Playing three golf courses in Wisconsin when they have the second largest number of top 100 courses in the country, is a tease! Danny Seal, Founder of Golf Tourism Network gathered a few writers and tour operators from around the world for Wisconsin Golf Tourism week – a special tease with daily cheese, instilling a desire to return.
Our flight arrived after midnight at the Best Airport Award winner for 2021 – Milwaukee Airport. Bags appeared quickly and Uber delivered us to the Marriott Courtyard Milwaukee Airport Hotel where we found our new favorite pillow and not just because we were tired. The next morning, we hopped on a bus with strangers going to Stevens Point and after a flight of beers and brats at Central Waters Brewing, we were strangers no more. Welcome to Wisconsin.
Sentry World hosted the next two nights at their boutique Inn which just opened in March. The crisp and fresh Frank Lloyd Wright architecture combines iron and wood with cozy comforts for weary travelers in a peaceful wilderness setting. Spacious bedrooms include a balcony with rockers for listening to the language of birds while golfers on the 18th fairway seek birdies with their approach attempts. The complex bunkered green yields entertaining results with the renowned 16th green encircled by 35,000 brilliant flowers glowing beyond. Registration for a group can be trying but the porters were ready to whisk clubs to the course and receptionists quickly handed out keys with a choice of Spotted Cow ale, wine, or water in a commemorative refillable bottle. That little detail is noted by every visitor riding the elevator.
Thunder pounded and lightning lit the windows through the night before our tournament on the beautiful course. Some despaired but as we say, we’ll know at the end of the day what the weather was, and optimism prevailed. After an hour delay, the sun and smiles were shining for the shotgun start.
This is the site of the 2023 US Senior Open. Players and spectators will all be thrilled. Danny Rainbow, Director of Golf is personable and passionate about each event. While Sentry Insurance kept the course closed for two years to protect guests and staff, sub air systems were installed under greens and passed the drainage test with flying colors. Fairways were narrowed in preparation for the pro competition, and they are pristine. Soon the bridges will be updated to match the building architecture. Refreshing stations are positioned with the widest selection of beverages, snacks, and hot food for the all-inclusive green fee. Tee times are set 29 minutes apart for an unpressured round. It is not about the number of rounds, rather the high-end private feel. Built in 1982, RTJ II returned in ‘14 and ‘21 for modifications.
Celebrating their 40th anniversary, GM Mike James says the goal is to provide an upscale experience in unstuffy fashion. He has been committed to Sentry World since his first job in ‘89 starting in the cart barn. The Clubhouse holds the pro shop with the latest apparel trends, a bar/restaurant and conference rooms. The bar extends to a patio with firepits for warm gatherings. The Atrium was the spot for 15-minute speed dating sessions with representatives from Wisconsin regions and golf resorts. Lunch in the Grand room was a Wisconsin fish fry. Lightly battered cod is a traditional meal on Friday nights, especially at Wisconsin Supper Clubs where no membership is required but after dinner, everyone knows your name. On to the speed dating info:
Door County has the longest shoreline in the US and is considered the Cape Cod of the west with courses along the way. Wisconsin Dells is the Waterpark Capital of the World with 8,000 hotel rooms. The downtown atmosphere is like an offspring from a Myrtle Beach and Branson union. Situated on the Wisconsin River, tall sandstone canyon cruises are stunning. So was the cart tour of Wild Rock Golf Course at nearly dusk, with herds of deer and hilly holes.
The Golf Courses of Lawsonia in Green Lake have two distinct 18s – somehow under noticed, yet highly rated in the Top 100. Lake Geneva offers great golf all around the lake with standout resorts Grand Geneva Resort, the former Lake Geneva Playboy Club and Geneva National Resort and Golf Club. Sand Valley is pushing their “pursuit through winter” with pond hockey and ice water Wim Hoff breathing training. Their new Lido golf course has nine holes open this year and will complete the other nine with a grand opening next year and Sledge Valley course will open in 2024. Sand Valley books solid in the summer.
