Golf Channel's Summer Swing is chronicling golf in all 50 states through Labor Day.
Don't sleep on Wisconsin as arguably America's best summer golf destination.
Hear me out. Other than California, Wisconsin is the only state with two modern-day major championship venues open to the public. If you're comparing the state's best golf resorts to others around the country, you could say that The American Club is the "Pebble Beach" of the Midwest, and the new Sand Valley Golf Resort its "Bandon Dunes". Not bad, right? Wisconsin is also the only state home to three different walking-only resort facilities - Sand Valley, Whistling Straits and Erin Hills - a popular new trend that's bringing the classic feeling of walking with a caddie back into the game.
But the real reason Wisconsin is so compelling is its variety of architecture and playing styles among its courses. Name another state with public designs by David McLay Kidd, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, and Robert Trent Jones Jr. You can't.
I did a magical golf trip through the state's midsection last summer after the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. I fell in love with a few courses I had written about before but never seen.
Since we can't all be like H. John Krueger - who claims he has played all 547 nine- and 18-hole courses in the state - I've come up with a dream itinerary galavanting around Wisconsin's winding back roads. It's an aggressive driving-and-playing-all-day kind of schedule, but it's the only way to see such compellingly different sites. I feel guilty leaving one of the state's top golf destinations - Lake Geneva - entirely out of the story. That's how deep the roster of must-play courses really is.
Since summer days linger longer in the Midwest than most of the rest of the country, you should have ample time and light to complete 36 holes a day. The question is: Can your body handle the mileage of this weeklong bender?
Day 1: Relive the Milwaukee Greater Open
We'll start off in Milwaukee (assuming you're flying in from out of state) at the venerable Brown Deer Park, one of the city's municipal golf courses. Long-time host of the PGA Tour's Greater Milwaukee Open from 1994–2009, Brown Deer Park delivers a classic, tree-lined test that's kept in great shape, a perfect warm-up to bigger things. Tiger made his PGA Tour debut here in 1996.
Day 2: Blackwolf Run
Apologies are needed for driving by Palmer's The Bog in Saulkville without stopping, but the 72-hole American Club is calling. You actually have five Top-100-caliber choices if you can pull yourself away from the luxuries of the resort to see The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, a demanding Nicklaus track in nearby Sheboygan Falls. The River and Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run combined forces to host the 2012 U.S. Women's open. The Sheboygan River comes very much into play on the most dramatic holes on the River course. The Meadow Valleys is the most "gettable" of the four Dye courses on property, but we all know that no Dye course is really gettable.
Day 3: Whistling Straits
If your legs have the willpower, walking 36 holes on the Irish and Straits courses at Whistling Straits is doable, as long as a caddie does the bag-toting and directs you through the maze of dunes and bunkers. The Straits, host of three PGA Championships and the upcoming 2020 Ryder Cup, can be tamed if the wind is down and you play conservatively avoiding the deepest of the bunkers and fescue. The views of Lake Michigan might be the best in America. The Irish doesn't have the scenery, although a few more blind shots make it equally compelling. With much more golf ahead, a pampering at the resort's Kohler Waters Spa will recharge your body.
Day 4: A U.S. Open test of golf
Next up after a one-hour-plus drive to tiny Hartford (60 miles) is Erin Hills, which the pros shredded in 2017, leaving in doubt if a major will ever return. Walking the Kettle Moraine, a hilly region west of Milwaukee carved centuries ago by fast-moving glaciers, isn't easy. You can rest easy once the round is over. It's only a couple of steps up some stairs to the dormie bedrooms above the clubhouse. Take the afternoon off to rest.
Day 5: Loveable Lawsonia
Where Wisconsin goes off-the-rails cool are the Golf Courses of Lawsonia, a living museum of modern and Golden Age architecture in Green Lake (70 miles from Erin Hills). Lawsonia Links was designed by William Langford and Theodore J. Moreau in 1930, complemented by a sister course, the Woodlands, in the 1980s. The first two tee shots on the Links are mostly blind, introducing the idiosyncrasies that make this course truly special. Along the way, your shots will likely crash into random berms in the fairway and fall off of dramatic greenside walls (check behind No. 1 green). All good fun.
It's probably wise to only play 18 holes at Lawsonia, so you can get to Sand Valley in off-the-grid Nekoosa for a twilight spin on the Sandbox, a 17-hole par-3 course that just opened. The accommodations at Sand Valley can best be described as rustic comfort with a splash of lux. All the rooms and cottages are modern and clean but not over the top.
Day 6: Sand Valley
This remote golf destination has grown up in a hurry since developer Mike Keiser debuted the original Sand Valley course in 2016. The sandy soil and rolling terrain were a perfect canvass to unleash minimalists Coore & Crenshaw and Kidd, whose Mammoth Dunes made a big splash opening earlier this year. You probably won't lose a ball all day. You will, however, three putt a time or four.
Day 7: Flowers and a quarry
It's a hardcore sprint to the finish line. Those hell-bent on checking everything off their bucket list will depart early for Stevens Point to land the first morning tee time at SentryWorld, famous for its "Flower Hole", a par 3 surrounded by 36,000 flowers (It's a free drop if you land in the beds). RTJ Jr. returned in 2015 to modernize and improve the course he built in 1982.
Although the food in the clubhouse is great, don't dawdle. Hit up Wild Rock in the Wisconsin Dells (83 miles away) on the way south towards Madison, the state capital. Hurdzan and Fry worked on Wild Rock simultaneously as Erin Hills. Their effort here is much more player friendly and possibly more scenic. Three risk-reward holes through a quarry on the back nine add a nice curveball to what you've been experiencing all week.
Gas up, it's 50 more miles for our 54-hole day finale, the University Ridge, home to a PGA Tour Champions event hosted by the state's golfing hero, Steve Stricker, in Verona, west of Madison. You'll probably only have time for a twilight nine on University Ridge, one of the country's best college courses, but at least you'll recognize a few holes when the old guys are on TV.
If you can't squeeze in 54 holes in a day, there's only one solution. Stay the night in Madison and play University Ridge on the following departure day. An evening in a college town will help you feel young again, even after this golf marathon.