Golf in Wisconsin, From Milwaukee to Whistling Straits

Golf in Wisconsin, From Milwaukee to Whistling Straits

The 166-yard 12th on the Straits Course
Fred Vuich

It’s been eight years since Wisconsin made a significant blip on golf’s radar. In 1996, Tiger Woods walked to the tee at Brown Deer Golf Course and struck the first blow of his professional career, at the Greater Milwaukee Open. Woods hasn’t been back since, but the Badger State returns to the spotlight in August when the PGA Championship comes to Whistling Straits, which with its sister club, Blackwolf Run, constitutes Wisconsin’s best double act since Laverne and Shirley.

From Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport, a 20-minute drive brings you to Brown Deer, a county course that has hosted the GMO for a decade. At 6,759 yards, it’s the PGA Tour’s second-shortest venue (only Indian Wells at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic is shorter). Designed in 1929 by George Hansen, Brown Deer is like the players who tend to win here: solid but unspectacular. The roster of GMO champions features more workhorses — Kenny Perry, Jeff Sluman — than showy thoroughbreds.

Brown Deer has generous fairways and gentle doglegs but no shortage of subtle trouble. A pond fronts the green at the downhill, 371-yard 16th, but err long and you’ll still face a treacherous play from above the hole. While the course is pristine at GMO time — July 22-25 this year — it can be a frustrating trudge in the fall when a carpet of leaves suffocates the property. I spent a great deal of time hunting for my ball beneath leaves in the fairway and even in a greenside bunker. Memo to Milwaukee County Parks Department: Buy a leaf blower.

Walking off the final green to see Perry’s name atop the leaderboard from last year’s GMO (with a relatively high total of 12 under) reminds you that Brown Deer does test the pros. Still, how would Perry have fared hitting from a pile of leaves?

From Brown Deer, it’s an hour-long cruise north on Interstate 43 to the village of Kohler. Bathroom-fixtures magnate Herb Kohler is the omnipotent wizard of this Oz, home to both his factory and his sanctuary, The American Club, a GOLF MAGAZINE Gold Medal Resort.

The golf is all Pete Dye, who designed the four courses in the Kohler empire. Less than five minutes from The American Club is Blackwolf Run. The 6,991-yard River Course here is about as bucolic as golf gets, particularly the salmon leaping in the Sheboygan River by the elevated tee at the 419-yard 5th hole. The plunge from tee to fairway here is as steep as the climb to the putting surface, where a perilous slope to the right makes for a near-impossible up-and-in.

Another vertigo-inducing tumble from the tee comes at the 521-yard 8th, where the fairway seems narrower than the 2000 presidential election. The landing area is actually fairly generous, but that is cold comfort when all you can see from the tee is a distant patch of grass between the trees. The 205-yard 13th is as close to a dogleg par 3 as you’ll find. The tee shot calls for a draw over water and between trees to a humpback green flanked by bunkers.

Despite an army of rangers, the pace of play at Blackwolf Run can be plodding. It took my cart-riding threesome two hours and 40 minutes to play nine holes. “It’s classified to be played in 2:39,” one ranger said proudly in that sonorous Wisconsin accent. We argued that this is a glacial pace. “Write a letter to Mr. Kohler,” he replied. “But he’ll never change it.” Mr. Kohler, please consider this your letter.

At the 14th tee, slow play turns to gridlock. Since it’s just 310 yards from the middle tees (346 from the back), macho golfers will wait for the green to clear before lashing a drive into the water on the right. That’s not such a bad gamble: This fairway is the narrowest on the course, so hitting an iron off the tee is no guarantee of safety. You might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. The 469-yard, dogleg-left 18th is a beautiful hole to play in the gloaming, even if you are cooling your heels behind a sixsome of Merrill Lynch bankers, as I was.

