A soft spot for golf in the heartland

Small-town golf in the America's midsection features some big-time tournaments and public courses if you know where to go.
The Wild Horse Golf Club shows off how beautiful public golf in Nebraska can be.

Sylvania, Ohio.

Silvis, Illinois.

Omaha, Nebraska.

What do these three places all have in common? And answering they all have a McDonald's doesn't count.

All three are taking center stage in the golf world this weekend: the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic in Illinois, the LPGA Tour's Marathon LPGA Classic in Ohio and the U.S. Senior Open in Nebraska. I don't think I've ever seen a more obscure collection of small-town America being showcased for a weekend of golf quite like this. I love it!

Raised in a small town in the Midwest - Port Huron, Michigan - I have a soft spot for golf in the heartland. You could say it pulls on my heartstrings.

This is real America, more than the glamorous destinations on the coasts or the big cities these tours too often frequent. When pro golfers show up in Las Vegas, Scottsdale or California (where I live now), they are merely a blip on the radar. When the best players in the world show up in Sylvania or the Quad Cities, they are treated like rock stars. The fans appreciate that the players choose to tee it up in their little slice of paradise. Their energy make watching - both live and on TV - more entertaining.

You might scoff that I consider Nebraska or Ohio "paradise", but don't judge until you've been there. The stereotypes you see on the national news are never true, especially when it comes to golf. Nebraska and the Quad Cities aren't all cornfields. I have the chance to play all over the world as one of the perks of my job. Yet TPC Deere Run, the celebrated host of the John Deere Classic, is higher on my bucket list than a place like Augusta National, where I know I'll never get on. I played Highland Meadows at an LPGA Tour media day years ago, and it's one of dozens of strong country clubs in northern and central Ohio.

Summer is when these places shine. Boats are in the water. Downtowns spring to life with festivals and beer gardens. The courses are mint. There's nothing like putting on pure bentgrass. And the weather, while it can get sticky and rainy, is certainly better than the searing heat in California, Arizona and Florida. Green fees feel like a steal when compared to more high-profile golf destinations. Plus, the people are so nice. In my experiences, Midwestern sensibilities trump Southern hospitality every time. These are all the reasons I love golf in the midsection of America.

Golf Adventures in the Heartland

Some of my most interesting golf trips have come in off-the-radar places in the Midwest most people would never think to visit. I like to mock Ohio (as a Michigan Wolverine fan), but visits to its three major cities - Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati - blew me away with their quantity and quality of public courses. Cincinnati's rolling hills were especially compelling at public layouts like Elks Run, Shaker Run and Legendary Run. Why hasn't some clever marketing guru come up with the slogan "How about a golf run to Cincinnati?"

Both trips I've made to Nebraska have been special. The Prairie Club ranks among the most remote golf destinations in America worth seeing. I drove the almost 5 hours from Omaha to enjoy 36 holes on its two windswept par-73 layouts - Dunes and Pines. My drive to reach Wild Horse in Gothenburg along I-80 was even longer. I stopped by to experience one of America's best-value courses while moving from Michigan to California in 2014. I've been meaning to go back to stay the night in their new cabins. I've also enjoyed a handful of fun days playing golf in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, too.

The upper Midwest is really where the best golf and vacation destinations reside. I've taken a dozen or more vacations, of both the golf and family variety, to the World Top 100 Golf Destinations of Northern Michigan (No. 8); Kohler and Milwaukee, Wisconsin (No. 21); Central Wisconsin (No. 37) and Brainerd, Minnesota (second 50). Each is loaded with resorts, lakes and restaurant patios with live music and great views and vibes. While I don't regret moving to California, I still tell anybody who will listen that summer in the Midwest can't be beat.

I'll be watching the golf on TV this weekend and reminiscing about my glory days living there. You might think Sylvania, Silvis and Omaha aren't worth your time. To me, they're golf heaven...for the next eight weeks of the year, anyway.

What are your memories of golf in the heartland? Tell us in the comments below.

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Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Commented on

Living in the Pittsburgh area, it doesn't take long to reach the "Mid-Western" state of Ohio, which is just loaded with many fine public-access golf courses, and while working on a project in Toledo, I was able to get to a great Arthur Hills course in southern Michigan (Legacy), and a great layout in Cadillac, MI. (Eldorado), and even drove into Eastern Indiana to play a nice track there (Lake James). Some very enjoyable golf courses can be found all around this country, if you try, and you don't need to break into your 401K to play them, either.

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Commented on

You didn't mention Kasas or missouri courses like the courses used in the Wicita Open , the Bass Pro tournament in the Mo. Ozarks, the Swooe Memorial for Semetra women's tour for public golfing along with a bunch more in St Louis areas.

Commented on

WE just wrote about KC and Swope a couple weeks ago (even a guy like Jason can't get EVERYWHERE)


Commented on

Good article and I agree with your reviews of Prairie Club and Wild Horse. But I would not consider Omaha (1 million+ metro area population) a small town.

Commented on

I agree that it's not a small town, but it fits the narrative that it's not a bucket-list golf or vacation destination but is still a place with great golf and well worth seeing.

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A soft spot for golf in the heartland