STEVENS POINT, Wis. -- Long before Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run Golf Course and Erin Hills Golf Course, SentryWorld was the first "destination" golf course built in Wisconsin, a track that was both highly ranked and highly regarded nationally.
Time and competition eventually took its toll on SentryWorld, a facility opened by Sentry Insurance in 1982. Original architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. was brought in to restore its place among the great public courses in the state, if not the entire Midwest. SentryWorld, fresh off a two-year renovation, won't take tee times until spring of 2015, but a soft opening this fall has given a lucky few a sneak peek of the future.
"When you ask about feedback, it has been a wow factor," said General Manager Mike James, who started working at SentryWorld as a teenager before returning earlier this year. "The condition is exceptional. The golfers appreciate the changes in the layout. They still get enough of the old design, but there's enough new in the mix, that it's a new experience."
Jones and associate architects Jay Blasi and Bruce Charlton not only modernized the course with additional length (stretching it from 6,900 yards to 7,200), new "Better Billy" bunkers and more user-friendly contoured greens, they altered nearly every hole and in certain cases, redesigned those that used to receive the most complaints. Several holes of the nines were flipped. The new second hole can stretch to 598 yards for the pros and will play as a long par 4 for everybody else. The new, 348-yard fourth hole reflects a more modern concept, a drivable par 4 that's 299 yards from the white tees.
The new 10th hole is a long, winding par 5 of 631 yards using the land of the old first and second holes. The new 12th hole -- a 161-yard par 3 over water to a peninsula green -- uses land previously undeveloped. A new look at no. 13 straightened out a difficult dogleg hole with a blind water hazard, creating a more traditional tee shot over water.
The old 17th, a narrow hole that required a difficult approach over water, plays quite differently now that the green has shifted closer to the tees and the corridor off the tee has been widened. What hasn't been tinkered with is the signature moment on SentryWorld: More than 36,000 flowers frame the "flower hole," a 176-yard par 3 at no. 16.
The practice facility and the sports complex that houses the pro shop have been enhanced as well. The new Fieldhouse, home to six indoor tennis courts and several multi-purpose courts, was gutted and re-imagined into north-woods lodge with a sparkling banquet facility and PJ's, a cool restaurant/bar.
It will be interesting to see how an improved SentryWorld will compare and compete with Erin Hills and the four courses at the American Club in Kohler. Will out-of-state golfers traveling to Wisconsin for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills or the 2015 PGA Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup Matches at Whistling Straits be curious enough to stop by? Stevens Point, a town located in northern central Wisconsin, isn't exactly close to either place -- roughly two hour's drive (125 miles) from both Erin Hills and Kohler. If it's good enough, golfers will find their way.
"I'm pretty confident that SentryWorld will not take a back seat," James said. "As far as playability, customers will love it. Just like the others, the level of service will be superior. When it comes to the other facilities like Erin Hills or Kohler, we are excited to be in that conversation. Anybody who plays us, they will be equally satisfied with the experience.