Blue Mound Golf & Country Club, WI, USA

The grand game of golf offers few better distractions than autumn golf in Wisconsin. Pictured above from the right of the tee is the Short Hole at Blue Mound.

How should a golf architect be judged? Is it how well he works with superlative land? Or is it more instructive to see how he handles prosaic property? It turns out that talent is measured and revealed in both situations.

Of course, most properties aren’t located in the sand hills of Nebraska or beside a polo field. The virtues of most sites lie somewhere in between with good features here and there and undistinguished land elsewhere. How does the architect approach this challenge? Does he extract the essence of the best property while lending playing interest to the holes laid over the more mundane land?  Equally important does he successfully knit these two territories together? Are the transitions seamless (e.g. Friar’s Head, Pacific Dunes) or is the golfer left wanting (e.g. Spyglass after leaving the best portion of the property)?

Located in southwest Milwaukee, Blue Mound has a superior collection of holes and is a wonderful exemplification of how an architect at the height of his powers solved this conundrum. Where the land had the most topographic interest, Raynor created the holes most often cited as favorites, the Short seventh and Punchbowl eighth. Yet, he also shined on the flatter land, especially the stretch now occupied by the first through fourth that play along the property’s perimeter. Where most architects would falter, Raynor built four superb greens: Redan, Double Plateau, Biarritz and Alps. More significantly he created four successful holes without moving much dirt between tee and green. He focused his efforts at these green complexes. After all, no one can name a mediocre hole that possesses a great green – there just aren’t any!

After tackling these four diverse but fun greens at the start of the round, the golfer is led by Raynor into the property’s best golfing land. There Raynor soared with a memorable nine hole stretch highlighted by the aforementioned glorious seventh and eighth. Today’s back nine is played diagonally into, around and out of a central depression. While the tenth is flat, its green is not (!) and the eleventh green butts up against a sharp drop-off. The twelfth tee shot is a thrilling oblique carry across a valley and the Redan thirteenth is played back downhill to a green bordered in back by a creek. The only blind tee shot comes at 14 and carries the golfer back up onto the flat land. On the way home Raynor sprinkles the terrain with challenge, especially at the sixteenth Leven and seventeenth Eden by virtue of built-up green pads and the resulting deep greenside bunkers.

All told, the holes reflect the natural surrounds while producing golf of a high order. There is no reason to think that any architect – dead or alive – could have done better with this property, and surely that’s the greatest compliment an architect can be paid.

How can it be, you ask?!  If the course is that good, why haven’t I heard more about Blue Mound? The answer lies in the fact that this design, like many Golden Age courses, was covered up for several decades. Burdened by shrunken fairways, putting surfaces that occupied only ~70% of their original green pads and design features buried under a mass of newly planted trees, Blue Mound bore little resemblance to today’s gem.

Standing here near the fourteenth tee, the prior par three Redan green was once invisible as it was masked by a row of spruce trees. Those days are well behind Blue Mound with Raynor’s design features once again happily shining through.

Things began to change in the mid-1990s. Just as Seth Raynor’s star was in ascendancy, a man from New Jersey named George Bahto burst into the professional shop to inform long time pro Barry Linhart that his membership was the proud possessor of a classic Raynor design. Eventually, the club board took note and in 1998 hired Bruce Hepner from Renaissance Design. Initially, Hepner picked away at the forest of trees and adjusted mowing lines. The restoration gained further momentum when Tim Venes was appointed Green Keeper in 2003. The following year, John Engelbrecht became President and Mark Vetter Green Chairman. This created a synergy with the right people now in place to drive a renaissance.

The ill-advisedly planted, fast growing spruce, ash and silver maple trees were soon eradicated revealing specimen trees of genuine substance and beauty. Fairway width was reclaimed as was nearly 45,000 square feet (!) of putting surface, on which many of the best hole locations are now found.

By the time Blue Mound served as the companion course for the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship, the startling transformation was largely complete. The course and its presentation met with heart-felt glowing reviews from both the USGA and the playing participants. In a sense, while the course opened for play in 1926, golfers are only now getting reacquainted with this Raynor designed gem.

