Wisconsin is second only to California in Top 100 rated public golf courses, like Sentrywolrd, … [+]
Katherine Berdan Wolden (Sentry Insurance)
For 20-plus years I have been writing about golf travel for dozens of outlets, from Golf Magazine and LINKS to in-flight airline magazines, national newspaper like USA Today and Investor’s Business Daily, and of course Forbes. I have played the very best courses of Ireland, Scotland, Australia, South Africa, Continental Europe, Mexico and many other far flung or exotic locales.
But when I recently stopped to crunch the numbers, I found one of the world’s best golf road trip destinations much closer to home. In Wisconsin.
After some up and down years that included numerous course closures and public participation drops, golf came roaring back and has enjoyed a huge revival since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially it appealed to those seeking activity outside and camaraderie with inherent social distancing, and many courses, resorts and golf destinations had record years in 2020.
That trend is continuing as vaccinations ramp up and travel rebounds, and golf travel is extremely strong in 2021, with many places on track for another record-breaking year. But a parallel trend that came out strong from the pandemic is the road trip, with many people preferring to control their own destiny by getting behind the wheel while minimizing long flights.
Wisconsin’s most famous course is the links-style Straits at Whistling Straits in Kohler, the 2021 … [+]
That’s Part One of Wisconsin’s magic appeal. It is centrally located with its main golf gateway airports, especially Chicago, Milwaukee and to a lesser degree Madison, accessible via non-stop flights of three hours or less from just about every part of the country, including smaller regional airports. That’s what I did, hopped an easy two hour shot from my local uncrowded, user friendly airport to O’Hare, and was at one of the world’s most coveted golf resorts, Destination Kohler, less than 2 hours later. But the Midwestern location also puts it within driving distance of many American golfers with no flights at all, and the Wisconsin golf circuit is a great road trip unto itself once you arrive, with far more than just famous Kohler.
In fact, the golf offerings here exceed just about every other place this size you can go in the country, and the only State that can claim more top courses is extremely spread-out California (back up for that claim shortly). So, Part One is that Wisconsin is an easy place to get to and get around, but the bigger, more important Part Two is that it is home to a virtually unrivaled collection of amazing destination-worthy courses in a small area, similar to the epic destinations like Northwestern Ireland or the Scottish Highlands. As an added bonus, Part Three is a better value proposition than other places with such highly rated courses, though there are very, very few of those. Wisconsin also has the only Forbes 5-Star golf lodging in the Midwest.
When I said I crunched the numbers, I meant that very literally. There have been so many new courses of high repute built in recent years that many regular golfers, those who are not slaves to architecture fashion and followers of devotee sites like Golf Club Atlas, have never even heard of them. At the same time, the public has always been overly driven by the ratings of the various golf publications, and that’s still the case, but these have become a more important barometer, or at least baseline, for identifying high quality courses that might otherwise elude your travels. There are lots of foibles with these rankings and many Top 100 courses should not be in the Top 100 at all, but at least they generally aren’t awful and it’s a good way to start your travel research or pre-qualify places.
With 2 links-style courses ranked in the nation’s Top 30 and caddies, Sand Valley may be the best … [+]
So, I took out my calculator and went through the most recent public Top 100 lists of Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, and Golfweek. They vary, but to give you an idea, on the most important list, Golf Digest’s, only California has more Top 100 rated offerings than Wisconsin, a state that is a fraction of the size and population of the West Coast behemoth. Wisconsin is not just in second place; it blows away most competition. Certain places immediately spring to mind when we talk golf travel, destinations like the Carolinas, Hawaii, and Florida, but ratings-wise, Wisconsin crushes all of these. It even outdoes Oregon, which has a staggering five Top 100 course at a single resort, more than any other in the world.
When you do the math, Wisconsin’s golf travel prominence is nothing short of staggering. Consider:
According to Golf Digest, Wisconsin is home to two of the Top 10 ranked courses you can play in this country and four of the Top 20, fully 20% of each. All in all, Wisconsin has seven of the Top 50 and ten of the Top 100 courses in the nation, more than Florida, Arizona, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia or Hawaii.
In Golfweek’s new 2021 list, Wisconsin has six Top 50s and nine in the Top 100. In contrast, legendary golf destination Arizona had no Top 50 course, and three in Top 100.
Golf Magazine also just released its 2021-2022 Top 100 You Can Play, and Wisconsin had more Top 50 courses (six) than any other state – including California. Even after accounting for golf hotbeds like Cabo San Lucas and Nova Scotia, Wisconsin beat all of Mexico and Canada – combined!
The star on all the lists is Golf Digest’s Number Three pick, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, in turn part of Destination Kohler. The Straits has hosted the PGA Championship three times, making it one of a small number of public Major venues you can play, and will be home to this year’s Ryder Cup. Golf Digest ranks it ahead of powerhouses such as Pinehurst Number Two and Bandon Dunes. All the big guns agree with Golfweek ranking it 5th and Golf Magazine 11th. But it’s not just Kohler – both relatively new courses at Sand Valley debuted in the Top 30, and Wisconsin is home to anther public Major venue, Erin Hills outside Milwaukee, which hosted the 2017 US Open.
