The State of the Game of Golf in Wisconsin

I’m playing golf again tomorrow morning with one of the country’s top golf course photographers and content creators, and “America’s #1 Golf Intern,” Patrick Koenig, with my friend, Gregg, at Kenosha Country Club. Patrick and I will be playing his last two rounds of golf while in Wisconsin together there and then at North Hills on Saturday morning, capping off what will be his 75th different course in Wisconsin since July 15.

75 different courses in 52 days. Let that soak in a moment.

Through unbearably hot weather and summer storms, rain and that horrible plague of mosquitoes we had the past few weeks, Patrick was somewhere new every day – usually twice, playing golf with new people, taking in local culture, staying in hotels and finding good places to eat, traveling across the state as an ambassador of the game while creating fun and engaging content to help build awareness and excitement for both well- and lesser-known Wisconsin courses.

I’m excited to hear more about his adventure, and his thoughts on the state of the game in Wisconsin. On a macro level, how does he think Wisconsin compares to other states (he played over 400 unique courses and 450 rounds across the country in 2018 alone)? More pointedly, what are his favorite memories he’s made while here, what courses and towns surprised him, and what will he most look forward to getting back to after he heads home to Laguna Beach Monday?

Outside of the 20+ bratwursts, several dozen pounds of cheese curds, hundreds of birdies and leaping celebratory high kicks, I bet his thoughts are fairly well aligned with mine: Even with a shortened season, Wisconsin is second to none when it comes to golf in America.

And it’s only getting better.

“America’s #1 Golf Intern” Patrick Koenig teeing off on the par three 11th at The Club at Lac La Belle (July 29)

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I was thinking about this the other night while working on my updated review of Sand Valley Golf Course, and rather than indulging myself within that article decided it should have it’s own soap box.

I know this article won’t be perfect, and I don’t intend it to be, but I want to splurge my thoughts as there’s a lot to say, a ton to be proud of and so much to be excited for.

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Taking a step back, it blows my mind how far the golf industry has come in the Badger State.

As the story I’ve heard goes (please correct me in the comments if you know it’s wrong):

When Herb Kohler decided in the 1980’s to add golf to the resort amenities at Destination Kohler, he initially approached nearby Pine Hills Country Club, just a few miles down the road and one of the most exemplary classic golf courses in Wisconsin and maybe the Midwest. The club didn’t want to sell their course, leading Kohler to begin conversations around new development with several world-renowned course architects headlined by Pete Dye.

It was through his burgeoning relationship with the late and great Pete Dye, and his growing love for golf course development and the game that led to the opening of Blackwolf Run in the late 1980’s.

Debuted with 18 tremendous golf holes, the “Original Championship Course” at Blackwolf Run was named Golf Digest’s Best New Course of 1988 and has gone on to host numerous professional golf tournaments over the years including the 1998 and 2012 US Women’s Opens (won by Se Ri Pak and Na Yeon Choi, respectively) and 1995, 1996 and 1997 Andersen Consulting World Golf Championships (won by Mark McCumber, Greg Norman and Ernie Els, respectively).

I believe that Kohler’s success at Blackwolf Run is the domino that started Wisconsin down the path that’s made it one of the most significant golf states in the country.

Adding 18 holes to the Original Championship Course gave Blackwolf Run a total of 36, and helped secure its spot as a true golf destination. Taking the original front 9, Kohler and Dye added 9 more holes along the Sheboygan River to complete its River course, and 9 more holes in a more “meadowy” parcel of land to act as the front 9 of what is now the Meadow Valleys course.

The par four 14th on the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run

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Both courses are ranked perennially in big golf media’s top 100 public courses list, but the River is always rated higher – it’s currently the 15th rated public golf course in the country according to Golf Digest (Meadow Valleys is 57th), 43rd by GolfWeek and 38th by Golf.com. The Meadow Valleys is missing in those last two’s rankings, which I see as a miss.

Dye wasn’t done with golf in Kohler – not by a long shot. In 1998, with his pal Pete Dye at the helm he’d open one of the top few public golf courses in the country, Whistling Straits, and then its sister course the Irish in 2000.

Looking back on the 13th hole at Whistling Straits

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During the boom at Kohler other great golf destinations also joined the fray, including University Ridge in Madison, Washington County, The Bog and Geneva National and its Palmer, Player and Trevino courses in the early-to-mid 90’s.

