Epic golf road trip: Cog Hill, Whistling Straits make for a stellar week

Cog Hill, Whistling Straits make for a stellar Week 3 of epic golf road trip

From New Orleans to New York over to Chicago and to Houston, Mike Bailey is spending a month on the road sampling golf, brats and American culture. Courses include everything from U.S. Open venues to hidden gems, covering all price points and challenges, all the while trying not to increase his handicap or waistline.

KOHLER, Wis. -- Looking out into the vast landscape of high fescue and hundreds of windswept bunkers that make up Whistling Straits, it was hard to have faith in my caddie's statement.

"You only need a few balls," he said. "We won't lose any."

He wasn't entirely accurate. I did manage to find the only real water hazard on the course other than Lake Michigan on the par-5 sixth, but he was mostly right. I did not lose another ball -- even in the dark when I played no. 18 -- and I certainly wasn't in the fairway on every hole.

That was the most surprising element of playing Pete Dye's highly touted Straits Course, one of four outstanding golf courses that make The American Club a bucket-list destination. The high grass was wispy enough that our caddies could almost always locate our wayward shots. With around 900 bunkers on the course -- half of them in play -- there was also a good chance that wandering golf balls would wind up in sand too. Advancing once you found your ball, however, could be another story.

The Straits Course, one of two courses at Whistling Straits, wasn't the only highlight of what turned out to be my week in the Midwest. It also included the famed Dubsdread Course at Cog Hill and Pine Meadow in Chicago as well the River Course at Blackwolf Run in Kohler before heading down to Erin Hills about an hour or so southwest to begin my final week or so on this 30-day golf road trip.

The Chicago and Kohler experiences couldn't be any different, though both were very memorable.

Pay the piper in Chicago

The first 36 hours or so of my third week was spent traveling from eastern Pennsylvania to Chicago with an overnight stay in Cleveland. Before leaving Cleveland, though, I took in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which is located downtown on the Lake Erie waterfront next to the Cleveland Browns' football stadium and Great Lakes Science Center.

My intent was to spend an hour or two at the most. After three-and-a-half hours, I had to force myself to leave to stay on schedule. If you've ever enjoyed modern music, this is a must, right up there with the Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame for sports fans. I particularly enjoyed an exhibit on Les Paul, who basically invented the electric guitar, and you can even buy vinyl records in the gift shop there.

As for the journey west, it was pretty much all toll roads through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. And in Chicago, freeways aren't free. For visitors who come from other regions of the country to visit the Windy City, that can be particularly frustrating. First off, every few miles you stop to get in a cash line, some of the exits are unattended (which means you have to have exact change) and the Illinois Tollway doesn't exactly flow. At one juncture, it took me three hours to go 53 miles. I also didn't have exact change for two unattended toll booths, which meant I had to pay the $2.50 worth of charges online. I'm not sure what the exact intent of toll roads are, but convenience in Chicago sure isn't the result.

With that said, my Chicago golf experiences were worth the trouble.

My first course, Pine Meadow in the northern suburbs, is owned by the Jemsek family, which also owns Cog Hill in Lemont on the south side of Chicago. It was a great warm-up for Dubsdread. Not nearly as difficult, but certainly challenging (course record is only 66). The course is well maintained with plenty of bunkers, water features and flat greens.

There are four courses at historic Cog Hill, the longtime home of the Western Open. No. 4 is named Dubsdread because bad golfers dread playing this difficult course. It is, however, easy on the eyes but hard on the scorecard if your game is off. Some PGA Tour players, most notably Phil Mickelson, were extremely critical of Rees Jones' recent renovation of this 1964 Joe Lee/Dick Wilson design, saying entry to the greens was blocked by Jones' excessive bunkering, forcing players to hit high and soft shots to get on the greens. For the average golfer, it can be nearly impossible.

But while Mickelson probably has some valid points, he's not entirely accurate. Some of the greens do have entries that aren't guarded by deep bunkers, and Cog Hill has three other courses that are somewhat easier. Dubsdread was meant to be difficult, and I'd play this course again in a heartbeat.

And now for something completely different

Two hours north, in Wisconsin, the tolls were gone and the landscape changed completely.

Kohler is one of the first master-planned communities in the country. The village, incorporated in 1912, was founded as a model company town when the Kohler Company located its new plant there. The American Club was built in 1918 to provide clean, comfortable accommodations for the immigrant workers who came to work for the Kohler Company. Today, The American Club is a luxury resort that still reflects that heritage.

Combined with the four outstanding golf courses -- two at Whistling Straits about six miles from the club and the nearby courses at Blackwolf Run -- this should be a pilgrimage for every avid golfer. All designed by Dye, the Straits Course, which will host the PGA Championship for the third time next year and the Ryder Cup in 2020, and the River Course at Blackwolf Run are both high on most publications' top 100 in America lists. They're also as different as apple pie and cheesecake.

The Straits Course is set on Lake Michigan (which looks like an ocean) in an extravagant and unforgettable links-like setting. It's all walking and caddies are required before twilight. For many Americans this will be as close as they get to an Irish or Scottish links experience.

Many rate the River Course at Blackwolf Run as equal or better than the Straits. I'm told this course is particularly stunning in fall colors, and some of the holes along the Sheboygan River are simply among the most beautiful and imaginative in America. Dye said the ninth hole (named Cathedral Spires), which can be played on a more aggressive line to the green over a portion of the river, may be the best par 4 he ever designed.

And if golf isn't enough, The American Club offers so much more, including great dining, the Sports Core club and one of the best spas in the country. I was fortunate enough to take advantage of all three.

I recommend the double brat at the Horse & Plow pub, for example, at The American Club, and the fresh sea scallops at the clubhouse restaurant at Whistling Straits. I also got a new forehand stroke, thanks to the terrific lesson I got from head tennis professional Sean Moran at the Sports Core. And I could have spent the whole day at the Kohler Waters Spa. My massage treatment was among the top three or four I've ever experienced.

Finally, I took the time to do something you don't experience at most resorts -- check out toilets and such. After all, this is where the Kohler factory is, and you can take a tour if you want (it's free), but at the very least check out the Kohler Design Center, which has a museum and art gallery to go with its modern concepts in kitchen and bathroom design.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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Cog Hill, Whistling Straits make for a stellar Week 3 of epic golf road trip