Over at the 7,142-yard Meadow Valleys Course, Dye used slopes and bunkers to distort distance and depth perception. According to one veteran ranger, the 565-yard 4th generates more gripes about unfair hole locations than any other hole. This is no surprise — the putting surface is as small and wrinkled as a raisin. The 458-yard 18th has a quirky touch: two greens. “Ladies have a choice,” says our ranger friend. For ladies and meek men, the hole plays just 303 yards. The rest of us face a long approach shot over water to a Y-shaped green tucked behind trees.

There isn’t much to do in Kohler except play golf or sip a cocktail at The American Club’s Horse & Plow bar. Come morning, take the 10-minute drive to the village of Haven, where you’ll find Whistling Straits.

This property was flat before Dye shaped enough bluffs and hills to give a fair imitation of seaside Ireland. The resulting Straits Course might one day compete with the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island as Dye’s enduring masterpiece. The walking-only track is a daunting 7,362 yards hard on the shore of Lake Michigan. The dominant feature is the bunkering — there are several hundred bunkers, from bee-sting-sized to gaping wounds. I counted 35 on the 584-yard 5th hole alone and more than 40 on the 462-yard 8th.

The first great views of Lake Michigan come at the 592-yard 2nd, but they’re tough to appreciate when you’re playing into the teeth of the wind, which is the case on the opening four holes. The course then loops back and the wind helps all the way through the 13th. But when it turns again for the final stretch, it does so with a vengeance. The only weak link on the Straits is the 5th, a par 5 that double-doglegs around two ponds. It is entirely out of character with the rest of the layout. The supposed reasoning behind this aberration is that water had to be added to compensate for natural marsh lost during construction.

There are several holes worth watching during the PGA Championship, August 12-15 (the course closes August 1). The 619-yard 11th has a deep bunker sided with railroad ties short of a small, tough-to-hold green. Remember the complaints about the 499-yard 12th hole at Bethpage Black during the 2002 U.S. Open? The 15th hole here will make that seem like, well, a walk in a state park. For us mortals, it’s a plenty challenging 465 yards. For the pros, it will play up to 518 yards — that’s a par 4, into the wind.

If you play Whistling Straits in the spring or fall, expect to encounter another hazard: fog. It can be so dense you might not see the greens, even on par 3s. I had to hit blind at the 166-yard 12th and the stunning, 223-yard 17th along the lake. Be sure to watch that short 12th hole at the PGA: Club selection is tricky with a tailwind and the back-right hole location is merciless.

The 18th hole is a strenuous par 4 of 489 yards. Opt for an aggressive line off the tee and you’d better have 270 yards left in the tank to clear the grassy ravine. The huge green is nearly cross-shaped, which cynics might suggest is Dye’s coy hint at a crucifixion.

Crib Sheet: Milwaukee/Kohler
Blackwolf Run
Greens fees $176 (River), $141 (Meadow Valleys);

Brown Deer Golf Course
Greens fees $77-$84;

Whistling Straits
Greens fees $272 (Straits), $141 (Irish);

The 7,021-yard Irish Course at Whistling Straits suffers from its proximity to the Straits but, like all four of the Kohler courses, has earned a place on GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 You Can Play . The 160-yard 6th is a Saharan version of Dye’s famous island green at the TPC of Sawgrass, with the dance floor perched in the middle of a gargantuan bunker. The closing stretch is typically brutal Dye. The 15th and 16th holes are parallel two-shotters measuring more than 470 yards each, and the lay-up area on the 558-yard finisher is the width of a goose’s neck.

Heading back to Milwaukee, stick with the Celtic theme and check out the bagpipers and highland dancing at the Milwaukee Highland Games June 5 at Old Heidelberg Park. From June 24 through June 26, NASCAR is at the Milwaukee Mile, the famed auto-sports venue on the west side of town. The Busch Series and the Craftsman Truck Series are on the line-up.

At the Miller Brewing Company, you can see how brews are made and sample the finished product. It’s a nice place to wash down the Milwaukee and Kohler combo, which has some of the finest public-access golf you’ll find between Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach.