Arnold Palmer, Brett Favre and the Mona Lisa: 41 years of golf history at SentryWorld in Stevens Point
SentryWorld Hole 16
SentryWorld Hole 16 by Evan Schiller Photography

Arnold Palmer, Brett Favre and the Mona Lisa: 41 years of golf history at SentryWorld in Stevens Point

Stevens Point Journal

STEVENS POINT – What do Arnold Palmer, Brett Favre and the Mona Lisa have in common? They each hold a connection to SentryWorld’s golf history.

As tens of thousands of golfers and fans start gathering at SentryWorld for the U.S. Senior Open, they’re about to step into more than 40 years of history and meticulously designed greens.

The Stevens Point Journal took a look back over 41 years of its archives for a deeper look at the history of golf at SentryWorld.

In the beginning there were trees, rocks and swampland

Work on the site started in March 1981, turning a rocky swampland area full of trees into a championship-level golf course. Crews cleared out many trees and turned their rock problem to SentryWorld’s advantage, preserving some in their natural setting, while crushing others to use on cart paths and service roads. Construction took a year and a half – half the time it took to build most courses at the time.

A Stevens Point Journal article from Aug. 19, 1982, said SentryWorld’s new golf course turned a desolate area into a majestic splendor, showing a model of modern technological advances and human resources. Even before its opening, golf experts were predicting the 200-acre par-72 course would rise to levels of other premier courses.

Four self-contained golf courses in one site were built to major U.S. tournament standards, setting up SentryWorld as a challenging course for skilled players, but with three other tee options that would accommodate less-talented players.

Bob Reith, a SentryWorld professional, called the course challenging and elegant, and said SentryWorld’s flower hole, featuring 80,000 flowers, was the only hazard he enjoyed looking at.

The entire project, including an indoor sports center, cost about $10 million and featured 80 acres of an employee park, four lakes, a softball field with lights, six lighted outdoor tennis courts and a practice driving range with practice bunker and practice putting green. The project also included 12,000 feet of fencing, 83 sand bunkers with 5,000 tons of bunker sand, 800 new trees and 5 acres of flower beds.

‘My Mona Lisa’

Renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones II designed SentryWorld’s course. At the time, he said he had designed about 100 golf courses, and he added to his father’s legacy of 300 courses designed throughout his career.

An Aug. 21, 1982, article said Jones was regarded as the “Picasso” of his profession, but the architect referenced Leonardo da Vinci while talking about SentryWorld.

“I like to refer to this as my Mona Lisa,” Jones said during a press conference held ahead of the grand opening. “This course comes so close to perfection the way it is now that we really don’t have to do much more with it. It’s pure and unique.”

Jones went on to say he wanted to set a new standard for golf courses in central Wisconsin, considering various skill levels while designing the course with tournaments in mind. Jones called Sentry Insurance CEO John Joanis his co-author on designing the course. Joanis said SentryWorld would welcome hosting future PGA tournaments, but PGA officials would not be allowed to alter or modify the course.

The course was also designed to accommodate 70,000 spectators, and Jones said the course would add a dimension to the local economy.

“Our impact here is already strong with a payroll of $35-$40 million,” he said in the article. “It won’t change the economy but will add to the desirability of people coming here.”

The golf world took notice

The course officially opened to the public Aug. 30, 1982, and by Oct. 8, 1982, 400 golfers played at the 18-hole facility.

In less than two years, SentryWorld began appearing on lists of notable golf courses. An April 18, 1984, article said SentryWorld was drawing national media attention.

“If this keeps up, there aren’t going to be many places in the United States unaware of the name and location of Stevens Point,” the article said.

According to the article, USA Today asked the American Society of Golf Course Architects at its annual meeting to put together a state-by-state list of best-designed courses. The ASGCA came up with a list of 130 golf courses, just 1% of 13,084 courses operating across the country. The group chose 65 designed before 1982 and 65 built since 1982. SentryWorld was the only Wisconsin course selected for the list, and it was also named one of the top six courses in the country.

Golf Digest Magazine also named SentryWorld as one of the two best new courses in America, according to the same article.

SentryWorld went on to be regularly ranked as one of the country’s finest public courses by Golf Digest and USA Today over the next few decades.

By Aug. 1, 1986, SentryWorld had hosted junior tournaments, its own tournament, and the United States Golf Association’s women’s amateur public links meet. The Wisconsin Division of Tourism brought travel writers in as part of a Wisconsin Great Golf Escape Familiarization Tour, where travel writers from Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois added SentryWorld to a list of places to visit.

Bob Puhala of the Chicago Sun-Times said visiting SentryWorld was a fantastic time.

“Chicago is busy and many golfers are looking for a nice course to golf at,” he said in the article. “SentryWorld is a wonderful place to come for a weekend trip.”