Day three’s teaser took us to Erin Hills for a coffee reception and tour of the cottage originally constructed for the owner. Now there are four of them, named after Irish courses, all without kitchens. Go to the clubhouse for meals. Another 15 rooms in the lodge equate to only 37 beds on property which fill up fast.
As Rich Tock, titled PGA Ambassador, in his 59th and final year says, “People don’t come on a budget. An all-in round is $500 compared to Kohler $650, Pebble Beach $800+. We strive for better service than anywhere in the world including Ritz Carlton.”
$240k went into the Drumlin staircase which leads to the 12-hole Drumlin Putting course for undulation elation over hills, like an elephant herd burial plot carpeted in green velvet. Caddies in white stand out on the course above as the wispy grass waves in the wind. We must return to play the extraordinary Dana Fry Straka design, built for the US Open.
Drumlin putting preps for the greens on the course at Lac La Belle. Built in 1896, golfers enjoy the trees and breeze over hilly, former farmland. Harsh Marshes with fescue and impossible side hill pin placements were the challenge of the afternoon.
Our final golf day was perhaps the greatest tease of all, visiting Kohler for a grand tour of the property, starting with the charming Inn at Woodlake with shops, a beach, and sports court in walking distance.
The American Club downtown however takes the cake as a five star, five diamond resort dripping with historical, elegant furnishings. A sweet little stained-glass café called the Greenhouse was once a playhouse for kids, today serving all, amidst the pretty gardens and walkways.
It’s a bittersweet time at Kohler since the beloved founder, Herb Kohler passed away a couple weeks ago. Posters are strategically positioned to commemorate his life and the commitment and passion of staff and family is resounding. Herb converted the original immigrant dormitory into the American Club hotel for guests so they could experience Kohler products and witness the quality manufacturing in the factory across the street. The impressive Kohler Design Center contains the latest fixtures available for today’s homes as well as a history museum.
Two distinct areas deliver fabulous Kohler golf. Black Wolf Run features two full Pete Dye Courses – Rivers and Meadow Valleys which we had the honor of playing with our English pal Paul. Immaculate fairways end with super-fast greens, adjustable by wind speed. Water stations with proper Kohler spigots stand beside restrooms under apple trees ripe for picking on a brisk first day of autumn.
Fairways are broad on the front, narrowing on the back, as number ten channels through trees after the complimentary brat to boost driving distance. Hear the music on the 11th tee from The Baths, a fun par 3 course to the right over the bluff. #14 has a green side bridge built from a railroad car with salmon swimming and feasting in the river below. An old barn with antique cow stanchions houses the restrooms with old farmer photos on the wall. Maple Syrup #17 leads to the multigreen #18 called Salmon Trap for a sweet finish along the river where the salmon were visibly spawning.
River Bend is another unique option for lodging. The former Governor’s 16th century Tudor home has its own spa, pool, and rathskeller with the widest array of Herb’s scotches, from $20-$3k per shot.
At Whistling Straits, the flying Irish and American flags are at half-mast to honor Herb and a Champions Room chronicles last year’s Ryder Cup. Walk through the clubhouse and the view of the course and ocean beyond is breathtaking. This was also the US Open Champions venue for ‘04, ‘10, and ‘15. A hillside chat by #11 overlooking the Great Lake Michigan was captivating to say the least. 170-210 caddies are employed but not mandatory according to the GM, Mike O’Reilly who started working here in college 26 years ago. 26-27k rounds a year are played here and on the Irish Course behind. Green fees are $250 for the Meadow Valleys and Irish courses, $350 for the River course, and $500 for Straits, plus caddy fees if selected. The season closes October 30, so plan for next year.
Wisconsin has become a best golf destination for domestic and international travelers alike with the exposure of the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. The entry city of Milwaukee is known as Brew City with over 50 micro-breweries and as Cream City with cream-colored bricks and cheese as a main production. Add the nicknames “City of Steeples and Festivals.” 3rd Street Market Hall has an ongoing festival atmosphere combining a large bar, music, food court, game area and Topgolf Swing Suite where simulators for football, soccer and dodgeball with zombies are added to the typical golf play.
“The best music, best golf, and greatest lake” are the winning combo that Travel Wisconsin and Visit Milwaukee love to tout. Rightly so.