Growing up in southeast Wisconsin, I took for granted being able to play world class golf within an hour’s drive. Some of you are probably saying to yourself, “Wisconsin? Did he just grossly misspell Florida?” It’s true, living in Milwaukee put me an hour’s drive from Whistling Straits (Straits and Irish Courses), Blackwolf Run (River and Meadow Valley), The Bull (a hidden gem of a Nicklaus course), Erin Hills, and the Lake Geneva area courses. Keep in mind that these are just the courses in Wisconsin – there a number of great courses in Illinois which is also only about an hour’s drive away.
Well, about two years ago I took a new job in Connecticut and was forced to leave my little slice of golf heaven. One of the first things I did was to go online and check the Top 100 Golf Courses to see which new ones I’d be able to play. The answer? Zero. I was shocked and a little disappointed. However, as I arrived in Connecticut to start my new job, I soon realized that to my delight that Connecticut had something Wisconsin did not – a regular PGA Tour stop.
I attended the Travelers Championship the first month I was in town and I knew I wanted to play the course. Lucky for me, my company has a deal with TPC River Highlands, which is a private club, where employees can play on Tuesdays for a discounted price. So, on a gorgeous Tuesday two buddies and I set out to conquer this PGA Tour stop course.
On the drive over we discussed our plan for the course. They seemed worried that it would be difficult and that we should consider moving up one set of tees. I confidently informed them that it was a birdie fest on the PGA Tour so we shouldn’t have too difficult of a time either, right? I mean, really, how good can those guys be? So we settled on the 6,518 yard blue tees that play to a par of 70.
We started our day with a range session at their world class practice facility. They re-modeled it a few years back and it is magnificent.
After hitting some balls, the starter suggested that we tee off a little early so as not to get stuck behind three groups of elementary school kids at a summer camp. Good call sir.
Hole 1 – 418 Yards – Par 4
The course starts off with a fairly straightforward par 4. You tee off from an elevated tee box to a fairly wide landing area. The bunker on the left is definitely in play off the tee. The ideal shot is a little right of center. The fairway slopes right to left with the left side of the fairway farther below the green than the right. However, go too far right and you find yourself on a steep hill with a nasty lie. The safe second shot is to the right side of the green. There are bunkers guarding the left side of the green and can make for an unpleasant up and down. It is possible to get up and down but they are deep. The green slopes back to front so giving yourself an uphill putt is a bonus. The picture below is a view from the tee and shows the elevated tee box and the bunkers guarding the green.
Hole 2 – 311 Yards – Par 4
I think this is a really cool hole. It’s a short par 4 but can be penal if you miss. The 311 yards may make it seem drivable but it’s a steep uphill and driving it would be quite difficult. There is really no reason to hit a driver off the tee. The ideal shot is just to the left of the big tree just right of middle in the picture below. A long-iron off the tee should leave you with a wedge or 9 iron in your hand on your second shot. There are trees lining the fairway so hitting the short grass is a must. The green has a big drop-off at the back so shots that go long funnel down into the rough. The front right is a shelf and if the pin is there and you don’t keep your shot on top of the shelf, you have a long putt – we all had long putts.
Hole 3 – 421 Yards – Par 4
This is another pretty straight forward par 4. It’s a dogleg left with bunkers guarding the right side of the fairway and a steep drop-off to more bunkers on the left side. A drive to the right side of the fairway is ideal to give yourself a good angle toward the green (not too far right or you’ll find those bunkers). The green does not have much trouble surrounding it so there is some room for error on your second shot. However, shots that run long will catch a slope in the back and roll into the rough.
Hole 4 – 444 Yards – Par 4
This is a beast of a hole and probably the most difficult hole on the front nine. The first time I played this course it was straight into the wind and I had to hit driver, 5-wood and still didn’t reach the green. Luckily, we had pretty benign conditions today. The hole is a hard dogleg right with bunkers guarding the left side of the fairway and trees on the right. The bunker you see straight ahead in the picture below is a good place to aim as only the really long hitters need to worry about it.
The second shot doesn’t get any easier. There are bunkers waiting to eat up shots that are hit too far left. To make things harder the green is very long and severely sloped back to front. If you don’t land it in the right section be prepared for a long and treacherous putt. Here is a picture of my buddy walking in front of the green to show how steep the slope of the green is.
