Whistling through Wisconsin
Published: April 2009
By Gary D’Amato
From the rugged lakefront bluffs of Kohler’s Whistling Straits to the fields of golden fescue at Erin Hills—a potential U.S. Open venue—golf in the Dairy State has clearly come of age. <strong>Plus</strong>: <a href="/tlgolf/articles/golf-mark-kings-wisconsin-favorites">Mark King’s Wisconsin favorites</a>.
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
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
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
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.
Golf Courses of Lawsonia, Links
Located outside tiny Green Lake in central Wisconsin, this magnificent old layout gets overlooked too often in conversations about the Midwest’s finest public courses. Its architects, the Golden Age tandem of William Langford and Theodore Moreau, traveled to the British Isles to photograph and sketch famous holes, then returned to Green Lake to lay out a course with huge push-up greens and deep, forbidding bunkers. Legend has it they built the par-three seventh atop a buried boxcar—the green is fronted by a twenty-foot vertical wall. Golfers standing on the elevated tee of the par-five ninth are treated to a spectacular view of emerald fairways twisting through flaxen fescue. In the 1930s, the course hosted the Little Lawsonia Open, which drew the likes of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Over the years, Lawsonia has weathered ownership changes and periodic closings, housed German POWs during the Second World War and been considered as a site for the U.S. Air Force Academy. As part of a restoration almost a decade ago, hundreds of trees were removed and fairways were widened. By contrast, the Links’ sister course, the Woodlands, is carved out of a forest. It’s worth playing if time allows.
W2615 South Valley View Drive, Green Lake. Architects: William Langford and Theodore Moreau, 1930. Yardage: 6,801. Par: 72. Slope: 130. Green Fees: $75–$85. Contact: 920-294-3320, lawsonia.com.
Blackwolf Run, Meadow Valleys
Soon after opening the River Course at Blackwolf Run, Herb Kohler realized that a single eighteen wouldn’t be enough to satisfy demand at his resort. So he and Dye decided to split the original eighteen in half and build nine-hole additions for each (they had to do it that way because the available land lay on either side of the course). Given the River’s popularity and critical acclaim, their plan initially raised eyebrows, but it came to be seen as inspired. Today’s River and Meadow Valleys courses are both exceptional layouts that call on a variety of shots. At the less intimidating Meadow Valleys, that variety can include a long iron or hybrid to the narrow tree-lined fairway at the short par-four tenth and a booming draw off the tee at the long and comparatively wide-open two-shot twelfth. The heart of the course, however, is the three-hole stretch of rising and tumbling ground beginning at thirteen. It concludes at Mercy, the 227-yard fifteenth, where from the rear tee box the shot must be played across a vast ravine to an oblong green, with no trees or other background features to frame the hole.
1111 West Riverside Drive, Kohler. Architect: Pete Dye, 1990. Yardage: 7,142. Par: 72. Slope: 144. Green Fee: $155. Contact: 920-457-4446, destinationkohler.com.
The Bull at Pinehurst Farms
As a boy, David Bachmann Jr. ordered grass seed from a catalog and tried to build a golf hole in a clearing on his family’s cattle farm in Sheboygan Falls. The seed didn’t take and Bachmann shelved his dream for three decades, until the late 1990s, at which point he hired Jack Nicklaus to undertake what he hadn’t accomplished. The result is the Bull at Pinehurst Farms, a bucolic high-end public course situated a few miles from Kohler. Nicklaus made canny use of the land, routing holes along the Onion River and negotiating forests, wetlands and a forty-foot ravine. The Bull is at once breathtakingly beautiful and exceedingly challenging. The par-four fifth, which curls left around the ravine, and the all-carry one-shot sixth, with its two-tiered green flanked by yawning bunkers and trees, are among the finest back-to-back holes in the state. It’s worth noting that, unlike with many courses he designed earlier in his career, Nicklaus didn’t lay out the Bull with his trademark power fade in mind. For every hole that favors a left-to-right ball flight, there’s one made to order for a draw.
One Long Drive, Sheboygan Falls. Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 2003. Yardage: 7,354. Par: 72. Slope: 147. Green Fee: $145. Contact: 920-467-1500, golfthebull.com.
University Ridge Golf Course
Home of the University of Wisconsin golf teams, this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design unfurls across a windswept plateau on the edge of the Driftless Area, a region of the Midwest marked by deep river valleys and a lack of glacial drift (a geological term for the silt, gravel and boulders left by retreating glaciers). The Ridge, as the course is known, has a scenic front nine routed through mostly open prairie and a back nine cut through dense forest. Jones built generous fairways and bail-out areas around the greens—but poorly struck shots are by and large punished. The second hole is a memorable risk-reward par five where drives off the elevated tee must carry a rock-strewn gully and a pair of fairway bunkers in order to give long hitters the option of going for the green. Perhaps the sternest test comes at eighteen, a par four that turns left and climbs a hill to a large bi-level green. It’s a potent finishing hole.
