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Phil McDade

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Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« on: June 09, 2009, 11:46:17 AM »
With the USGA again honoring public golf by hosting the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black this month, I thought it worthwhile to take a tour of one of southern Wisconsin’s better municipal courses. It’s Janesville Riverside, designed by Robert Bruce Harris.

Harris has his share of detractors as a golf architect; his work has often been described as bland and formulaic. In particular, Harris has been criticized for his bunkering – often relying on simple round sand traps placed one width of a gang mower from greens, so that maintenance workers could easily (and less expensively) mow around the traps, as well as between the bunkers and greens. His courses, it’s been said, are better known for their emphasis on cheap maintenance practices than architectural virtue. He was a busy architect, particularly in the Midwest, and is credited with 150-some course designs or renovations, most of those from the 1950s into the early 1970s.

His best-known work in Wisconsin is The Brute, at the former Playboy resort near Lake Geneva, which when it opened in the late 1960s could be stretched to 7,300 yards, virtually unheard of at the time. Riverside, built early in Harris’ career, stands in stark contrast. It’s short and compact, set on a wooded parcel of land near the Rock River in the city of Janesville, 30 miles south of Madison.
Riverside opened in 1924 with nine holes, but the course today is largely the version that Harris renovated and expanded in 1946 to 18 holes. Interestingly, one of the best features of the course is its bunkering – many of the course’s sand traps are deep and irregularly shaped, and are placed nearer greens than the traditional Harris gang-mower width. Working on a tight and somewhat bland piece of property, Harris created an interesting routing, one notable for the closeness of tees and greens. The course annually hosts the Ray Fisher Invitational , a popular summer tournament won in the past by such notables as PGA pro Steve Stricker.

Course details:  Riverside plays to a par of 72, at 6,508 yards from the tips (rating 70.1/slope 123). It plays to a par of 71 at 6,193 yards (69.3/120) from the whites. A notable feature is a still-in-use set of railroad tracks that runs through a section of the course.  (Holes 1-7 and 15-18 are from the expansion overseen by Harris in 1946. Holes 8-14 are from the original 9-hole course; two original holes were redone by Harris as part of the 1946 expansion.)

Holes and features of note:

Welcome to Riverside.

A neat feature of the course – the internal driving range is most easily reached by a short walk along the railroad tracks.

The tight opening drive at Riverside, a par 4 of 366 yards. Like many courses of its era, Riverside plays much shorter than it used to, and trees planted 50-some years ago now serve as the course’s primary defense. Half of the course’s 10 par 4s are under 400 yards, and the longest par 5 is 510 yards.

Yank one too far left at either of the first two holes, and your ball could end up on the railroad tracks. Sadly, the tracks are staked OB, or golfers might feel the need to dig up an old cleek.

This well-placed fairway bunker, 35 yards long, sits on the left side of the 368-yard par 4 2nd hole. One nice feature of Riverside is that the rough, appropriately for a muni, is kept fairly short – allowing the wayward shot to not get hung up in the rough before finding a trap.

Riverside puts demands on accuracy off the tee. Not more than 10-15 yards left of the 2nd fairway sits this forest.

This greenside bunker at the 2nd, like all of the greenside bunkering on the course, features crisp edging. Notice also how the bunker provides a range of lies; you’re not guaranteed a flat lie in these traps.

The proximity of holes to each other is a refreshing change from the design of many modern courses, which have often emphasized a “separate-ness” of the hole routing. Here’s a player teeing off on the par 3 3rd hole, right next to the 16th tee.

The 3rd, a 157-yard par 3, is a very good hole. The play is through a small ravine to a green located just steps in front of the railroad tracks, guarded by a large bunker front left that wraps around the entire left side of the green. The shot looks downhill…

…but in reality is slightly uphill. A nice piece of visual deception by Harris.

The left-side bunker at the 3rd, which is deep and plays deeper because of the mound fronting it. A really well-designed bunker, as players tend to shy away from the deeply wooded right side of this hole.

The journey from the 3rd green to the 4th tee.

This long and deep bunker juts out into the fairway of the 505-yard par 5 4th hole.

The 4th and 5th holes are squeezed into between the railroad tracks and the road that leads to the course. This is the view from the tee of the 437-yard par 4 5th.

A very nice bunkering scheme can be found on the dogleg par 5 6th hole (474 yards). On a hole in which even the high handicapper is tempted to try and reach in two, Harris placed a meandering bunker 50 yards short of the green left, and another bunker fronted by a large mound right of the green. From 200+ yards out, the shot into this green is blind, as Harris used the terrain to hide the green and these two bunkers.

