Golf Course Review: Whistling Straits, Straits Course

Whistling Straits, Straits Course Rankings:

Golf Digest: #4 US public, #22 US top 100, #48 world top 100, #6 US toughest, #1 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #6 US modern, #4 US resort, #1 Wisconsin public #28 US top 100, #6 US public, #49 world top 100

Designer: Pete Dye (1997)

Currently rated the number two public golf course in the United States, and number four overall behind just Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes and Friar’s Head, the Straits course at Whistling Straits has amassed a big-time resume in a very short period of time.

As one of the truly elite golfing destinations in the world, the Straits has hosted the 2004 PGA Championship, 2007 US Senior Open, 2010 PGA Championship, next year’s PGA Championship, and the much-anticipated 2020 Ryder Cup.

I remember sitting in the rough off of the 16th fairway with my friends Mike and Jason for the final round of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, thinking to myself, “I have got to play this course sometime,” and “This place looks absolutely impossible.”

It was in that rough that I almost had my head taken off by Chris DiMarco’s errant tee shot on the 16th (I literally heard it whiz by my head). He led the tournament at that time, and the TV cameras and crowds swarmed our area. Being one year out of college, I was hung over on that Sunday, and it was warm and I’m sure I thought it was an inconvenience to move out of the way so the impending doom that was about to occur next to us could take place: DiMarco’s next swing duck-hooked toward Lake Michigan, along with his hopes for a PGA Championship and $6.25 million. Vijay Singh would go on to win the PGA Championship in a playoff against DiMarco and Justin Leonard that year.

The 2010 PGA Championship delivered even more excitement when Martin Kaymer won his first major championship in a three-hole playoff over Bubba Watson. Maybe the most memorable moment of the 2010 tournament, though, involved Dustin Johnson, who missed taking part in that playoff after grounding his club on the 18th hole in one of the 967 bunkers on the Straits course. This “Bunker” was little more than a patch of dirt that had been trampled over for days by tournament attendees. Under a Local Rule that was instituted for the event (and will stay in place for the 2015 PGA Championship), Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty and therefore was disqualified from the playoff.

Of course, big tournaments are nothing new to Whistling Straits or to Kohler golf courses, in general, including:

  • 1995 Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf, US Championship at Blackwolf Run, River course (Winner: Mark McCumber)
  • 1996 Andersen Consulting WCG-US, River (Greg Norman)
  • 1997 Andersen Consulting WCG-US, River (Ernie Els)
  • 1998 US Women’s Open, River (Se Ri Pak)
  • 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Straits course (Vijay Singh)
  • 2007 US Senior Open, Straits (Brad Bryant)
  • 2010 PGA Championship, Straits (Martin Kaymer)
  • 2012 US Women’s Open, River (Na Yeon Choi)
  • 2015 PGA Championship, Straits
  • 2020 Ryder Cup, Straits

The Straits course delivers world-class excitement in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world for a championship golf course: On a two-mile stretch of coast on Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

Designed to have the look and feel of the legendary links courses of Scotland and Ireland, the Straits is a fine fescue facility from tee to green, with great use of elevation and sand and wasteland all around. A stream runs through parts of the course, and several inland ponds make its one inland par five, aptly nicknamed “Snake,” one of the toughest holes on the course.

Over 800,000 cubic yards of local sand and dirt were moved in the construction of the course, transitioning it from what was in the 1950’s “Camp Haven” (an anti-aircraft training facility complete with missile silos and an airfield) in to the present day pinnacle of the Kohler golf mecca.

While tons of dirt were moved to create the terrain, it could not look and feel more natural.

From the tees, fairways look miniscule and impossible to hit. They are typically quite wide, though, and the fine fescue rolls out well. With tips around 7,800 yards, you will hear some people say it plays longer because of the ever-present winds off the lake. Meanwhile, others say it plays shorter because of the roll-outs. It depends on the day and wind conditions, of course, but I actually lean toward it playing slightly shorter.

My foursome played the course from 7,142 yards, and none of us found the distance to be overwhelming. Our second group played it from the tips at 7,790, and said the same, although only two of them broke 90.

Me, Jeff, Mark, Kyle and Jason on the 7th tee

We had a rather calm day, which is not normal for the Straits. With the wind howling, I can imagine it would play considerably longer.

The Straits course starts off on both one and ten very similarly to the way the Irish starts: Both heading out from the clubhouse on one, with the lake on the horizon. The tenth on each course is sharply uphill toward the lake, with fairways running right to left.

One is a fairly simple par four, with a narrow looking fairway that leans slightly left. The green, like most on the course, is flanked by deep sand traps and mounding that make precise points of entry a must.

Hole 1: Par 4 (493/405/370/361/325)
Hole 1: Par 4 (493/405/370/361/325)

Two is a fantastic par five, measuring 597 from the tips and 533 from the blues. With the lake running parallel to the fairway, it is an intimidating tee shot that actually has much more room for error than it looks from the tees. Keeping the ball left of the largest mound right of the fairway should ensure a clear look at the second shot, which can be laid up well right of the green to stay safe. The infinity look of the green against the lake is beautiful.

Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)
Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)
Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)

The first par three on the Straits course, the third is named simply “O’ man.” You wouldn’t believe it from seeing the following picture, but this might be the easiest par three on the course – there are probably more spots to miss-hit to than on any others.