The tee shot on 18 at The Bog (September 2020)
Sunrise over Geneva National’s Player course (September 2020)

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We all know the kind of attention Whistling Straits has brought our great state, hosting professional events including the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships (won by Vijay Singh, Martin Kaymer and Jason Day, respectively) and the 2007 US Senior Open (won by Brad Bryant).

I think its most glorious moments are still to come, though, later this month when, at long last it will host the 2020 Ryder Cup. Captain and proud Wisconsinite Steve Stricker, along with Vice Captains Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples, will lead the American team against Padraig Harrington and the Europeans, and I’m predicting a wild “War at the Shore” type of scenario – with the red, white and blue coming out on top, of course. The “War of Wisconsin,” perhaps? “Lake Michigan Melee?” The “Sheboygan Shuffle?” This is obviously not my strong suit.

Kohler got the ball rolling and it hasn’t stopped. Soon after the Irish course opened, the Sheboygan area added another world-class golf course in the Jack Nicklaus-designed Bull at Pinehurst Farms in 2003.

The par four 5th at The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (August 2012)

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Erin Hills would then follow in 2006, eventually bringing Wisconsin its first US Open Championship in 2017 (won by Brooks Koepka), along with the 2008 US Women’s Public Links Championship (won by Tiffany Joh), 2011 US Amateur (won by Kelly Kraft over Patrick Cantlay) and soon the 2022 US Mid-Amateur and 2025 US Women’s Open.

Tee shot on the par four 10th at Erin Hills (June 2021)

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Wisconsin had officially become a hot spot in the world of golf.

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Around 2015, rumors started swirling about a Bandon Dunes-esque resort being considered in Central Wisconsin as developer and golf visionary Mike Keiser was brought to a site near Wisconsin Rapids with a sand basin literally hundreds of feet deep. There was no ocean, and the land was overrun by jack pines. The only way to traverse it was on foot or ATV, but he saw what Craig Haltom saw in it and jumped in, head first.

The long par four 6th on the original Sand Valley course

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Sand Valley opened to the public in 2017, followed by the Sandbox par three course and Mammoth Dunes in 2018, and has immediately joined Kohler and Erin Hills as an international golf trip destination.

A strong storm brewing over the second hole at Mammoth Dunes (July 2020)

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The Club at Lac La Belle was then reopened with a masterful redesign by Craig Haltom in 2020, SentryWorld is finishing additional renovations in preparation to host the 2023 US Senior Open (Robert Trent Jones, Jr and Jay Blasi’s 2014 renovations were outstanding – some consider SentryWorld, opened in 1991, to have been the original destination golf course in Wisconsin, by the way), and Stevens Point Country Club has undergone a complete overhaul that has it one of Wisconsin’s best private clubs (also by Haltom, who I think is one of the most talented, up-and-coming rising stars in all of golf – remember the name).

The Club at Lac La Belle, redesigned by Craig Haltom and reopened in 2020 (August 2020)

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Lawsonia reopened its Woodlands course this year after renovations (can’t wait to see the updates), and Abbey Springs in Fontana is working with Lohmann Quitno on a multi-million dollar renovation of their course. Private clubs like Pine Hills, Kenosha, Blue Mound, The University Club, North Shore and Westmoor have also all recently or are all soon investing significantly to upgrade and improve their golf experiences.

The new and improved 18th hole at Pine Hills Country Club, my #1 private club in the state

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The one renovation project I think we need to look at as the catalyst for renovations in Wisconsin, though, is the restoration of the Links course at Lawsonia. Reopened in 2014, the Links course has been one of the state’s top golf courses since its inception in 1930.

What Oliphant Management (led by, ahem, Craig Haltom) and course architect Ron Forse realized is that the majesty of the Links course was in its subtleties – in the rolling terrain, the angles and site lines that put a premium on decision-making, and of course the out-of-this-world-elevated, heavily contoured green complexes that are among the finest I’ve ever played.

All that said, you couldn’t see any of that on the Links course as it had become. It was literally littered with trees – tall specimens that created borders around its fairways and greens.

The par three 14th on the Links course at Lawsonia pre-renovations (October 2011)

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Forse and Oliphant removed hundreds of trees, leaving the Links course turf looking like scorched earth. I’ll admit it took me a little while to “get it,” but boy do I ever now. The strategic elements are now on full display, and even just being able to see and appreciate the work that went in to Langford & Moreau’s innovative design is something I look forward to every single time. I geek out on it, and I can’t wait for their annual “Langford Shield” in October, by the way!

