West Bend Country Club
Wisconsin, United States of America

Seventh hole, 360 yards; A beloved hole, one of the best in the Midwest, and one where the opportunity for huge embarrassment effortlessly presents itself. The author’s brother John Morrissett noted long ago, ‘If you want to see how good a hole can be that is bunkerless, measures well under 400 yards, features no water, and yet places high demands on the player, come see the seventh at West Bend.’ Right he was! Rarely is a tee ball so important but with a depression right, don’t be fooled into going left in an effort to shorten the hole. The only thing that likely guarantees is a shot from the rough at an oblique angle to a firm green – a losing proposition. Far better to fly over or skirt past the depression and approach the elevated green from the outside of the dogleg. Like with so many great holes, trial and error is required to discern how best to handle this little brute. Just don’t look at the scorecard and assume ‘birdie hole’ because even the best can get mangled fighting these rambunctious landforms.

A tee ball just right of the left red tee-marker represents a fine start.

Once down in the fairway, the criminally elevated green and flagstick reveal themselves. Goalby elaborates, ‘Illustrating bold locations, the 7th is a great example of their willingness to be daring.  Identifying a green site that most, if not all, other architects would try to lower or soften,  they added dirt and pushed it even higher! In doing so, they created an unforgettable hole.’

Even the modern golfer feels hard done by and ill-equipped to handle this daunting approach from anything other than short grass.

The view from behind captures the built-up green pad.

Eighth hole, 160 yards; Bob Jones won the Grand Slam using hickory clubs in 1930, the same year that this nine opened. Just think of what it would have been like with hickory clubs to tackle this nine. In this case, miss the green short or left and good luck with your recovery from five feet below the green surface with a ~45 degree hickory club. Even with today’s 64 degree wedges and exotic fiber shafts, this clean, simple looking hole packs a punch. Most members play it at 138 yards and the beauty of any Short hole is the tension created between the hole’s de minimis length versus the peril of missing the green. Essentially, the challenge is to not let the short distance woo the golfer into greedy tactics of chasing perimeter hole locations but rather to see if the golfer has the composure to hit for the middle of the green, even with a short iron in hand.

To play the 8th, you have to first get to the tee, which is accomplished by descending 35 steps from left of the 7th green.

The filtered light that reaches the putting surface is vital to healthy turf and is a direct consequence of the club’s prudent tree thinning that has occurred over the past decade.

Ninth hole, 475 yards; What a grand, sweeping 1/2 par hole. The fairway catapults from high right to lower left and then twists to the green where it is higher on the left than the right.  Sites with more pedestrian land movement are incapable of yielding such visceral excitement. And of course, Langford & Moreau’s bold man-made features (a pair of twelve foot deep depressions 40 yards shy of the green, another enormous green punctuated by deep bunkers at its base) exacerbate the thrilling challenge that comes from tumbling landforms and pronounced features. If there are many better holes in the Midwest than this one, the author hasn’t seen them and it, along with the third and seventh, are certainly shoe-ins for best eclectic Langford & Moreau holes. After playing the hole, remember you are in Vince Lombardi country and his words, ‘The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall’ will resonate anew!

A+ for routing, as Langford & Moreau captured the marvelously convoluted landforms of the kettle moraine within the 9th’s playing corridor.

What constitutes great architecture? One litmus test is do you want to drop a small satchel of balls from a spot and hit the shot until you get it just right. The approach to the 9th passes that ideal with flying colors.

Tenth hole, 355 yards; This is a key moment in the round as the Langford & Moreau holes are over, yet the high octane stretch from seven to nine only has the golfer panting for more. Naturally, more than a tinge of regret surfaces, so how the club handles the transition is critical. Some holes do it exceptionally well (the third at Bandon Trails is so alarmingly good that the golfer could not care less that he is back is now turned to the Pacific Ocean) while other holes (the sixth at Spyglass Hill) leave the golfer mourning the departure from the coastal environment. At West Bend, the well placed, confrontational depressions on the front nine are so striking, so handsome that the golfer yearns for such features to appear on the second nine just as they would have if Langford & Moreau had built both nines. And now, with Goalby’s recent addition of depressions left and right, the golfer is provided a sense of relief as he stands on the tenth tee as the enticing architecture compels him forward. This is no mean feat and the club and Goalby deserve applause for the smooth transition.

The golfer can be forgiven for thinking that Langford & Moreau built this hole given the scooped out depression short right and …

… the one long left. This view from 135 yards feeds off the design ethos established on the front nine.

A pushed approach leaves the golfer with the sort of recovery that he likely already experienced on the front.

Eleventh hole, 525 yards;  Fawning over Langford & Moreau’s routing for the second nine is a natural consequence derived from the quality of the first nine.  And yet, the commanding downhill view found here is so compelling, that one is shocked to learn that Langford & Moreau routed their hole (the seventeenth) up this hill.  No doubt they had good reason but … today’s hole offers undeniable drama and a visual appeal.