Hole 3: Par 3 (188/180/166/154/111)

The second of six par fours measuring over 400 yards from the blue tees, the fourth continues a wonderful trek along Lake Michigan’s shoreline to the southernmost point of the Straits course, ending uphill with wasteland and sand traps seemingly everywhere, and with the lake on the left. The large trap on the hillside beyond the green that looks like the state of Texas is the best aiming point off the tee.

Hole 4: Par 4 (494/451/414/404/354)

The fifth is the only hole on the Straits course that I don’t completely love. Bringing in to play the course’s two ponds, “Snake” is a tough par five with a ton of bite, meandering inland with a double-dogleg around water and finishing on a small point.

The reason I say I don’t love it is that it has a very different feel and character from the rest of the course. To me, it doesn’t fit. It certainly does require players’ attention on each swing to avoid putting up big numbers, though.

Hole 5: Par 5 (603/563/543/527/459)
Hole 5: Par 5 (603/563/543/527/459)

The greatest feature of the sixth hole is the fly zone above the approach. The green is heavily raised, and falls off in all directions but left. The front-left sand trap that my friend Kyle found, especially, can be brutal.

Drive the left side of the fairway and have a good look at the green, but from anywhere else it’s pretty much guesswork with a blind approach.

Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)
Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)
Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)

Kyle posted a similar picture to Facebook with one word of commentary: “#screwed.” Yup.

Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)

The second par three on the course, and the second longest, the seventh is a wonderful one-shotter nicknamed “Shipwreck.” With the lake enveloping the right side of the hole, the smart play is to the front-left of the green.

Hole 7: Par 3 (221/205/185/172/132)

Robert getting us a distance of 205 on the seventh:

Hole 7: Par 3 (221/205/185/172/132)

The eighth is a tough driving hole, with sand traps lining the left side of the fairway and wasteland and side-ward lies inviting drivers to hit right. Find the fairway, and aim to lay up to the front-left of the green to roll on safely.

Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)

Kyle hitting another bomb in the fairway:

Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)
Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)

The front nine finishes with a very cool downhill par four, nicknamed “Down and Dirty.” The driving area is not overly difficult to stay within, but the rough is hellish. I just missed the fairway, for example, and was buried deep in the grass. My next shot then pulled the club face closed and fired in to the sand, underneath the back lip. That barely got out in to the deepest fescue I’d ever seen, and from there I was simply lucky to get the ball 10 yards to the right back in to the fairway.

This is pretty common for the Straits course: Keep the ball moving in front of you; when it starts heading off to the sides, chances are that hole will finish with a crooked number.

Hole 9: Par 4 (442/412/384/371/347)
Hole 9: Par 4 (442/412/384/371/347)

The back nine starts with a tough driving hole: Like on the tenth at the Irish course at Whistling Straits, it is uphill and leaning left. A draw is definitely preferred, if you can play it.

Hole 10 on the Irish course: Par 4

Long hitters are rewarded heavily on this hole, as anything beneath the huge swell in the fairway is mostly blind to the green, while anything above it has a great look.

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

Jeff and Kyle’s tee shots did not make it to the crest of the hill:

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

My tee shot in green light position above the crest:

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

To me, the eleventh might be the hardest overall hole on the Straits. A viciously long par five, the layup areas are fraught with hazards and the green area is uphill and challenging to hold.

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

When it comes to adding charm and character to a golf course, can you imagine any better way than to populate it with the Scottish blackheaded sheep that populate the courses the Straits was built to mirror? Indigenous to Scotland, flocks roam freely on the Straits and Irish courses, and make for a very cool experience when they visit your group.

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Kyle putting with a herd of Scottish blackheaded sheep in the background:

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Greg, Michael, Ross and Dan playing up on eleven:

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Maybe my favorite par three at the Straits is one very rarely talked about: The twelfth. This green is massive from front-left to back-right, allowing for all kinds of variations on length and pin placements.

Let’s hope for a back-right shore-hugging Sunday pin next year!

Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)
Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)

Michael hitting to the twelfth green from the black tee boxes (on the horizon, taken from near the thirteenth hole tee boxes):

Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)

Appropriately named “Cliff Hanger,” the thirteenth is a fantastic par four that directly abuts the shoreline. The green is below the fairway, begging players to run their approach shots on.

Hole 13: Par 4 (402/389/364/336/319)
Hole 13: Par 4 (402/389/364/336/319)

The easiest non-par three on the course, fourteen comes back inland with a much simpler yardage of 360 from the blue tees. A dogleg left par four, make sure to make par here before getting to a much longer fifteenth!

Hole 14: Par 4 (396/360/346/332/271)

Hopefully you enjoyed the wedge in on fourteen, because unless it’s your third or fourth shot, that experience will not be repeated on fifteen!

When the PGA Championship was last played on the Straits course, the fifteenth was at the time the longest par four ever played in a major championship. At 503 yards from the black tees, that makes sense.

I hit driver to the left side of the fairway during our round, followed by a flushed three-hybrid that luckily rolled to about five feet from the pin, and made it. Our caddies, Mark and Robert, said it was the first birdie they’ve seen on that hole this season.

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)
Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)

Probably the coolest picture taken of the day: Jason, Robert, Kyle and Jeff approaching the fifteenth green and a crossing group of Scottish blackheaded sheep:

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)
Scottish blackheaded sheep herd passing us on 15

My leave from 237 out is just left of Jeff’s putt – thankfully it went in! #GolfFlow

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)

Heading back to the lake, sixteen is a very famous hole on the Straits course. It has always proved to be a pivotal hole in major championships, including for Chris DiMarco when his ball nearly decapitated me in 2004.

