Wisconsin's Golf Scene Is Heating Up

Paul Hundley

The host of this year’s U.S. Open tournament and the 2020 Ryder Cup, Wisconsin has emerged as a hotbed of golf—one that is poised to only get better.

Over the past quarter century, Wisconsin has been quietly establishing itself as one of the most enjoyable summer golf destinations in America, and with the arrival of Sand Valley Golf Resort, the state has become even more of a draw. Many fine courses are open to the public, including some that are easy to imagine as exclusive private clubs. Just as important, the game’s settings, from Lake Michigan to Kettle Moraine, highlight Wisconsin’s diverse natural beauty.

By many accounts, the course that first put Wisconsin on the map was SentryWorld (sentryworld.com), a 1982 Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation in Stevens Point, a 21⁄2-hour drive northwest of Milwaukee. SentryWorld had a gimmick that landed it in all the magazines: the Flower Hole 16th, a par-3 awash in tens of thousands of begonias, petunias, and other blooms. Although a recent renovation by the Jones firm in collaboration with Jay Blasi Design has freshened up a very good golf course, its lack of a hotel always limited its potential.

The seeds of what would become Wisconsin’s first national-caliber golf destination were planted a year earlier, in 1981, when Herbert Kohler Jr., scion of the Kohler plumbing-products company, converted a former employees’ dormitory near Sheboygan into a 241-room hotel known as the American Club (rooms from $320; americanclubresort.com). The resort that has grown up around it includes a spa and outdoor activities from pheasant hunting to river fishing. A private club-within-a-club called Riverbend is on the grounds of the Kohler family’s onetime manse.

Kohler’s first golf offering, Blackwolf Run, an excellent Pete Dye layout along the Sheboygan River, opened in 1988; by 2000, the resort had four Dye designs, headlined by the Straits course at Whistling Straits, about a 15-minute drive from the main campus.

Built atop a former military airfield on bluffs rising above Lake Michigan, the Straits course represents the apex of Dye’s maximalist style. With the course’s gonzo shaping and (approximately) 1,000 bunkers creating sensory overload, players would be forgiven for thinking the Straits is another of the architect’s torture chambers, especially those who witnessed Dustin Johnson’s misfortunes in the 2010 PGA Championship. The happy revelation is that for such a tough course, it’s also fun to play, provided the golfer doesn’t try to take on a set of tees beyond his or her skill level.

What makes it fun? For one thing, the native fescue areas on the Straits are so well managed. Unless you hit the ball into the lake—and there are a few opportunities to do just that—you can take chances with the driver and recover. Where the course ruins score-cards is around the greens: Missed approaches can find ledges, crevasses, and hanging sidehill lies, forcing awkward little pitches that are impossible to practice anywhere else. Best of all, the Straits is a walking-only design, and Dye’s routing makes it a pleasure, using two figure-eight loops to contend with the wind from different quarters. The Ryder Cup has been held at some uninspiring venues over the years, but when it’s contested at the Straits in 2020, the course should prove a more than worthy match for the event itself.

Speaking of major championship golf, this year’s U.S. Open served as the coming-out party for Erin Hills (erinhills.com), an 11-year-old design by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry, and Ron Whitten, about 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee. Erin Hills is the last to arrive among a small handful of courses selected by the United States Golf Association as part of an initiative, fostered by former executive director David Fay and his successor, Mike Davis, to bring its national championships to public venues more frequently. After a 2016 marred by PR miscues and rules-related embarrassments at signature events, the USGA needed a win in Wisconsin.

If it got one it will have been because this course is equal parts beauty and beast. The course is defined by its geology, a Kettle Moraine landscape in which long, rolling hills and marshy depressions were formed by glacial retreat. Without moving tons of earth, the architects placed tees and greens on ridges and hillocks and routed fairways through the connecting valleys. Indeed, if there’s a prevailing theme at Erin Hills, it’s the challenging uphill approach to a green controlled by an intimidating central bunker carved out of the slope. My favorite holes were the ones where the architects selected a different kind of green site—like the second, a short par-4 demanding a finicky pitch to a narrow, push-up green, and the 12th, which tumbles across wild, heaving ground toward a target nestled in a delightful saddle.


