I’ve had the pleasure of playing the River Course 4 times (to date). The first was on my honeymoon (Kate and I played all 4 courses at Kohler), then we came back for our anniversary and played again, then we brought her parents up for Memorial Day weekend, and I played it twice; once with her Dad, and again with her. It’s the only course at Blackwolf Run (and at Kohler) that’ I’ve played more than twice. The reason is that it is easily my favorite course of the four.
My first tip is to play the correct set of tees. I’m fine from the blues, but when I played with my father-in-law (who’s 70), he decided he could too. I suggested the whites, but he said he’d be fine, so off we went. The worst part of playing the wrong tees is this: He would have a great drive, really catch the ball pure… and still not make the fairway. It’s a tremendous blow to the psyche, and honestly ruined the round for him. Heed my advice.
Every time we’ve played the River course, we’ve seen fisherman in the river, and this time was no exception. As we teed off on the first hole (the only true “reachable” par 5), there was a fly fisherman in the river on the left. They were also behind the tee on the 2nd hole. It seems, regardless of the time of year, there is always some type of fish “running”, and it’s always nice to see. It actually adds a level of calm to the round. Of course, it’s a calm before the storm, as you’ll see.
The first and second holes are pretty tame, but don’t be fooled; this is a Pete Dye design. The third hole is named “Gotcha”, and is the #1 handicap hole on the River course. The tee shot is fairly open, but the approach gets tighter and tighter to a small green surrounded by lots of trouble. In addition, there is a deep bunker that borders most of the right side of the fairway. Don’t be a hero on this hole; the River course is all about restraint. A hybrid off the tee is sufficient, trust me.
The 4th hole is called “Swan Lake”, but should be called “Gutshot”, especially if you play a draw, like me. All water on the right, and when I played, the pin was back right too. Of course, being the sucker I am, I went for it and just missed, taking a 5 on the hole. There is room for bailing out on the left side of the green, although not really visible from the tee.
Taking a cart on this course comes in handy, because the distance between the 4th green and fifth tee is pretty long. Not a mile or anything, but definitely made for a cart.
The fifth hole is easily one of my favorite holes. The best part is that as you approach in your cart, you can’t see the fairway until you get out, grab a club, and walk towards the tee (kind of like on the 14th tee at the Arthur Hills Golf Course at Boyne). Then almost surprisingly, the hole opens up, and it’s one of those experiences that is hard to explain to a non-golfer. The wide open fairway… the trouble spots… the beauty of the river itself, and the outstanding view. It all comes together to make you happy you’re a golfer.
Making you’re way around the front 9, the eighth is another great par 5. Lots of room to the left, but if you hit it a little right, it may not be OB. You could be pleasantly surprised from the extreme slope of the right-hand side of the fairway. The tee shot is a little daunting though; take a look.
There is a split fairway for the second half of this par 5, so choose your path wisely. My advice – don’t even consider going for it in two. The green is small, and there is no room behind it; it drops off to the river. Making par here is something to be rewarded. Luckily, the on-course halfway-house is between the 8th green and 9th tee.
Although I didn’t take a picture of it (the reason escapes me; I take pictures of everything, ask my wife), the halfway house is impressive. Every bathroom is clean, and all the fixtures are Kohler (obviously). It’s also full of brats, dogs, beer and cigars, as expected.
The 9th is another pure Pete Dye hole, called Cathedral Spires. The smart play (trust me, I’ve tried both smart and dumb plays here), is to hit an iron or hybrid to the left. There is a very thin strip of fairway that borders the water, and honestly the green is potentially reachable (only 316 from the blues). Don’t succumb to Pete’s trickery! Par is good all day long on this course. Take them when you can.
The 11th is another one of my favorite holes (I think I have 4 total) on the River Course at Blackwolf Run. It bends around the Sheboygan River, making it a definite three shot par 5. The tough choice is the second shot. If (and that’s a big IF) you hit the fairway on your tee shot, you’ll need to decide how much of the hole to cut off. Again… play it safe! A par here is like a birdie anywhere else. Here’s a view of the second shot. The green isn’t even viewable, but it’s on the far right.
Here’s the view from the green looking back towards the fairway, and the bend around the River. Like I said, play it safe. You’ll thank me later.
The par three 13th hole is called Tall Timber for good reason; there are huge trees on the left side. Add that to the fact that the prevailing wind blows left-to-right, and there’s water bordering the right side of the hole, and you have yourself one of the toughest par 3’s in Wisconsin. You’re draw better be on. If you play a fade, play a ground fade.
The 16th is another favorite. It reminds me a little of the 5th, where the hole just opens up, and slaps you in the face with its beauty, but be warned; it’s a vile temptress indeed.
After the tee shot, the hole is downhill to a green that is perched about 20 feet above the river. Again, this may sound repetitious, but don’t even try going for it in two. A par here is something to write home about. Here’s the view of your second shot, should you decide to go for it.
Oh, and if you do decide to go for it, here’s a shot of the bunker behind the green. Remember, you’ll be hitting up and out of this, and there’s a 20 foot drop-off from the green to the Sheboygan River. Not a very enviable position.
The finishing hole is pure Pete Dye, and apply named “Dyehard”. Lots of sand on the left, complete with plenty of railroad ties, a signature of Pete that is seen on every golf course at Kohler. The green doubles as the 18th green for the Meadows Valley course as well, so when you see two flags sticking out of it, be sure to aim for the closer one.
As you can see by the picture above, the clubhouse is above the 18th green, and has a restaurant (with a great outdoor deck) and a separate bar for drinks or snacks after your round. I strongly recommend taking the time (either before or after the round) to enjoy a meal and/or a drink here. This is easily one of the most peaceful places on the course, and you get the added advantage of seeing folks hit their final approach shot on two different courses into the same green. Here’s the view from the restaurant:
And finally, here’s the inside of the restaurant portion, with my wife and her parents on the left. We had the place to ourselves!
The River Course at Blackwolf Run may not be the hardest of the four Kohler courses (I think Whistling Straits has that honor), but it is impressively scenic, with a number of distinctive, inspiring holes that make you glad you’re a golfer. Because of the personal history I have with this course (honeymooned here, in-laws, etc.), I would have to say The River Course is my favorite golf course in the country. I’ve played many, but this course is in some way “personal” to me, and that’s the biggest compliment I can give it.
To sum up my advice: Play it, but play it safe.
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