9002 County Road PD, Verona. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1991. Yardage: 7,259. Par: 72. Slope: 142. Green Fees: $48–$89. Contact: 608-845-7700, universityridge.com.
Best of the Rest
Brown Deer Golf Club (browndeergolfclub.org), the county course that hosts the U.S. Bank Championship, may be best known as the venue where Tiger Woods made his professional debut. Opened in 1929, it’s an old-fashioned parkland design with tree-lined fairways and thick rough. Twenty miles north is The Bog (golfthebog.com), an Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design that weaves through wetlands and has lightning-fast greens. The massively bunkered and mounded Irish Course at Whistling Straits (destinationkohler.com) rounds out an unbeatable foursome at Kohler. Should your travels take you to the northern half of the state, SentryWorld (sentryworld.com) in Stevens Point, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. for the Sentry Insurance Company, is a must-play. Its par-three sixteenth “flower hole” is festooned with sixty thousand blooming plants. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry’s Wild Rock Golf Club (golfwildernesswoods.com) opened in May in Wisconsin Dells, the water-park mecca, and is expected to garner much acclaim.
Where to Stay
The American Club Once a dormitory for immigrant Kohler employees, the American Club combines old-world charm with contemporary luxury, including the company’s signature whirlpool baths. The hotel sits in the heart of the quaint village of Kohler, just up the road from Blackwolf Run and fifteen minutes from Whistling Straits. The amenities include the Kohler Waters Spa and a five-hundred-acre preserve, not to mention the Kohler Design Center, a showcase of bathroom fixtures and model kitchens.
419 Highland Drive, Kohler. Rooms: $300. Contact: 920-457-8000, destinationkohler.com.
Angel Inn Bed & Breakfast Proprietors Dave and Kathy Greening bought this Greek Revival mansion on Green Lake a decade ago and converted it into a B&B. The ornate pillars and plasterwork on the first floor are original, dating to 1910. Each room has a whirlpool and fireplace, and those on the south side offer great views of the lake. The inn is ideal for small groups of golfers in town to play the Lawsonia courses.
372 South Lawson Drive, Green Lake. Rooms: $145–$195. Contact: 920-294-3087, angelinns.com.
Delafield Hotel If you choose not to stay at Erin Hills (see page 112), this two-year-old boutique hotel, a meticulously converted brick warehouse a half-hour south of the course, is an excellent option. The only Wisconsin lodging certified by the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it’s owned by Erin Hills developer Bob Lang. No two rooms are alike in dimensions or furnishings, many of which come from Lang’s own antiques collection.
415 Genesee Street, Delafield. Rooms: $225–$450. Contact: 262-646-1600, thedelafieldhotel.com.
The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club The top three floors of this large downtown hotel are set aside for the Governor’s Club, a collection of opulent rooms and suites. The hotel has a full-service restaurant and a bar that offers live jazz three nights a week. There’s also a fitness center, sauna and indoor pool.
One West Dayton Street, Madison. Rooms: $125–$175. Contact: 800-356-8293, concoursehotel.com.
Where to Eat
Andrew’s Bar & Restaurant (Contemporary American) This white-linen restaurant in the Delafield Hotel has acquired a following for its outstanding upscale American fare, attentive service and extensive wine cellar. Diners can choose between floor-to-ceiling private booths, parlor seating and, in warm weather, a veranda.
415 Genesee Street, Delafield; 262-646-1620, thedelafieldhotel.com. $$$
Immigrant Restaurant (Contemporary) The culinary flagship of the American Club, the Immigrant consists of six intimate rooms decorated in the European style of Wisconsin settlers, a tribute to those who worked for the Kohler Company in the early 1900s. The menu, however, is the antithesis of plebeian, hitting such high notes as Hudson Valley foie gras and Tasmanian king salmon.
419 Highland Drive, Kohler; 920-457-8888, destinationkohler.com. $$$$
Leon’s Frozen Custard A Milwaukee institution, this neon-lit drive-in custard stand on the south side is straight out of the 1950s. (In fact, it was the inspiration for Arnold’s Drive-In in Happy Days.) Be prepared to stand in line for ten or fifteen minutes on warm summer nights, but one taste of the cold, rich custard—made fresh each day—and you will be glad you did.
3131 South 27th Street, Milwaukee; 414-383-1784. $
L’Etoile (French) The owners of this celebrated Madison restaurant, whose exposed-brick second-floor dining room overlooks Capital Square, are champions of the farm-to-table movement. They tailor the ever-changing menu around weekly bounty from the city’s bustling farmers’ market.
