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Wisconsin On Top of the Golf World?

The Wisconsin golf industry just completed perhaps its best offseason ever.

That’s not because of brief warm spells that allowed folks to tee it up in February, and even January in a location or two.

This winter, Golf Digest named Wisconsin No. 1 in the nation for public golf, as 10 courses landed among its America’s 100 Greatest Courses list (tinyurl.com/228t8sw2). Those included 2017 U.S. Open host Erin Hills (No. 10); Ryder Cup and elite-event host Whistling Straits at No. 4 along with three other Kohler-area courses within the top 100, two Sand Valley courses, and 2023 U.S. Senior Open host SentryWorld; the famous 1930 Langford & Moreau-designed Links at Lawsonia at No. 62; and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Sheboygan Falls course, The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, at No. 88.

In addition, GolfPass ranked the Milwaukee-to-Sheboygan region and central Wisconsin as two of its top 100 golf destinations in the world (tinyurl.com/3y8r8zv), and also placed four Wisconsin courses among the 50 best public golf courses in the United States, with value, amenities and staff friendliness factored in (tinyurl.com/3bz9dekp). 

All of this attention stems in part from Wisconsin entrepreneurs creating world-class tournament courses and resort courses. The state went from having one PGA Tour stop in 2009 – Greater Milwaukee Open host Brown Deer on the north side of Milwaukee – to having multiple venues suited for tournament play by the best golfers in the world, plus amazing golf destinations.

When the course-building boom slowed around 2003 nationwide, Wisconsin investors continued to up their game. When Sand Valley opened its walker-friendly, caddie-accompanied courses in 2017, it complemented the solid courses in the Stevens Point area, such as SentryWorld. Completed in 1982 and designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones, SentryWorld was completely refurbished in 2017.

“I’m assuming because of the natural landscape that Wiscosin can provide, it brings a lot of course designers and developers to the area,” Idlewild pro and owner Brandon Hansen said of the current publicity for the state’s golf scene.

The top 50 golf “values” list intrigued me most as a golfer. 

I’ve played some slightly more expensive golf courses than a couple of those on the GolfPass, user- and golfer-opinion-based list, such as No. 48, Prairie View, in Byron, Illinois. 

At $29-$39 for 18 holes, that’s tough to beat, but I didn’t like that course any of more than a dozen other courses I played for similarly-low prices throughout Illinois and Wisconsin. It’s more reasonable than most Chicago-suburban courses, but no better bargain than two amazing courses that host high school state championships in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, or Rockford Aldeen, which has one of the largest and best practice facilities in the United States.

A peek at the bargains list in California, for example, didn’t list one of the best deals I’ve ever found. If you’re ever in Santa Cruz and have the urge to play, try Da Laveaga ($39 twilight weekday), the municipal across the street from Pasatiempo ($385 walking), and which shares the coastal mountainside topography of the Alister MacKenzie-designed course. 

One of my buddies from home operates a historic golf course near Stevens Point and said he doesn’t think the 50th-ranked bargain, Merrill ($29-$39 for 18) Golf Course north of Wausau, is better than his course, or the home course where we both played in north-central Illinois.

Other courses listed as top bargains included No. 19 St. Croix National ($69) at Somerset, Wisconsin. Another of my buddies, retired Sevastopol teacher and coach Darrel Severson, played St. Croix and liked it.

“Get a cart with good brakes, very hilly. Nice course!” he told me.

Kelly Chilsen, a Door County resident and PGA professional, said he grew up in Merrill when Merrill Golf Club was just nine holes. An expansion to 18 holes transformed it from a hilly nine to an “absolutely beautiful” course, but he said he doesn’t believe it’s much better of a public course than Peninsula, The Orchards, Northwoods at Rhinelander (where he used to work), Idlewild, the Wausau Country Club that has gone public, or numerous other courses in northern Wisconsin.

Chilsen said The Orchards (which last year was ranked among the toughest courses in the state from the back tees) is in excellent condition after a mild winter, and he doesn’t think there’s a course in Wisconsin in better shape than Peninsula this year.

Chilsen said golfers in search of great value at excellent courses can search for twilight rates.

“There’s your value right there,” he said.

Twilight rates are deeply discounted from morning rates. Some courses, such as Peninsula, have online dynamic pricing, which often discounts morning round prices where openings exist. Occasionally, a check for low rates online comes up a winner like a spin on the roulette wheel.

The GolfPass bargains list liked Viroqua Hills Golf Course near Madison, but if I’m in that vicinity, I might choose the University of Wisconsin’s University Ridge instead.

The great golf opportunities abound statewide. Personally, I’ve found amazing bargains here in Door County – especially if I walk and choose a late tee time – and throughout the state. I’ve also found reasonable tee times and fell in love with several amazing courses that don’t show up on best-of lists these days – such as The Bog, an otherworldly Arnold Palmer-designed track near Mequon; Brown Deer at Milwaukee; and Brown County on the west side of Green Bay.