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Whistling through Wisconsin

© Paul Hundley/Courtesy of Erin Hills GolfGuide: Whistling Through Wisconsin

Photo: Paul Hundley/Courtesy of Erin Hills

Let’s start by getting the clichés out of the way: the beer and the bratwurst, the cows and the cheese, the silos and all that snow. Everything you ever wanted to know about Wisconsin, rattled off in a few stereotypes. Sure, the phrases “America’s Dairyland” and “golf destination” might seem incompatible. But the transformation of Kohler, an old red-brick company town, into a lavish golf resort that’s home to Whistling Straits and three other first-rate designs by Pete Dye, has done much to change that. So, too, has the opening of Erin Hills. An inland links laid out over sweeping glacial terrain, the course has been awarded the 2011 U.S. Amateur and is being eyed as a potential U.S. Open site.

Even beyond these modern gems, Wisconsin maintains a proud golf tradition. Milwaukee has supported a PGA Tour event for forty years, and venerable Milwaukee Country Club—site of this year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur—is a mainstay in rankings of the nation’s top hundred courses. And although Wisconsin’s winters are well known (thanks to nationally televised Green Bay Packers games), few states can boast of having better golf weather—or smoother bent-grass greens—from June through September.

Where to Play

Whistling Straits, Straits

(5 stars)

An ode to the classic links of the British Isles, the Straits Course is a moonscape of sand dunes, craggy knobs and confounding bunkers hard by the western shore of Lake Michigan. It is striking in its seemingly natural beauty yet almost entirely man-made. Herb Kohler, head of his family’s plumbing-fixtures empire, spared no expense in hiring Dye and having him turn what had been an utterly flat former military base into Ballybunion West. Trucks hauled in sand for months, and to complete the illusion a flock of Scottish blackface sheep was imported and set upon the flanks of the course to graze. Kohler officials once tried to count the number of bunkers on the Straits by examining an aerial photograph, but they gave up because the course has literally thousands, ranging in size from an on-deck circle to a football field. Golfers are further challenged by a buffeting wind and, frequently, pervasive fog. Dye brilliantly placed all four par threes on the edge of a bluff. Two of them (the deep-greened third and the majestic seventeenth) run from north to south, with water looming on the left, and the other two (the heavily bunkered seventh and the short downhill twelfth) play in the opposite direction. The PGA Championship, held here four years ago, will return in 2010 and 2015, followed by the 2020 Ryder Cup.

N8501 City Road LS, Haven. Architect: Pete Dye, 1998. Yardage: 7,288. Par: 72. Slope: 151. Green Fee: $330. Contact: 920-565-6050, destinationkohler.com.

Blackwolf Run, River

(4.5 stars)

It was out of necessity that Herb Kohler built Blackwolf Run a decade before undertaking Whistling Straits. Guests at Kohler’s American Club had begun complaining that the area’s public courses weren’t commensurate with the overall experience at the resort. So he commissioned Dye to design a course in the pristine Sheboygan River Valley. Although the two men butted heads over chainsaws and specimen oaks—Kohler was on the side of preservation—they became fast friends, teaming up to create the most influential course to open in Wisconsin in forty years. Today’s River Course consists of nine holes from that original eighteen plus a subsequent nine (the same is true for its gentler sister layout, Meadow Valleys). The snaking river is the dominant feature, coming into play on more than a dozen holes. The down-and-then-up par-four fifth demands two precise shots and offers a gorgeous tableau: flanking fairway bunkers, fly-fishermen flicking their lines in the Sheboygan off to the right, and a plateau green on high. At the short par-four ninth, you can bail out left or take dead aim for the green by attempting to carry a stand of cottonwoods.

1111 West Riverside Drive, Kohler. Architect: Pete Dye, 1988. Yardage: 6,991. Par: 72. Slope: 148. Green Fee: $220. Contact: 920-457-4446, destinationkohler.com.

Erin Hills Golf Course

(4.5 stars)

Since opening two years ago, this expansive and rough-hewn links in farm country forty miles northwest of Milwaukee has been one of the most talked-about new courses in the nation. The land—rumpled with the eskers, depressions and grassland dunes of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine—was so ideally suited for golf that the architects wisely approached it with a light hand, moving earth on only four of the holes. There’s a wonderful mix of long and short par fours, and the putting surfaces vary from three thousand to twelve thousand square feet. The greens are perched on knobs, banked into hillsides, set among mounds and, at the par-three seventh—an homage to the Dell hole at Lahinch—nestled in a hollow. “A lot of holes remind me of Shinnecock,” says PGA Tour pro Steve Stricker, a lifelong Wisconsinite. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in our state.” If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the course is very difficult for the average golfer and therefore prone to slow play. For a complete experience, stay over in one of seven new guest rooms in the clubhouse. Singles and doubles are $195 per night, and suites begin at $495, and all have private baths, antique furnishings and flat-screen TVs.

7169 County Highway O, Hartford. Architects: Dana Fry, Michael Hurdzan and Ron Whitten, 2006. Yardage: 7,824. Par: 72. Slope: 141. Green Fee: $160. Contact: 262-670-8600, erinhills.com.

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