LAKE GENEVA, Wis. - If only the walls at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa could talk.
There might be a good tale or two.
Although the resort is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, its history actually dates back to the days of the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Hugh Heffner opened the club in 1968. Grand Geneva Director of Golf Dave Hallenback was a lifeguard at the club almost 50 years ago and later worked in the golf shop, playing golf with dozens of celebrities and athletes. His stories drop names like Bob Hope and many of Chicago's legendary athletes.
The Playboy club closed in 1981, and for one brief night in 2018 came to life again at a 50th anniversary celebration. Today, Grand Geneva, owned by Marcus Hotels and Resorts since 1994, is more about cows (at its legendary Geneva Chophouse) and birds (golf) than bunnies. The 36-hole golf and ski resort is a corporate retreat to companies from Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee, all within easy driving distance. Families and golfers looking to trade the city life for the area's lakes and laid-back rural vibe are equally welcome.
The resort is rolling out the red carpet for its 25th anniversary celebrations this summer. A 25th birthday package includes a hardcover book, a Peanut Butter Bomb desert and two cans of specially brewed 25th Birthday Brute beer. June rolled back prices to 1994 with rooms at $105 and up and tee times on The Highlands and The Brute at $55 and up. My June stay mixed just the right cocktail of golf, dining and relaxation.
Grand Geneva is a sprawling 1,300-acre, AAA Four Diamond property, home to 355 rooms and 29 new villas. It's a four-season destination with the Mountain Top ski and snowboard facility and the 225-room Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, an indoor-outdoor waterpark. Walking into my room, I was immediately attracted to the balcony view overlooking the 18th hole of The Brute. A TV embedded inside the bathroom mirror was a surprise luxury item.
Both my days ended with fantastic meals. I wish I had the stomach for three entrees at Ristorante Brissago. The tomato and short rib sauce of the Rigatoni al Ragu more than satisfied. At the Chophouse, I checked off all the essential food groups - seafood (the impressive chilled seafood sampler), meat (ribeye) and dessert (carrot cake has vegetables, right?). Fireworks on Sunday nights over the lake cap off every summer weekend in style.
After two rounds of golf, the WELL Spa + Salon, located in a separate fitness building, was the best decision of the trip. The spa offers more than 65 treatments and services, including a traditional golf-themed massage that sedated me into a near-coma.
When one course is named The Brute and the other has Pete Dye's finger prints on it, you've got your hands full playing at Grand Geneva. The Highlands is a lovable mutt of a design. Dye and Jack Nicklaus laid down the original routing in 1970 as the Briar Patch. Too difficult for most, it was rerouted by Bob Cupp in 1996 with additional tweaking done by Chicago architect Robert Lohmann a decade later. Too many cooks in the kitchen has left a few quirky spots. What's the line off the tee on the par-5 11th?
Even with a few question marks, the 6,659-yard par 71 delivers a nice jaunt through woods and wetlands.
As for tackling The Brute, I had a score to settle. It slapped me around about 7-8 years ago. Our foursome made the controversial - and correct - move to split up, the better players teeing off from the 6,554-yard 'Championship' white tees and the short knockers (me) from the 6,000-yard 'Regular' golds. In hindsight, I should have played all the par 5s back a box - combo tees would have been nice. The ninth and 18th holes, bracketed by a lake are absolutely terrifying long par 4s. River-like tributaries leak out from the lake in three different directions, dissecting fairways on holes 1, 10, 15 and 17. With thick rough and rolling hills, The Brute can leave a mark on anybody's ego.
In the grand scheme of things, Grand Geneva has cemented its place atop the food chain in Wisconsin golf. In the past 25 years, new heralded resorts have emerged as competition to hog the spotlight: The American Club (2020 Ryder Cup) to the east; Erin Hills (2017 U.S. Open) to the north and Mike Keiser's Sand Valley to the west. Savvy golfers can turn this foursome of world-class resorts into a golf trail of sorts, flying into Chicago and picking them off one by one with Grand Geneva as the starting line or ending point. The bunnies are gone, but the birdies and bogeys live on. Grand Geneva's future remains bright for the next 25 years and beyond.