You cannot reasonably do all the courses in one road trip, but you can mix and match based on where you fly to or which course or resort you pick as your anchor. For instance, Erin Hills is easily combined with Kohler, while Sand Valley is closest to the Madison airport and University Ridge, another Top 100, and there are multiple significant golf resorts around Lake Geneva. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
Final hole on Straits course and the Whistling Straits clubhouse at Destination Kohler.
Destination Kohler: This is Wisconsin’s crown jewel, and in addition to golf the sprawling resort includes the American Club, the Midwest’s only Forbes 5-Star luxury golf hotel, plus two other lodging options at lower price points. There are numerous restaurants, bars, activities from shooting to yoga, and one of the very best resort fitness centers and workout programs in the country. Being part of global plumbing giant Kohler, it also has a world class spa. But for golfers the highlights are its two 36-hole facilities, Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan (Straits and Irish courses) and Blackwolf Run (River and Meadows Valleys) in Kohler proper, which has hosted the Women’s US Open. All four courses are Pete Dye designs ranked in Golf Digest’s Top 60 with the Straits at Number Three. The Straits is walking-only and Kohler has a robust caddie program, with caddies and forecaddies available on any of its courses. Most visitors would choose Blackwolf Run River as their second round, ranked 15th by Golf Digest. Destination Kohler also just opened an all new 10-hole short course, the Baths at Blackwolf Run, with an accompanying 2-acre natural grass putting course.
No matter how much golf you’ve played, there is a good chance you haven’t seen anything like … [+]
Sand Valley: I loved Sand Valley, a little-known resort that has the best one-two punch of any resort I have visited in Wisconsin, and rivaling pretty much anyplace else. While there have been a lot of retro-British Isles links inspired courses built around the world in recent years, few are as evocative of places like St Andrews as Mammoth Dunes here, and both were immediately ranked in the Top 30. My take is that Mammoth Dunes is awesome and Sand Valley really good. I also loved the low-key resort, exuding Midwest hospitality, and while the greens fees are not cheap, they are cheaper than most courses these good in other places, the casual food and drink is the best value I have ever seen in golf and even the high-end dining is both reasonable and excellent. If you are tired of being nickel-and-dimed by upscale resorts, you will love Sand Valley. The resort also has a short course and putting course and will soon have a third eighteen option for guests. Sand Valley is also walking-only with caddies available, the way golf was meant to be played. I just wrote a lengthy detailed feature about Sand Valley and why it may be the best resort many golfers have never heard of.
It’s about a three-hour drive between them. but if you combine Kohler and Sand Valley you have six Top 60 courses under two excellent resort roofs and a week of golf that is epic by any standards.
Erin Hills: Another links inspired Golf Digest Top 10 walking course with caddies offered, Erin Hills is very close to Milwaukee, easy from Kohler, and has a limited amount of on-course lodging, all with a faux Irish aesthetic. It has a bit of commercial golf factory feel to it, including shockingly high caddie rates, and is not as stunning as its resort neighbors above, but it is hard not to include as a US Open venue easily combined with many other Wisconsin course. I think Golfweek’s 32 is more accurate than Golf Digest’s nine, but either is still very elite.
Lawsonia: This resort has two courses, one of which, the Links, is rated in the Top 25 by Golfweek and Top 60 by Golf Digest. Built in 1930 it is the classic in this group, and with greens fees at both course under $100 (often well under) in mid-summer high season, it is a tremendous value. A limited amount of stay and play lodging makes Lawsonia an even bigger bargain.
Hole 12 at Sentryworld
Katherine Berdan Wolden (Sentry Insurance)
Sentryworld: This course flip flops the rating imbalance of Lawsonia, with Golf Digest putting it Top 50 (44th) and Golfweek sneaking it in at 100. But either way is the famous flowerbeds, used as elaborate and beautiful hazards, that are the signature. Sentryworld also has the distinction of being the first course to ever receive Golf Digest’s “Bets New Course” award in 1984. The course will host the 2023 Senior US Open, and Sentryworld has very reasonable green fees and an onsite boutique hotel. Having been built in 1982, it bills itself as Wisconsin’s first destination golf course.
Lake Geneva: This is an extremely popular tourism destination, thanks to ample watersports, excellent sailing, and full-service family friendly resorts. While the courses don’t crack the Top 100 lists, there are a lot of them in a very concise area with excellent touristic infrastructure.
Geneva National is a lakefront community with three eighteens, each by a famous player/designer, including Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and a rarity from Lee Trevino. An especially good option for foursome and buddy trips, Geneva National is a semi-private residential facility with a lot of members, more of a country club than resort feel, and a lot of the lodging is in the form of multi-bedroom cottages with attractive stay and play packages. Conversely, nearby Grand Geneva is a big hotel with the feel of Las Vegas-style mega-resort – minus the gaming – with two solid golf courses, the Brute and Highlands. It is very easy to stay a week in the area and get in five different rounds and plenty of watersports, dining and other activities. I was especially impressed food-wise with the smokehouse BBQ at Geneva National and the high-end steakhouse at Grand Geneva.
Others: Troy Burne is a public layout by Tom Lehman, Dana Fry and Michael Hurdzan which Golf Digest ranks 69th in the U.S., while University Ridge in Madison, easily combined with Sand Valley, is on Golfweek’s list at 84. The course has hosted numerous NCAA competitions, PGA Tour Champions events, and is on all the lists of best college courses.