Hole 5 – 212 Yards – Par 3
Finally we get to something besides a par 4. This is a long par 3 with bunkers guarding the front right of the green. As you can see from the picture below the tee shot is hit through a narrow gap in some trees. Depending on where the tee markers are, a ball started too far right or left could clip a tree if you’re not careful. The bunkers on the right are quite deep and not much fun to be in.
Once you get up to the green you realize how massive it is (see picture). If you don’t hit the right spot a three putt is a real possibility.
Hole 6 – 549 Yards – Par 5
This is the first and only par 5 on the front nine. It’s a dogleg right that starts with a pretty straightforward drive. The hole opens up so anything in the fairway will be fine. The second shot gets interesting. In order to reach the landing area you have to go over a patch of rough littered with bunkers. They extend closer to the hole than you think, so take an extra club. In addition, there are bunkers lining the fairway up to the green designed to penalize layups that miss the fairway. The green has bunkers guarding the front left side of it. The green slopes back to front. While not an overly long par 5, accuracy is crucial to walk away with a good score on this hole.
Hole 7 – 424 Yards – Par 4
This is a straight away par 4. Hitting your tee shot into the fairway is crucial on this hole as the right side is lined with bunkers.
And the left side has mounds of rough running all the way down the hole. I didn’t notice these mounds the first time I played the course but did today and they are a really cool feature.
The green is another one that slopes pretty severely back to front. If you miss to the left there is a sharp slope that will cause your ball to run off the green and makes for a tough up and down, especially with the pin position we had that day. The picture below is of the slope. One of the guys in our group was unfortunate enough to land here with his second shot …and his third.
Hole 8 – 194 Yards – Par 3
This is a very pretty par 3. It is all carry over a pond with a large slope that rejects balls into the rough that land short. I suppose if they mowed the rough down for the tournament there could be balls that funnel all the way into the pond. The green is very well protected. It has a large bunker on the left side and the back, right, and front sides all have mowed down fairway that repel balls into fairway below. I’d compared the green to a table top, if you land it in the middle you’re golden but anything to the outside of it will roll off.
Hole 9 – 393 Yards – Par 4
This is a big dogleg right with bunkers on the right side and long. The ideal shot here is a drive that moves from left to right. If you hit it too straight you can wind up in the bunker you see in the picture below. If you hit it too far right you can wind up in someone’s yard. We all hit driver on this hole, but looking back it probably wasn’t needed. A long iron or wood is probably the better play off the tee. The green is guarded by a deep bunker and a tree on the right with room to miss left.
Hole 10 – 435 Yards – Par 4
The back nine starts with a very difficult par 4. The drive is through a chute of trees. There is a little room to miss on the right but not much, too far and you’re in someone’s yard. There is no room to miss on the left as woods run down the entire left side. A good tee shot is just to the right of the tree in the middle of the fairway.
The second shot is downhill to a small green protected on the right by bunkers and the left by woods. There are bunkers all down the right side of the fairway on your second shot but they’re really not in play. During the Travelers Championship these bunkers are in play for the pros on their drives. The second picture below is of the trees Ken Duke hooked his second shot into during the final round of the Travelers this year and had it ricochet onto the green to about 10 feet from the pin. He went on to win the tournament. And they say trees are 90% air . . .
Hole 11 – 149 Yards – Par 3
This is a very picturesque par 3. You tee off from an elevated tee box that looks down onto a wide green. It’s not a long hole and plays significantly downhill so a wedge is probably all you need here. While it’s not long, it is well-guarded by bunkers all the way around. From the tee box you have a nice view of the surrounding forests.
Hole 12 – 398 Yards – Par 4
This is a straight forward par 4. The ideal tee shot is to the left side of the fairway. Go too far left and there is OB. Too far right and you’ll find some deep fairway bunkers. At about the 150 yard marker there is a big hill that your tee shot can roll down if you drive it far enough.
From the fairway on top of the hill you have a pretty level shot into the green. If you catch the slope, you’re hitting into a very elevated green on your second shot albeit with a shorter iron. The green is guarded by large bunkers in the front and a big drop off in the back.
Hole 13 – 503 Yards – Par 5
This is the ultimate risk-reward par 5. The tee shot is hit from an elevated tee and you have to ask yourself if you want to hit driver and, if you do, how much of the pond on the right you want to cut off. The safe shot is to hit a wood down the left side of the fairway in front of the bunkers. If you choose driver, a drive hit too far right will find the pond and a drive hit too far left will travel over the railroad tracks. The second shot doesn’t get any easier. If you decide to go for it in two, you have to carry another pond to get to the green. The pond butts up against the green so it’s almost all carry. A layup shot needs to stay right of the pond but left of the bunkers, also not an easy shot. There are bunkers behind the green and to the right of it. The green itself is large and not landing in the right spot brings a three putt into play. Below is a view of the hole from the tee.
Hole 14 – 413 Yards – Par 4
This is a cool looking hole. You hit an uphill tee shot to a blind landing area. A shot too far right will find either a deep bunker or long grass and a steep lie, neither is too appealing. A drive too far left will be into the woods. The best place to aim is just right of center. The landing area is actually wider than it looks from the tee.
The second shot is played from on top of the hill to a green that sits significantly below where you’re standing. It is smart to take one club less on this shot as you don’t realize how far above the green you are until you’re on the green looking back as shown in the photo below.
Bunkers guard shots that land short or left and a creek sits to the right, although there is a good amount of rough between the green and the creek so you have some room to miss.
Hole 15 – 278 Yards – Par 4
Now the fun begins. Stewart Cink, winner of the 2008 Travelers Championship, called these last 4 holes “four of the most exciting finishing holes in a group anywhere in the world.” The stretch starts with a drivable par 4. There is a pond and bunkers to the left and woods and bunkers to the right. The conservative play is an iron off the tee, but what fun is that? Hit the driver and go for it. I took a picture of the hole sign to show how much trouble there really is on this hole.
The green is another one of those “table top” greens I described earlier where any balls hit to the edge of it will roll off and down the hill. It’s a large green with a ravine running through the middle of it which makes for tricky putts. The tees were playing up today at 247. I hit a 5 wood off the tee to just off the green on the right. My two playing partners chose irons and ended up in bunkers on the right. Told you to give it a go…
Hole 16 – 164 Yards – Par 3
This is all carry over a pond to the green. Missing short will obviously find water, but even landing on the front green could end up with the ball rolling backwards into the water. Shots missing left, right or long will end up in a deep bunker. You have to hit the green on your first shot or risk making bogey or worse. This hole definitely plays a club more than you think it should. It didn’t look uphill to us but all three of us took a club more than we thought we should and were thankful for it. Maybe a certain someone at the Travelers Championship this year would have liked that advice in the final round. Be careful if you go long as the putt back downhill is lightning fast and can easily roll off the green and possibly into the water. One cool aspect of this hole is that there is a floating red umbrella in the pond, also known as the 15.5 hole, that the pros try to make a hole in one on during the pro-am. Unfortunately, they had taken the umbrella out of the water by the time we played this year.
Hole 17 – 407 Yards – Par 4
This hole is just plain tough. You hit from an elevated tee box to a narrow landing area. There is water down the entire right side of the green and bunkers and a steep hill down the left side.
You really need to hit the fairway to have any sort of decent shot at the green on your second. If you land in the rough on the hill on the left your best shot is to simply pitch out into the fairway and take your medicine. The second shot is all carry over the pond. Shots landing short will be wet and there is a nasty bunker right of the green.
Hole 18 – 405 Yards – Par 4
You can tell the finishing hole was designed by Pete Dye with Sunday in mind. You hit your tee shot slightly uphill to a fairway that is essentially a bowl with hills rising on either side. It is perfect for spectators to line the hills on both the left and right sides of the fairway. Strategically in the landing area are bunkers on both the left and right sides.
Your second shot is hit into a green guarded by two large bunkers on the right (where the traditional Sunday pin position is). Like the fairway, the green is surrounded by hills for spectators to get a great vantage point.
Overall I loved the course. It was difficult but fair. It doesn’t overpower you with length but you definitely have to think about each shot. It also provides a good number of risk/reward holes which keep your round interesting. I can see why the Travelers Championship gets a decent field even though it’s the week after the U.S. Open. I played pretty decent overall except my short game was atrocious. Luckily for me, the greens fees included unlimited range use so immediately after finishing my round I headed over there and worked on my short game. Because we finished at 4 pm we didn’t eat in the clubhouse. I have eaten there before and it has tasty pub-style food with a nice patio overlooking the course.