STEVENS POINT, Wis. – We said goodbye last week to an iconic Wisconsin golf course as it shut down in preparation for a major renovation.
I was playing the last round at SentryWorld, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that opened to rave reviews in 1982. It’s being readied for an overhaul and won’t reopen until the spring of 2014.
Here it was, in mid-November, on an unseasonably mild day this far north. We were only 85 miles due west of Green Bay, and quite unintentionally the clothes I sported – a long-sleeve yellow shirt, green sweater and yellow hat – matched the color tones of the beloved Packers. That seemed to endear me right away with my companions. Head pro Brian Dumler has been at SentryWorld for 15 years. Jay Blasi, a native Wisconsinite and big University of Wisconsin football fan, is a golf course architect and former associate under Jones Jr. Blasi is now on his own but collaborating with Jones on the SentryWorld project and was on hand for this farewell tour. Jones would have joined us, too, but was on call in China.
Along the way, we were joined occasionally by superintendent Gary Tanko, an original crew member of the team that helped build and grow in the layout. To add a sense of nostalgia, my caddie, assistant golf pro John Knoll, donned the same red jumpsuit worn by one of the loopers in the inaugural round at SentryWorld on June 13, 1982.
It was my first visit to SentryWorld and to Stevens Point (population 26,000). The golf course is part of a corporate campus serving Sentry Insurance, the biggest private employer in Portage County. The 108-year-old firm, mutually owned by its policy holders, has made an unusually intense commitment to the community. The golf course is part of a massive sports and entertainment facility serving the company and the town. Amenities include racquetball, indoor tennis courts, a sports bar, health club and a sumptuous banquet hall adorned with one of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers. Next door, the company’s 2 million-square-foot Taj Mahal of an office park includes a gourmet restaurant and a 630-seat theater, both open to the public.
Much of this, including the golf course, was built by Sentry under the leadership of its visionary corporate leader, John Joanis (1920-1985). It’s not stretching things to say that he stood in the Wisconsin tradition of progressive change that was made legendary by Robert M. LaFollete (1855-1925), a Republican congressman, governor and senator who ran (unsuccessfully) for president in 1924. The basic idea is for the private sector to be embedded in everyday community life.
Today, at a time when many companies have divested themselves of assets such as golf courses, Sentry is renewing its community by investing in a thorough upgrade of a facility that is showing signs of wear and tear in its irrigation system, bunkers, drainage and turf consistency. The full scope of work is yet to be determined, but certainly will include new greens and surrounds, rebuilt tees, a new watering system and considerable work on expanding the playing corridors. The par-72 layout, 6,951 yards from the back tees, will get longer in the process, but also more diverse from the middle and forward tees.
One limitation of the existing layout is too many of the par 4s play the same length when played from any one set of tees. “We’re looking for more diversity,” Jones said. “That will include longer par 4s and also a drivable one or two.”
One thing that won’t change is the famous flower beds adorning the par-3 16th hole. The idea for it came from Jones, who had just been on a tour of France and Holland, where he was inspired by ornamental tulip beds. Sentry’s leader at the time, Joanis, ran with the idea, to the point where he had temporary cultivation shelters installed to ensure a supply of plants in time for opening day.
The 200-acre site has an expansive, gracious feel, the more so because the course envelopes a massive lake at its core. And yet the green-to-tee connections are intimate, a legacy of Joanis, who insisted the course be walkable.
When it opened 30 years ago, SentryWorld became an immediate hit – the state’s first destination golf course. In recent years, out-of-state golf tourists have tended to favor newer facilities, including Erin Hills and the Kohler Resort’s Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run courses. But the folks at Sentry hope that when their completed renovation debuts in mid-2014, it will draw back those visitors as well as please local players.
From his spacious office at Sentry, Chief Executive Officer Pete McPartland can look out through a large window upon the ground that includes the golf course. One item catches the attention of a visitor; a telescope, set up by Jonas more than three decades ago so he could follow construction progress on his dream layout. “The focus of that has never changed,” McPartland said. He’s referring to the telescope’s alignment. But he also could be speaking about his company’s commitment.