By Jerry Poling
Looking to play 18? You’ve come to the right place – Wisconsin.
To paraphrase the old Lay’s potato chip commercial, you can’t stop at just one round. The golf is too good and summer too inviting.
In Wisconsin you should consider playing 18 courses, at least. We have more than 500 to choose from, including where the pros challenge for a major title, to the sporty layout out past the town hall or down by the lake.
We’ve got you covered with a starting list of some exceptional daily fee designs. The destination 18 will take you around the beautiful Badger state, fit your budget and challenge your game. These 18 courses are divided into three groups by greens fee. We call them the black, blue and white.
See you at the tee.
Black - $125 and up
The best players in the world came to the seaside Straits course, on the shores of Lake Michigan, in 2004, 2010 and 2015 for the PGA Championship. The Ryder Cup is coming in 2020. Enjoy the spectacular views on this walking-only course, but not too much. Plenty of challenges, including hundreds of bunkers, await on one of architect Pete Dye’s masterpieces.
Golf Digest magazine ranked it the third best public course in the U.S. in 2011. Next door, the adjacent Irish course doesn’t have the lake views but is a must-play as well. It was 35th on the Golf Digest list. Keep the camera handy in case the resident roving band of sheep appears over a knoll.
Just a short drive south along the lakeshore from Haven you’ll find two more top-tier U.S. courses owned by the Kohler Co., River and Meadow Valleys, also designed by Pete Dye. The River course, built along the Sheboygan River, ranked 15th in the Golf Digest list. It held the U.S. Women’s Open, for the second time, in 2012. Meadow Valley was ranked 60th by Golf Digest.
A relative newcomer to the state golf scene, Erin Hills, about 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, has made quite a splash. Site of the 2011 U.S. Amateur, it has been tabbed for the U.S. Open in 2017. This inland design, opened in 2006, was carved mostly by nature – as in the last glacier to visit Wisconsin about 10,000 years ago. Expect rolling terrain, knee-high native grasses and speedy greens on a windswept plateau. From the tips it's 8,000 yards.
This Jack Nicklaus design, opened in 2002, turned a historic 418-acre farm into another Sheboygan County golf destination. It also made the Golf Digest’s top 100 at No. 86.
With holes meandering through woods, wetlands and past the Onion River, Nicklaus created a visually memorable and strategic design that would challenge even his legendary skills.
Pick your poison -- the pro-style Palmer, Player or Trevino courses -- designed by the legends themselves at this 54-hole resort gem near Lake Como. The Palmer course has been billed as the best of the lot. Palmer shot 72 on opening day at his course, while Player shot 66 at his, leaving Palmer to quip that Player’s course must be a lot easier.
Blue - $75 to $125
It’s known for the par-3 Flower Hole, surrounded by 45,000 flowers, but SentryWorld, opened in 1982, is more than just another pretty face. Designed by famed architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., it was one of the state’s first true destination courses and has withstood the test of time. Expect plenty of water hazards, bunkers and lush fairways on this former marsh and woodland.
Built through the Cedarburg Bog, this Arnold Palmer design consistently ranks as one of the state’s best. There’s plenty of sand, water and woods to test even the best scratch player. Even the short holes, like the 318-yard par four 12th over a stream, may have you asking for a mulligan or wishing you had a few tricks in your bag like The King himself.
After winning the 1996 British Open, PGA Tour (and now Senior Tour) star Tom Lehman helped design the inland links Troy Burne. The Scottish influence is unmistakable, with more than 100 bunkers, including those of the fearsome stacked sod and pothole variety. Troy Burne held a Nationwide Tour men’s pro event several years ago. The back nine is as pretty and tough as any in the state.
The pros came to play here for years at the U.S. Bank Championship on the PGA Tour. In fact, it’s where a rookie named Tiger Woods made his tour debut in 1996. Expect mature trees, tight fairways and long par fours at Brown Deer, a Milwaukee County course that opened in 1929 and was renovated in 1987.
In recent years, with the addition of quality courses like Wild Rock, golf has become yet another reason to head to the Dells for vacation or just a well-deserved day off. Designed by renowned architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, Wild Rock is considered one of the state’s best designs. The topography in the Dells area in general and Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort in specific lends itself to visual surprises. At Wild Rock, you’ll negotiate an old quarry, a ridge, a ravine and a stand of hardwoods and enjoy grand views of the Wisconsin River valley.
Lovely Green Lake has been attracting tourists for more than 100 years. For more than 80 years, the Links Course at Lawsonia has been part of the draw. A classic, links test of golf with its penal greens and bunkers, the Links Course is one-of-a-kind in Wisconsin. It will leave you talking, possibly to yourself, after the round. Mesh the historic Links with the adjacent, modern Woodlands course and you’ve got a great weekend or mini-vacation.
Mix and match the Arbor, Canyon or Lake nines, or better yet play all 27. The Dells’ original destination course, now owned by Kalahari Resort, remains one of the state’s must-play courses. Architects Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion and state native, and Roger Packard challenge golfers with a little bit of everything, as the course names suggest. And there’s a fine Southern-style clubhouse to help you put it all in perspective after the round.
White – under $75
If Wisconsin had a home golf course, this would be it. There are plenty of Badger sightings in the figurative sense, as the University of Wisconsin golf teams call this home. The course itself, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is representative of Wisconsin, with prairies, woods, hills and water to test every aspect of your game. It’s a classic risk-reward challenge.
Architect Pete Dye is best known in Wisconsin for his Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run courses, but not to be overlooked is another gem -- Big Fish east of Hayward.
Big Fish’s front nine is a bit of Ireland, flat and pure links, and the back nine a lot of Wisconsin, cut through a rolling hardwood forest. Big Fish is named after the land of Wisconsin’s trophy fish, the musky. The course doesn’t have much bite in terms of water hazards, but there are plenty of Dye-abolical hazards.
When it opened in 1958, some golfers thought it was too tough. At about 6,800 yards, that’s not the case today; although this Lawrence Packard design through woods and over streams remains a strong test. Brown County has held many state-level events, including the State Open. A round at Brown County followed by a visit to nearby Lambeau Field – now that’s a day to remember.
An inland links-style course, Wild Ridge takes golfers on a wild ride through wetlands and up and over its namesake ridge on the back nine, where the wind and terrain can wreak havoc on your score. If you didn’t make enough birdies, try the adjacent Mill Run course at this popular and affordable 36-hole complex.
Judging by the name, you’d expect a lot of trees at Northwood. You’d be right. A classic up-North course, it’s a walk on the wild side with tree-lined fairways, water hazards and abundant wildlife. Yet it’s a fair course; one you’ll enjoy escaping to time and again while on vacation.
It’s in Wisconsin – barely – but it seems a world away. Built on the bluffs 500 feet above Lake Superior and overlooking the picturesque Apostle Islands, you’ll be hard-pressed to stay focused on your game. Although the course is less than 6,400 yards, there are challenging elevation changes, tricky winds, putts that seem to break uphill and those beguiling shots downhill toward the greatest of the Great Lakes.
Poling is co-author of "Golf Wisconsin: the official guide to the state's top 25 public courses.''