As you can see from the spots that my shots found during our round, there are plenty of bad places to be found on the sixteenth (several of my lies are shown), but there are not many ways to lose a ball unless it is in deep fescue.

The sixteenth, known as “Endless Bite,” forges along the Lake Michigan coastline, and takes on a very difficult green complex for professionals going for it in two.

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)
Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

My tee shot:

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

… And the next shot…

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

The legend of the seventeenth goes like this: At every course that Pete Dye designs, he allows his wife, Alice, to design one par three. This was the seventeenth for the Straits course, and she must have been angry with him that day!

The seventeenth, quite possibly the signature hole on the Straits course and one of the most beloved par threes in the state of Wisconsin, is a brutally long par three with very few spots to miss. The lake lingers left of the playing area, and huge mounds front the right entrance and entire right side of the putting surface.

The misses here are short and/or long-right, as the mounds right of the green can help carom slightly wayward shots toward the putting surface.

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)
Jason’s tee shot on seventeen:
Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)

Kyle’s tee shot on seventeen:

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)
Jeff’s tee shot on seventeen:
Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)

The finishing hole on the Straits could very well be one of the toughest holes in the world. Par on this 520/487-yard behemoth, which is set to be four, should be considered a monumental task, but will I’m sure be required on Sunday of the 2015 PGA Championship for whoever hopes to take home the Wanamaker Trophy.

Nicknamed “Dyeabolical,” after Pete Dye, of course, the eighteenth is 520 yards from the black tees, which are located behind and well below the blues, shown here:

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

The tee shot from the blue tees on eighteen:

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

The long approach from anywhere on the upper-right fairway is best targeted right of the clubhouse in the distance. Anything left of that is likely to find the stream or wasteland (better shown in the second and third pictures below):

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

Michael, Greg (great hat wave!), Ross and Dan following a “Triumphant round” playing the tips:

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

[From my original review of the Straits Course, which I decided to wait out on until I had a chance to play it during better conditions:

The weather was supposed to be amazing last Thursday, May 8. The sun was shining and temperatures reached the low-to-mid 80’s in Menomonee Falls, where I live, and my hope was that it would be similar lake-side by Sheboygan. I checked the extended forecast every day for weeks leading up to our round, and it looked like we were going to luck out.

As my friend, Norm, and I neared the course, we started noticing huge swarms of gnats above the back roads that lead to the Kohler property, making us nervous that even though we got a good day we would be hit hard with another natural impediment: Bugs.

The bugs were almost nonexistent on the course, but the weather was far from perfect. While three out of the four in our group wore shorts, the caddies wore windbreakers, gloves and winter hats. They must have thought we were nuts on this 50-degree day lake-side.]

As a volunteer for next year’s 2015 PGA Championship at the Straits, I did get the opportunity to play this legendary course again, on August 10, 2014 – exactly one year from the opening round of the 2015 PGA Championship.

The Straits was in nothing less than brilliant condition, and certainly provided a far better golfing experience.

I was very impressed with the Straits’ caddy experience during our May round, but felt a little ripped off even though I was paying about half of what it would normally cost to play the course during regular season. Considering the shape the course was in, it almost shouldn’t have even been played on in May. I am very happy we were able to replay it at a reduced rate, as I can see now how tremendous of a golf course Whistling Straits truly is.

If you are curious about volunteering for the 2015 tournament: When you sign up you are also allowed heavily discounted tee times, which include $150 for the Straits course (plus caddy for $60/player and tip), $100 for the River course at Blackwolf Run (including cart), and $80 apiece for the Irish and Meadow Valleys courses (both include cart). All of these are tremendous deals.

It does cost around $200 to register as a volunteer, but includes the week’s access, all the equipment/apparel needed, and access to these discounted greens fees for up to two foursomes during specific time frames leading up to August of next year. Unfortunately, this year’s time frame did end this past weekend (we played the Straits on the last day of the deal, and the other three during previous weekends).

While on-site, I certainly recommend also checking out the Straits’ sister course, the Irish, which runs alongside and inland of the Straits track. If you have not had a chance to check out my review on the Irish yet, please do so here:

Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Haven, WI
Yardage: Black-7790, Blue-7142, Green-6663, White-6360, Red-5564
Slope/Rating: Black-152/77.2, Blue-145/74.2, Green-141/71.9, White-137/70.4, Red-129/66.4
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $370 (plus $60 for caddy and $40 minimum recommended tip)

Wisconsin’s Best Par 4 Holes

Quite possibly the most beautiful golf hole I have ever played, the 14th at Meadow Valleys is deemed “Nature’s Course.” From the elevated tee boxes, the Pigeon River and on most days teems of fly-fishermen are seen down the hill and to the right. The tree lined fairway plays slightly to the left, and is not advisable to drive. Hit it straight and aim for the middle of the fairway, in hopes of receiving a charitable downhill run.
The hole slants to the right, and further downhill where the green is surrounded on three sides by the river, and a charming bridge made from an old flat-bed train car. The river runs hard to the right, and anything errant will fall dramatically from the playing surface.
Hole 14: Par 4 (423/409/384/376/293)

2. Whistling Straits, Straits Course #18 (520/487/424/420/380):

The finishing hole on the Straits could very well be one of the toughest golf holes in the entire world. Par on this 520/487-yard behemoth, which is set to be four, should be considered a monumental task, but will I’m sure be required on Sunday of the 2015 PGA Championship for whoever hopes to take home the Wanamaker Trophy.