The same 14th green, shown above, can be seen in all its glory in the top-left corner here

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While most courses don’t “wipe the slate clean” / remove almost every single tree, the Links course’s success has proven to be a blue print of sorts for tree removal, allowing for healthier turf and better site lines, and access to the architecture that was always intended to inspire play.

Renovation projects aside, the biggest trend now in Wisconsin is one that’s grabbing hold across the country: 18-hole course alternatives.

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Alternatives to Championship (18-Hole) Golf

One of the biggest things keeping golf enthusiasts from playing the game they love is time, and that’s only been exacerbated in recent years as “free time” seems to be getting tighter and tighter.

Golf courses and resorts are adding non-championship courses as amenities to keep visitors on-site and engaged with other guests, building additional memories that typically don’t cost as much to build or use, and allowing guests to “fit in more golf” while on-site.

Opened in 2018, the Sandbox at Sand Valley is one of the best examples. A 17-hole par three course designed by Coore/Crenshaw, the Sandbox features wonderful Golden Age green complexes on holes from 51 to 149 yards. Players can use their leather Sunday bags to haul a few clubs – no more than a couple wedges, putter and mid-iron [for the 16th hole] are needed to enjoy these couple hours that’ll cost them $30-65.

The 10th hole green complex on the Sandbox at Sand Valley (July 2021)

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Erin Hills then opened The Drumlin in 2019 – a 63,000 square foot putting course adjacent to the starter’s shack that’s lit up at night and free to enjoy by guests with tee times or room reservations.

Erin Hills’ Drumlin course at sunrise

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Three other par three courses are opening this season, including The Baths at Blackwolf Run, 12-North at Trappers Turn in the Dells, and Pioneer Pointe at Hawks Landing in Verona/Madison.

The highest profile of these is probably The Baths. Coupled with a 2-acre putting course (18-hole setup), long-time Pete Dye protege Chris Lutzke designed a gorgeous 10-hole par three track near the first hole of the Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run. Similar to the Sandbox, very few clubs are necessary and they allow players to borrow their premium leather carry bags to avoid being bogged down with too many clubs. You’re meant to enjoy the walk with a beer or two, of course, which they have available on-site at the bar/food shack.

An August sunrise over The Baths at Blackwolf Run

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The punch bowl is probably my favorite, although every hole was remarkably well constructed for fun and challenge.

Craig Haltom, who I mentioned earlier, teamed up with Andy North at Trappers Turn to design the recently debuted 12-North – a series of twelve par three holes that look like a ton of fun. I haven’t had a chance to visit yet, but hope to soon.

Similarly, Lohmann Quitno is now finishing up work on Pioneer Pointe at Hawks Landing in Verona. With 13 holes, Pioneer Pointe emulates some of golf’s most famous golf hole designs, including the 7th at Pebble Beach and 7th at Lawsonia Links (“the Boxcar hole”). The new short course, which will feature holes stretching from 100 to 280 yards, is scheduled to open this month, and I can’t wait to check it out, as well.

In addition to the par three courses, Wisconsin golf enthusiasts have The Lido to look forward to. Once considered one of the three finest golf courses in the world, The Lido on Long Island was handed over to the US Navy in 1940 and never again saw the light of day.

Keiser and the good folks at Sand Valley, along with Tom Doak and his team at Renaissance Golf, are restoring The Lido on a property across the street from the entrance to Sand Valley. It will be a private club, but there will be some access to resort guests.

Construction on The Lido at Sand Valley is underway! (August 2021)

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Following the 2023 opening of The Lido will be Sedge Valley, a par 68 Tom Doak design that’s been started but has now been put on the back burner to focus on their other project.

And there’s more – much more – on the horizon, potentially including additional projects at Kohler (a US Open capable course on Lake Michigan has been planned for years, but has struggled to get local approvals), Erin Hills (short course?) and Sand Valley (up to 5 more after the completion of The Lido and Sedge Valley).

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Published by WiscoGolfAddict

Writer/Photographer/Content Creator for WiscoGolfAddict.com, and occasional contributor to other [mostly state and regional] golf publications. Healthcare/long-term care industry sales/strategy professional.

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