Review of Northern Bay Golf Course


I had a chance to check out this new course in Wisconsin last week called Northern Bay. Northern Bay has 7 replica holes, including the 17th at Sawgrass and #13 and #16 at Augusta. Now I'm not a huge fan of replica courses to begin with, and Northern Bay did nothing to change my overall opinion of them. It's one thing to replicate the dimensions and elevations of a famous hole, but you can't recreate the look and feel of a hole very easily.

Northern Bay did a decent job of recreating the look of the 17th at Sawgrass, although the Northern Bay version has a much wider area behind the green (and a drop area behind the hole, which I was too late in finding out about). Northern Bay's 13th at Augusta was poor at best, especially from off the tee. The dogleg is sharper and it should've been much more densely wooded at the corner and down the left side of 'Rae's Creek'. Plus they had tall fescue grass lining the banks of the creek...I don't remember seeing that at Augusta. Having both of the Augusta holes with non-white sand also lends to bit of a letdown, even if it's the closest you'll ever get to playing the course.

Apparently there are actually 9 replica holes out there, but Pebble Beach and Pinehurst didn't allow them to use their names in the hole descriptions. If it's any indication of the quality of the replicas, I couldn't discern the two bonus holes from the rest even knowing that they were out there somewhere. And that's saying something considering that I played Pinehurst No. 2 just two years ago. (by the way, only after careful study of the yardage book can I conclude that Northern Bay's 1st hole is the 3rd at Pinehurst, and the 5th hole is the 1st at Pebble Beach).

Probably the best hole out of all of the replicas, although I don't know firsthand how true it is to the real thing is the 6th hole, aka the 16th at Firestone, a 625-yard par 5 that is guarded closely by a pond fronting the green. A beast of a hole from the tips and fun to play.

The sad thing is the non-replica holes are just as good if not better than the replicas. There are some very solid holes carved through the Northern Wisconsin woods, especially on the back nine. I can't help but think that they could've built an excellent golf course on its own without the gimmicks given the excellent plot of land that they had to work with.

And that's really the downside of Northern Bay. They could've built one of the top 15 courses in the state of Wisconsin but they thought they needed a gimmick to get people way out 25 minutes north of the Wisconsin Dells. What they failed to realize is that if you build a quality course, people will drive out there and they'll keep coming back (look at Bandon Dunes for example). Heck, everytime I'm up in Wisconsin I drive either 90 minutes north to play SentryWorld or 90 minutes south to play University Ridge, but it's unlikely that I'll ever head back to Northern Bay despite the fact that it's on the lake that my in-laws have a house on. I don't know if I can sum it up any better than that. The replica holes will build up some buzz that will get people to come out once, but will they keep coming back?

The other downside of the replica holes is the price they add to Northern Bay's greens fees. Likely because of the licensing fees that they have to pay to use the famous holes, they have to pass that cost onto the golfer. The peak rate at Northern Bay is $95. I'm no cheapskate when it comes to golf courses, but I've played enough courses (258) to know the difference between a good value and a poor value. Again, they could've probably built an excellent standalone course and charged $70 and it would've been the best course and the best value within 70 miles. And I would've played it every time I was up there.

And as far as the course operations go, they have a number of bugs to still work out. First of all, I had made a 6:50 am tee time for earlier in the week that I had to later cancel. When I called to cancel, they said they didn't have my reservation (despite a very official looking confirmation number that I was sent via e-mail). Not only that, they said they didn't even start their tee times until 7:00 am. That came back to bite me on that day that I actually did play, because I had what I thought was the first tee time at 7:00 only to stroll up to the first tee to a logjam of groups that they sandwiched in front of us (likely due again to missing online reservations, thankfully there was no starter in sight to clean up the mess). Instead of a nice leisurely three hour round as the first group off, I had to endure a four and a half hour marathon round behind a bunch of yahoos.

But the tee time debacle pales in comparison to the yardages that were way off on a number of holes. Maybe those steroids are finally kicking in, but I've never hit so many approach shots 30 yards over the green in my life (even after clubbing down). Part of this was due to rock hard greens that couldn't hold a pitching wedge (I think they intend to keep them this firm), but I swear the yardage from the GPS in the carts was incorrect (although I'm not sure how they could be that far off). Hitting pitching wedges 180 yards and eight irons 210 yards might be good for the ego, but it's not very good for your golf score. One definitive example was on the 17th hole, where the yardage book said 114 yards to the front of the green from the tee markers and the cart said 94 yards from the same spot. 20 yards difference on a short par 3...this is a pretty important distinction, don't you think? (Note: since I was the only one playing the tips, I got to be the guinea pig who came up woefully short -- despite taking an extra club). How fast would Vijay fire his caddy if he gave him a yardage that was plus/minus 20 yards?

There were a few other minor nuisances that I'm not going to harp on, because I'm sure they'll get them squared away soon enough. Besides, I've probably bashed enough for one night. That said, Northern Bay is still the nicest course in a 30-mile radius, including nicer than it's closest competitor, Trappers Turn in the Wisconsin Dells. However, the replica holes are a bit of a letdown and lead the to the course being tremendously overpriced. I have it ranked 81st out of the 258 courses that I've played, which equates it to about a 7.0 on a 10-point scale.

Update of Golf Update, July 2006

Quick update from the last blog. The day after posting 'Golf Update 2006', I made another eagle. This time the 18th at Prairie Landing. It's the third time I've eagled this hole and the 15th overall eagle of my life (I'm catching up Jefe!). Other than my hole-in-one, it was one of the best approach shots I've ever hit...a 220-yard 3-iron from the fairway bunker all carry over water to about 15 feet en route to a 75 (which sadly included a triple-bogey on the 12th).


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