Golf: Clifton Highlands provides no gimmes

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PRESCOTT, Wis. — It's not hard to find trouble at Clifton Highlands Golf Course in Prescott, Wis. In fact, every golfer that tees it up will run into at least 18 problems along the way. There are bunkers and trees to navigate, but the difficulty at Clifton Highlands isn't getting the ball to the green. It's where to land it and how to get the ball in the hole.

"(The greens) are challenging. It's not a short course, but the greens will add strokes to your game," said Head Superintendent Todd Hauschildt. "There are no gimme putts."

Almost every green slopes back to front, though there are a few holes where that changes. The first four holes are relatively simple, giving golfers a chance to settle into their rounds. Holes five and six dogleg right, but No. 7 is where the madness begins. From the whites, the par-3 hole plays 192 yards (219 from the blues). And there is a generous landing spot. But there is nothing easy about No. 7.

"It's the biggest green we have, and it's the hardest to hit. The wind plays a factor at 190-some yards," Hauschildt said. "You take it for granted with a green that big. But if you do hit it, now you've got a 40-foot putt. And it's not a flat putt."

If a golfer bogeys, or worse, it needs to be a distant memory because the five holes around the turn are neither straight nor short (four par-4s and a par-5). No. 13 is a relieving par 3, but that gives way to No. 14, a 307-yard par 4 from the whites. Long hitters can give it a go, but even those choosing to lay up will have to pause to do some math.

"It's a risk-reward hole. It's the smallest green we have. You can reach it, but if you don't, there's a bunker in front, out-of-bounds to the left, there's lateral to the right. The smart play is an iron down the middle," Hauschildt said. "And being a small green, it's got a severe slope, left to right, that you don't know about, so you have to hit the correct spot. And if you lay up to a wedge, you better know your (club) distance."

Another par-5 is next, followed by a par-3, a par-4 and the par-5 18th that gives a golfer one last look at the grounds before coming in.

"It's a great finishing hole with an elevated tee. If you play from the left, it's reachable, but there are some bunkers that make you place that second shot. Aa foot long, you're off the bank," Hauschildt said. "And when you're on the tee, you see the course you just played. It's not hidden away."

What is hidden is the par-3 course above the traditional 18. It's a good hike to get up there (or a short tram ride if one would like), but the payoff is a stunning view from the tee box of the ninth and final hole.

"It's a 110-foot ball drop that plays shorter than the marker says. And if you're short you're in trouble. Long, you're in trouble. Left or right, you're in trouble," Hauschildt said. "But the view, it's great...in the fall, you can see the whole valley change color."

Hauschildt knows all about the beauty around Clifton Highlands. He's been at the course for 33 years, and has seen the entire industry transform.

"In 1985, there were five courses in a 50-mile radius to, now, 50 courses in a 50-mile radius," Hauschildt said. "I watched it bloom. And at that point, what had to figure out what to do to attract people? But we've held our own. You're removed, you're not in downtown Minneapolis playing golf. It's peaceful, it's quiet and it's challenging."

Part of the River Valley Golf Trail, along with Red Wing Golf Course and Gopher Hills Golf Course in Cannon Falls, Clifton Highlands has changed recently, but not on the course. Much of the staff inside has changed, and Hauschildt said it's been a transformation.

"I've heard from people who came to golf are coming back because of how they're being treated inside. Just a 'thank you,' the way it should be," Hauschildt said.

And the course is, too. Thanks to Hauschildt's expertise, Clifton Highlands is in good hands.

"I love what I do. Daniel (Hull), our GM, he said, '33 years?' I said, 'Yeah, I've got a marketing degree. I went to college.'" Hauschildt said. "I just love what I do. I get up in the morning and think, 'This is my office.' You have your paperwork (flying around) and I have my grass (flying around)."