Renovations, a Lengthy COVID Pause and Uncommon Commitment: SentryWorld’s Long But Patient Journey Leads to a U.S. Senior Open

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SentryWorld Golf Course being awarded the 2023 U.S. Senior Open was a process that really began nearly a decade ago.

Back then, Sentry Insurance – which owns SentryWorld and is headquartered on the same property in Stevens Point, Wisconsin – summoned original course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. and course architects Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi. Their general task was to bring what was once the original “destination” course in Wisconsin back to its former glory. While scheduled projects like irrigation systems and bunkers were on the agenda, the conversations led to an opportunity to do much more.

Two years of renovations led to a stunning transformation when SentryWorld (www.sentryworld.com) re-opened in 2015. Always known for its famous “flower hole,” it ushered in a new era of eye-popping beauty and conditioning. From the white sand and clean edges of the bunkers, to brilliant kicker slopes and runoff areas around the greens, to infinity-like edges on new water holes, SentryWorld is a rare breed in that if offers professional tour-like course conditions on a daily basis.

That would certainly seem to vibe with what Sentry Chairman, President and CEO Pete McPartland was talking about at a media day event this summer. He spoke of Sentry “indulging in the golf course” over the past several years and setting the standard of “whatever you do, make it the best.”

Sentry has also done that with its other offerings at SentryWorld, too. There have been restaurant and facilities upgrades (SentryWorld includes a fieldhouse with indoor tennis courts, volleyball, bean bags and more). This golf season has introduced an all-inclusive golf rate with two new complimentary food and beverage stations on the course. And the addition of a 64-room boutique hotel – the Inn at SentryWorld – along the 18th hole opened in March. No expense or cost has been spared and it shows.

Ben Kimball is the Senior Director of Championships for the United States Golf Association (USGA) which conducts the U.S. Senior Open among 18 other championships. He said the day-to-day conditioning at SentryWorld, the course’s new flexibility and that its public access all played a role in being selected to host the 2023 U.S. Senior Open (www.sentryworld.com/usso2023). But in reality, those factors were just a baseline. A relationship had been growing years ago.

SentryWorld’s history with the USGA goes all the way back to 1986 when they hosted the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. In 2015, after the successful renovation, SentryWorld general manager Mike James said Sentry started to explore options for hosting a bigger event, however. In 2017, the same year Erin Hills down the road in Wisconsin hosted the U.S. Open, the USGA’s Bill McCarthy and other staff made a site visit to SentryWorld. James came away optimistic and for good reason.

“Bill said at some point when we were walking the golf course, ‘You know, there are really three directions we’re going to go with this visit,’” described James. “The first direction is – ‘Hey, thanks for having us out, but this isn’t the right fit for us to host a USGA Championship.’ The second one is – ‘Well, there might be (a chance).’ And then the third is – ‘Yeah, we’ve got something here. We’re going to host a championship.’ And fortunately at the end of that tour, Bill very clearly said option three is where we want to go. The question at that point was what were we going to host?”

Two years later, SentryWorld held the U.S. Girls Junior Championship. The USGA came away impressed with the presentation, the community and the volunteer effort and James sensed the opportunity for another chance.

By that time, Sentry had struck a deal with the PGA Tour as well becoming in 2018 the title sponsor of the calendar year’s first event, the Tournament of Champions in Maui. The relationship was a chance for Sentry, a Fortune 1000 company, to expand its brand and connect with its customers on a different level.

Sentry has also become a corporate partner with the USGA, is a partner of the GHIN (Golf Handicap Information Network) system and is involved with the First Tee nonprofit organization. Representatives of the company and customers have also attended the last two U.S. Opens.

“I like to say that I think Sentry is the most golf-centric company out there that is not in the golf business,” said McPartland. “We’re in the insurance business but golf fits perfectly for us.”

The global COVID pandemic provided a final hurdle for Sentry. As the world began to shutdown in early 2020, golf courses were figuring out how or if they could operate. That year eventually became a boon for recreational golf as a safe and socially-distanced outdoor activity. SentryWorld, however, chose to close for the entire golf season for health precautions. And after being awarded the 2023 U.S. Senior Open the following winter, they chose to close again for the following golf season, foregoing golf revenue in favor of more modifications to the course.

Projects in 2021 included those aimed more at the championship competition. Seven tee boxes were added or lengthened to help stretch the course to 7,320 yards (about 200 yards more). Fairways in driving zones where many senior players may hit were narrowed to about 25-30 yards wide where they were previously 40-70 yards. As a result, bunkers were moved to accommodate the narrowing. Three green complexes were also changed. The fifth and the 18th were completely re-worked and offer more hole locations. The fourth green had a new back left portion added which may just turn into a chipping area after some further consideration, according to Kimball.

Under the surface, SubAir systems, which will help control firmness and moisture, were added for all 18 greens. Drip irrigation was added under the bunker edges to keep the surrounds in sharp condition.

Through all the renovations, the par-3 16th hole remains essentially the same. It has always been the signature at SentryWorld with its 30,000 flowers of different colors and varieties framing the hole. A new tee box was added there, however, to present a different angle and a potentially longer shot for the championship.

SentryWorld plans to close after September this golf season and does not plan to open to the public again until after the championship next year (June 29-July 2).

“The commitment that Sentry Insurance, SentryWorld, is making to this Senior Open in the fact that the golf course is closed – we don’t see that anywhere else in the industry,” said Kimball. “That may be a first – that we’re basically walking into a USGA championship with a golf course that’s been closed more than six months or eight months. It’s just unheard of in our industry. For somebody responsible for everything that happens inside the ropes, it’s a dream come true, but again, I just can’t reiterate the commitment that Sentry Insurance and SentryWorld is making to this championship.

“It’s just, it’s unbelievable. This is just something we at the USGA don’t see happen very often, that this amount of time and dedication to that wonderful property out there is going to be given.”

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Matt Tevsh has been a contributor to Midwest Golfing Magazine since 2004.

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