Golf in Wisconsin: A seven-day trip in America's Dairy Land

KOHLER, Wis. -- Any golfer who is even vaguely familiar with Midwestern golf knows that the Great Lakes region is a golfer's paradise. Despite a short playing season, the rolling hills, endless lakeshores, hardwood forests and plenty of water combine for the perfect golf course topography.

Likewise, if you're aware of all of the above, you also know that in the Great Lakes region, Michigan is king. Michigan once had more public golf courses than any other state -- not per capita, simply more courses.

These days, the region boasts a couple of contenders to the golfing crown, and Wisconsin is making the strongest push toward golf supremacy, in large part because America's Dairy Land will be playing host to the 2015 PGA Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup (both at Whistling Straits) and the 2017 U.S. Open (at Erin Hills).

Frankly, any avid golfer looking to plan a trip to one of America's coasts would be remiss to ignore Wisconsin's "East Coast" along Lake Michigan.

Whether you're planning a trip to one of the major upcoming events or just looking for a Midwestern getaway, here's a week-long Wisconsin golf itinerary that won't disappoint.

Days 1-2: Grand Geneva Resort and Spa

In 1968, this opulent resort opened as the Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotel, and Hugh Hefner hosted innumerable movie, music and sports stars over the ensuing decade and a half. In 1993, the extensive facilities were reinvigorated and re-conceived as the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa.

We'll be honest: You could easily spend your entire week here. On top of two fine golf courses, the resort offers disk golf, rock climbing, mountain biking, riding stables, tennis courts, an indoor-outdoor waterpark, opulent dining and 13,000 acres to explore. It even has its own landing strip where the well-heeled could buzz into and out of the Lake Geneva area, an historic retreat for Chicago's wealthiest families.

But our focus is golf, so we'll allot just two days to play the resort's two very different layouts. The Brute (7,085 yards, par 72) is a 1968 Robert Bruce Harris design that is relatively forgiving off the tee but then challenges with numerous smallish, elevated, turtleback greens that demand precise approaches. Don't count your score before you navigate the two long closing par 4s (420 yards and 464 yards, respectively).

Grand Geneva's Highlands Course (6,659 yards, par 71), also dating from 1968, was an early Jack Nicklaus-Pete Dye collaboration. Since then, it has been redone, opened up and softened a bit by Bob Cupp in 1996 and Bob Lohman in 1998. Tighter off the tee than The Brute, it is more of a shotmaker's course, with several short par 4s that allow a wide range of club selections on tee shots. All but the biggest big hitters will likely find the Highlands Course more accommodating, but it's difficult to compare the two tracks, even though they are situated on the same land; they are just very different -- and equally enjoyable -- types of designs. Rates range from $59-$150.

Off the course, aside from the resort amenities noted above, take an afternoon to head into the town of Lake Geneva. On the namesake lake's 26 miles of shoreline, you'll find the sprawling, historical summer homes of Chicago's wealthiest families, including those of the founders of corporations such as Wrigley, Montgomery Ward, Swift, Armour and TrueValue. Boat tours of the lake allow you to peek into the backyards of these Gatsby-esque "vacation" estates. Also make time for a Golfer's Massage at the resort's WELL Spa.

Day 3: Erin Hills

This Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten design opened in Erin (35 mi. NW of Milwaukee) in 2008, and three years later, it was hosting the 2011 U.S. Amateur. In 2017, it will host Wisconsin's first U.S. Open. What makes this 7,812-yard, par-72 course, which climbs and tumbles over natural dairy cattle pastureland, so special?

We asked Dr. Hurdzan this question, and the answers turn out to be too extensive to list here, but he sums up the magic of Erin Hills Golf Course as follows:

"I believe that it is a combination of the soothing flow of the landforms, the quiet of the surroundings, the sight of Holy Hill from 13 or 14 holes, the rustic nature of the buildings, the great open spaces that encourage the wind to wave the fescue grasses like waves on a lake or ocean, and the sense of security and belief that something special is waiting for you just over the next hill. In a word, it's a 'cool' place."