Nicknamed “Dyeabolical,” after Pete Dye, of course, the eighteenth is 520 yards from the black tees and 487 from the blues. A split-fairway is found atop the hill in the driving area, and anything between the fairways may travel too far. 

The long approach from anywhere on the upper-right fairway is best targeted right of the clubhouse in the distance. Anything left of that is likely to find the stream or wasteland between and below. The cloverleaf green on eighteen is iconic to golf, and a fantastic way to finish this incredible championship golf course. 

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
3. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms #5 (436/404/388/361/308):
Nicknamed “Follow On,” the fifth hole at The Bull is one of the most intimidating par four tee shots in Wisconsin. Narrow and through heavy woods, a 40-foot deep ravine resides on the left side of the fairway. The club did a great job on the terracing added to the left side drop-off this season.

If you find the bend in the fairway, you will have a shot at the green in two, which is over the back-side of the ravine and directly left. Stay long, if anything, because short is dead. This is a phenomenal par four, with bite.

Hole 5: Par 4 (436/404/388/361/308)
4. Lawsonia, Woodlands Course #2 (341/329/315/315):

The second hole is one of my favorites at the Woodlands. 200 yards down the middle of the fairway lives a huge quarry that drops deep from the hitting surface. A bailout fairway lies to the right, while the more appropriate fairway to the left is narrow and sheltered by trees.A large stone observation tower, known locally as Jutson Tower, looms above the fairway, and a huge oak tree is centered in front of the green, guarding the back-left green location. Playing early on a Sunday morning, chimes and church music provided fantastic ambience to the hole.

Hole 2: Par 4 (341/329/315/315)

5. Geneva National, Gary Player Course #5 (354/310/283/257/255):

Hole five on the Player course is an instant classic! A true risk/reward hole, the fairway in front of the green is drivable, but requires at least 225 yards to carry the waste area and fingered sand traps. The bail-out fairway to the right is much more accessible, although it adds considerably to the hole’s yardage.

The green’s front-right bunker is deep, and woods to the left must also be considered if going for this green from the tee. At 310 yards from the gold boxes, this is one of the best short par fours I have ever seen or played.

Hole 5: Par 4 (354/310/283/257/255)

6. Whistling Straits, Irish Course #10 (398/387/378/361/340):

The tenth hole on the Irish is one of the most awe-striking holes in Wisconsin. With Lake Michigan on the horizon, the wind is always a factor. The fairway runs significantly uphill and to the left, and missing it is catastrophic. The multitude of random bunkers built into the hills on the right side of the fairway are demonic, and will leave little to no chance of reaching this green in two.

Hole 10: Par 4 (398/387/378/361/340)

7. Blackwolf Run, River Course #5 (427/400/388/376/275):

The fifth is the first hole played on the River course that is not part of the Original Championship track – the Original Championship skips five through thirteen and instead rounds Swan Lake to fourteen as its fifth. Three times leading up to our round I was told about the tee shot on five, and it did not fail to impress! 

With highly elevated tee boxes, five is nicknamed “Made in Heaven.” Having played the River many times on Tiger Woods Golf for Playstation 3, I should have known what was coming, but was still awe-struck by such a majestic driving scenario.

The drive on five is to a wide fairway that is bordered long and left, as well as on the right side by a large sand trap, and right of that trap by the Sheboygan River. The tee shot is relatively simple on this hole. The approach, however, is not. High uphill, the approach plays to a plateau that is cut out of the tree line and drops straight down twenty feet on the right side. This drop is reminiscent of the right side of the green on the “Boxcar Hole” at Lawsonia’s Links course, if that helps you picture it.

Hole 5: Par 4 (427/400/388/376/275)
8. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys Course #18 (458/395/383/373/303):
The finishing hole at the Meadow Valleys course, nicknamed “Salmon Trap,” is the first hole I have seen with two separate greens. The women play to a shorter distance, around 300 yards, that finishes before the Pigeon River. The men play across the river, just short of the Blackwolf Run clubhouse.
With about 250 yards to the river, the tee shot can be played farther left to allow use of a driver. The approach over the river is fairly long to one of the largest greens on the course. This is a gorgeous finishing hole at a gorgeous golf course.
Hole 18: Par 4 (458/395/383/373/303)

9. Brown Deer Park #1 (461/447):

Bown Deer Park starts with probably the hardest opening hole in the state: A 461-yard beast of a par four that doglegs right and is well guarded by trees, a large pond on the left side of the fairway, and deep sand traps all around the green. Score a par or bogey on this hole, and consider your round off to a great start.
Hole 1: Par 4 (461/447)

10. Erin Hills #12 (466/432/388/388/317):

At a course where the norm is large, elevated greens, the twelfth at Erin Hills goes oppo. At 388 yards from the green tees, fescue will envelop anything errant whether off the tee or from the fairway. In contrast to the majority of the course’s greens, the one on twelve actually resides in a small hollow that is blind from most approaches.

Sand traps line the right side of the green, while the rest is defended by tall fescue that shrouds it from view from the left.

Hole 12: Par 4 (466/432/388/388/317)

Honorable Mention:

11. University Ridge #4 (467/398/354/304):

With a tee shot over water, a cut drive is necessary to give yourself a chance at the uphill approach to an elevated green that requires at least a club or two of extra distance to reach. The left side of the driving area is lined with trees, while the right side falls off into fescue and an unreachable pond.
Hole 4: Par 4 (467/398/354/304)

12. Ironwood, Meath Course #3 (278/273/235):

Another short par four, the third on the Meath is as fun of a hole as I have ever played. Playing downhill from elevated tee boxes, the green is reachable from the tee, but good luck at stopping the ball there!