The mound that fronts the greenside bunker on the 6th hides a good portion of the green, causing uncertainty for a short pitch. The green extends all the way to below the crest of the mound.

This is a view of the 17th green (foreground), which sits right next to the 6th green (back), again giving the course an intimate feel.

A fun hole that dates to the original 9-hole course, the 197-yard par 3 8th plays over level ground to a wide green surrounded by a large, semi-circular mound. Although the course can’t be lengthened much, the 8th is one spot where the tee could be moved back another 15-20 yards. I think it would make this good hole even better, forcing most players to take out a fairway wood.

A closer look at the mound that surrounds the hole; the opening to the hole is cut off on the right by a deep bunker.

The right fronting bunker plays deeper because of the mound between it and the green.

The back nine starts off with what I think are the course’s two best holes; they are part of the original 9-hole course, and have the feel of holes simply laid out on the land without benefit of heavy machinery. The terrain here is rambunctious, always a good sign of interesting golf to follow. Here’s the tee shot of the 10th hole – from the tips, the hole plays as a 491-yard par 5; from the whites (the white tees are to the right of this photo), as a tough 445-yard par 4. From either tee, it’s a fun and challenging hole.

The canted fairway dives into a deep ravine, with the green tucked into an opening in the woods distant. Originally, the green sat at the top of the hill in the distance. Harris moved the green back into the woods, about 100 yards back from the top of the plateau, making an already solid and fun hole that much better.

The decision for those laying up on this short par 5 is difficult – play to the base of the ravine, or try to carry a long shot to the top of the hill coming out of the ravine?

Nearing the 200-yard mark, the flag on the green can be seen, but not the green surface itself. There is not a lot of room for error upon the high shelf where the green sits -- deep woods squeeze the landing area on the plateau where the green is located.

Here’s the view from 160 yards – a totally blind shot over a steep hill. This is wonderful, old-fashioned golf.

This large, grassed-in bunker used to sit at the front-right of the old green. Players who try to carry the hill and land here will be faced with a blind approach to the green.

The bunkerless green is one of the better ones on the course, with some significant slope on the right side. Trouble lurks left, right and back of the green with falloffs and deep woods. Although not as grand in style, the 10th at Riverside reminds me of Lawsonia’s famed par 5 13th, which incorporates a similar steep ravine that must be negotiated in the latter half of the hole. The best hole at Riverside.

The par 4 11th (403 yards) runs parallel to the 10th, and is noted for its severely canted fairway. The hole from tee to green is straight, although the fairway swings left a bit.

A level lie for the approach shot is unlikely at the 11th. The red flag on the green can be seen near the fairway/rough line, in between the two groups of people (middle-right of photo).

Depending on the outcome of the drive, the player can be left with a downhill shot to the green, or an uphill shot. For a course with some solid bunkering, these two solid holes don’t have any sand traps to test the players, but they really don’t need them.

A fun little par 3, the 12th (108 yards from the tips, 96 yards from the whites) is a classic up-and-over tee shot – a wedge over an enormous oak tree to a large green. Interestingly, the shot is more intimidating from the whites (second photo) than the blues (first photo).

The intimidating tee shot of the par 5 14th (510 yards). The only forced carry on the course, the hole actually opens up quite a bit once past the forest near the tee.

A look back at the tee, tucked in front of the road (middle of photo).

The 17th is the shortest par 4 on the course at 348 yards, but Harris again uses bunkering to hide the approach shot. Those playing safely on this sharply doglegging hole will be left with a pitch to a green where the flag is visible, but not the green surface.

The greenside bunker at the 17th.

Janesville Riverside gets a lot of play; after all, it’s a muni with affordable rates. But the staff maintain it in good shape; sitting above the Rock River, it drains well and holds up even with all of the traffic it gets. Although a muni that’s hardly in the league of Bethpage Black, it still rates as a solid test of golf, with some good bunkering and a few old-fashioned holes that are a treat to play.

Jason Topp

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #1 on: June 09, 2009, 12:15:44 PM »
Thanks Phil!

I have no doubt I would greatly enjoy playing this course.  I have played other Harris courses and while I understand the criticisms, I usually enjoy the experience.

We tend on this site to focus on aesthetics rather than the more considerations of maintenence costs, hazard placement and playability. 

