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To experience a variety of great golfing in a week, you used to have to go to Ireland or Scotland. Then along came Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon, which shot to the top of most traveling golfers’ bucket lists by offering four courses by different architects in one central location. (A fifth will be added by 2020.) Other resorts, most notably Pinehurst, have upped their game in recent years following Bandon’s approach with back-to-nature minimalist designs.
But if you have the itch to move around and hit some open road, go Midwest, young man. Wisconsin — home of the “frozen tundra” during fall football season and the NBA’s Greek Freak in the spring — is a golfing nirvana during summer. Tom Dunne, an architecture panelist for Golfweek, says Wisconsin offers golfers a little bit of everything. “Golfers like variety, and Wisconsin has that in a relatively compact area.”
In the latest Golf Digest rankings of America’s top 100 public courses, 10 of them are in the Badger State. And nine of those are fewer than three hours from the Milwaukee airport. If you wanted to try to hit all nine, the road trip would barely register 500 miles.
Golf is big business now in Wisconsin. In 2017, the U.S. Open at Erin Hills brought an economic impact of $130 million, according to Visit Milwaukee, the city’s tourism nonprofit. For next year’s 2020 Ryder Cup, to be held at Destination Kohler’s Whistling Straits course, the agency expects a slight uptick of $135 million in impact. Last year alone, Wisconsin tourism brought in $21.6 billion of economic impact, bolstered, no doubt, by the more than 40,000 visitors to Sheboygan County alone, home of Destination Kohler.
Here, we’ve plotted a route that, from Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport, travels counterclockwise for the best golf courses Wisconsin has to offer. Start with Erin Hills, and then peel off and hit one of the great college towns in this country, Madison, after playing the University Ridge Golf Course — also home to the PGA Tour Champions’ circuit American Family Life Insurance tournament later this month.
Then hit up the shiniest new jewel in Wisconsin’s golfing cache, Sand Valley Resort, now in its third year of operation. Last year, the club hosted visitors from all 50 states and 20 countries. And end it at Kohler, “one of the great resorts in America,” Dunne says.
This long course measures out from its tips at over 7,700 yards; if the wind is blowing, it will play even longer. You might expect such a course’s best hole to be a par 5, but its collection of par 3s may be among the worthiest aspects to mention. The standout is the 9th, which slopes from right to left — a mirror image of a Redan hole — and is heavily guarded by bunkers that fall off the green. The walk at Erin Hills is marked by tall, wispy grass and shaggy, rough-hewn bunkers. Hope for little wind and keep in mind that August and September are the busiest times at Erin Hills. To be safe, look at the course’s online calendar six months in advance of your trip when planning. On-site lodging is available — and may be necessary after you complete your round. Walking is required at Erin Hills.
Greens fees: $295 in season
Distance from airport: 43 miles (50 minutes)
If you decide to head to Madison, the home course for the University of Wisconsin’s men’s and women’s golf teams doesn’t disappoint. Designed in 1991 by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course features an open front nine that then winds through the woods. The course’s signature hole is the brawny, par-5 16th that gives golfers an option of playing it safe off the tee or flirting with disaster to reach the green in two shots. For those that take aim at the green, the hole has been nicknamed “Bunkered” for the numerous sand traps that wait to catch a misplaced second shot. Proceed with caution.
Course rates: $50 (regular); $69 (with cart)
Distance from airport: 96 miles (1 hour, 40 minutes)
The Links Course at Lawsonia
There are two courses at Lawsonia, and both are great fun. The links course is preferred by architecture buffs. “It is by far the best value in the state,” says architect Jay Blasi, a Wisconsin native. It has deep bunkers, wide fairways, and a fantastic set of putting greens. Even better, it remains virtually unchanged from the day its architects, Bill Langford and Ted Moreau, finished construction in 1930.
Green fees: $60 (weekdays); $95 (weekends)
Distance from airport: 104 miles (1 hour, 46 minutes)
Laid out on the remnants of a prehistoric glacial lake, Sand Valley possesses the perfect type of soil, which golf course developers and architects will seek to the ends of the earth. This explains how the resort came to land in the tiny town of Rome. The understated namesake is a nice contrast to the visually arresting Mammoth Dunes course which offers much wider playing corridors and very little trouble off the tee. The par 3 course, dubbed the Sandbox, is 17 holes of inventive short shots that reimagines what the “executive” course should look and play like. Plan on staying at least one night.
Greens fees: Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes both $215 (in season); the Sandbox is $65. Replay rates 50% off posted rate.
Room rates in high season: from $325
Distance from airport: 174 miles (2 hours, 39 minutes)
SentryWorld Golf Course
Architect Jay Blasi, working for the firm of Robert Trent Jones II, helped reshape this staple of Wisconsin golf. The resort shut down for two full playing seasons during a renovation to attract more discerning golfers, but when the course returned with a refreshed look and higher rates, it did just that. Known for its “flower hole,” which features 33,000 flowers around the green, SentryWorld is more than just a pollinator. It’s a unique test and a great way to spend 18 or 36 holes.
Greens fees: $155
Distance from airport: 162 miles ( 2 hours, 30 minutes)
A sound argument can be made that Destination Kohler invented the whole idea of luxury golf lodging when it renovated its old dormitory into the American Club and a five-star hotel. It remains one of only four hotels in the world to maintain an AAA five-diamond rating for 38 years. Along with Kohler’s American Resort, there is world-class golf, with all four of Kohler’s courses ranking among the finest in the country. Before Whistling Straits came onto the scene, golfers clamored to play Blackwolf Run, designed by legendary golf course architect Pete Dye in 1988. He later constructed the Meadows Valley course nearby, a bit farther from the Sheboygan River. The Irish course is the fourth Kohler course, each built by Dye, among the nation’s top 100 public courses. Yet it’s Whistling Straits, with transfixing views of Lake Michigan, that has become king of the Kohler golf family. It will host the 2020 Ryder Cup and has hosted the 2004, 2010, and 2015 PGA Championships. Plan on staying as long as your wallet allows.
Greens fees: Call the resort (855-444-2838) for all pricing information.
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