This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
One thing we at GCA are very conscious of is that the world of golf includes facilities at a lot of different levels, and what works well at one level may be impossible at another. Being based in the UK, but covering American extensively, it’s hard not to see this; the scale of budgets in the US industry is off the charts from a British point of view. While five million-dollar renovations may seem almost modest in the US, any British club spending a million pounds on its course is making a huge investment.
But the truth is that this is not just a transatlantic divide. High-end American clubs may seem quite blasé about big golf course projects, but there are plenty of clubs further down the food chain for whom spending a ton of money is out of the question.
When funds are tight, it becomes even more important that any windfall is not wasted, but rather gives as much bang for the buck as possible. And, even after a brief look at Stevens Point Country Club, it’s not hard to agree that they have done exactly that.
Designed originally by architect Larry Packard, Stevens Point, located in central Wisconsin, looked a lot like many other mid-century layouts – wall to wall green, from grass and trees. But, like so much of this part of Wisconsin, Stevens Point is built on sand, and that proved to be its saving grace when it lost a large proportion of its tree stock because of the use of the DuPont herbicide Imprelis.
Stevens Point is now managed by Oliphant Golf, and that fact meant that Oliphant partner Craig Haltom, a young man trying to develop his reputation as a golf architect, saw a lot of the course. Haltom, who found the property later developed by Mike Keiser as Sand Valley (the Craig’s Porch snack hut at Sand Valley is named for him). The settlement of the Imprelis legal case meant Stevens Point was in line for a substantial windfall: Haltom proposed to the members spending some of the money on a radical project involving taking out further trees, completely rebunkering the course and turning a traditional parkland course into something far rougher around the edges, with exposed sand and large bunkers dominating the view.
To the club’s credit, it bought into this new vision. And the work is nothing short of a triumph. Just walking up the first hole and seeing the beautiful bunker complex that protects the front right of the green should be enough to tell any observer that something special has gone on here; and it just gets better and better.
The property at Stevens Point is not especially dramatic: there is a decent bit of elevation change in the area of the clubhouse, but much of the course is relatively flat. Haltom has built three entirely new holes as well as totally renovating the rest, and the course now has five sets of tees, ranging from 4,400 to 7,000 yards, providing a suitable golfing challenge for members of pretty much any level of ability.
Although bounded on one side by a road and another by a railway, Stevens Point has, for a course in an essentially suburban location, the priceless asset of having a tree-lined river valley down the entire left side of the golf course, separating it from nearby housing and giving the site a pleasingly natural, even wild in places, feel. Haltom’s work has really enhanced that. The removal of so many trees – mostly row after row of red pines – has given the site a more open feel and the remaining trees, which include some very impressive native specimens, room to breathe. Because of the substantial areas of open sand, the course now feels what it is; a sandy environment. The holes by the river have a particularly pleasing aspect, and the course has an authentic feel to it that it must have previously lacked.
Wisconsin is generally a golf hotbed, and this central part of the state is certainly not lacking. In Stevens Point itself is the SentryWorld course, recently renovated by Jay Blasi to a very high standard, and which would certainly have been regarded as the best course in town. It is a testimony to the work of Craig Haltom and the rest of the team that this would now no longer be an automatic assumption. The huge Sand Valley resort, developed by Mike Keiser, is little more than half an hour’s drive away. Obviously, for any members’ club, the membership is the be all and end all – but it would not surprise me if, with a bit of judicious PR work, Stevens Point started attracting visitors to make the short drive from Sand Valley to see what else the region has to offer.