The green is surrounded on three sides by water, and two large sand traps. There are approach areas on both the left and right side, but the right side plays much more difficult. The left side fairway will allow an unimpeded shot to the green, which slopes severely toward the water on the right side. This is a fantastic par four, and my favorite of Ironwood’s 27 holes.

Hole 3: Par 4 (278/273/235)
13. Grand Geneva, Brute #18 (464/437/335):
Eighteen is a wonderful finishing hole at the Brute, and plays slightly less intimidating than the onboard GPS shows. The bunkers lining the right side of the fairway should help keep shots out of the water, but will leave a long way to go. With the pin residing on top of a huge crown during our round here, the eighteenth provides a tremendous putting challenge for finishing the round.
Hole 18: Par 4 (464/437/335)
14. The Oaks #14 (435/403/352/347/307):
The fourteenth on The Oaks is almost visible from I-94, and is my personal favorite par four on the course. It is a tough hole, primarily because of the long forced carry over wetlands on the approach. The drive can be up to around 250 yards from the tee, but the further right the ball is driven, the longer the approach will be. This hole sets up great with a drawn 3-wood or driver off the tee.
Hole 14: Par 4 (435/403/352/347/307)

Wisconsin’s Best Par 3 Holes

There is no more exciting hole in golf than a well-made par three. Great par threes begin with imagination, and are cultivated to provide a challenging one-shot experience interlaced with fantastic aesthetics, and occasionally options.

This article is dedicated to the par threes that I will never forget, and will be an ongoing examination of the greatest one-shot holes in the Midwest. Much like my all-time greatest courses list, it will be ever-changing and updated as necessary when I find one that deserves a spot in the rankings.

1. Whistling Straits, Straits Course #17 (249/223/197/165/131):

The legend of the seventeenth goes like this: At every course that Pete Dye designs, he allows his wife, Alice, to design one par three. This was the seventeenth for the Straits course, and she must have been angry with him that day!

The seventeenth, quite possibly the signature hole on the Straits course and one of the most beloved par threes in the state of Wisconsin, is a brutally long par three with very few spots to miss. The lake lingers left of the playing area, and huge mounds front the right entrance and entire right side of the putting surface.

The misses here are short and/or long-right, as the mounds right of the green can help carom slightly wayward shots toward the putting surface.

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)


2. Wild Rock #15 (179/166/134/130/118):

With six individual tee boxes separated by the trees and cliffs, the fifteenth hole is one of the most picturesque holes on one of the state’s most picturesque golf courses. A large stone quarry lives between the elevated tee boxes and the elevated green, and anything hit short will be claimed by the waste area that lies beneath.

Hole 15: Par 3 (179/166/134/130/118)

3. Lawsonia, Links Course #7 (161/146/140/109):

The seventh on the Links course is famous for the “Boxcar hole” and its steep embankment short and right of the green. Opened in 1930, the Links is rated the number 55 classic course in the country, and the seventh is its signature hole.

Legend has it that course architects William Langford and Theodore Moreau used an actual train boxcar to create the elevated green on seven – if that’s true, then we can reasonably assess the drop in elevation on the right side to be at least 11 feet. In person, it feels like 15-20 – not an easy recovery when missed!

Hole 7: Par 3 (161/146/140/109)

4. SentryWorld #16 (173/155/127/116/106):

As any avid Wisconsin golfer has, I had seen pictures of SentryWorld’s famous “Flower Hole” prior to playing it. Needless to say, I did not expect it to live up to expectations. It did, though, and more. The reason I say more is that it is an excellent par three even without the 45,000-plus flowers!

The green on sixteen is slightly risen and heavily sloped, and the steep bunkers that front it can be awfully penalizing. While shots in to the flowers cannot be played or looked for, the course does allow for a free drop. The flowers are beautifully patterned, and the colors are vibrant and glorious: Oranges, reds, yellows, purples and whites.

Hole 16: Par 3 (173/155/127/116/106)

5. Castle at the Bay #10 (146/132/127/95/81):

A beautiful replica of the world’s most famous golf hole, number 17 at TPC Sawgrass, the tenth at Northern Bay is intended to challenge your mettle at the 132-yard distance that is played on the PGA Tour.

Hole 10: Par 3 (146/132/127/95/81)

6. Erin Hills #9 (165/150/143/138/135)

Previously billed as the course’s “Bye hole,” the ninth at Erin Hills is a phenomenal downhill par three that plays between a multitude of greenside bunkers and a false front that protects the entrance to the putting surface. Deep rough abounds, and the craggy sand traps are hellish to play out of.

Hole 9: Par 3 (165/150/143/138/135)

7. Blackwolf Run, River Course #4 (219/195/185/146/117):

Narrow and well-guarded, Swan Lake is one of the most charming holes on the world-famous River course.

The two biggest stars on this hole are the swans that live in the pond, who seem to be avid golf enthusiasts, themselves: When you’re on the tee boxes, they’re by the tee boxes. When you’re on the green, they are by the green. This will be one of the holes receiving a lot of attention during the 2012 US Women’s Open, and my guess is these two swans (pictured below) will be quite popular with the national media.

At 195 yards from the blue tees, the tee shot is long and intimidating. Anything hit right is dead, so zero in with a long club that you can hit straight, and pray to stay dry.