Sentry Challenge Cup hosted top golfers like Arnold Palmer

On April 18, 1985, SentryWorld announced its plans to host a mini tournament on-site, originally calling it the “Sentry Shootout.” Tournament organizers brought in leading golf professionals like Arnold Palmer, Miller Barber, Bob Toski, Dave Marr, Jan Stephenson and Betsy King for an event that would serve as a test for how SentryWorld could host larger events in the future. At the time, SentryWorld estimated it could handle 3,000 to 5,000 spectators between parking and food.

Throughout planning, the tournament name changed to the Sentry Challenge Cup. On Aug. 27, 1985, 5,000 people watched the six professionals play for a $50,000 prize.

Russian delegates travel to SentryWorld for research

In a June 16, 1987, article, Jones said SentryWorld’s golf course was still one of the best kept secrets in the nation, but that secret didn’t last long. By December that year, Dave Hoffman, a golf magazine publisher who owned a golf shop in California wrote a book called “America’s Greatest Golf Courses,” and he wrote that SentryWorld had joined an elite minority of venues that offered a magnificent test of golf available for the public.

In November 1988, a group of Russian delegates traveled to SentryWorld for research. Russia planned on building the first 18-hole championship golf course in the U.S.S.R., about 18 miles west of Moscow. Russia was aiming to open its $3 million facility, including tennis, swimming, aerobics, bowling, fishing, winter activities and a hotel in 1991.

While the group also toured courses in New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota and California, the group wanted to visit Stevens Point because of a similar climate and terrain that included water and a forest with birch and pine trees. The Russian group also hired Jones to design their course.

Brett Favre took to the greens (at least) twice

A Nov. 11, 1997, article declared Brett Favre liked playing at SentryWorld.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback flew to Stevens Point twice in September and October that year to play at SentryWorld, according to Stevens Point Municipal Airport logs.

The article said after team practice, Favre and a few buddies flew into Stevens Point, got in 27 holes of golf and then flew back to Green Bay.

According to information from SentryWorld, Favre was a regular at SentryWorld that year and mentioned on television SentryWorld was one of his favorite courses.

SentryWorld underwent major renovations

SentryWorld closed its courses at the end of the 2012 season for a series of renovations, including redesigning several holes and adding new grass on greens and new sand in the sand traps. One of the focuses of the renovation was to make the course more accessible for rookie players.

Jones, who designed the original course, also designed the renovations.

In 2013, SentryWorld announced plans to renovate its sports center, originally built in the early 1980s, to make it a tourist destination and a hub for larger events. SentryWorld also announced its field house, pro shop, Sport Plate restaurant and meeting and banquet space would be renovated.

Renovations were finished by Sept. 8, 2014, but golfers only played by invitation for the rest of the season.

By the end of 2014, SentryWorld reopened its indoor driving range, and the full course reopened May 2, 2015.

While the two-year closure wiped out SentryWorld’s reviews, it wasted no time getting back on the lists of best golf courses. As of Jan. 17, 2015, Golf Magazine ranked SentryWorld second on its list of most-anticipated new courses opening that year. Golf Digest ranked it fifth on its list of best courses in Wisconsin for 2015 and 2016. SentryWorld continued to rank in multiple publications for about the next decade.

While the pandemic affected SentryWorld’s golf season in 2020, the golf course remained closed through 2021 as crews spent the year renovating the course ahead of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open and constructing The Inn at SentryWorld.

The Inn at SentryWorld, overlooking the golf course’s 18th fairway, opened March 29, 2022, and the course with its renovated layout opened June 1, 2022.

Today, SentryWorld is well-connected

Sentry became the title sponsor of the Sentry Tournament of Champions in 2018. In an Aug. 24, 2022, article the PGA Tour and Sentry announced they extended that sponsorship through 2035. While the Tournament of Champions began in 1953 in Las Vegas, the tournament has been held at the Plantation Course at the Kapaula Resort in Maui since 1999.

Last January, mayors of Stevens Point and Kapaula, Hawaii, signed proclamations declaring January as Maui-Stevens Point Connected Communities month.

Stevens Point also learned two years ago it would host the U.S. Senior Open. The USGA announced in February 2021 it would host the 43rd U.S. Senior Open Championship June 29 to July 2 at SentryWorld. The U.S. Senior Open marks the third USGA championship at SentryWorld, including the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in 1986 and the U.S. Girls Junior Championship in 2019.

“The Senior Open is a major championship and it’s widely regarded as the major golf championship in senior golf,” Mike James, general manager of SentryWorld and vice president of Sentry Services told the Stevens Point Journal in February 2021. “We’re excited to host the Senior Open and really showcase SentryWorld at that major championship level. We’re proud of our golf course. We’re proud of our authentic, parkland-style golf course. We’re looking forward to showing it to the world.”