Two ingenious innovations make this course a dreamy golf destination
“Wisconsin’s first destination golf course.”
So begins the description for SentryWorld. It’s a specific and telling claim, given Wisconsin’s position as one of the greatest golf states in America. Destination-style golf has exploded over the last two decades, inspiring dreamers to plan epic buddies’ trips across the globe. With that in mind, I was intrigued to see what the Badger State’s “first destination course” might look like. I expected something classic. Something with history and character. But I found something that I wasn’t expecting from 18 holes in a small town in central Wisconsin: innovation. Sure enough, SentryWorld delivered two terrific experiences I’d never seen before.
What is SentryWorld?
To understand where SentryWorld is going, it’s worth understanding where it’s been — and what it is. The lush parkland course sprawls across Stevens Point, Wisc., a charming college town and outdoorsy escape, population 30,000, situated squarely in the heart of the rural Midwest. Stevens Point is also home to the global headquarters for Sentry, one of the largest mutual insurance companies in the United States. And across the street from those headquarters sits an 18-hole championship golf course.
SentryWorld opened in 1982 as a point of pride for the company and its CEO, John Joanis. Among Joanis’ unique requests was for an island green — but that flowers, rather than water, surround the putting surface. He brought in Robert Trent Jones, Jr. to tackle the job, and away they went: Sentry had its course, and Jones was so proud of his work he dubbed it “My Mona Lisa,” a moniker now proudly displayed on a plaque by the 16th “Flower Hole.”
After three decades of play, the course required some updating. SentryWorld closed in 2013 for a major renovation, reopening in 2015 to rave reviews. The course won its bid to host the 2019 U.S. Girls’ Junior and, following that success, next year’s U.S. Senior Open. The course closed again for the pandemic and didn’t fully reopen until June 1, 2022. That hints at SentryWorld’s obsession these days: If you’re going to do something, do it right or not at all.
“The conditioning of the golf course is a premium,” general manager Mike James told us. “Every blade of grass matters. Any little detail that we can do, we do. Every kind of technology that we can get our hands on, we get our hands on and we install.”
They’ve brought that obsessive quality to their preparation for the Senior Open. The fairways have narrowed, making the tips a particularly tough test from nearly 7400 yards. The rough has grown, putting a premium on hitting those skinny fairways. I’m tempted to compare the greens to carpets but there aren’t carpets this smooth nor speedy. The new SubAir System gives them an increased level of control. And they’re taking every step to ensure golf’s legends won’t find a divot when they arrive: when the course shuts down for the season at the end of September, it won’t open again for public play until the USGA leaves town next summer. At that point, tee times may be tough to come by.
This summer also brought the debut of the Inn at SentryWorld, a 64-room boutique hotel with a majority of rooms overlooking the 18th hole. I’d flown in for a couple days to meet colleagues Luke Kerr-Dineen and Claire Rogers for a work summit and a couple days of golf. We met in Chicago, which is just over three hours’ drive; Stevens Point is centrally located within an easy road trip from Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and more. As Midwest golf destinations go, this one’s pretty good, and the experience has begun to attract visitors from across the nation. They’ve tackled the big challenge by focusing on the little stuff. That begins at check-in, where our group was greeted with glasses of wine and ice-cold Spotted Cows to carry up to our rooms. You’re paying for the experience, of course — a room and a round at SentryWorld runs you $375 under current offerings — but once you’re on property, life is good.
The Tee Time Innovation
Most bucket-list courses are in the business of maximizing revenue. Who could blame them?! That’s what businesses do. But SentryWorld has the benefit of being owned by a multi-billion dollar insurance company, which means it can factor your enjoyment — and its reputation — into its pricing model. During the course’s reimagining, SentryWorld’s brain trust came up with a plan that might reduce its total rounds but would guarantee a better experience for its customers: 20 minutes between tee times. It’s incredibly rare to see a course go over 12 minutes, and most jam in groups every 10 minutes or less.
“We’re trying to provide a really unique golf experience here,” director of golf Danny Rainbow said. “Something different than what people experience even at other top-end facilities.”
Think about the stressors you might experience during a round of golf. There’s the maddening experience of waiting for the group in front of you to clear the green, muttering under your breath, raising your blood pressure and disrupting your flow. There’s also the anxiety of holding up the group behind you, trying to hit a pressure putt while also worrying that you’re ruining their round in the process. Countless golfers have shelled out for what they hoped would be the round of their life only to get herded around the course like cattle, hurrying up only to wait. Eek!
But most of that is created by tee time crunch. With 20-minute intervals, all tension dissipates. You’re less likely to wait for a group ahead because they’re so far ahead. You’re less likely to hold up a group behind because they’re so far behind. And if there is a discrepancy in speed, you just let those players through, knowing that there won’t be more for another 20 minutes. A reduction of players on the course at any given time yields the impression that this course is yours for the day. That’s how they want you to feel.
The Snack Revolution
You’ve seen a snack shack in your day. You’ve never seen ’em like this. SentryWorld’s “refreshment stations” are where Wisconsin warmth meets Willy Wonka. I’m admittedly a sucker for this kind of thing, as an avid snacker with a sweet tooth and a love of breakfast burritos, but these were an absolute game-changer. They threaten to overwhelm the senses: On one side sits an open bar, ready for any cocktail you could dream up. There are sandwiches, salty snacks, healthy snacks, granola bars, fruits and vegetables. There are cookies, candies, sweets. There are refrigerators stacked to the brim: Waters, energy drinks, craft beers, light beers, seltzers, sodas, mixed drinks, more. There’s ice cream, of course, in four flavors plus a variety of bars. Oh yeah — and it’s all free.
The first station is situated between the 1st and 10th tees, allowing you to energize pre-round (hence the breakfast burritos) or refuel at the turn. Lunchtime means a hot sandwich, fresh off the grill. There are also, of course, sandwiches in the fridge, if you’d prefer.
To quote the philosopher Michael Scott: “Every year I get a $100 gas card. Can’t put a price on that.” That’s the joke, of course: you can very literally put a price on it. You could theoretically do the same while you’re pillaging SentryWorld’s refreshment stations, imagining what each item would cost at your local country club. But that’s the point: you’re not being nickeled nor dimed. Nobody is monitoring whether you snag a granola bar to go or taking notes when you go back for a second serving of Oreo Grasshopper ice cream. SentryWorld wants this to be your story. Write whatever ending you choose.
Check out our video from SentryWorld below.