Mention Peninsula State Park Golf Course is a hidden Wisconsin gem to Midwesterners
EPHRAIM, Wis. — Mention Peninsula State Park Golf Course to the many Midwesterners who have enjoyed this Wisconsin gem and the responses typically go like this:
“Is that the course with the really short little cliff-hole par-3? I love that course.”
Or this: “Do they still have the best brats on the planet when you make the turn? I love that course.”
The answers to both those questions are yes and yes.
Everyone remembers the 69-yard eighth hole, which goes straight down over a cliff. It’s just a little chip shot, but anything from driver to putter can be hit on that hole. Try it sometime; it’s pretty fun. A wedge, or course, makes the most sense.
Don’t be deceived, though.
Peninsula, 70 miles northeast of the city of Green Bay, has plenty of places that favor long hitters. Like the ninth hole, a dogleg left around a grove of trees and the memorial pole, which honors Chief Simon Onanguisse Kahquados, the last chief of the Potawatomi Nation. The chief, who died in 1930, is buried just north of the pole.
The memorial pole, first erected in 1927, has undergone several restorations. But the harsh weather in northeastern Wisconsin continues to take its toll and plans for a new memorial are under discussion.
“We met with a couple of representatives from the tribe over the winter,” Peninsula golf course manager Jason Daubner said. “We are talking about doing something with the memorial pole. It may not be a memorial pole. They don’t do that. That was the white man. They’re interested in something [different] to honor their chief.”
The first three holes of the back nine might be the most quintessential golf stretch in Door County, the Midwest’s answer to Cape Cod. Each is a dogleg with severe elevation changes — and jaw-dropping views. On these holes, a camera is as essential as any club in your bag.
From the 12th green there is a panoramic view of the 171-yard 17th hole, which is a toboggan run in the winter, and the pristine waters of Green Bay.
These are the holes that elevate Peninsula to cult status.
“Peninsula is and always will be my favorite golf course,” said Joe Falk, a 30-year-old Chicago attorney who grew up in Madison, Wis. “It was the first course where I ever played 18 holes. I remember shooting 140 there when I was 8 or 9 years old and being so proud of the accomplishment. When I was a little kid I would have trouble sleeping the night before rounds there because I was so excited. My favorite view was always when walking up to the green on No. 12, and looking out over the 17th green at the lake. It took my breath away as a kid — and that hasn’t changed much over time.”
Another favorite view comes at the 17th tee, which provides a great vista of Ephraim and its harbor. Among the vintage hotels and inns is the red-and-white awning of Wilson’s ice cream shop, one of the most iconic buildings in Door County.
A new tradition at Peninsula is the addition of a six-hole par-3 Short Course, which opened in 2014 across State Highway 42 from the first green. The Short Course, funded entirely by private donations, was a $650,000 project that was aided by a $150,000 starter grant from the Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation.
During the height of summer, it’s common to see three generations of families learning and practicing on the Short Course, whose holes are loosely based on six classic par-3s. Look closely and there is a version of No. 12 at Augusta National Golf Club, minus Rae’s Creek, and other fabled holes.
The best time to play at Peninsula is generally in October, when the fall colors are putting on their show.
“It’s magical. That’s the best way to explain it,” Daubner said.
Fall colors and fascinating hilly terrain aren’t the only reasons Peninsula is beloved.
“I would say it’s all about tradition,” Daubner said. “For people who vacation in Door County, Pensinula State Park Golf Course has been a tradition for generations of families.”
Peninsula has undergone many changes since it opened as a six-hole layout in 1917, expanded to nine holes in 1923 and a full 18 in 1931. Things settled down in the early 1980s, when the state’s Department of Natural Resources agreed to a lease arrangement with a local group, the Peninsula Golf Association, which still oversees the operation today.
As a nonprofit, the PGA puts all of its surplus revenue back into the course, and it shows. Everything is done right. The brats grilled fresh at the turn are as popular as the views. The snack bar in the clubhouse attracts non-golfers for its hearty breakfasts and lunches.
And the conditioning of the course is superb. A few years ago, Peninsula even began stamping its logo into bunkers, the way swanky hotels put their logo in ashtrays.
“We abandoned that,” Daubner said with a chuckle. “It got to be a bit too labor-intensive.”
While the steep-dropping 17th hole is adored by many, this par-3 green also is a bit controversial. Not everyone appreciates the steeply sloping putting surface, which breeds three-putts.
Not every hole is a goat-hills adventure, though. Half the holes at Peninsula are serene and flat. And while there are a couple of tight spots through the North Woods trees, many holes are accommodating to off-the-mark shots.
It’s the terrain holes that keep people coming back, though. And the bratwurst at the turn.