Milwaukee Country Club
Wisconsin, United States of America

Tenth hole, 485 yards; Surely a hole with such glorious natural attributes – a tee high on a bluff, the broad fairway in the river valley below, long views toward the bend in the Milwaukee River, and a green perfectly benched into the hillside – is guaranteed to stand the test of time? Not so, as the author can testify, A 1987 tour of the course showed something far different as a row of mature trees choked the hole from the right. Gone was the long view, gone was the width of the fairway and in their place was a one dimensional hole played through a narrow corridor of foliage. The transformation of the tenth from one of the weaker holes on the course to one its the best helps cement Milwaukee’s status as one of the two or three best courses in the Midwest.

Congratulations to the board, Green Keeper Pat Sisk and Renaissance for restoring the full grandeur to the tenth hole. As Placek notes, “All golfers now get a true sense of the course’s amazing proximity to the river. This happens at precious few courses so it helps make a round at Milwaukee all the more special.”

Eleventh hole, 375 yards; The tee is attractively placed along the river bank and the hole itself bends left with the elbow of the Milwaukee River. Alison placed several bunkers on the inside of the dogleg and then Trent Jones added several more to give the hole its distinctive look. In many ways, the advances in technology have made this hole more interesting as the strong club golfer might opt to carry the field of bunkers under certain circumstances. While the range of playing lines off the tee varies by nearly 100 yards (!), the challenge at the green does not. Hit the back plateau or watch your ball being swept off the front of the green courtesy of Alison’s dramatic false front.

 

There is proximity to the river and then there’s the river itself, lapping up against the eleventh tee!

 

The eleventh fairway swings left around a nest of eight bunkers.

 

One of the game’s most dramatic false fronts is found at the eleventh at Milwaukee Country Club.


Twelfth hole, 180 yards;
An obvious strength of Alison’s routing is found in how he used the Milwaukee River. He gradually introduces the golfer to it via long glimpses from the eighth, ninth and tenth holes. The river brushes up against the eleventh tee before peeling away from the line of play. Now standing on the twelfth tee, the golfer is directly confronted by the need to carry it. True, the mid iron shot was more terrifying in the days of hickory golf when the course opened in 1929 (steel shafts didn’t take over for another few years).  Today, the green contours provide the bigger challenge.

Nothing too complicated but it’s man versus nature at a high level at the twelfth. The merits found amid the sound and solitude of play across a fast moving body of water can’t be overstated.


Thirteenth hole, 390 yards;
The perfect foil to the dogleg left eleventh, it swings to the right around a large flat bunker complex. As flat as flat can be, man’s hand was required to give this hole its golf qualities which is what Trent Jones did when expanded upon Alison’s bunker scheme.  Greenside, the distinctive left and right bunkers with their high sand faces define the target and provoke concern. To cap it off, Renaissance and Sisk worked hard to remove the vegetation and bracken behind the thirteenth green to restore the clean lines that existed in Alison’s day.

 

When nature took a break, man needed to step in and that’s what happened …

 

… when Jones expanded upon Alison’s bunkering scheme on the inside of the dogleg. When asked why much of Jones’s work at Milwaukee seems to compliment Alison’s so well, Placek notes that Jones shared Alison’s penchant for big boned courses that featured lots of exposed sand.

 

Note the impressive, near vertical face at the left greenside bunker. Sisk says, “We prepare all our steep faced bunkers in a similar manner with bunker faces only “smoothed” when needed. This allows the sand to set up as firm as possible to minimize washouts during ordinary rain events and minimize the chance of a buried lie in the face. On occasion we will use a “Sand-Pro” machine to fluff up the bunker floors. We take great steps to avoid the toe of the bunker face slopes in order to protect the stability and integrity of this stabilizing bond. If additional sand is ever needed in a bunker we ONLY add it to the floor. Old and contaminated sand packs quite well and serves a great purpose on the faces. Some new sand does find it’s way onto the face however and this migration helps to keep a uniformed color appearance throughout the surface.”

 


Fifteenth hole, 585 yards;
The start of a difficult closing stretch, this hole has been the beneficiary of various changes over its eighty year life span. First, Sisk cleared a densely wooded area directly behind the fourteenth green in 2007, making room for tees that stretch the hole into a true three shotter at 585 yards. Up ahead, Trent Jones saw fit in the 1970s to extend a string of Alison bunkers farther into the fairway, creating a Sahara type hazard. Sixty yards short of the green is a bunker with a rolling sand face exquisitely restored by Renaissance’s Brian Schneider to nothing short of a work of art. The green itself is a rarity in that the right half dates back to Robertson’s 1911 course. Both Travis and Alison thought highly enough of it to leave it alone (Jones expanded it left toward the sixteenth tee). The end result of the various stages of this hole’s evolution? Each shot is of great interest, a rarity among par five holes these days.

Alison never worked in the area where the new back markers are for fifteen. He didn’t need to as his hole was plenty long for hickory shafts. The creation of this back tee makes the hole play once again as the true three shotter that Alison intended. Though out of this photograph, the broad Milwaukee River is a scant twenty yard to the right.