Hole 4: Par 3 (219/195/185/146/117)

8. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms #6 (193/183/173/163/153/80):

On an unbelievably difficult golf course, the sixth at The Bull does not let up. Narrow and guarded by trees and sand, this hole requires absolute precision. This is a gorgeous hole, and follows one of my all-time favorite par fours, “Follow On.”

That being said, this is a beast of a par three. With a downhill tee shot, I have felt every time that I’ve teed off on this hole that I’ve hit it pretty well. Alas, I have found sand, I have found forest, and I have yet to find the green. The bunker on the right is particularly difficult, and anything overhit from there will likely be lost in the woods [or in the traps] on the left side of the green.

The green is two-tiered, and slopes from the back to the front. Nicknamed “Elation,” I will certainly be elated if I ever find a way to mark par on this par three.

Hole 6: Par 3 (193/183/173/163/153/80)

9. SentryWorld #12 (161/139/123/86/76)

One of the newly designed holes on the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. renovated SentryWorld, I think a lot of Wisconsin golfers will be excited in 2015 to see that the “Flower Hole” may no longer be the most beautiful par three on the course. It might be top three, in fact!

Twelve is a brand new par three, created in an area that had previously never been used by the course. Teeing off from a laterally running tee box over the course’s inland lake to a peninsula that runs hard toward the water, twelve requires the precision of an island tee shot, with a slight backboard on the left side to help hold approaches.

Hole 12: Par 3 (161/139/123/86/76)

10. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys Course #15 (227/196/189/150/103):

The hole pictured on the Meadow Valleys scorecard, the fifteenth is a seriously PGA-caliber par three. Playing from 227 yards from the tips, and 196 from the blues, the tee shot is typically straight in to the wind and must carry almost the entire distance. Anything short is dead. Anything left is dead. Anything right is dead. Anything long will require a good touch downhill to keep from hitting the aforementioned “short” dead zone.

With one of the widest greens on the course, though, it is not impossible.

Adding to the mystique of this hole is maybe the most gorgeous vista in all of golf from the fifteenth hole’s tee boxes: Over the green and up the fairway of the “Nature’s Course” 14th hole.

Hole 15: Par 3 (227/196/189/150/103)
Image from the course website, from the closer tee boxes

The Honorable Mention List:

11. Trapper’s Turn, Canyon Course #7 (158/140/126/93):

The seventh on the Canyon course is a very intimidating tee shot, but actually plays a little easier than expected. Both sides of the approach area are slanted upward, which funnels shots slightly left or right in to the green area. Both times I have played it I have found myself on the green by way of the friendly bounce, which is much appreciated when playing on a course as tight as the Canyon.

Hole 7: Par 3 (158/140/126/93)

12. Whistling Straits, Irish Course #11 (208/193/177/169/125):

Nicknamed “Lamb Chop,” the 11th at the Irish course is a long, and usually heavily wind-influenced hole chocked full of treachery. The cliff on the left side of the approach air zone provides a lot of character to the hole, and even that is wrought with sand traps. A sand trap from those areas would probably be best [or only] struck by the old “hand wedge.”

That was a [bad] joke, but this hole is not. It is absolutely gorgeous, with views of Lake Michigan and glorious mounding and bunkering.

Hole 11: Par 3 (208/193/177/169/125)

13. Geneva National, Palmer Course #16 (218/204/177/156/141)

The start of one of the best combinations of back-to-back holes in the state, the sixteenth at the Palmer Course is a beautiful and challenging par three. The tee shot is long, at 204 yards from the blue tees, and plays to the shoreline of Lake Como. The backside of the green drops off to the lake, while the left and right sides are bordered by sand.

Hole 16: Par 3 (218/204/177/156/141)
14. Hawk’s View, Como Crossings #17 (169/153/136/120/91)

Perched atop the former Mt. Fuji Ski Hill, the back tees afford a view of much of the surrounding Lake Geneva and Delavan area, and 87 feet down to the putting surface of this gorgeous par three. At 153 yards, the wind was swirling for our round, and club selection proved to be quite difficult. My eight iron looked to be on the back of the green, but showed up in the back-side sand trap, making for a tough out that would finally be holed for bogey.

Hole 17: Par 3 (169/163/136/120/91)
15. Castle at the Bay #3 (194/170/164/160/158):
A fanatastic replica of the 16th hole at Augusta, known as “Rosebud,” the third at the Castle course is absolutely gorgeous to look at, but very tough to play!
The long water hazard down the middle of the layout on this hole replaces what would otherwise be fairway, and cozies up to the bottom of the green area. The green is rather narrow, but long. It slopes severely downhill from the back to the front, and three strategically placed sand traps will make for a hellacious shot on to the green. Anything hit above the pin will roll downhill fast, and is almost likely to roll off and into the pond.
Hole 3: Par 3 (194/170/164/160/158)

16. Edgewood, Oaks Course #14 (178/153/141/104):

Featuring another fantastic island layout, the fourteenth is the signature hole of the fantastic back nine on Edgewood’s Oaks course. From elevated tee boxes, the green is absolutely huge, and is affronted by a long sand trap and water on all sides.

Hole 14: Par 3 (178/153/141/104)

17. Hawks Landing #17 (164/135/135/114/97):

Another fantastic island hole, the 17th at Hawks Landing is visible from the road that leads to both Hawks Landing and University Ridge. This is a gorgeously done green area, with a railroad-tied face holding the green above the pond in front. The pond creeps all the way to the front of the green, so carrying the water is absolutely essential on this hole.
Hole 17: Par 3 (164/135/135/114/97)

18. Washington County #14 (197/175/147/92):

The fourteenth at Washington County begins on elevated tee boxes, and tees off over a pond that fronts and lines the left side of the green area. The green slopes heavily toward the water, making the sand trap on the right side quite difficult to play from. There is a small bailout area short and to the right, but the only safe play is to the green itself.

