It is a good nine months since Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle called Wisconsin’s New Richmond Golf Club “the Augusta National of small-town courses,” but praise for the Willie Kidd/Don Herfort design has not abated. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune hails New Richmond’s semi-private Old Course as “perhaps the greatest relatively unknown public course near the Twin Cities,” and Cowboytuff gives it a four-star rating on golflink.com. Now the Little Course that Could has put a move on Wisconsin’s other nationally-ranked track, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, by moving up to No. 25 in the Top 50.
Some will find the comparison to Augusta National Golf Club, No. 2, a stretch, but I have recently played both New Richmond and the National, and found each to be evocative of the other. Both, for instance, are famous for their plantings. Flowering trees frame their greensites, and each presents a variety of flora calculated to send the hearts of botanists racing. (“Driving down Magnolia Lane melts down your spikes,” Greg Norman once said. “You can’t tee off quickly enough.”) The two clubs also have three- or four-hole stretches known as “Amen Corner” — although New Richmond’s is pronounced AH-men by some of its members.
You get religion a little earlier in the round at the Wisconsin course. New Richmond’s most challenging stretch, holes 4 through 7, is anchored by the 406-yard, par-4 fifth hole. A classic floodplain hole — lined with pines and firs on the right and defined by the sinuous Willow River and a marsh on the left — the fifth calls for a thread-the-needle drive and an over-the-water mid-iron past a couple of top-heavy trees eager to lean in the way of perfectly hit approaches. Van Sickle, when asked to compare New Richmond’s signature hole to the lakeside par-4 16th at nearby Hazeltine National Golf Club, said, “I suppose you could compare them….” — and Johnny Miller once called Hazeltine’s 16th “probably the hardest par 4 I ever played.”
I could go on listing the similarities between Augusta National and New Richmond, but I’d rather point out the most significant difference: Their pedigree. The Georgia course started out as a nursery and was nannied to greatness by the regal combination of Grand Slam champion Bobby Jones, legendary course designer Alister MacKenzie and imperious club chairman Clifford Roberts. New Richmond’s stunner had more modest beginnings in the Coolidge-era* as a 9-hole, laid-out-on-a-weekend, concrete-tees-and-sand-greens golf course. In fact, my father** used to call his home-town nine “the worst damn course in the whole state of Wisconsin.”
*Donald Reppe’s The New Richmond Golf Club: A History dates the club to 1924, based upon recorded deeds, diaries and the memories of old timers. Today’s club members, however, wear caps with “Founded 1923” printed on the side, and certain Web sites give 1922 as the inaugural year. (Warren G. Harding, 29th president of the United States, served from 1921 until his death from a heart attack on August 2, 1923.)
**John B. “Jack” Garrity, grew up in New Richmond, helped build the original sand-greens course, and was one of the club’s most avid members in the late twenties. His own monograph, “Remarks and Reminiscences on the Founding of the New Richmond Golf Club,” was excerpted in the Oct. 2007 issue of Travel + Leisure Golf.
Falling to No. 29 is the Pezula Golf Club of Knysna, South Africa.
Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Hall of Fame golfer Annika Sorenstam has signed an agreement to design a championship course for the Olivion Golf Resort in Belek, Turkey. Olivion will be Sorenstam’s first course design project in Europe, her ninth worldwide, and the first to be named for “the powerful being” in a juvenile novel by a writer employing capital letters for his last name. (See “CLE, Troy.”)