I think the future health of the game depends on making it more affordable.   

Mike McGuire

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #2 on: June 09, 2009, 07:26:02 PM »
Another nice piece on a Wisconsin course. Keep it up Phil.

Every year they play the "Ray Fischer" here. The unofficial State Am.  I was paired with Jerry Kelly a million years ago. He said he was going to be a good player..... I wasn't so sure.   I didn't think Dwayne Wade was going to make it in the NBA either.


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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #3 on: June 09, 2009, 07:32:02 PM »
Thanks for the photos and the write-up. It is places like this that keep the game of golf alive, and well.
« Last Edit: June 09, 2009, 07:34:55 PM by Jim_Kennedy »
"I never beat a well man in my life" - Harry Vardon

Keith Buntrock

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #4 on: June 09, 2009, 09:42:50 PM »
Thanks Phil. I enjoyed reading that. It makes me anxious to get back to the Fischer at the end of this month. The golf course is what makes it such a fun event.

Matt Day

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #5 on: June 10, 2009, 04:37:58 AM »
great review...keeping courses like that affordable and in good nick is very important to the game of golf

Matthew Rose

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #6 on: June 10, 2009, 05:17:59 AM »

These photos nearly bring a tear to the eye, such is the feeling of nostalgia I currently have. This is where I learned to play the game, at the tender age of eight, it is where I had my first job, and where I played just about all of my golf for the better part of 14 years.

It's been more than a decade since I've left the area, and I look back at the photos of this wonderful course with a real sense of longing, wishing I knew years ago how much of a privilege it was to play this golf course every single day. I think I really took its challenges for granted.

There are a zillion threads on this site about the wonders of tree removal, and I must say, having seen pictures of this course for the first time in a decade, I'm taken by just how narrow and claustrophobic some of the hole corridors have got in the last 10 years. I can't BELIEVE how tight #14 looks now - that was always an intimidating tee shot, but you used to be able to really see the opening at the top of the hill... now it looks like there's no room at all.

Likewise, I don't recall the tee shot at 10 to be that narrow.

I was hoping to see some photos of #9 and #16, neither of which are included but are two of the better holes on the course, I always thought.

Hole #10 has always been a great hole. Whenever I saw the 12th hole at Westchester on TV, I always thought of this hole. I think there are similarities between them, right down to them being played as both a par-five and a par-four at various points throughout their history.

An interesting fact about this course - in the mid 1980s the routing was changed quite significantly. At one time, the 10th and 11th holes were actually the 17th and 18th, and holes 2-5 played as 6-9. I actually much preferred that routing, although it required a fairly long walk from #16 to #17. #11 is a better finisher than the current #18, in my opinion.

#4, #6, and #8 are three outstanding green complexes.

What a great trip down memory lane.

American-Australian. Trackman Course Guy. Fatalistic sports fan. Drummer. Bass player. Father. Cat lover.

Phil McDade

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #7 on: June 10, 2009, 02:38:32 PM »

Glad you enjoyed the pics. I’ve added several more, with comments, but a few general observations:

   There’s no question the trees have narrowed playing corridors there, even from when I first started playing it 15 years ago. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think they severely impact play. Holes 1 and 2 are pretty good examples – tree-lined on both sides, but both holes play at @ 370 yards, so driver is by no means mandatory for a lot of players. (I hit driver off nearly every tee, because I’m distance-challenged, and I think the corridors are reasonable – again, with a few exceptions).
   14 is really intimidating at first glance, but if you can carry a drive reasonably straight, the hole really opens up once you get to the top of the hill coming out of the ravine (as you can see from the picture that follows). 14 is one of the widest playing corridors at Riverside, once you get past the tee shot.
   10 is just a great hole. I almost always play the whites at Riverside, but move back and play the blue tees on 10, because (for my game, and I think for the course) the hole plays really well as a gambling par 5. To me, a real test of a very good par 5 is a difficult second shot, one that makes you think, even for the player not going for the green in two. The 10th does that really well.
   I can’t quite figure out that alternative routing; what was hole #2? I agree that the current 10-11 would work better as a closing 17-18, but I’m not sure how you get to the 3rd tee (kind of off in the far corner of the course), unless you’re coming off the 2nd green. The only other green near the 3rd tee is the 15th, a par 3 that plays nearly exactly the same as the 3rd (both par 3s in the 150-yd range).