Hole 14: Par 3 (197/175/147/92)
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Wisconsin’s Best Public Golf Courses

When you look at any of the key “Top 10” lists in the state of Wisconsin, there is certainly a lot of parity. My list is not much different from others, but I do like to think that I tend to be more subjective than the major media (GolfWeek, Golf Digest, How some state courses are consistently left out of the major top ten lists (ie: Wild Rock, SentryWorld, Geneva National, etc.), for example, is beyond me.

My Top Ten List:

1. Erin Hills (Erin, WI):

Golf Digest: #8 US public, #42 US top 100, #56 US toughest, #2 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #139 US modern, #31 US resort, #5 Wisconsin public #96 US top 100, #22 US public

Located in the middle of  nowhere, Southeastern Wisconsin, Erin Hills is looking forward to hosting hundreds of thousands of spectators for the 2017 US Open.

With fine fescue fairways, and bent grass tees and greens, Erin Hills is one of the most finely manicured courses in the country, and certainly in the state. Elevation is used stunningly, and craggy, deep sand traps abound the fairways and green complexes. The US Open will be the longest in history, around 7,700 yards.

With a slope of 145 from the championship tees, Erin Hills is one of the most challenging courses I have played, and also one of the most picturesque.

Hole 18: Par 5 (660/637/620/539/506)

2. Whistling Straits, Straits Course (Haven, WI):

Golf Digest: #4 US public, #22 US top 100, #48 world top 100, #6 US toughest, #1 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #6 US modern, #4 US resort, #1 Wisconsin public #28 US top 100, #6 US public, #49 world top 100

Host of the 2004 PGA Championship, 2007 US Senior Open, 2010 PGA Championship, 2015 PGA Championship, and the much-anticipated 2020 Ryder Cup, the Straits course is perennially rated as one of the top five golf courses in the country, alongside legends like Sand Hills, Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes and others.

The Straits course features eight holes that run alongside the shore of Lake Michigan, offering one of the most beautiful (and windy) natural settings for golf in the world.

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

3. Blackwolf Run, River Course (Kohler, WI):

Golf Digest: #16 US public, #32 US toughest, #4 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #56 US modern, #17 US resort, #3 Wisconsin public #89 US top 100, #14 US public

Absolutely breathtaking. I loved, too, that I could play it on Tiger Woods Golf the night before playing it for real! The 47th ranked modern course in the country, the River has been the site of many professional golf events, including the 1998 and 2012 US Women’s Opens, and in the mid-nineties the Arthur Andersen World Golf Championships.

The River is Pete Dye’s quintessential parkland course, with a championship tees slope of 151, making it one of the 30 toughest courses in America, and certainly one of the most beautiful.

Hole 4: Par 3 (219/195/185/146/117)

4. Whistling Straits, Irish Course(Haven, WI):

Golf Digest: #47 US public, #91 US top 100, #6 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #172 US modern, #35 US resort, #6 Wisconsin public #89 US top 100, #79 US public

The Irish course at Whistling Straits is the next best thing to its $400-plus big brother Straits course. Striking vistas of Lake Michigan, and a perfectly curated layout make this course quite memorable. The 10th hole (shown below), nicknamed “Shepherd’s Post,” provides one of the most visually stunning tee shots I have ever taken.

Hole 11: Par 3 (208/193/177/169/125)
Carved alongside the site of the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championship Straits Course, the Irish features much of the same charm that makes the Straits such a fantastic tournament venue: Roaming herds of sheep, huge cliffs and changes in elevation, and lightning-fast bent-grass greens and fairways that roll beautifully. Even the restrooms built into the hillsides add to the rustic charm that is the Whistling Straits.

5. SentryWorld (Stevens Point, WI):

Golf Digest: #5 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #4 Wisconsin public

Home of the famed “Flower Hole,” SentryWorld is much more than just one beautiful par three. The course is a classic Robert Trent Jones, Jr. parkland design in central Wisconsin, and has been a perennial top ten to fifteen course in the state for nearly 30 years (including number one until Kohler entered the scene).

SentryWorld is scheduled to reopen in the Spring of 2015, after a major course renovation was executed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and his course design team led by Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi.

The new SentryWorld is better than ever. The improved routing and added length have successfully updated the course for the times and technology, while making the course more challenging for low-handicap players and more enjoyable for the weekend warrior.

It is my prediction that SentryWorld: Reimagined will find it’s way back on to every major golf course ranking provider’s top ten list in 2015.

Hole 12: Par 3 (161/139/123/86/76)

SentryWorld Website

6. Lawsonia, Links Course (Green Lake, WI):

Golf Digest: #85 US public, #12 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #71 US classic, #2 Wisconsin public

The most legendary public course in the state, the Links is a perennial top 100 course in the United States, and Wisconsin’s most true to form links style setup. Highly elevated green complexes, huge elevation and devilish sand traps make it a fantastic test of golf.

Hole 13: Par 5 (568/556/489/489)

7. Wild Rock (Wisconsin Dells, WI):

Golf Digest: #15 Wisconsin

The one word that comes to mind when trying to describe this course is “Majestic.” How each hole seems to somehow outdo the last one is mind-boggling to me. The drastic changes in elevation, and the ridiculous length of this course is staggering, too (7,418 yards from the Quartzite tees). Wild Rock is a bit pricy, but well worth the $89 rate.

