Blackwolf Run The River Golf Course Review

50 Words or Less

The River golf course at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin is as tough as it is beautiful.  Pete Dye’s layout will test your mind as much as your swing.

Introduction

In the run up to my recent trip to Kohler, I had numerous bouts of deja vu.  Whenever I mentioned to a serious golfer that I was playing Blackwolf Run, they would look around conspiratorially before saying quietly, “The River is actually the best course on the property.”  

If the River – with its Top 20 rating and multiple majors under its belt – were anywhere else, that statement wouldn’t require hushed tones.  At Kohler, however, where it neighbors Whistling Straits, it risks being labeled as hyperbole.  Either way, I was eager to trek north and see it for myself.

Practice Facilities

Blackwolf Run – home to both The River and The Meadow Valleys courses – has an outstanding practice area.  The range has 30 grass tees where guests can hit fresh Titleists to their hearts’ content.  Long hitters do need to take note of where the tees are, since there is an academy on the opposite side of the range.  One particularly nice touch is the laser rangefinder that allows golfers to measure the distance to each target precisely.

Near the range, there is a short game area with tightly trimmed surrounds and thick rough.  There’s also a bunker, which I strongly recommend making use of.

Finally, near the club house, there’s a large practice green.  I found it to be a perfect approximation of the greens on the course both in terms of speed and contours.  If you can dial in your reads before the round, you’ll have a big edge on the course.

Customer Service & Amenities

It would be very easy for me to write more about the service and amenities at Blackwolf Run and The American Club than I do about the course.  I’ve been lucky enough to go to some great resorts, but the service throughout my visit to Kohler was the best I’ve ever experienced.  The anticipation of every need, the friendliness, the memorable little touches – it’s truly a world-class staff that deserves every accolade they receive, particularly Lydia at The Horse & Plow and Rebecca at Kohler Waters Spa

The clubhouse at Blackwolf Run is a large log cabin that houses the pro shop, locker rooms, and a restaurant, and each element is markedly above average.  The pro shop has a huge selection of branded merch plus a solid selection of clubs in case one of yours isn’t getting the job done.  Downstairs, the locker room is full service and makes you feel like a member at a private club.  The Blackwolf Run Restaurant has great food and a stellar view of the double green that closes out both courses.  The smartest thing about the restaurant is the buffet option.  For both breakfast and lunch, you can get a tasty, filling meal even if you don’t have much time.

If you’re staying at Kohler and you want the premium experience, stay at The American Club.  This hotel has received every conceivable award, and you’ll understand why the minute you arrive.  The service is unbeatable, the rooms are magnificent, and it’s home to a number of great dining options.  If you’re looking to kick back, refuel, and have a couple beers, The Horse & Plow is your spot.  If you’re in the mood for fine dining, The Immigrant Restaurant has you covered.  Want something in between?  Check out The Wisconsin Room.  The American Club is also home to The Greenhouse and The Winery Bar for lighter fare and drinks.

Beauty & Scenery

Carved by the glaciers, the Sheboygan River Valley is both an exemplar of Wisconsin’s natural beauty and a perfect canvas for Pete Dye’s machinations.  Water is your constant companion, appearing on 14 of the 18 holes at The River Course.

What may surprise some golfers are the elevation changes throughout the course.  Some are subtle, others dramatic, but nearly every hole requires adjustments to yardages or sight lines that are affected by altitude.

Course Design

Throughout your round at The River golf course, you’ll notice two themes.  The first is visual deception.  Shots that look benign often have hidden danger.  Shots that appear daunting probably have safe options tucked just out of view.  I would strongly recommend a caddie or forecaddie if you intend on putting together a good score.

As good as Pete Dye is at hiding the easy play, he’s just as good at baiting golfers into taking on too much risk.  Every hole at The River is an easy bogey and many are actually easy pars…if you have the discipline to make the high percentage play.  Very few will.  The possibility of making a spectacular shot is constantly at your fingertips, and the attempt will lead many to double bogeys and worse.

Tee Shots

From the first drive, Pete Dye challenges your mental toughness.  Virtually every tee shot features an enormous hazard: water, bunkers, or a forced carry.

The twist is that most holes have generous fairways and an easy line of play.  Sometimes these safe plays are hard to see, and they often seem painfully conservative, but they are present.

If you do find yourself out of position off the tee, it’s 50/50 whether or not you’ll have a shot to the green.  Some of the fairway bunkers are tame, but others – like the one above – are six feet below the fairway and require a pitch out.

Finally, The River gives you choices from the tee box.  Unless you’re playing from the tips – 7,404 yards – you’ll have ample opportunity to hit everything from long irons to fairway woods to driver.  Pete Dye rarely takes driver out of your hands, but he does often suggest smarter plays.

Approaches

After you navigate the visual trickery of the tee shots, you’re left with approaches that are straightforward tests of your shotmaking.  Pete Dye leaves you with very few bailout areas: each green is well protected with bunkers, water, and rough.

Greens & Surrounds

The greens at The River are slightly below average in size, and they play significantly smaller.  Your pin sheet will tell you that the green is, for example, 20 yards by 30, but each one has a unique shape that cuts down the square footage.

Though the greens aren’t divided into tiers, The River course features enough mounds, hollows, and shoulders that a GIR is no guarantee of a par.

Around the green, you’ll primarily find sand, water, and thick rough.  There are very few tightly mown areas around the green, so you’ll need a deft touch with a high-lofted wedge to scramble effectively.

Favorite Holes

#9 – Cathedral Spires

Our caddie told us that Pete Dye has mentioned this as his favorite hole ever.  I’m having a hard time calling it my favorite given the huge number it put on my scorecard, but there’s no hole I’ve thought about more.

Off the tee, there’s a mile of fairway to the left that you can’t see, and a tiny finger of fairway on the right near the water.  At only 316 yards from the green tees, this hole also invites shots at the green, though trees block the direct line.  No matter which route you choose, the second shot is a tester, and unless you make birdie, you’ll be second-guessing your strategy for the rest of the round.

#11 – Rise and Fall

This hole epitomizes the strategy at The River.  You can play three simple shots to the left and have an easy look at birdie, but every shot begs you to take on more.  The hole doglegs to the right, so playing your tee shot left feels wrong.  If you do play a successful drive to the right, the green is tantalizingly close, but there’s no room to miss.  Rise and Fall is a perfect par 5.

#4 – Swan Lake

The first of the par 3s is the prettiest to my eye.  That may or may not be related to my tee shot which ended up two feet from the hole.

Conclusion

Though I’ve yet to golf The Straits, my experience at The River at Blackwolf Run tells me that it plays second fiddle to no one.  The layout is demanding but fun, and the beautiful setting will make the occasional bad score easier to swallow.  Combine that with the finest service and amenities you’re likely to find and you have one of the country’s best golf destinations.

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Matt Saternus

Founder, Editor In Chief at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Plugged In Golf. He's worked in nearly every job in the golf industry from club fitting to instruction to writing and speaking. Matt lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with his wife and two daughters.

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One Comment

  1. We spent Memorial Day weekend 4 years ago at The American Club staying in the Carriage House and it was absolutely outstanding. We played all four courses and while all are outstanding, The River Course was my favorite as well. The Straits and Irish are nice and cool to play but I really enjoyed the River, a more tradional course in a beautiful location.

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