By: Peter Ellegard
Beware the injured golfer, so the saying goes. As I embarked on a fall golfing road trip to Packer Country, or as some may call it the Cheesehead State of Wisconsin, I tested that saying to the max.
I was nursing a fractured rib, sustained just 10 days earlier when I fell headlong into an ornamental rock pool in the spa of a luxury resort island on my final day in Indian Ocean idyll, the Maldives!
The plan was 11 days and to play two bucket-list courses and a brand new golf resort with two amazing creations that are both surely destined to join the ranks of America’s best.
While the island’s doctor advised complete rest for six weeks, there was no way I was sitting it out and not playing these walking-only beauties. Not when they comprised 2017 US Open venue Erin Hills, three-time US PGA Championship host and setting for the 2020 Ryder Cup, Whistling Straits, and Sand Valley Golf Resort in central Wisconsin.
You have undoubtedly heard of Sand Valley. The brainchild of entrepreneur-turned-golf-developer Mike Keiser and his sons Michael and Chris. Keiser is the man behind the sensational Bandon Dunes resort, with its quartet of acclaimed courses on the Oregon coast, and Nova Scotia’s Cabot Links. Indeed, Sand Valley is already being heralded as the “Bandon Dunes of the Midwest”.
First up, in the Milwaukee area on the shores of Lake Michigan, Erin Hills. Before heading to the course, an overnight stay at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino – Wisconsin’s largest gaming facility – and a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum (the city is the home of the two-wheeled American icon) to soak up a century of motorcycling history. Plus a beer or two in America’s Brew City.
The Milwaukee area is liberally sprinkled with courses and Erin Hills is just 36 miles from downtown. Walking is the only option; you either hire a caddie or carry your own bag. I opted for the latter…and almost instantly regretted it. Carved from 600 acres of farmland, it is not only long (it measures 7,800 yards from the tips, although I chose the 6,233-yard white tees to ease the stress on my ribs), but is also an inland links-style layout with holes running through dune-like hills on top of which are perched tees or greens, and sometimes both. Not to mention penal rough, wetland areas and 138 bunkers where finding a flat lie is next to impossible.
Erin Hills is eminently playable provided you choose the right tee box and there are some delightful holes, notably on the back nine – among them the double-dogleg par-4 12th, the serpentine par-5 14th and uphill par-3 16th with its partly-blind tee shot. Both nines also finish on a memorable note: the par-3 9th with a downhill tee shot to a domed green surrounded by bunkers and the fiendish, score-wrecking par-5 18th. I played one stroke better than my 23 handicap and walked off well pleased, if very sore.
An hour north of Milwaukee lies the purpose-built village of Kohler, created a century ago by industrialist Walter J Kohler for immigrant workers at his new factory. The Tudoresque workers’ dormitory is now The American Club, a stately and sumptuous resort hotel that’s at the heart of Destination Kohler and has the Kohler Design Center a few steps away it you’re into stylish bathrooms and kitchens.
Take your pick of four Pete Dye masterpieces, comprising 36 holes of links-style, lakeshore golf at Whistling Straits (the Straits and the Irish courses), a few miles away near Sheboygan, and Blackwolf Run’s two parkland courses (the River, which I had played on a previous visit, and Meadow Valleys).
Partnering an American couple, I was grateful to have a caddie carry my bag and help me navigate the beauty of a beast that is the Straits. Originally a flat stretch of lake coastline, Dye shaped it around man-made mounds, swales and valleys that provide stunning vistas of Lake Michigan and, for good measure, added 1,000 bunkers! They range from deep behemoths to tiny scraps of sand amidst the vegetation, but all count as bunkers. Just ask Dustin Johnson about that after his penalty in the 2010 US PGA Championship for brushing the sand with his club.
Stray offline and the course is brutal. With AJ’s help, I avoided most of the hazards and not only survived the test but enjoyed it, although I still found enough of them to irreparably damage my scorecard. As we walked, AJ revealed that his uncle was Calvin Peete, the most successful black golfer before Tiger Woods with 12 PGA Tour wins, before stopping on the 15th fairway to feed titbits to the resident sheep that provide an added mobile hazard. A few holes earlier, a bald eagle soared overhead from its nest high in a pine tree by the clubhouse as it set off on a fishing foray to the glistening, blue lake.
The Straits is simply breathtaking, from its stunning setting to epic holes such as the 3rd, 7th and 12th par 3s with their greens right on the shore or the glorious par-4 18th, aptly called Dyeabolical, that tests your mettle with its approach over a meandering stream.
Wisconsin is famed for its dairy farms, cheeses, and the Packers of course. Driving on through lakeside communities before heading back into the heart of the state, I passed countless farms with quaint red barns, many with pumpkins for sale outside, to spend two nights at Sand Valley Golf Resort.
Close to the “Cranberry Capital of the World”, Wisconsin Rapids, it opened in May 2017 with the first of two magnificent 18-hole courses laid out over pine-covered sand hills with fairways edged by heathland and bisected by gaping sand tracts: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Valley course. On my visit, Mammoth Dunes, by Scotsman David McLay Kidd (designer of the original Bandon Dunes course) was being previewed to the press prior to its official opening at the end of May 2018 – with Kidd there to talk about his creation and the ethos behind it.
Both are jaw dropping, but for me Mammoth shades its sibling for its sheer grandeur, from towering pine-covered dunes to its gargantuan bunkers and sand blowouts. Despite my injury, I birdied the opening par-4 hole with a 25-foot putt after my second shot found the green. Among my favorite holes, the par-3 8th features a near-island green set in a tumultuous ocean of sand with the blowout-edged, par-3 13th no less daunting.
Sand Valley was named Best New Course of 2017 by Golf Digest, an accolade it certainly merits. Not as dramatic as Mammoth, it is every bit as challenging with its copious sand areas, strategic mounding and sloping greens, and demands plenty of thought with both club selection and shot execution.
Memorable holes include the par-5 10th, featuring a split fairway, the par-3 14th and its tilted green, the long par-3 17th with its punchbowl green hidden from the tee by a ridge, and the majestic par-5 18th that plays uphill to a tiered green wrapped around the end of a long bunker. I smashed a hybrid approach shot that curved around the bunker on the green to leave a tap-in putt for a closing birdie. I couldn’t have signed off my two rounds at Sand Valley any better.
The resort also features The Sandbox, a fun but tricky Coore and Crenshaw-designed par-3 pitch and putt course bizarrely spanning 17, not 18, holes.
My final Wisconsin night was in state capital Madison, 100 miles south. Named America’s greenest city for its profusion of parks, lakes and hiking and cycling paths it’s also a city of elegant architecture that includes the granite-domed Wisconsin State Capitol and my room at chic boutique hotel HotelRED featured floors and walls of polished concrete.
Besides the courses I played, Wisconsin has more than 350 other public courses across the state. They include the Robert Trent Jones Jr-designed SentryWorld course northeast of Wisconsin Rapids, with its signature par-3 16th Flower Hole featuring over 33,000 flowers, and several facilities in the Lake Geneva area, among them Grand Geneva Resort & Spa and Geneva National Resort.
I will definitely be back in Wisconsin sooner rather than later, but I will make sure I don’t crack a rib beforehand…
To book your Wisconsin golfing vacation, visit Wisconsin Golf Trips.