25 North Pinckney Street, Madison; 608- 251-0500, letoile-restaurant.com. $$$$
Mo’s: A Place for Steaks (Steak house) Not quite a decade after Mo’s opened in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, it’s consistently voted the best steak house in the city. The thick-cut pork and veal chops are the choice on the menu, although that takes nothing away from the bone-in rib eye and the filet mignon. There’s also a long list of single malts, cognacs and vintage ports on offer, perfect for sipping in the cigar lounge.
720 North Plankinton Avenue, Milwaukee; 414-272-0720, mosaplaceforsteaks.com. $$$$
(Regional) This down-home lakefront place is all about tradition. The host of live bands and waterskiing shows, it’s been drawing summer crowds since 1948. Norton’s signature dish is Canadian walleye pike, served deep-fried or broiled. The same chef has run the kitchen for seventeen years.
380 South Lawson Drive, Green Lake; 920-294-6577, nortonsofgreenlake.com. $$$
Thirteen airlines offer more than 230 daily flights into Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. Rental cars can be picked up and dropped off at the terminal, which is open twenty-four hours. The airport is just ten minutes from downtown Milwaukee, an hour from Kohler (via Interstate 43) and ninety minutes from Madison (via Interstate 94). Despite a series of recent highway-construction projects in and around the city, even rush-hour traffic in greater Milwaukee tends to be manageable. Another way to get to Wisconsin is to fly into Chicago, which is ninety minutes south of Milwaukee by car.
Milwaukee Country Club, designed in 1929 by the team of H. S. Colt and C. H. Allison, is a prime example of Golden Age course design. A parkland layout in suburban River Hills, it will host this year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur in September. Gene Sarazen won the 1933 PGA Championship at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club in Wauwatosa, on Milwaukee’s west side. The unmistakable imprint of Donald Ross can be found at Kenosha Country Club, a half-hour south of Milwaukee, and the Oconomowoc Golf Club, forty minutes west of the city. Tuckaway Country Club, in the southwest suburb of Franklin, hosted the Greater Milwaukee Open (now the U.S. Bank Championship) from 1973 to 1993.
Cheeseheads on Tour
Five players on the PGA Tour call Wisconsin home, including Steve Stricker, who, after rebuilding his swing in the winter of 2006 by hitting yellow balls into the snow at Cherokee Country Club in Madison, rose from 337th to fourth in the world rankings. He and Jerry Kelly, also of Madison, live in the Dairy State year round. The other three cheeseheads on Tour are Mark Wilson, J. P. Hayes and Skip Kendall. Wisconsin has also produced the two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North and the LPGA star Sherri Steinhauer.
On- and off-campus
Built on an isthmus between two lakes, Wisconsin’s vibrant capital is home to the University of Wisconsin, the tenth-largest university in the nation. Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright, a native son, will marvel at his Unitarian Meeting House, with its arresting “prow” thrusting up from a hunkered-down façade. Also worth a visit is the Wright-inspired Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (mononaterrace.com), which offers tours and a photo exhibition on the last twenty years of the architect’s life. State Street is replete with bookstores and coffeehouses, and Madison’s pub scene is thriving: Try J. T. Whitney’s for its microbrews and homemade sodas, the Bavarian-themed Essen Haus, and the b for its beer garden.
Beyond Green Bay
Often referred to as the Cape Cod of the Midwest, Door County (doorcounty.com) forms the tip of the peninsula extending off the lakefront of eastern Wisconsin. It has three hundred miles of pristine coastline and secluded beaches, five state parks, ten lighthouses, postcard-pretty harbor towns and a thriving arts scene. In Door County you can watch the sun rise across Lake Michigan and set over Green Bay. Be sure to tee it up at scenic Peninsula Park Golf Course (peninsulagolf.org), high above the shores of Green Bay—but try not to be distracted by the sailboats tacking around the islands below. You can also rent a fishing charter or ferry across the six-mile-wide Death’s Door passage to unspoiled Washington Island.
Milwaukee is practically synonymous with beer. Both Miller and Pabst are based in the city. Miller (millerbrewing.com), established in 1855, offers free one-hour tours of its brewery, capped off by generous samples in the pub. Wisconsin also has more than sixty brewpubs and microbreweries, many of them in and around Milwaukee and Madison, including local favorites New Glarus (newglarusbrewing.com) and Sprecher (sprecherbrewery.com). For a complete list, visit brewpubzone.com.
There is no greater landmark in Wisconsin than b, home of the beloved Green Bay Packers. This football shrine was dedicated as City Stadium in 1957 and renamed eight years later following the death of Earl “Curly” Lambeau, one of the franchise’s co-founders. Lambeau Field is the social center of the NFL’s smallest city, and every home game since 1960 has sold out. The stadium’s five-story atrium houses restaurants, a brewpub and the Packers Hall of Fame. The stadium is two hours from Milwaukee and one hour from Kohler. Stadium tours (packers.com) are available, and visitors in July and August can catch a Packers preseason practice at the Don Hutson Center across the street.