Wisconsin’s Top Private Golf Club: Milwaukee vs Pine Hills

Note: If you’re bored/annoyed by the first section of this post, please feel free to skip to the 2nd section that begins near the teal-highlighted call-out

As I wrote about in my previous post, this is an exciting time for the 92-year-old Pine Hills Country Club, and I think the club and Drew Rogers’ upcoming renovation work, combined with some potential national media play during the now 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits is going to help skyrocket the course’s image nationally.

How it’s stayed as low-key as it has – even in the state – for so long is a mystery to me.

That Pine Hills doesn’t appear in any of the state rankings amazes me, though I think recently it’s because the course hasn’t been rated often enough. That will change soon, I’m sure, too.

I’m not saying the major publications’ rankings are the Bible on golf courses, nor am I saying Pine Hills should care. What I am saying is I think it’s as good of a private member golf course as there is in Wisconsin.

Keep in mind, in the following current “major rankings,” that Pine Hills does not qualify for public courses. I’m including them to provide a transferable framework for where they could/should fit in.

In this first list (Golf Digest’s top 10 overall courses in the state), for example, I think Pine Hills post-renovation has potential to reach the top 3-5. It belongs in the top 7 already, if you ask me.

Golf Digest’s 2019-2020 Top 10 Courses in Wisconsin (2019):
* Public & Private
1. Whistling Straits, Straits course
2. Erin Hills
3. Milwaukee Country Club
4. Blackwolf Run, River course
5. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course
6. Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes course
7. Whistling Straits, Irish course
8. SentryWorld
9. Blue Mound Golf & Country Club
10. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys course

Here’s how those figures translate nationally:

Golf Digest’s 2019-2020 Top 100 Public Courses, Wisconsin (2019):
* Public Only
3. Whistling Straits, Straits course
9. Erin Hills
15. Blackwolf Run, River course
18. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course
27. Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes course
43. Whistling Straits, Irish course
44. SentryWorld
57. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys
58. Lawsonia, Links course
69. Troy Burne

Golf Digest’s Top 100 Golf Courses, Wisconsin (2019-2020):
* Public & Private
21. Whistling Straits, Straits course
42. Erin Hills
74. Milwaukee Country Club
97. Blackwolf Run, River course

Next is a public ranking by GolfWeek. As it stands, I think Pine Hills belongs a little before the Irish course, SentryWorld (which is tremendous, although closed for the 2020 season), the Meadow Valleys course and U-Ridge.

As a private club, Pine Hills does not qualify for this list, but it’s relevant for comparative purposes.

Aside: How can anyone put Erin Hills as the #6 public course in the state? I understand rankings are based on opinion, but it feels like a miss.

GolfWeek Best Courses You Can Play in Wisconsin (2019):
* Public Only
1. Whistling Straits, Straits course
2. Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes course
3. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course
4. Lawsonia, Links course
5. Blackwolf Run, River course
6. Erin Hills
7. Whistling Straits, Irish course
8. SentryWorld
9. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valley course
10. University Ridge
11. Troy Burne
12. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms
13. Geneva National, Player course
14. Wild Rock
15. Big Fish

This next list is an interesting one: If Milwaukee’s #49, the Links course at Lawsonia is #62 and Blue Mound is #148, Pine Hills should really be included.

GolfWeek Top 200 Classic Courses, Wisconsin (2019):
* Public & Private
49. Milwaukee Country Club
62. Lawsonia, Links course
148. Blue Mound Golf & Country Club

Here’s another interesting one… Like I said, I think Pine Hills should be #2 here, and that it could potentially get to #1 with some smart, subtle changes during their upcoming renovations. Blue Mound’s awesome, but I personally give PHCC an edge and put Blue Mound at #3.

I should mention I haven’t played Oneida or Green Bay. I hear great things about both but can’t imagine either challenges MCC, Pine Hills or Blue Mound for the top 3.

West Bend is fantastic, too, by the way.