Courtesy Sentry Insurance

Erin Hills certainly feels like a U.S. Open venue. Sprawled over some 650 acres, it’s roughly an eight-mile walk, so it’s more physically taxing to play than most courses, with back tees stretched into the 7,800-yard range and fairways lined by crops of salubrious rough. It’s safe to say this year’s champion played some serious golf here—and his caddie earned every penny of his cut too.

Ninety minutes northwest of Erin Hills, in the resort village of Green Lake, Lawsonia Links (lawsonia.com) is a classic 1930 design by William Langford and Theodore Moreau. Langford was a Yale-educated engineer who returned to his native Chicago in 1917 to embark on a prolific career in golf design alongside Moreau, his construction chief.

Of the roughly 200 courses to their credit, nearly all of them in the Midwest, Lawsonia might be their finest. The pair were clearly influenced by the hard-lined, engineered style of C. B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, as the links features yawning bunkering and pushed-up greens defended by steep ramparts of turf. A prime example is the all-or-nothing par-3 seventh, where, according to legend, the green was built over a buried railway car—a miss short will leave the golfer some 20 feet below the putting surface. The most valuable skill for playing Lawsonia effectively might be the ability to escape from its deep hollows and bunkers.

Many golden-age designs have great “bones,” but the biggest surprise about Lawsonia is its superb level of maintenance. Full marks to Oliphant Golf (the course’s management company) and superintendent Mike Lyons for achieving this at an affordable public facility. Excellent conditioning emphasizes how Langford and Moreau’s bold features enhance the beauty of the property, a pastoral swath of rolling farmland that’s perfectly suited for the walking game. For the full effect, try to catch the links early in the morning or late in the afternoon; the shadow play against its broad-shouldered features and void-like hazards is truly striking.

The standard-setting luxury of Kohler’s courses, the championship drama of Erin Hills, and the vintage charms of Lawsonia are more than enough to make for a memorable week of golf, but the state’s newest resort, Sand Valley (rooms from $175 per night; sandvalleygolfresort.com), ties them all together with its own distinctive take.

The resort, which comprises 1,700 acres’ worth of rolling sand dunes on land that was once a commercial pine forest, 50 minutes south of Stevens Point, will offer as many as five courses when fully built out. At the moment, one 18 is complete, and a second, a David Kidd design, is under way. It’s the latest enterprise by Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links impresario Mike Keiser, whose son Michael played a prominent role. Channeling Pine Valley founder George Crump a century ago, the 35-year-old went so far as to spend weeks living in a tent on-site during the construction process (although he stresses his accommodations were still quite comfortable).

The resort’s first layout, by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, is a typically elegant outing for the design team, and an extraordinarily playable one by any standard: While never “easy,” it takes a truly avant-garde golf swing to lose a ball here. Some players may come off the final green feeling a touch disappointed by an experience more pleasant than punishing. Coore and Crenshaw’s work at Sand Valley may lack do-or-die thrills, but its quality improves as one reflects on its subtleties. For example, while the first hole features an inviting downhill drive to an extra-wide fairway, players should be sure to note the hole’s location on the huge green before heading into the valley—the approach plays back uphill, foxing depth perception. Similarly, on the ninth, the course’s other short par-4, it can be tempting to take a crack at the green with the driver, but a nervy partial wedge shot awaits those who come up short.

Sand Valley won’t punish players for lacking strength; instead it steals shots from those who fail to think their way around. It’s a course that invites discovery over multiple plays, yet it also gives the golfer space to soak in nature.

This last point is a priority for the developers. During our walk around the property, Michael Keiser was keen to tell Sand Valley’s conservation story rather than rattle off golf statistics or brag about amenities. He suggested that we pinch one of the copies of A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s 1949 environmental classic, that are stocked in Sand Valley’s cottages. Leopold’s book, written on a farm about an hour’s drive south, describes the march of the seasons in central Wisconsin. “Country may be rich,” he wrote, “despite a conspicuous lack of physical endowment, and its quality may not be apparent at first glance, nor at all times.”

These lines describe Sand Valley well. The property’s previous life as a commercial pine forest had concealed a rich seed bank of wildflowers and native plants, long dormant in the soil. With the monoculture stripped away, the colors and textures of an older, wilder Wisconsin have reemerged, and golfers are the beneficiaries.