This Milwaukee-centric Wisconsin golf vacation will not break the bank

The Badger State is booming for traveling golfers, and a great trip doesn't even require a stay at the high-end resorts.
Further boosting Wisconsin's reputation as a golf hotbed, The Club at Lac La Belle is a must-play for any avid golfer traveling to or through Milwaukee.

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. -- When it comes to golf in Wisconsin, two resorts soak up a lot of attention: Destination Kohler and Sand Valley Golf Resort.

There's a very good reason for this: both resorts are bucket-list quality. Kohler, the domain encompassing Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, has four big courses by Pete Dye, plus a brand-new 10-hole par-3 course by Dye disciple Chris Lutzke and resort owner Herb Kohler. The famous Straits course hosts the Ryder Cup in 2021. Getting there is a cinch: an all-interstate hour drive north from Milwaukee.

Sand Valley, a bit farther afield at about three hours from Cream City, is nevertheless one of the hottest commodities in golf travel, run by Michael Keiser, Jr. under the same golf-first, fun-forward ethos as the legendary Bandon Dunes.

Staying and playing at either of these resorts, however, is not cheap. When you combine green and caddie fees and gratuity, a round at Whistling Straits surges past $500 and is one of America's most expensive. Sand Valley's courses are walking-only, and while a little less dear than the Whistling Straits experience, you can easily shell out $350 or more for a day's golf. Then there's 2017 U.S. Open host Erin Hills, where the current going rate for a round is $320, before caddie fee and gratuity.

The popularity of all three experiences is a testament to how worthwhile golfers find them, but you may be looking for a more middle-priced golf trip in the land of the Cheeseheads.

Luckily, Wisconsin delivers, as I have found over the course of two trips, mostly centered around Milwaukee, whose bright and reliable airport I wish I could clone and use to replace inferior ones throughout the United States.

If you fear Kohler and Sand Valley might stretch your budget to its breaking point, or are looking for a different bent on Badger State golf, here is how you can have a bucket-list-quality Wisconsin golf trip on a more restrained budget.

The Club at Lac La Belle: Wisconsin's next great destination golf course

It's fun to get in on the ground floor of a great thing. Located half an hour due west of Milwaukee, Lac La Belle dates to 1896, making it one of the oldest places for golf in Wisconsin. In 1900, the field of the Oconomowoc Open brought together past and eventual winners of 11 of the first 16 U.S. Opens - names like Willie Anderson, James Foulis and Laurie Auchterlonie - to play at Lac La Belle.

Thanks to a total renovation in 2019 by Wisconsin native Craig Haltom, the course is simultaneously completely different than the one those old legends played and eminently familiar in style to what they would have appreciated. Haltom's work included building four completely new holes across the club driveway from the clubhouse and using the land for the original 18 to build the remaining 14. The result is one of the most fun golf experiences golfers will find in the Midwest: a rollicking parkland romp that draws its strength from a tremendous set of greens.

Three of these greens - at the par-3 4th, the par-4 15th and par-4 18th - rival the eccentricity of the famous but lost-to-time 16th green at Alistair MacKenzie's Sitwell Park in England, Golden Age golf's version of a Rube Goldberg machine with all manner of tiers and gathering and shedding slopes. Lac La Belle's 18th green connects to the club's putting course and forms a gargantuan expanse of maintained grass more than 160 yards from end to end, the first half of it pinnable for the final test.

Lac La Belle has about 100 members but is primarily geared toward outside play. Owned by the Morse family, whose Prestwick Golf Group makes golf course furnishings that are on full display throughout the course, the club's restrained approach to tee times - 12 minute gaps - and reasonable rates of $125 for a summer round before cart help confirm Lac La Belle as a must-play. Future plans include lodging and a short course, which will make it an even more attractive destination.

More worthwhile Milwaukee-area golf for visitors

Roughly 100 minutes from Milwaukee, the town of Green Lake is a bit farther afield than Oconomowoc but well worth the effort to play an American classic. Opened in 1930, the Links course at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia is one of the best public golf courses you will ever play, especially considering the maximum green fee of $120. The masterpiece in the design portfolio of William Langford and Theodore Moreau rolls over an open site, with greens propped up by the work of steam shovels and strategic mounding and bunkering aplenty. The variety of shots on offer is as diverse as inland golf gets, making it a course worth playing over and over.

About 40 minutes northwest of the city, Washington County Golf Course is a terrific area muni. An Arthur Hills design set on high ground, the views of the surrounding Kettle Moraine region are as good here as at nearby Erin Hills, whose caddies love to come out for money games when they're not looping. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for you, especially with non-resident weekend rates topping out at $82 and some delightfully idiosyncratic features one might not expect on a course from this era. WaCo's central location makes it a popular spot for local, state and national competitive events and qualifiers; it's typically in terrific shape.

If you want to get a Kohler-type experience (read: one of the toughest and most punishing golf courses you will ever play) but balk at the prices, The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, a Jack Nicklaus Signature layout in the town of Sheboygan Falls, is as tough as any of the tracks at the resort across town. The size of the property lends a feeling of isolation to many of the holes, which drift in and out of meadow, forest and river settings. Some of the deepest bunkers you'll ever see guard fairways and greens. The conditioning is top-notch, helping make the $135 maximum green fee palatable ($75 for twilight is a great value).

Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
Green Lake, Wisconsin
Hartford, Wisconsin
Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin

Other notes for Milwaukee-bound golfers

  • Milwaukee is home to one of America's oldest hotels, The Pfister, which dates back to 1893. Located right downtown, it is a step back in time to the Gilded age, with an impressive gold-accented atrium and large hallways lending a sense of importance and ostentation. Rates to stay here do not venture outrageously higher than those to stay at area chain hotels, so if you like a bit of history with your (Forbes Four-Diamond) lodgings, it's a fun option.

  • Beyond beer, Wisconsin's most famous consumables tend to be cheese curds and bratwursts. But don't sleep on the burgers, especially at Kopp's, a local institution dating back to 1950. I've had a good number of cheeseburgers in my life but have yet to find one that exceeds those flipped, assembled and sold with rapid-fire quickness at any of its three area locations. Spectacular fries and popular frozen custard concoctions make it as much a must-eat as Lac La Belle is a must-play.

8 Min Read
August 1, 2018
Wisconsin has emerged as a golf trip worthy of a national audience and features PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Ryder Cup venues. From Kohler to Sand Valley, here is how to make the most of your trip to the state.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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This Milwaukee-centric Wisconsin golf vacation will not break the bank