Wisconsin is one of my favorite golf states.
Correction, it is my most favorite golf state. I’m biased, of course, because I lived there for two decades and covered golf (and other things) for The Milwaukee Journal in the 1980s. But it’s a fact that the quantity and quality of golf in the Badger State is exceptional.
Because this is Wisconsin’s Year of Golf – the state hosts the men’s U.S. Open for the first time – here’s my list of its best courses.
The official No. 1 spot is retired with Milwaukee Country Club, a classic, exquisitely manicured and super-exclusive retreat that reeks of Pine Valley or Augusta National, and like those two tracks, you’ll probably never get invited on.
Of the courses you can play, here’s my fab five:
1. Whistling Straits. It hangs like a painting on the bluffs of Lake Michigan. Step one: Take a picture. Step two: Play it. “The vistas are beautiful,” says Chuck Garbedian, who hosts a weekly golf-talk radio show in the Milwaukee area and is an avid player himself, and a pretty good one. “It’s the Pebble Beach of Wisconsin. There’s nothing else like it in the Midwest.”
The Straits has held three PGA Championships, a U.S. Senior Open and has a Ryder Cup in the on-deck circle (2020). I think it is Pete Dye’s greatest creation, because he finger-painted the whole property out of dead-flat farmland. The course is difficult, at times to the point of overkill – a Dye trademark – but stand on a green, look down at the bluff and deep-blue lake below and you can’t help but think, “Wow, this is special.”
2. Sand Valley. Sand what? It’s new, having opened in May. If you can imagine Bandon Dunes in remote north-central Wisconsin (tiny Rome, Wis.), without the ocean, you’ve got the idea. Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore designed it for owner Mike Keiser, the man who founded Bandon Dunes. “Erin Hills and Whistling Straits are bucket-list places; you have to play them,” Garbedian said. “Sand Valley is walkable, it’s playable and when you finish it, you want to play it again. It’s two hours away, and I’ve already played it eight times.”
3. Erin Hills. If this year’s U.S. Open is a hit, Erin Hills could become the USGA’s go-to spot for championship golf in the Midwest. The property is wildly rolling terrain left behind by retreating glaciers. It’s a challenging walk – sorry, but no carts on the fragile fescue fairways – on a big, sprawling piece of land. It starts and finishes with par 5s. At 18, golfers must navigate an array of fairway bunkers toward a green framed by the haunting edifice of Holy Hill, a Roman Catholic cathedral and national shrine on high ground a few miles away.
4. Naga-Waukee Park. You won’t find “The Nag,” as locals call it, on many “best” lists because it’s a Waukesha County muny course, but it features at least five holes that you’ll be talking about a week later. The 14th is a downhill par 5 with an elevated tee box that overlooks Pewaukee Lake and dares you to get home in two. There are a couple of squirrelly holes – the blind par-4 10th, the hairpin-turn 11th and the oh-my-God uphill par-4 15th. There’s also an antique cannon by the clubhouse, so stay alert. If you’re in the area, say for Erin Hills, The Nag is a must-play.
5. Geneva National (Gary Player Course). The Geneva National Resort has 54 sweet holes, but the Player Course overlooking Lake Como is more fun than the other two layouts, designed by Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. It’s challenging, though, and if you go 18 holes without hitting a sand shot, you’ve played some golf.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Brown Deer Park hosted the late, great Greater Milwaukee Open… Lawsonia Links, in Green Lake in central Wisconsin, has a unique look with elevated greens… Brown County in Oneida is another above-average muny… Blackwolf Run’s two courses — The River and The Meadow Valleys — in Kohler are spectacular but also spectacularly difficult, which hurts the pace of play… SentryWorld is a nice parkland track in Stevens Point known for its scenic par-3, 16th hole, which is surrounded by a kajillion flowers that are changed on a yearly basis.
BROWN DEER PARK GOLF COURSE
Location: Milwaukee, Wis.
THE GOLF COURSES OF LAWSONIA (Links Course)
Location: Green Lake, Wis.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.