’ suggestion).

I know my limitations. From a more forward tee, I saw that I could play it completely safe wide left with a longer shot to the green, or take on the trees to the right for a shorter approach. I hit a fade that cleared the top of the hill with enough room to give me a longish, but playable shot into the green. I walked away thinking about how Pete Dye had created a nice little hole with lots of options.

A view from the fairway at the Blackwolf Run River Course's third hole.
A view from the fairway at the Blackwolf Run River Course’s third hole.

Much, if not most, of The River At Blackwolf Run plays in that fashion. From the correct tees, players have interesting options and a reasonable chance. From too far out, the round will likely be painful. Here’s my tip for the bogey golfer. Play the first hole from the whites. If you get a par or bogey, you are in the right place. If you get a birdie or better, consider moving back. Double bogey or worse, consider moving to the White/Red combination tees. Remember: you’re at Blackwolf Run to have fun, not compete in a US Open.

The ninth at the Blackwolf Run River Course is a 361 (302) yard par 4.
The ninth at the Blackwolf Run River Course is a 361 (302) yard par 4.

I am certain that the par four fifth (photo at top of the page) stands out for many as their favorite hole because of the spectacular view. My own favorite, however, is the par four ninth. From the tips, it measures 361. From the white tees, it is just 302.

Blackwolf Run Ninth
The par four ninth offers plenty of options.

This is a par four designed for irons off the tee. The safe shot is left to a wide landing zone, albeit one donut-holed by a grassy area and bunker. This option leaves a player with a shot over the rough into the green below. A very straight shot closer to the left of the trees (or just over that edge) should leave a straight but downhill shot to the green. A more risky line threads the needle between the river and trees to the split fairway below. A successful play there should leave the player with a pitch and a putt for birdie.

Because the hole is downhill from the tee box, a bold move with a longer club could even carry the green. That’s asking for a lot of trouble, though.

The Google Earth image at left shows the hole from a different perspective.

So many options. Just one chance to play.

Conditions on the day I played were what you would expect on a high-end course. The greens were beautiful, the fairways carpet-like. Tee boxes were well-cared for.

A view of the finishing holes of The River and The Meadows at Blackwolf Run.
A view of the finishing holes of The River and The Meadows at Blackwolf Run.

Customer service at Kohler’s Blackwolf Run was absolutely first-rate. Everyone from the bag drop to the clubhouse staff, starter, rangers and course workers were exceedingly helpful and friendly. The starter pointed out “danger” spots on the course and offered tips for several holes. A ranger kept track of my progress, and when I got to the two spots with serious distance between the holes, had a cart waiting to ferry me to the next tee. Playing alone, I did not have a caddy, but when groups waved me up to pass through, their caddies tended the flag, wiped my ball and offered putting advice.

Lunch at Blackwolf Run
Lunch at Blackwolf Run

After the round, I was able to get a shower and change my clothes in a lavishly appointed locker room. I appreciated the fact that I would not need to have dinner in stinky clothes.

The entire experience at was absolutely first rate, and that is why Kohler can charge a premium price.

An observation. Whether at the clubhouse for lunch, or on the course with the golf cart ferry or at the halfway house, the response from the staff to requests or thanks was always “Of Course.” I don’t know whether the phrase is a Wisconsin thing, or the result of Kohler staff training, but I found it a refreshing change from the “No Problem” I hear in my neck of the woods. “No problem” always makes me think that perhaps a different request might actually be a problem.

Of course, the American Club at Kohler offers a great deal more than golf. It has spas, dining, non-golf outdoor activities, shopping, gardens and tours of Kohler facilities. I did not get a chance to stay at Kohler, but will point out that the American Club is a five-star, five-diamond hotel.

The River at Blackwolf Run course review was first published August 2, 2016 from a round played July 19, 2016.

Thanks to Destination Kohler for hosting me, and to Travel Wisconsin for arranging the trip.

More photos of The River at Blackwolf Run follow:

 

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