 

Cross hazards such as these that need to be crossed with one’s second shot and this one …

 

… found sixty yards short of the green. Note the artful manner in which Brain Schneider restored the curved bunker walls. Sisk notes that “We spend nearly 3X more man hours in bunkers than we do on putting greens! The good news, for me, in this investment is that MCC has some spectacular pieces of art and engineering in our bunkers. Ultimately the time and money spent protecting these pieces are well worth the investment as our members are deeply appreciative of this aspect of the course.”

 

Sixteenth hole, 450 yards; One of Placek’s favorite quotes from Colt & Alison’s book,,Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture is the following: On inland courses which are not heather country it is desirable that fairways should be mown to as great a breadth as funds will allow, and that artificial sand-bunkers should be utilized wherever side-hazards are required. If it is done it will prevent a large number of balls from being lost and thus save much exasperating delay, and it will provide for the inaccurate player a much more interesting form of recovery stroke. Another quote from the same book that applies well to the sixteenth at Milwaukee is in regards to the entrance of greens and reads: The entrance of the green, that is to say the portion of the fairway free from hazards on which the approach should pitch, should be an object of considerable care in construction…Whether the approach shot be good, bad, or indifferent, it should receive the treatment which it deserves and should obtain the amount of run which its trajectory and spin indicate. The sixteenth embodies these virtues. Given that it is largely a ground game hole, it also highlights the perfect fast and firm playing conditions that Sisk provides on a regular basis.

Seventeenth hole, 195 yards; Few architects excel at routing eighteen holes and this was Walter Travis’s undoing at Milwaukee. Alison is one of the twenty or so architects of all time that could successfully string one hole after another and have all eighteen holes be of a uniformly high standard. Take the final two holes as case in point. Having just played the last 6½ holes in the river valley, Alison needed a way to transport the golfer back to the clubhouse on the bluff. He accomplishes the task admirably, starting with this brutish uphill one shotter. Alison succeeded in part by following his own advice in Some Essays where Colt and he wrote, “It is far easier and cheaper to cut artificial bunkers on the face of a natural slope or hill than it is to construct them on flat ground. It is easy to give such bunkers an impressive and awe-inspiring appearance, and there is far less soil to shift.” The pit right of the seventeenth green is a perfect example. The expanse of fairway left of the green aids in the hole’s grand scale.  In fact, the hole plays quite reasonably from its back marker of 235 yards.

The left to right kick bank enables golfers of all skill levels a chance. Tee balls missed into the deep right greenside bunker guarantee a recovery shot to a putting surface that is out of view.

 

Eighteenth hole, 425 yards;What makes a great closing hole? Name a qualification and this hole possesses it. Is there a premium placed on execution? Absolutely, the tee ball needs to be well struck for the golfer to reach the crest of the hill and have a good view of the green with a reasonable club in his hands. The approach shot is demanding too as the putting surface has the most interior contour on the course. Is there a sense of moment? Definitely, from the crest of the hill the golfer has his first view of the handsome clubhouse since the turn. The green is tucked into its own amphitheatre, framed by large maples and lots of short tight, bent grass that feeds unnervingly toward the clubhouse behind. Combine all these elements and you have the finest finishing hole in the Midwest. Play here and the penultimate hole helped to shape the American victory in the 1969 Walker Cup.

Great architects exploit landforms in every manner possible. Alison’s decision to drape the eighteenth fairway up and over a ridge line was genius and provided the hole with its enduring playing characteristics. It’s the only dramatically uphill tee shot on the course and it nicely balances the downhill ones found at the first and tenth.

 

What a rarity! Here’s a downhill approach to a Home green with a clubhouse in the background that lords over the property from every other vantage point. Where there is an elevated clubhouse there is generally either a uphill slog of a closer (Jupiter Hills, Colorado GC) or a long walk in like at Shinnecock. By virtue of the clubhouse relocation 250 yards to the north and somewhat downhill in 1928, the final approach is played from the high spot of the property, once occupied by the old clubhouse.

The fiendish contours found with the putting surface of the Home green ruthlessly expose frayed nerves.

Dissecting the weaknesses of a course is always fun. Some are irreparable like poor property and/or poor routing (i.e. what Milwaukee suffered through in its first 30 years of existence). Some designs suffer because they are not fun to play, be it from a lack of strategy or a lack of interesting features or both. Some courses and their holes blur together in one’s mind on account of their sameness and lack of character. Others are doomed by poor turf quality. All such flaws are absent at Milwaukee Country Club.

Alison did his part by spending the needed time to ensure that a great course emerged from a great landscape. In master architect Alison, you have a man who at one point or another was responsible for nearly 10% of the courses that would be considered world top 100. Recent boards at Milwaukee have brought to bear the right confluence of talent to ensure that this Golden Age design is displayed at its peak. As such, Milwaukee Country Club once again is among the world’s elite courses.

When Colt and Alison penned Some Essays in 1920, they praised seaside golf while noting the potential shortcomings of an inland course. They opined, “When the golfer has left a grimy city for a few hours’ relaxation he wishes to find rest and pleasure in the scenery of the country but it often happens that such a place does not do all that it should to provide him with what it requires.’ They wrote those words some seven years before Alison arrived at Milwaukee. Though prescient and accurate for many inland courses they happily don’t apply at Milwaukee where Alison’s work scores high marks by any measure that matters.

The End