Holes to Note

First Hole, 400 yards; As this opener is set over flat land one might conclude that Blue Mound starts similar to the Monterey Peninsula Country Club in California where Raynor chewed up the least interesting land in the first few holes. That is incorrect because Blue Mound started at today’s tenth tee in Raynor’s day. Why the nines were flipped in the 1960s is not known for sure but one possible explanation is that the introduction of the golf cart made it logistically difficult to commence play from the original first.

Regardless of age or ability, every golfer delights in the challenge of a Redan green such as the first at Blue Mound. The tiger might draw his approach to help his ball release to back hole locations. Meanwhile, golfers with more modest ambitions are free to run their approach up the open right front of the green.


Second hole, 415 yards;
The brilliance of Raynor’s work on flat land is that he rarely disturbed much land from tee to green. This is apparent at Shoreacres, Fairfield, Charleston, Yeamans Hall, et al. Here at the second the tee pad is not built up to provide the player a comfortable view of the fairway. Rather, Raynor concentrated his dirt moving efforts in building an enormous green pad. His bunkers aren’t so much deep as his green pads are tall. Of all the green complexes in his repertoire, the Double Plateau affords the most varied hole locations and the one found here is a mighty fine version.

The killer hole location is on the back right plateau as seen above. The front left plateau is in the afternoon shadow. Just ten years ago, much of the lower front section was not even maintained as putting surface but now the nearly 9,000 square foot green is properly – and perfectly – presented. Beware the hidden deep bunkers back left and right!


Third hole, 220 yards;
Given the unsurpassed drama created at the ninth at Yale, a Raynor-phile is surprised to realize how many Biarritz holes are actually laid over relatively flat land: Yeamans, Chicago, Shoreacres, Piping Rock to name a few. This one is as good or better than those four. In fact, Hepner opines: “Individually, perhaps none of Raynor’s four one shotters at Blue Mound are the very best of their class. However, cumulatively, I think they represent his finest set of one shot holes as each is of such a high standard.”

To Raynor’s credit, the view standing on the tee suggests he moved very little dirt. Yet, ….

… this view from the right suggests otherwise. The ground in the foreground is at grade. Where Raynor got the huge amount of dirt to build up the two sections that are separated by the swale is a mystery!

The detail work at Blue Mound is excellent. For example, the Biarritz bunkers short of the green extend well back as intended by Raynor. Note the depth of the swale measured against the waist of the golfer walking to play his ball from the right greenside bunker.

 

Fifth hole, 495 yards; When Charles Blair Macdonald (Raynor’s mentor) lived in Scotland the famous Road Hole at St. Andrews was unequivocally a par five. Measuring 460 yards, the hole was rarely reached in two with a feathery. Matters changed early in the last century after the introduction of the gutta percha ball. Suddenly, the seventeenth became attainable if the wind helped and fairways were firm. Blue Mound’s version went through a similar evolutionary change in technology. Orginially opened during the age of hickory shafts, the green was difficult to reach in two. Equipped today with 460cc drivers, many more golfers have a go at the green in two than in Raynor’s day. However, successfully avoiding the deep bunkers front and back and holding the plateau Road green remains vexing.

These fairway bunkers along the right are meant to force the golfer left ala the sheds and out of bounds on the Road Hole at St. Andrews.

 

Recovery from the long bunker that hugs the back of the Road green is always problematic.

 

Sixth hole, 335 yards; A teaser that takes the golfer into the prettiest section of the property, most people favor restraint off the tee to leave a full short iron second in order to find the proper level on this two tier green. When asked prior to a Wisconsin State Amateur what the winning score would be, Barry Linhart responded, “ Depends on where I set the hole locations!’ By that, he meant that much of the challenge at Blue Mound is found at its green complexes.  In the case of the sixth, back hole locations are particularly difficult because the back shelf is none too big and death is over. Linhart goes on to add ‘That’s why Blue Mound never gets boring to play. Each hole plays so differently everyday because of the variety and availability of so many interesting and difficult hole locations.’

Great green complexes provide great hole locations and above is an example. Raynor gives the golfer room to operate and avoid flirting with the deep front right bunker by using a ridge behind the hole as a back board.

As seen from behind, the bunker to the right of the sixth green gets deeper as the green pad gets taller.

 

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