Where to play golf in Wisconsin: Variety galore at Whistling Straits, Sand Valley, Lawsonia Links and Erin Hills
Whistling Straits, Sand Valley, Erin Hills and Lawsonia Links make Wisconsin one of the strongest golf destinations in the U.S.
Sure, Wisconsin is known for cheese, beer and its often-frigid climate on the shores of Lake Michigan. But golf? That far north, where it snows that much?
To the far-flung uninitiated, it would seem to be a stretch. But to the well-traveled golfer, that’s a solid yes that carries all the importance of a Packers playoff berth. Over the past quarter century, the Badger State has become one of the top destinations in the world for elite golf, sporting a slew of layouts that have climbed high into Golfweek’s Best rankings of courses in the U.S.
And yes, the golf world’s attention will be focused on Wisconsin when the Ryder Cup is played in September at Whistling Straits, a famed Pete Dye layout that is part of Destination Kohler on the shores of Lake Michigan. International TV broadcasts and top-tier professionals will make sure of that. The Straits course is the No. 1 public-access layout in the state, as judged by Golfweek’s Best national roster of course raters, and it’s deserving of that spotlight.
But there’s simply so much more to Destination Kohler and Wisconsin as a whole, the spotlight shouldn’t be switched off when the Ryder Cup wraps up in September.
How strong can Wisconsin’s golf be versus powerhouses such as California, Arizona, Florida and the like? Consider that when comparing the Golfweek’s Best course ratings of the top five public-access courses in each state, Oregon is No. 1 in the country on the strength of famed Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and its five 18-hole layouts. Wisconsin is No. 2 on that list, and it’s not reliant on one resort. Instead, there are five courses at three resorts and one daily-fee facility that push Wisconsin ahead of all those warm-weather states when comparing just the top five courses.
On Golfweek’s Best ratings scale of 1 to 10, each of the top five in Wisconsin scores higher than 7, the only state aside from Oregon to do so. Sure, No. 3 California has historic Pebble Beach and the like, but it doesn’t beat out Wisconsin’s five-deep roster of Erin Hills, Lawsonia Links, two courses at Sand Valley and, topping the list, Whistling Straits’ Straits course. For consideration, Erin Hills ranks No. 5 among the state’s public-access tracks, and it hosted a recent U.S. Open.
It’s little wonder I wanted for years to play all five of Wisconsin’s top public-access courses – in order from No. 5 to No. 1 – in one mad dash around the state, even if I had to explain to a curious fellow passenger, who had seen my golf travel bag before the flight to Milwaukee, why I was leaving my home state of Florida to find greener pastures up north.
“We call it being Wisconsin friendly,” said Rich Tock, the current ambassador and former director of golf at Erin Hills and a member of the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame. “We’re here to make it easy for people.”
Mike O’Reilly, the golf operations manager at Whistling Straits, said that if he took a group of players to Scotland, they likely would stay seven or eight days, play eight to 10 courses and move around a fair bit. The same can be done in Wisconsin.
“In the last 15 years with the addition of Erin Hills, with the addition of Sand Valley, with the resurgence of some other places like Lawsonia and SentryWorld and several others, we’ve become really a global destination where people can visit the state of Wisconsin and play seven, eight, nine, 10 highly ranked golf courses over a seven-, eight-, nine-day period,” said O’Reilly, who started his career as a caddie at Destination Kohler more than 30 years ago. “There aren’t many states where you can say that. … It’s unbelievable.
“I would tell people we have some of the best golf in the world, and a wide variety of golf as well. It’s very good golf and unique golf courses.”
Michael Keiser said that when he and his brother, Chris, were developing Sand Valley, the newest kids on the block were welcomed with open arms.
“Our competitors called me as soon as they heard our family was moving into the state to welcome us and offer to help, and they meant it,” Keiser said. “I’ve taken them up on that, and it’s just this great community. We all want to keep lifting each other up. … I think that speaks to the hospitality and friendliness of the state.”