1/14/20

A Mom-and-Pop Classic: Eagle Springs

How family ownership has preserved the uniqueness of Eagle Springs Golf Resort

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Family-run golf courses have become fewer and farther between in recent decades, but the mom-and-pop Eagle Springs Golf Resort is still going strong after more than a century. Founded in 1893 by the Tuohy family, Eagle Springs is the oldest golf course in Wisconsin. Today it’s owned by Mike Bolan, the great-great grandson of the first owners. While the course has changed a bit over the years, the clubhouse is original. Driving down Eagle Springs’ gravel driveway feels like time travel.

The course’s history is murky, to say the least. In 1893, golf hardly existed in America, much less in the Midwest. Around that time, C. B. Macdonald was messing around in a field in Lake Forest, Illinois, laying out a seven-hole course. The architect of the first layout at Eagle Springs is unknown. It could have been the Tuohys themselves, immigrants from Western Ireland.

The later history isn’t much clearer. According to family tradition, William Tuohy brought in A. G. Spaulding in 1921 to redesign the course, notably the 1st and 2nd holes. While it’s clear that someone who understood golf architecture did the work, it likely wasn’t Spaulding, who died in 1915. Per Bolan, the original 18-hole course shrank to nine during the Great Depression, which a 1937 aerial helps to confirm.

A 1937 aerial of Eagle Springs shows some of the abandoned greens of the former 18-hole course

What’s not a mystery is the enduring excellence of Eagle Springs. Few courses are able to provide a quality experience at an affordable price, but the Tuohys and their descendents have done so at Eagle Springs for 126 years. Today, the walking rate is just $18.50. Bolan says he’s able to keep the green fee low because his family has rarely taken on debt. But another factor must be his own commitment to the facility. Bolan works seven days a week, doing everything from golf course maintenance to working the register. The result is that Eagle Springs remains a viable business in spite of being a nine-hole course in a small Wisconsin town. 

Design plus stewardship

It also helps that the golf course itself is unlike anything else you’ll see. The 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 7th holes are genuinely striking. Two of those in particular, the 1st and 2nd, embody the combination of bold design and wise stewardship that has kept Eagle Springs in business for well over a century. 

The Volcano 2nd is the star of the Eagle Springs—bigger and steeper than any other volcano I’ve encountered. This 134-yard par 3 takes “hit it or else” to new heights. If you hit the tiny green, you should have an excellent birdie opportunity. If you miss, you’ll be facing a pitch up the 20-plus-foot bank and probably just hoping for a bogey. 

Volcano holes are polarizing in general, and given its severity, this one has been especially so. As Bolan puts it, “There’s people who play here because they have heard about it, there’s people that hate it, and there’s people who find it hard to believe there’s a hole like that.”

Thankfully, Bolan didn’t overreact to the criticism, but he did see a problem developing. The slope is so severe that older players were having trouble making it to the green. His older regulars started skipping the hole, and Bolan feared that they might start skipping the course altogether. But instead of permanently altering the hole, as many owners would have, Bolan went for a  creative solution: he built an alternate green. Bolan and his small staff spent four years on the tree clearing and other work, but eventually they created an alternate 2nd—a downhill par 3—so that the iconic volcano could stay intact.

The 1st hole at Eagle Springs has also benefited from sensitive stewardship. A highly atypical opener, it’s a blind but drivable par 4. The tee box sits next to the clubhouse and points you toward a massive ridge that conceals the hole. You just have to pick a line and hope it’s right. Running all the way to the green, the ridge forms a hog’s-back fairway, kicking misses to the right farther to the right and vice versa on the left. All in all, this hole is a “welcome to Eagle Springs moment.” It tells you to expect the unusual.

Always a tremendous hole, the 1st became even better when Bolan expanded the green. Originally, the green was a small punchbowl. Now that feature makes up the right half of the green. Seeking more pins, Bolan added a left plateau. This feature adds some welcome complexity and day-to-day variety to the hole; the right and left pins play completely differently.

Bolan’s thoughtful additions have helped Eagle Springs stay fresh and up to date. But more importantly, his restraint has preserved the quirks and unique features that make the course a must-see. 

A legacy

Now in his 60s, Bolan has hinted he might be the last in his family line to own and operate Eagle Springs Golf Resort. While his stepchildren love the course, each has a life outside of Eagle, Wisconsin. But Bolan has already established a strong legacy at Eagle Springs, one that should be a model for other mom-and-pop golf course owners. He made prudent financial decisions, but he refused to allow the course to languish. His improvement projects were creative and low-cost. As a result, Bolan not only kept Eagle Springs alive in times when many facilities of its type perished, but he actually made the course better. His work testifies to what a single enlightened owner can accomplish, even on a shoestring budget. 

Today, a lot of positive press goes to the developers of destination resorts and the owners of upscale private clubs. Some of it is well deserved. But what the golf world really needs is more Mike Bolans.

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