SentryWorld and the 2023 U.S. Senior Open in Wisconsin

Our guest this episode is Mike James, who is the General Manager of SentryWorld, an 18-hole facility in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, which will host the 43rd U.S. Senior Open Championship from June 29–July 2, 2023.

In this discussion we learn about:

  • The history of SentryWorld and its owner, Sentry Insurance
  • The decision to renovate and expand SentryWorld.
  • How Sentry became a title sponsor of the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a USGA Corporate Partner
  • The next phase of course improvements – Sub-air system, drip irrigation, new bunkers and new fairways
  • How SentryWorld works with the USGA to build a golf course for the Senior Open and for daily fee golfers
  • The intricate process of building and maintaining the iconic SentryWorld 16th Hole
  • SentryWorld introduces a fully inclusive experience
  • The goals and vision for the 2023 U.S. Senior Open and beyond

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

[Mike James] SentryWorld has had an interesting background. It was opened in 1982 and designed by golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.

What’s interesting about it is that the golf course was, and still is owned by Sentry Insurance, a large financial institution. Not many insurance companies own a golf course.

It started with the chairman of Sentry Insurance at the time. His name was John Jonas, who was a golf enthusiast, and as he was building a large company in central Wisconsin, he wanted to make sure that there were activities and things for the employees, visitors and guests that were coming to the area.

And so that was the purpose for building SentryWorld. Fast forward 40 years, the golf course is still owned by Sentry Insurance, and I would say is involved in the game of golf more now than ever before. It’s a fun time at SentryWorld now with the championship coming up next year.

This has been made possible by Sentry Insurance and its commitment to the game of golf and SentryWorld.

[Walter Lis] It seems as though the Sentry brand has taken a larger role in the game of golf with the Sentry Tournament of Champions. And so I guess this was a part of the passion of the game of golf from the founder of Sentry Insurance?

[Mike James] SentryWorld has always been a destination golf course. In fact, it was the first destination golf course in Wisconsin.

We certainly fly that flag and we’re proud of it. When I came back to Stevens Point in 2014 and worked for SentryWorld, the golf course needed to be updated. The irrigation system and everything was pretty old and needed some repair, bunker work, et cetera.

The chairman of Sentry Insurance at the time and still is Pete McPartland, was faced with the decision of what do we do with SentryWorld? So the decision was made then to renovate the golf course. And not just that, also the building of the SentryWorld Sports Complex where the restaurant and banquet facilities are.

At that point we knew we had, I like to call this Ferrari, and we wanted to see how fast it could run. How fast could this thing go? So we had a conversation with Pete McPartland and he said let’s see what this thing can do.

SentryWorld

SentryWorld

And so we knew we wanted to host a national level golf tournament. We didn’t know what kind. We decided after talking to several different organizers of golf tournaments to host a USGA golf championship.

We started with the US Girls Junior in 2019. Shortly thereafter we decided to be a title sponsor of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a PGA Tour event. And then after the US Girls Junior championship, we started talking to the USGA about hosting another tournament – which is the US Senior Open.

But from that whole relationship, Sentry became one of six corporate partners of the USGA, along with Lexus and Rolex and American Express and Deloitte and Cisco. The game of golf has always been part of Sentry’s DNA.

We’re on the brink of hosting a major championship in central Wisconsin. It’s never been done before. And I don’t think it would be possible if it wasn’t for the commitment to create a world-class golf course and facility that Sentry Insurance provides.

SentryWorld

SentryWorld

[Walter Lis] So let’s talk a little bit more about the facility. You have the golf course. You also have the Inn at SentryWorld. You also spoke about the Sports Complex. Can you give an overview of all the components that make up SentryWorld in this destination that you’ve built?

[Mike James] SentryWorld has really evolved over the past 40 years, and certainly over the past 10. It still has a field house, so we have six indoor tennis courts. Some of them are striped for multipurpose functions like volleyball – leagues and games.

And we have very busy volleyball leagues throughout the winter, tennis leagues. We do bags, tournaments, and we still have the sports component or element to who we are.

But we have become more of a destination wedding and meeting space. We’ve got a lot of banquet spaces. We have over a hundred events a year, varying from associations or corporate meetings.

We also have a fantastic restaurant, PJ’s. It’s very family friendly, casual, but done on a very high level in a restaurant within SentryWorld, the building. And of course, our golf course. We have 18 holes and it’s always been ranked a Top-10 in Wisconsin.

And then we added the Inn at SentryWorld. It’s a luxury boutique hotel that is authentically ours. What I mean by that is when you come to SentryWorld, everything just blends together.

The Inn at SentryWorld

The Inn at SentryWorld

It’s authentic Wisconsin, but it’s done at a very high level. There’s been no stone that’s been left unturned in creating the Inn at SentryWorld.

And I’ll add one more thing. We also have a restaurant called Muse, which is a high-end restaurant. It offers dry-aged steaks and handmade pasta and an incredible wine list.

It’s perfect for those destination travelers, who want to go and have a high-end dinner. It’s just really spectacular.

And what’s great about it is now as folks come from all around the country, we now can have them stay right here on site. They drive in, they park their car, they check in the hotel, and they never have to grab for their keys until they’re leaving.

That really rounds out our offering. And the feedback has been fantastic.

[Walter Lis] You mentioned the impetus for the original work that was done on the course right around 2013 and then there’s been a lot of work done since. Can you talk about the efforts to get ready for the US Senior Open?

[Mike James] It’s been a lot. In 2012 to 2014, we renovated the golf course – as I mentioned, soup to nuts, everything. There was no stone was left unturned.

We operated the golf course as is until 2020 when Covid-19 hit and we actually shut down for a couple years. Of course, we fully maintained the course, but we took that opportunity to do a few pretty neat things.