Here are more photos:

A look at the 1st hole green, with the 16th green to the right, and the long corridor of the 16th hole running alongside the long row of pine trees in the background.

A closer look at the 1st green – nothing that stands out, but it’s a distinctly two-tiered green that’s really quite small.

The tee shot at the 368-yd par 4 2nd – this does feel quite tight. A snap hook here probably ends up on the RR tracks.

The approach from 150 yards at the 2nd. If you decide to take a fairway wood off the tee and hit it 220 yards or so, this is the approach shot – a smallish green pinched by bunkers left and right. The shot is much easier from 100-120 yards in, because the target is obviously easier to hit and see. So, for me, the tightness of the trees works here, because the driver off the tee brings the trees on both sides into play, but if you hit the fairway, you’re rewarded with a much easier (and shorter) shot. Golf 101, but I think without the trees lining each side you’d see golfers take nothing but driver off the tee on what is a slight dogleg hole over even terrain.

The tee shot at #4 – this is tight, as well. But it’s a 505-yard par 5 (from the tips, and you can’t move that tee back at all), moving slightly downhill in the last half of the hole. Maybe driver off the tee here isn’t the smart move. With OB left (RR tracks) and right (road), the tree-lined corridor also serves a playability purpose.

Here’s the green at the 4th, which as Matt points out is one of the better ones on the course. I always find the subtle contouring of greens hard to photograph, but this is a nice “potato chip” green, with a runoff on the backside, and flanks on the left and right sides.

The green at the par 4 5th, which slopes noticeably from back to front. The hole abuts the local Elks club, whose flag right behind the green is a nice guide for this longish (437 yds) par 4.

A really artful bunker that lies to the right of the 7th green, a short par 4.

The tee shot on the 9th hole (435 yds par 4); like a lot of tee shots at Riverside, what appears to be very tight on the tee opens up once you get to the fairway corridor. But I’d agree with those who think this needs some trimming. This hole moves slightly right, to the inside of the pine tree distant with the cart near it.

The approach at the 9th, a large green with a distinct back-to-front slope, and a somewhat closer look at the green. This hole would be improved noticeably by cutting down all of the pine trees in the back; it would put the sharp slope on the backside of the green more in play, and create something of a semi-skyline view to the approach shot to the green, which sits up from its surroundings.

A look back at the fairway corridor of the terrific 10th hole; the tee is set hard against the end of the parking lot, middle-right of picture. This is a pretty wide fairway, in contrast to some of the tightness of  other holes at Riverside.

A look back at the fairway of the par 4 11th hole – again, ample fairway width, needed on a hole routed over such canted terrain.

This is the tee shot on the short (348 yds) par 4 13th, the most claustrophobic hole on the course. It’s a neat hole – the tee shot bends to the right…

…but then the hole bends left. Something of a double-dogleg on a sub-350 yard hole, part of the quirkiness you find on one of the course’s original nine holes.

The tiny green of the 13th; the hole also features OB in the form of a road along nearly the entire right side. A somewhat overlooked hole at Riverside; I’ve always found it to be a pretty good test. (At a recent sectional high school tournament – the second and last step of qualifying for the state high school championship, so it featured some pretty good golfers – not a single birdie was recorded on this hole among the 46 players.)

This is the landing area for the tee shot at the par 5 14th, the one with the tight, tight driving area referred to by Matt. Deep woods line the entire right side of the hole, but there is plenty of space here, the land is level, and one or two good strikes will get you home.

The 16th (par 4, 454 yds), probably the toughest hole at Riverside. The tee shot moves right, and must be slotted in between a very good fairway bunker right and a long line of pine trees left.

Here’s the fairway bunker on 16, which sticks up from the corner of the dogleg.

The long approach at 16; you can just make out the red flag set against a dark tree, middle of photo.

The tee shot at the closing 18th, a par 4 (415 yds). The hole moves gently left, and features a slightly canted fairway from right to left.

Here’s the approach on 18 from about 200 yards out – not the best hole at Riverside, but a solid enough closer.


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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #8 on: June 10, 2009, 04:45:12 PM »
Phil, I can't bring myself to describe the bunkers as "artful" although your qualifier, 'one of the more artful' may apply to the overall aesthetics of the bunkers there.  My guess is that any curvilinear look and crisp edging has evolved from RB's originals.  He was known for his gapping 'moonface' bunkers set a measured distance from putting greens in greenside bunkers, where mowing equipment could easily run.  I guess as the history goes, RB was something of the leader of the modern "Chicago School" of GCA and mentored the likes of Packard, Phelps, Killian and Nugent, etc.   My guess is Lohman, Killian&Nuggent or either one of those after K&N split have been in there tweaking the bunkers at Riverside from the original open moonfaced ones that RB designed and as I remember them from 50s.   We have an RBH 9holer here in Green Bay that far more exemplifies RBs standard bunker style, IMHO. 