GolfWeek Top Private Courses by State, Wisconsin (2019):
* Private Only
1. Milwaukee Country Club
2. Blue Mound Golf & Country Club
3. Oneida Golf & Country Club
4. Green Bay Country Club
5. West Bend Country Club

Golf.com hasn’t published a top 100 national list since 2018, but I think Pine Hills has the opportunity to break on to theirs’, potentially alongside or slightly ahead of the River course at Blackwolf Run.

Golf.com Top 100 Courses in the US, Wisconsin (2017-2018):
* Public & Private
28. Whistling Straits, Straits course
52. Sand Valley, Sand Valley course
74. Erin Hills
84. Milwaukee Country Club
100. Blackwolf Run, River course

I like a listing that has the Links course at Lawsonia (one of my favorite places in the world) as a top 150 course in the world, but it’s tough to get behind.

Golf.com Top 100 Courses in the World, Wisconsin (2020-2021):
* Public & Private
69. Whistling Straits, Straits course

* Lawsonia, Links course (World next 50)
* Sand Valley, Sand Valley (World next 50)

As you can see, there are spaces on all these [not public only] lists where a previously anonymous course can potentially fit in.

I think the time is right for Pine Hills to invest in their club and course (which they are), and afterwards I think we’ll start seeing “Pine Hills CC, Sheboygan WI” in a lot of lists going forward.

PART# 2: Comparing the state’s 2 best private clubs

So, how does Pine Hills compare now to the perennially top-ranked private golf course in Wisconsin, Milwaukee CC?

Keep in mind, this is all my personal opinion. All rankings and ratings within golf are, and I understand that my preferences for golf courses are not everyone else’s. They’re certainly not the same as the major publications’.

Milwaukee Country Club has always been the incumbent. No other private course in Wisconsin has probably ever even been considered.

Currently ranked by Golf Digest as the #74 course in the country (link), Milwaukee oozes rich heritage and tradition, features terrific golf holes both on the Milwaukee River and inland, and was recently updated by Tom Doak and his team in 2015.

It’s a hallowed ground that’s challenging to get on, and the anticipation of a round at Milwaukee Country Club can bring about butterflies, or anxiety in even the biggest golf enthusiast.

Yet, does its exclusivity make it the unquestioned number one private golf course in the state?

When considering course design and customer experience, I have a hard time saying it’s better than Pine Hills. I also have a hard time saying it’s not. I waffle between the two enough that I might as well call them 1-A and 1-B.

There are no losers here. It’s rare air. Some people who read this will say I’m an idiot for comparing the two at all – Milwaukee is clearly the best because it’s such an honor to play it, and its incredible heritage makes it better. Oh, and because CH Alison was a historically significant golf course architect while it’s hard to find much about Pine Hills’ designer, Harry Smead.

As an aside, I’m told Smead worked with or was a protege of Langford & Moreau’s. There are a lot of similarities between Langford & Moreau’s design and aesthetics and those of Pine Hills, especially in the green complexes, use of mounding and structuring of bunkers.

Here is how I compare the two clubs by key category:

Conditions: Milwaukee

Both courses are magnificently maintained, but green complexes like the 9th with their closely shorn green surrounds are so compelling that I’m sending the nod to MCC.

Par 3’s: Pine Hills

Pine Hills might have the most memorable set of par threes in the entire state of Wisconsin, and despite a quality set at Milwaukee wins this category easily.

My favorite par 3’s at Pine Hills:
1. 9th (170/145/135/114) – this is how I picture golf at Augusta
2. 5th (195/182/175/165) – uphill par 3 with a massive, tiered green
3. 14th (134/123/114/114) – I love a great short par 3
4. 7th (208/172/155/125) – the long downhill par 3 with amazing views
5. 16th (148/141/126/122) – uphill shot with a tough green

Par 4’s: Pine Hills

Along with a handful of great, incredibly memorable par fours, Pine Hills’ overall collection is solid. Stalwarts among those truly memorable holes are the 8th, 10th, 13th and 17th.

Par 5’s: Milwaukee

Neither course’s par fives are their biggest strength, but Pine Hills’ three-shot holes are more legitimate. The one that does not fit that mold is the 12th, which is the second in a set of back-to-back par fives that play in opposite directions.