Erin Hills contrasts with the Straits Course at Whistling Straits and Chambers Bay in a number of ways. First, significant amounts of dirt were moved on only three of Erin Hills' 18 holes, compared to the massive excavations involved in the other two major venues. Second, the continuous elevation changes are gentle and natural, and there's plenty of room for galleries to view every hole and get close to the action. Third, although it looks linksy, with acres of natural fescue and just eight trees, Erin Hills plays like a parkland course, and the greens are true as can be -- both features that players appreciate.

Although Erin Hills was originally conceptualized as a "poor man's Whistling Straits," the green fees are currently $245. In addition, walking is mandatory, and caddies ($55 fee, plus gratuity) are recommended. So the course might not be affordable for everyone, but it is playable for everyone, with six different tees and a wide-open feel off the tee. A rustic (but luxurious) lodge and several cottages are on site, along with a pub and excellent clubhouse restaurant. (Try the duck sliders!)

During certain times, you can get a 2-for-1 deal on golf included with overnight accommodations. It is indeed a "cool" place and well worth the expense to play what promises to be a wildly popular U.S. Open venue.

Days 4-7: The American Club

Disclaimer: We think you should spend more than three days at the American Club in Kohler. This iconic and unique resort offers four Pete Dye courses, not to mention the Kohler Waters Spa (try the Rain Man or Woodsman Massage treatments), one of the best restaurants in the Midwest (The Immigrant Room) and a host of five-star amenities.

Golfers will want to plan their visit around the Straits Course at Whistling Straits ($385, walking only, caddie required). In 2015, The Straits will host its third PGA Championship, and in 2020 it will host the Ryder Cup. Stretched to 7,790 yards, this course will give the pros all they can handle, especially if the wind is whipping in from the northeast over Lake Michigan. The holes perched above the lake are ideal for TV audiences and your photos alike.

For all of The Straits' splendor, though, most of the dunes and bunkers (all man-made, by the way) are eye candy. Mike O'Reilly, head golf professional at Whistling Straits, said, "If you can get over the visual intimidation, you'll be fine."

Of course, it helps to have a caddie ($55, plus gratuity) and to play off the appropriate set of tees. The Straits is a big, brawny course like Erin Hills, but it does its best to intimidate you, whereas Erin Hills can lull you into a false sense of comfort. Both courses offer easy bogeys but make you work for par or better.

On the same site as The Straits is the Irish Course ($190, including cart, cartpath only), our second-favorite course in Kohler. Like The Straits, this 6,958-yard, par-71 track has a mostly linksy feel and offers views out over the lake (and The Straits). Also on both courses, the greens look far more undulating than they really are -- we over-read most putts on both. The Irish is a great warm-up for The Straits.

The River Course ($275) and the Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run ($190) are two championship parkland tracks next door to the American Club, which have been combined to host two U.S. Women's Opens.

The 7,404-yard River Course is demanding from all the tees, as many holes run along the Sheboygan River and are densely wooded. The 7,250-yard Meadow Valleys sets up as more forgiving, for the most part, but also has plenty of teeth. Either course will be memorable, with a completely different feel from the stark links-scapes of the courses at Whistling Straits.

Bonus round/day: The Bull at Pinehurst Farms

Just south of Kohler, you'll find The Bull at Pinehurst Farms ($55-$140). The 7,354-yard track is Wisconsin's only Signature Jack Nicklaus Design, and it demands precision and control from tee to green.

Our caddie at Erin Hills said that they get lots of play from members at The Bull who are excellent sticks -- plenty of practice playing a stout target-golf course. The routing into the woods (starting on the fifth hole) and back and forth across the river is lovely, but there are long drives between greens and tees. Here, as at Erin Hills, you are likely to see sandhill cranes on the course, which is pretty cool, too.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.
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Golf in Wisconsin: A seven-day trip in America's Dairy Land
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