We added a sub-air system to all of our greens, plus some practice greens. And yeah, that’s no small feat. It’s a pretty extensive project, but it has paid off in dividends. You can control the moisture level of the green and keep them maintained at a certain way, which allows the consistency of the greens to be fantastic.

In 2020, we also installed drip irrigation around all our bunkers. Drip irrigation is basically a system that goes around the edges of the bunkers. It’s a water line that drips water into the soil around the faces of the bunkers.

We found that in bunkers that are especially southern facing, they’ll start to burn out or they’ll get a little brown and crispy. The drip irrigation system allows for that to stay moist and has a really nice aesthetic.

In preparation of the US Senior Open we worked closely with the USGA and there were several modifications to the course in 2021, including narrowing of the fairways. I would say we narrowed the fairways around 40 – 50%. And when you narrow the fairways, you then have some bunkers that you need to move because they’d be out in the middle of the rough.

SentryWorld

SentryWorld

We re-built two greens completely. We added some new tee boxes as well. It was a significant overhaul of the golf course for the Senior Open.

I really enjoy working with the USGA and I thought we did a really good job, all of us collectively, to come up with a layout that would challenge the best players in the world. But the average player, the beginner can still enjoy the course as it’s laid out on a day-to-day basis.

[Walter Lis] So the USGA’s ability to help make the course a test for the best senior players in the world, but then allow it to live on for daily fee players seems like a big challenge

[Mike James] For the Girls Junior in 2019, we didn’t have to do any course renovation. But we knew right up front for the Senior Open we would need to make some changes. And I’ll add that Robert Trent Jones Jr. came back and helped us.

So it was our golf course architects for the past 40 years working with the USGA and the management of SentryWorld to make sure that we hit the right number when it came to the difficulty of how the golf course was going to play for the championship and then on a day-to-day basis. It was a real collaborative effort.

And I think actually the golf course today in many ways after the modifications for the Senior Open is a better golf course, a stronger golf course. I think it’s just laid out better for the golf aficionado or somebody who understands golf course architecture.

[Walter Lis] The 16th is a signature hole at SentryWorld. Can you talk a little bit about what the flower hole means to you?

[Mike James] The flower hole, the 16th, is our iconic hole. It’s what most people recognize when they think of SentryWorld.

Every year we plant a 35,000+ flowers and every year the design of the flowers is a little different. It’s a kind of a long process of designing, then planting, then in the greenhouses, planting them for growth.

SentryWorld 16th Hole

SentryWorld 16th Hole

And then when they’re ready to be planted on the hole, there’s a whole team that comes out and plants them in place. Every Monday they come back, and they maintain. If there are weeds and things, they’ll pull the weeds.

If there’s plants that are struggling a little bit, they’ll pull them out and replace them with plants that’ll thrive. So, it’s a real process.

When you come to the 16th hole, that’s where people bring their cell phones out and they’re taking pictures with their friends.

I will tell you that there are several holes to me personally, that I think are better than the flower hole. I don’t mean they’re from a beauty standpoint, as the 16th hole is unmatched.

But from a wow factor or a golf hole layout that you’re playing, there are others that are better, that are stronger. I think the golf course has 17 other really strong holes.

The 16th just happens to be very unique. How many times do you play a hole with 35,000 flowers? But it’s excellent too. And that hole actually was extended.

It now plays about 200 yards of the new tee box that was added. It’s really pretty.

In 2022 we started a fully inclusive and very unique golf experience. It’s unique in that at most golf courses, their tee time intervals are around eight, nine or 10 minutes between foursomes.

Our tee time intervals are 20 minutes. So we give 20 minutes of time before that next group tees off.

And why do we do that? We do that because we want everybody to enjoy their experience.

The number one complaint of golfers in the golf industry is slow play, so we’re giving 20 minutes for a gap between you and that next group behind you. The feedback we’ve gotten is they feel like they’re on their own course.

There’s often anxiety with keeping up the pace. We’re hearing from our golfers now that’s just not the case. They can go out there and relax and enjoy themselves.

20-minute tee times intervals are really unique to us. And that’s also helped keep our golf greens at a very high speed. We’re running our green speeds are like 11 to 12 on the Stimpmeter on average, but that 20-minute tee time allows us to be able to do that.

Normally if greens are too fast, they’ll slow things down, but we have enough time to be able to run ’em that, that fast.

The other thing is this we have two fully inclusive and they’re kind of like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Everything is fully inclusive, so there’s all kinds of beverages. There’s a bartender in there to make you a Bloody Mary or a signature cocktail or whatever you like. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

The refreshment stations offer hot food, which includes authentic Wisconsin food such as brats. Then there a lot of fun things like candy bars and Bazooka gum that brings you back to your childhood.

It’s all about the experience at SentryWorld, and I think we’ve created something unique for golfers. The feedback so far has been incredible, and we encourage anybody to come up from the Chicagoland are and give us a try again.

[Walter Lis] What are you hoping to accomplish with this event coming up in 2023?

[Mike James] We recognize the opportunity that’s in front of us with hosting a major golf championship, the first one in central Wisconsin.

Certainly, SentryWorld will benefit by hosting that championship, but we are looking beyond that. We are absolutely looking for every way to help promote Central Wisconsin and the businesses.

People will be coming to the area from all around the world, to visit Central Wisconsin, and all the things that we have here in our area. And we’re really excited about that.

We’re really excited about the local businesses and how they’re going to benefit by people traveling in from all over. This championship will also be broadcasted to 125 countries around the world.

They’ll see the golf course and around central Wisconsin to hopefully drive tourism to the area. It’s a place that we love and we really want to use this championship to help, everybody in the State of Wisconsin.

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Walter Lis

Walter Lis is the managing editor of Chicago Golf Report, which launched in 2010.

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