While the 12th measures just 458 yards from the tips and 450 from the first tees in, its dramatically rolling fairway makes for a challenging [and oftentimes blind] approach shot to a heavily guarded green to get home in two.

While the 10th at Milwaukee is a gorgeous golf hole, and an incredible photo opportunity with the Milwaukee River as a backdrop, it and the 7th are both better played as long fours (as they are for the Wisconsin State Amateur) for scratch players. A more normal player like myself (8-10 handicap) still finds plenty of challenge in them.

Based purely on memorability, the edge here goes to Milwaukee.

The beautiful par five 10th at Milwaukee CC

Closing holes: Milwaukee

The 9th and 18th at Milwaukee might be its two best holes. The 9th is all-world, with an elevated tee shot heading straight toward the clubhouse.

Similarly, the 18th finishes outside the clubhouse and features an outstanding, back-to-front green complex.

Course Layout & Use of the Land: Pine Hills

Pine Hills is dramatic. There are very few level shots, whether off the tee or when approaching its greens. Milwaukee has some elevated tee boxes and greens, but nowhere near the ups and downs.

Both courses use the rivers that go through them well: The Pigeon River winds through the 7th, 8th, 10th and 17th at Pine Hills, and the Milwaukee River bisects or provides a border for the 10th thru 15th holes at MCC.

Bunkering: Milwaukee

Pine Hills’ dramatic land use and highly contoured greens barely require bunkering, and use of sand is nowhere near as prominent as it is at Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s bunkering is beautiful. Players need only to look at the magnificent par three 8th, par four 11th and the recently updated par five 3rd as prime examples.

Greens: Pine Hills

Milwaukee’s greens are great, but Pine Hills’ greens are amazing. Pine Hills’ green complexes are just more interesting to me, and with much more break.

Take the par three 5th hole. This is a long, uphill shot that feels attainable because the green is so massive in size. Get up there, though, and the green surface is ribboned like the waves of nearby Lake Michigan.

The large, wild green on the par three 5th at Pine Hills

Clubhouse & Amenities: Milwaukee

Milwaukee has one of the most memorable clubhouses I’ve ever seen. While the men’s locker room facility is in the style of an old German beer hall, the principal dining and social areas are stately and well-appointed. I attend several annual events there and their food and beverage service is fantastic.

Pine Hills’ food and beverage is outstanding, too, but the edge – by an edge – goes to Milwaukee mostly based on uniqueness.

Milwaukee Country Club’s plantation-style clubhouse


That I go back and forth between Milwaukee and Pine Hills says it all. Both courses are beautiful and feature tremendous Golden Age design and aesthetics.

If I could help it, I would never turn down the opportunity to play either of them, and both are shining examples of our state’s best golf.

I’m not saying Pine Hills should be ranked the number one private course in Wisconsin, but it should absolutely be considered and I hope it starts seeing a lot of positive pub in the years to come.

I’m expecting a few “you’re crazies” and would love to hear others’ thoughts, so please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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One thought on “Wisconsin’s Top Private Golf Club: Milwaukee vs Pine Hills

  1. I loved your comparisons. The greens at MCC are mostly flat. Pine Hills are almost undulating and tough to read. The condition of MCC over the past few years I believe was subpar compared to other private clubs in the area. Slow greens, attention to detail lacking, and fairways with lots of thatch. Now why is Ozaukee CC not mentioned in this comparison. A Langford Moreau course built in 1922. perfect condition and greens that are challenging and a 6,800 yard par 70 is all the golf course one needs for all players and all calibers. But I believe Pine HIlls should rank above MCC as just a golf course day in and day out. MCC Clubhouse, locker room, ambiance, is awesome. Pine HIlls has been a hidden secret for many years but those that have had a chance to play it would rank it above MCC as a golf course every time. no question about it. You just can’t get on MCC to compare. But I still would like to see Ozaukee in the mix for overall golf experience compared to all the other clubs. Maybe the panel that ranks these golf courses should be someone other than media people, like great amateurs or PGA Professionals in the area. Just a thought.

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