Hole 15: Par 3 (179/166/148/130/118)

8. Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys (Kohler, WI):

Golf Digest: #72 US public, #10 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #10 Wisconsin public

With nine of Blackwolf Run’s original 18 holes, the Meadow Valleys includes my number one favorite hole in the state of Wisconsin: The magnificent par four fourteenth, known as “Nature’s Course.” This is just one of many beautiful layouts on the Meadow Valleys.

I recommend not trying to play the Meadow Valleys from the tips, like we did on July 20, 2014. At 7,250 yards, there are par threes with forced carries of 227 and 230. Yikes.

Hole 14: Par 4 (423/409/384/376/293)

9. University Ridge (Madison, WI):

GolfWeek: #7 Wisconsin public

The split-fairway sixteenth hole is one of the coolest holes I have ever played. U-Ridge is a Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course, and is the home of the Wisconsin Badgers golf team. The back nine has some exceptional holes cut through the woods, starting with the thirteenth and continuing through sixteen.

Recently renovated for 2013, U-Ridge now features the same 007 Bentgrass greens as at the Olympic Club, Augusta, and other select world-class courses.
Hole 6: Par 5 (623/570/534/442)


My favorite of the three courses at Geneva National, the Palmer Course features some of the most unique hole layouts I have found in the state. The par five seventeenth hole is ranked as one of Arnie’s “Dream 18” holes, and is one of mine, as well.

Hole 17: Par 5 (573/530/485/421/406)
The Next Ten:

11. The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (Sheboygan, WI):
Golf Digest: #70 US public, #9 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #9 Wisconsin public
The Bull is beautiful, to say the least, with outstanding hole layouts. But, it is also incredibly tight and penalizing. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the course is spread out over 400-plus acres of former farm land, and beautifully incorporates the Onion River, dense forests, rolling hills, deep ravines, large ponds and significant elevation changes. The course rolls out one signature hole after another, especially in the stretch of the fifth through eighth holes, which is one of my favorite four-hole stretches of all time.
Hole 8: Par 5 (568/556/500/487/435)

12. Castle at the Bay (Arkdale, WI):

A primarily replica course, my only complaint about Northern Bay is that it’s too damn far away! I have a hard time deciding which of the replica holes is my favorite: Oakmont’s church pews, Firestone, Amen Corner, Bay Hill… Probably TPC 17. It helps that I seem to play well here, but Castle at the Bay is the most entertaining course I have played on.
View from the club house of hole 10

13. Hawk’s Landing (Verona, WI):

Featuring some of the truest, fastest greens in the state, Hawk’s Landing is a beautiful golf course with incredibly challenging par fives and great par threes.

Hole 9: Par 5 (587/550/533/469)

14. Lawsonia, Woodlands (Green Lake, WI):

One of Wisconsin’s most beautiful Fall-time courses, especially, the Woodlands at Lawsonia is in stark contrast to its world-famous sister course, the Links. With exceptional holes like the second, third and seventh on the front nine alone, the Woodlands is half of what makes Lawsonia one of my favorite Wisconsin golfing destinations.

Hole 2: Par 4 (341/329/315/315)

15. Geneva National, Gary Player Course (Lake Geneva, WI):

My close second favorite of the Geneva National layouts, the Player course has some great hole layouts, especially on their par fours. With a number of holes offering extreme risk/reward scenarios, Player allows golfers to risk disaster for the potential reward of more managable approaches.

Hole 5: Par 4 (354/310/283/257/255)

16. Hawk’s View, Como Crossings (Lake Geneva, WI):

With one of the best collections of par threes in the state, Como Crossings takes great advantage of its rolling Lake Geneva land and former Mt. Fuji ski hill.

Hole 17: Par 3 (169/153/136/120/91)

17. Grand Geneva, The Brute (Lake Geneva, WI):

Everything you need to know about The Brute at Grand Geneva is said in its name. This course is huge: Huge bunkers, huge water features, huge greens, huge elevation… Make sure to bring your A-game!

Hole 1: Par 4 (424/395/255)

18. The Bog (Saukville, WI):

Golf Digest: #14 Wisconsin

An Arnold Palmer signature course, The Bog is assuredly the Milwaukee area’s best overall public golf course (since the PGA Tour stopped coming to Brown Deer after 2009), and best championship test at 7,200-plus yards from the tips.

Hole 9: Par 5 (543/521/493/467/401)

19. The Oaks (Cottage Grove, WI):

The Oaks made its way to being one of my absolute favorite golf courses in the state this past year. Their greens are lightning quick and undulating, and its unique mix of six par threes and five par fives make it a wonderful test for anyone’s short and long games.

Hole 7: Par 3 (192/175/170/157/150)

20. Wild Ridge (Eau Claire, WI):

Wild Ridge was a perennial top ten course in the state of Wisconsin before the building boom of the 1980’s and ’90’s that introduced such tracks as Blackwolf Run, Whistling Straits, the Bull and Erin Hills. Wild Ridge has awesome elevation and a great collection of par fives. This was a great stop on the way back from the Twin Cities, just off of I-90/94 in Eau Claire.

Hole 12: Par 3 (184/153/141/127/127/107)

Notable Media Rankings:

GolfWeek’s Top Ten Public Courses in Wisconsin (2013)’s Top 15 Public Courses in Wisconsin (2012)

Golf Digest’s Top 10 Golf Courses in Wisconsin (2014)