Modern Classics: SentryWorld
SentryWorld 12th hole by Evan Schiller
SentryWorld 12th hole by Evan Schiller

Modern Classics: SentryWorld

LINKS Magazine

Wisconsin’s U.S. Senior Open venue earned early fame for its flower hole, but it took a renovation to truly make it blossom.

When Robert Trent Jones Jr. crafted SentryWorld in 1982, he called the design, “very possibly my Mona Lisa.” After Jones performed a significant redesign in 2014 and a nip-and-tuck in 2021, the smile is brighter than ever.

Situated in Stevens Point, 175 miles northwest of Milwaukee, the course was conceived by former SentryWorld Insurance chairman John Joanis as an amenity for employees and an attraction for locals. The course is unapologetically parkland, perfectly treed with arboreal displays that frame but never suffocate.

“Our design brief at the beginning of the project was to create an Augusta National of the North,” says Bruce Charlton, President and Chief Design Officer for Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects. “It was meant to be a walk in a park—a park that happened to have really good golf holes in it.”

You won’t find vast waste bunkers, tall native grasses, or humpy-bumpy fairways as you would, say, 40 minutes away at Sand Valley. What you will encounter is a series of handsome, even gorgeous holes, several edging a vast lake. Shotmaking options were much improved after the 2014 makeover, which added two new par threes, four redesigned holes, and player-friendly, shaved-down backstops and kicker slopes around the greens to aid those fortunate or clever enough to take advantage. The designers also made use of a newly available lake to elevate aesthetics and risk/reward opportunities. For the 2023 U.S. Senior Open, the USGA has narrowed the fairways and converted the closely mown slopes to bluegrass rough to stiffen the challenge, but ground-game options remain around many greens.

The unique “Flower Hole”—the 202-yard par-three 16th—plays over and between massive swirls of ornamental beds filled with anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 multi-colored blooms. The numbers—and types—change seasonally, but count on begonias, petunias, and zinnias among them, creating an unforgettable palette. It may be a gimmick, but as gimmicks go, it’s a great one. The Jones team created a new 16th tee for the U.S. Senior Open that’s lower and to the right of those already there. “The USGA liked this different angle and what it did with the player’s depth perception,” says Charlton. “Being lower, it would look like a sea of flowers, where you couldn’t really see anything but flowers, sand, and the green.”

The test that competitors will face in late June extends well beyond floral displays. Charlton isn’t even sure that 16 is the best par three on the back nine. He likes the 182-yard 12th hole, which mimics the feel of Augusta National’s 12th thanks to a water carry, diagonal green, grassy slope left, and bunkers pinching the putting surface front and back.

Jones is eager to see how the 5th hole plays for the senior set. A par five of 514 yards, it’s easily reachable on paper, but on the ground it incorporates risks on every shot as it arcs to the left around a large lake. “It’s a marvelous exercise in psychology,” says Jones, “because there are risks and rewards on every shot.” A similar test of nerve, with the lake on the left, occurs at the 419-yard par-four 13th. Meanwhile, no. 9 promises to be a swing hole: Normally a par five, the USGA will shorten it to a par four, with its twisting creek bisecting the fairway and fronting the green likely wreaking havoc on more than one scorecard.

Charlton describes SentryWorld as a good example of a course that presents 18 different puzzles. Thanks to its beauty, variety, and walkability, cross words about its virtues are in short supply.