LAKE GENEVA, Wis. -- A picturesque setting unfolds once golfers step out the back of the 56,000-square-foot clubhouse at Geneva National Golf Club.
From the back porch, the view soars over the golf courses and Lake Como, past the trees and homes that line the opposite shore, to the skyline in the distance. It's the first clue that golf at this 54-hole facility in southern Wisconsin will be special.
With courses designed by Lee Trevino, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, Geneva National is the second-largest golf facility in the state, behind only the famed four-course retreat at the American Club in Kohler. It is a staple of this lakeside tourist destination.
Geneva National might not have the charming resort amenities of the two-course Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, but its golf takes a back seat to nobody. Geneva National, which opened its clubhouse and the Palmer and Trevino courses in May 1991, celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year by hosting Palmer and Trevino back in May.
"Geneva National is an upscale golf experience," said John Cordell, a resident of the Chicago suburbs who regularly visits for golf. "They are nicely wooded."
All three courses essentially share the same land, so they're similar in topography and feel. It's the subtleties of the designs that end the debate about which architect did best.
The Player Course at Geneva National
Geneva National's Gary Player Course is the most fun to play. The 7,008-yard course got the prettiest scenery and the lion's share of strong holes. Player built the first nine holes (current holes 1-3 and 13-18) in 1995 and finished the routing (holes 4-12) in 2000.
The first hole plummets downhill toward the lake, the first of many fine vistas from elevated tees (such as the tee shots on the par-3 13th and par-5 14th). The toughest par 5 at Geneva National comes at the 588-yard second hole, which twists left toward an elevated green protected by water. The fifth, featuring a split fairway, can be drivable from the 310-yard gold tees. The par-3 sixth opens up to a whole new setting, an open meadow with ponds.
The routing of three par 3s and three par 5s on the back nine provides ample chances to score. The 14th is reachable in two for even short hitters like me, provided you hit a strong drive off an elevated tee to the corner of the dogleg left.
Terry Slocum, of Libertyville, Ill., considers the Player his favorite. "There's nothing tricky about it. You see all the challenges," he said. "There is nothing hidden. I think it is a fair course."
The Palmer Course at Geneva National
There's a minority that votes Geneva National's Arnold Palmer Course No. 1 for this reason: its finish along the shores of Lake Como.
The 7,171-yard Palmer starts off cruel with a tricky dogleg left with a stream fronting the green. Severe slopes characterize the greens, especially the second and seventh holes. The terrain rolls gently, allowing for the elevated green at the par-3 third and the elevated tee at the par-4 sixth.
But it's the par-3 16th that leaves an impression. The 218-yarder creeps to the shores of the lake. The par-5 17th hugs land's end the entire 573 yards.
"Those two holes are very nice," Slocum said. "The par 5 has a challenging end to it. The back of the green, there is nothing but rocks and the lake."
The Trevino Course at Geneva National
Geneva National's Lee Trevino Course has the lowest slope rating of the three tracks, yet still plays tougher because of its narrower fairways and hard-to-read greens.
Unfortunately, the 7,120-yard course lacks the charisma of the first two. There are no lake views. Virtually every real estate option at Geneva National -- townhomes, condos, large homes -- lines the fairways at one point or another.
The signature hole, the 520-yard, par-5 fifth, starts from elevated tee, ending at a green protected by a stream. The 15th and 18th also feature streams as their primary defense.
Geneva National's stay-and-play golf vacation packages
The owners of Geneva National recently took over the management of the Lodge at Geneva Ridge, which opened its 146 rooms and suites in the 1970s, operating as the Interlaken Resort & Country Spa for many years.
A room renovation and resort rebranding occurred in 2008. High-speed internet, restaurant service, a full-service spa, heated indoor and outdoor pools, a complete fitness studio and 20,000 square feet of meeting space are available.
The 283-room Lake Lawn Resort doesn't offer packages with Geneva National but makes a fine home base for any golfer. Situated on 250 acres just down the road from Geneva National on Lake Delavan, Lake Lawn has made an amazing comeback in 2011.
The resort, dating to 1878, spent millions of dollars on room upgrades earlier this decade, an investment that couldn't be recouped during the recession, forcing a bank foreclosure.
Lake Lawn closed Dec. 12, 2010. New local investors purchased the resort and are already sprucing it up once again.