Brown Deer Park Golf Course remains Milwaukee's crown jewel
The roars that echoed through the trees for 16 summers have long since gone, the PGA Tour having packed up and left following the 2009 U.S. Bank Championship. It's been four years since Bo Van Pelt won the last title at Brown Deer Park Golf Course and it seems like, finally, the thought that the course was somehow worse off for having lost the tour event has dissipated.
"The PGA Tour does not play bad golf courses. Period," head professional Scott Evans said. "They just don't."
Brown Deer remains the crown jewel of the 15 Milwaukee County Parks golf courses, superbly conditioned and as difficult as ever. Evans often laughs when golfers unfamiliar with the course look at the scorecard and assume that because it tips out at "just" 6,759 yards from the blue tees that it's a pushover. That's far from the case, as Brown Deer stresses a player on 13 tee shots with narrow sight lines and strategically placed bunkers in landing areas.
To that end, nothing has ever changed. Accuracy off the tee has always been paramount there. But when such a high profile event leaves, there are incorrect assumptions that spread. The golf course's budget and staffing never changed after the tour event and the course didn't suddenly fall into disrepair.
Evans heard it too.
"It was brutal," he said. "It's not so bad anymore. People are finally starting to realize, especially this year, that the course is as good as it's ever been. If anybody is coming out here now and not getting it, that we haven't changed anything, they have no intention to. It was tough. In 2010 I heard it all the time. It was frustrating."
While there are plenty of private facilities in and around Milwaukee that would be on any golfer's bucket list, Brown Deer remains one of the few facilities in the Midwest that have hosted a PGA Tour event that players can access daily.
After stops at private clubs from 1968 to 1993, Brown Deer became the host site of the Greater Milwaukee Open (and then the U.S. Bank Championship) in 1994. The Kohler properties began hosting major championships in 1998 and Erin Hills starting hosting national championships in 2008.
It's a troika that many states in this country cannot boast.
"Everything that has been going on in Wisconsin golf is unbelievable," Evans said. "A big part of this state is a destination for golf. It's unbelievable."
There may be no major championships in its history, or future, but Brown Deer is a worthy companion to the others because it tests all facets of the game. In fact, players who do not carry low single digit handicaps are encouraged to tee it forward.
"Play the whites," Evans said. "Please.
"We had a tour player one year who said it best. He got done with his practice round and it was his first time here and he caught up with me later in the day. He said 'Pro, this is the longest 6,700-yard course I've ever played in my life.' That sums it up. It's a hard golf course and you have to hit the ball in the fairway."
The total yardage often takes the driver out of the player's hands, which leads to longer iron shots into the greens. The longer the iron shot, the harder it becomes to control the ball into the greens. Taking notes on every hole as I played the white tees, "have to hit the fairway" was jotted down every time, and some holes required more precise placements, like the 397-yard par 4 8th hole (right edge of fairway) or the 230-yard tee shot you have to hit on the 351-yard par 4 16th.
The par 5, 15th hole requires you to either hit it out straight to the right edge of the dogleg left, or be able to control a draw that won't travel more than 270 yards to a hazard but won't bend too much to find a bunker. You've got overhanging trees that, from the fairway, look to impede approaches on No. 2 and No. 3. Then there's the sporty, 339-yard par 4 ninth hole where you absolutely have to hit the fairway or "easy" turns into a triple bogey in a heartbeat.
"The 6,700 yards (become longer because they're using 3-woods and hybrids. Guys will come out and just look at the yardage and say 'I'll play the blue's,'" Evans said. "Then they get done, they come in and say, we'll be back again but we won't play the blue tees again. But, people don't tend to believe us and they do it anyway. It's just hard. The problem is, if you're disciplined and leave the driver in the bag a little bit, which you should do, it just plays long because you're not hitting driver."
Because Milwaukee County boasts 15 golf courses that can suit any player's skill level, no one shies away from saying that Brown Deer is just difficult.
"Some of our golfers here have told me they would play here more often but the course beats 'em up," Evans said. "It's a hard golf course.
"(But) the majority of golfers who come here love this golf course. They understand it's a great golf course. We've got regulars that say 'I can't believe I keep coming out here. This course just tears me up. I play better everywhere else.' But they love coming here. They've maybe played here since they were a kid. They love the beauty of the course – it's a spectacular course visually. And it's in great condition. So even though they're not playing as well as they might at some other places, they still love to come."
What is one hole in which a scratch player will be satisfied with par? The first hole. Without a doubt. I had so many of the players when the tour was here who would make jokes with me about how the starting hole was a par 5. It's a par 4, of course. From the back tees its roughly 460 yards. It's a brutal hole. It's a hard hole. It's even made tougher because it's your first hole. It would be a little easier if it was your 15th hole and you've got 10 drives under your belt. Number one, without a doubt, in my opinion, is the hardest hole on this course. And we've got a lot of hard ones. It's very hard to make four there. Very few of the tour players made birdies there. The scoring average was very high. It's a beast. Nobody likes one.
What is the one hole a double-digit handicapper can make a par? The fourth hole is sort of our only really birdie hole, a downhill par 5. It's really not terribly short, but what makes it play a little bit easier is it's downhill – the tee shot is. After that it levels out. Four is a very good opportunity for somebody to get par who doesn't make pars all the time. Other than that, we really don't have any real easy holes out here. As long as you hit it straight it's a pretty good shot at a par, or maybe a birdie for a guy who doesn't make a lot of birdies. If you hit it crooked, there's not a lot of pars to be found out here.
That leads into my next question – what shot do you have to have at Brown Deer to be successful? It is the tee shot. We are tree lined on 17 and a half holes. The other half that is not tree lined is a pond. Every hole there is no side you can go to without being in there. For the guy or lady that can keep it in play it's not a bad golf course to play. You could say that about any course, but, there are courses where you can hit it 40 yards off line and still have a clear shot at the green. Whatever club you can hit straight and a couple hundred yards, whatever you can get in play, hit that club. Maybe you won't hit greens in regulation, but if you just blast away with a driver it can be a real long day.
What is your favorite shot on the course? This one's easy – the sixth hole, par 5, when the flag is on the right I love to hit my second shot to the left side and I'll hit a low pitch, screaming pitch that hits, takes a hop and stops. On 6, when it's on the right side, I'll hopefully hit (my second) to the left and I'll have an 80-yard pitch and bring it in there really low. I'll try to land it 10, 12 feet right of the cup and let it roll straight sideways down to the pin. When I pull it off it looks really good and it works. It doesn't always work! I love that low shot that's got tremendous spin. If somebody isn't used to seeing that shot it looks like a misfire and it'll go over the green, but it just grabs. That sixth hole, that's a lot of fun.
What's a piece of local knowledge for players? Don't go for the flag on any front pins. In most cases all the front pins are not to be gone after – just go to the middle of the green and putt back. On several holes if you come up just a little short you'll roll back down into the fairway. Or, if you stay on the green, it's a really difficult putt. The front of these greens, the shots are just too precise. Play smart, play to the middle. Actually, the middle is a good idea on any green. If the flags in the middle and if it's in the back, you're still good. Our greens are not that big – we've got a couple that I would say are medium sized – but they're not big greens so if you were in the middle of every green you'd have a lot of really nice birdie or par putts. Be careful of the front pins. They look real inviting, but they just aren't.
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