I played Riverside as a boy a few times and remember it as a considerable step up from the more frequently experienced Monona (when it was 18 holes), or Glenway.  I believe as area muni's go, only Art Johnson's 1950s built Odana was Riverside's peer, and Yahara was still a farm.   I'm getting old, huh.... ;)   ::)
« Last Edit: June 10, 2009, 04:52:56 PM by RJ_Daley »
No actual golf rounds were ruined or delayed, nor golf rules broken, in the taking of any photographs that may be displayed by the above forum user.

Bill Kubly

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #9 on: June 10, 2009, 06:04:41 PM »
Thanks for the photos of Riverside.  Our Monroe High School golf team played this course for tournaments several times during my high school golfing  days which go back 40 years, but I still remember certain things about the course.  I certainly remember the railroad tracks as well as the power line that could easily be hit from the tee adjacent to the tracks.  There also was a blind shot where they utilized a periscope so you could determine when the players in front of you were out of play.  I wonder if it is still used today.

My greatest memory however was when I tied Andy North for the conference tournament on this course back in 1971 (I think we both shot 81).  Unfortunately the tie was for 7th place.  Andy, who was a Junior (me a Senior) obviously got better,(2 US Open victories)  and I my game never got better.   We have both certainly enjoyed different segments of this great game.    This course sure seems to have closed in quite a bit which would be normal after 40+ years. 


Keith Buntrock

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #10 on: June 10, 2009, 06:10:27 PM »
  There also was a blind shot where they utilized a periscope so you could determine when the players in front of you were out of play.  I wonder if it is still used today.

I can't confirm this but I believe there is a periscope right behind the 17th tee.

Phil McDade

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #11 on: June 10, 2009, 06:50:34 PM »

Hard to tell about the bunker evolution; course histories for munis, as you well know, are pretty sketchy, and although the bunkers at Riverside could be expanded beyond what Harris originally did, I theorized that this course -- done very early in his career -- may have had more artful or original bunkering than what Harris became known for. I've always thought Riverside superior to the Madison muni's; it just seems to have more variety than what's offered at Odana, particularly in the par 3s and those two neat holes 10-11 at Riverside, which are routed over terrain that Odana can't really match. Heck, the 10th at Riverside has echoes of the home hole at Glenway and its bell in the fairway!


Nice story about Andy North; as you probably know, he's a Monona Grove graduate, and his daughter now teaches at the high school, where my son goes to school.

Matthew Rose

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Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #12 on: June 10, 2009, 07:19:15 PM »
I wouldn't say the trees have necessarily made it too narrow.... considering how short the course is, the trees have always been pretty much the primary defense there, so cutting them all down would render it very vulnerable. I'm just taken by how strikingly big the trees have grown since the last time I was there!

#10 has always been better as a par-five. For a long time, there were no blue tees at Riverside, just white and red, with the white tee on that hole being where it is now. The teeing ground where the blue markers are now was always there, but kind of small, and was never maintained for a long time. About 16-18 years ago, they restored that teeing area when they put in the blue markers.

The original routing is a little fuzzy, but I remember that #15 was #4, #16 was #5, #2 was #6, and then 3-4-5 was 7-8-9. I think the 17th might have been #2 with #1 being the same. In fact, 1, 12, 13, and 14 were the same in both routings.

#17 is indeed the hole with the periscope.

To my eye, the bunkers look like they have been cleaned up and reshaped somewhat since my salad days there - the bunkers used to be a lot more plain and more oval, but at various times certain bunkers have been redone. At one point, the bunker short and right of the 17th green actually had a wall of wooden railroad ties!

Love this thread.
American-Australian. Trackman Course Guy. Fatalistic sports fan. Drummer. Bass player. Father. Cat lover.

Jim Eder

Re: Wisconsin's Janesville Riverside -- a true muni
« Reply #13 on: January 19, 2012, 02:46:45 PM »

Thanks for posting this.  I forgot all about this course.  I played in several Ray Fischer's here years ago.  Brings back a lot of memories. Thanks!!


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