A big drive leaves the golfer some 230 yards away and presents a tempting risk/reward moment. A well struck shot hangs in the air forever.

Twelfth hole, 350 yards; Save for tamer green contours, the golfer hasn’t seen any jarring design features relative to the front and he is now three holes into the second nine. That was untrue in 2014 and it shows the marked progress that has been made in a short period. Indeed, it is the work on the back that has led to West Bend’s jump in stature, even more so than the work and de-forestation that occured on the front. The depressions off the tee are most notable but Goalby’s work right of the green in building a soft, grass hollow has several members contending this is the course’s most improved hole.

Mission accomplished – Goalby’s depressions on the outside of the 12th fairway look like they have been here since 1930.

Stay below the hole on 12 as both it and the 11th green feature enough pitch to keep the golfer on his toes.

Fifteenth hole, 535 yards; Give Gill credit for this hole’s clever, twisting routing and Goalby credit for making it enjoy Langford & Moreau attributes. The result? In addition to perhaps the twelfth, this one exemplifies just how good West Bend can become as an eighteen hole course. Set over scintillating land, the hole jogs past a set of Goalby depressions left and right before finishing at the best green on this side, courtesy of Goalby adding character and flair when he completely rebuilt it from the ground up in 2015. From start to finish, there is much to admire including the switchback nature of the hole. For a big hitter, a draw off the tee is required followed by a fade into the green; asking people to shape a ball might seem old fashioned, which is exactly the point. Welcome to the Golden Age and the Kettle Moraine.

Tee balls need to be squeezed between this depression right and ….

… and these left. The putting surface is seen well in the distance, bathed in sunlight.

As seen from the left, the afternoon sun highlights the best green contours found on the second nine.

The least distinguished three hole stretch on the course today is the last three because Goalby has yet to tackle them; they remain out of character with the prior fifteen holes. Happily though, the land they occupy is full of promise. Existing ideas for the sixteenth hole hold wonderful promise while redoing the last one hundred yards of the Home hole is monumentally important. After that is accomplished, West Bend Country Club will enjoy ardent support for being in the top five in one of the country’s best golf states.

Even though much (!) has been accomplished, West Bend Country Club remains a work in progress. While it isn’t a homogeneous playing experience in the sense of Pinehurst No. 2 or Sand Hills, few courses possess West Bend’s quantity of superlative holes. The fact that they mostly fall on the front nine might remind some of Royal County Down where the two nines aren’t interchangeable in quality either. However, the disparity in quality at West Bend is the smallest that it has ever been, and that is in spite of all the fine work accomplished on the front nine.  The front’s overwhelming merit combined with the dramatic vistas on the back (e.g. the eleventh and fourteenth) and good golf (e.g. the tenth, twelfth, fifteenth) and the conclusion is inescapable that West Bend offers thrilling golf in an inspired Kettle Moraine environment.

One curious fact is that the Golden Age nine (3,539 yards) actually measures 200 yards longer than the modern nine (3,348). Both play to the same par of 36, so the delta isn’t explained by the modern side having one less three shotter, for instance. Given that the combined nines total nearly 6,900 yards, one could be forgiven for saying, so what? The biggest knock that the author has on Gill’s routing is that it yielded three two shotters (the tenth, fourteenth and here) that fall within a tight, seven yard range of one another. Combined with two par fives, the golfer might have a wedge approach to a majority of holes on the second nine. Meanwhile, Langford & Moreau’s collection of holes show a greater spacing of yardages, and require a wider variety of approach shots, which is always desirable.

This point is amplified by the fact not only is the front longer and requires a greater range of approach shots, its greens are also far and away more interesting. The second nine sorely needs interior contours akin to those at the first, second, third, fourth, etc. Just as the club did with Goalby at the fifteenth, here’s to hoping that they let him breathe the same kind of fire into the second nine greens. Such a process is not exorbitantly expensive nor time consuming as the club found out at fifteen. The greens at the modest length tenth and fourteenth would be the biggest beneficiaries. Also, it is worth noting that Byron Nelson once made a disparaging comment regarding some rambunctious contours in the sixth green, which lead to those being softened. No doubt Goalby would love to have a crack at restoring the high left side with a lowered back right bowl at the sixth.

Despite its unusual history, time has shown just how fortunate West Bend Country Club is.

The restoration movement in the United States in the early 1990s began with Donald Ross courses and expanded later that decade to include C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor. Soon thereafter, other design titans were appreciated and their work was put on a pedestal too, including William Flynn and A.W. Tillinghast. It wasn’t until this century though that the spotlight turned to William Langford and Theodore Moreau and when it did, people realized what a huge oversight that had been. With designs like Lawsonia Links, Culver Academies, and West Bend leading the way, people are again swooning.

The End