Municipal golf -- the phrase conjures images of bare-dirt tee boxes, dandelions, unrepaired ball marks and a grumpy starter. Yet Torrey Pines is a municipal course. So are Chambers Bay and Bethpage Black. They’ve hosted U.S. Opens.
Muny golf can be good. Meet Milwaukee, America’s best municipal-golf operation.
Milwaukee County’s Parks System operates 15 golf courses, including Brown Deer Park, which hosted a PGA Tour stop – the late, great Greater Milwaukee Open – from 1994 to 2009.
I rate Milwaukee No. 1 because it’s got quantity and quality. Few cities can challenge Milwaukee in either category. So, here’s a tip of the hat to some of the other contenders such as Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Nashville, but seriously: they’re the B Flight.
“No other city has anything close to this,” said Chuck Garbedian, a Wisconsinite and avid golfer who hosts a weekly golf-talk radio show in Milwaukee. “I’m not counting the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, where you have to travel a hundred miles to the next course. Milwaukee County is impressive, plus the quality of golf at all the courses is pretty good.”
Ten of Milwaukee County’s tracks offer 18 holes. Seven are full-sized courses. The other eight are a potpourri of executive, par-3 and pitch-and-putt courses. They have 225 holes of ideal blueprint, a mix of short courses for beginners, easier full-size tracks for medium skill levels and a handful of championship-worthy tests to challenge the county’s best sticks.
“I’ve always heard how many courses San Diego has and how good they are,” said Tom Tomczak, a native of West Allis, Wisconsin, who a videographer and producer for the PGA Tour. “Their gem, Torrey Pines, isn’t as good tournament week as Whitnall Park is on an average Tuesday. The first time I saw Torrey Pines, I thought, This is it? The views are better, but that was about it.”
Milwaukee County courses did 283,000 rounds in 2016 and brought in almost $7 million in green fees, a figure that includes golf carts and merchandise but not food and beverage sales, which fall under a separate parks department heading. The entire Milwaukee Country Parks System, which includes the Mitchell Park Domes botanical gardens; hiking, biking and skiing trails; playing fields for almost every sport; natural areas and more, ranks with the country’s finest.
“I’m not aware of any other municipality that has anything near what Milwaukee does,” said Chet Hendrickson, Milwaukee County Parks’ golf services manager. “People who are born and raised here may not know how unique our arrangement is, but people from out of town come here and go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I can play 15 golf courses for these prices.’ All of our courses are managed and maintained by Milwaukee County, too.”
Local politicians have managed not to screw up a good thing over the years. Improvements keep coming. Greenfield, a shortish par-69 track west of downtown, just underwent a $2 million renovation. Cart paths were added at Oakwood and at Brown Deer, the crown jewel, a brew pub is planned for the patio that overlooks the ninth green in hopes of attracting customers who aren’t there to play golf.
“Most people on the county board are pro-golf,” Hendrickson said. “We’ve gotten great support from our elected officials.”
The golf is good and inexpensive. Some examples: Weekday greens fees run from $7 for the par-3 courses ($5 for seniors or juniors 17 and under); $15 for an 18-hole round at the two executive courses (Hansen, Warnimont); $34 for the three championship courses (Dretzka, Oakwood, Whitnall), $26 with a county discount card; $74 for Brown Deer, $40 with a county discount card ($17 a year for residents, $50 for non-residents)
If you’re going to Wisconsin, Milwaukee County golf is worth checking out between beers and Brewers games. If you’re a golfer who already lives in Milwaukee, you’re a lucky dog.
MILWAUKEE COUNTY PARKS SYSTEM (15 courses)
Location: Milwaukee, Wis.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.