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Why Wisconsin is One of the Best States for Public Golf

What’s the best state for golf in America?

A question that always fosters great debate.

Hard to beat the Northeast, especially New York and New Jersey. And California is obviously loaded. Between those three states, they account for nine of the top 20 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest. Born and raised in Sonoma County, I’ve always been partial to the weather, depth of great golf and 840 miles of California coastline.

Shift the conversation to the best state for public golf in America, and although California still reigns supreme, the Northeastern states go to the back of the line. Meanwhile, the cream of the public golf offerings in the Midwest is rising. And fast.

The Straits at Whistling Straits
The Straits at Whistling Straits

My current Top 5 States for Public Golf in America is as follows:

  1. California (led by Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Pasatiempo).
  2. Wisconsin (Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run’s Championship Course and Erin Hills).
  3. Oregon (Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Bandon Dunes).
  4. North Carolina (Pinehurst No. 2, Mid-Pines and Pine Needles).
  5. South Carolina (Kiawah’s Ocean Course, Harbour Town and Caledonia).
  6. Michigan (Forest Dunes, Arcadia Bluffs and The Loop).

In tabulating the number of courses in Golf Digest list of America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses, there’s a direct reflection of my list above: California leads the way with 10 courses on their list. Wisconsin is second with nine. Then it’s Oregon with eight, North Carolina with seven and South Carolina and Michigan both have five. Hawaii is not in my top 5, but has six courses on GD’s list.

Now, as the U.S. Open comes to Wisconsin, it’s an appropriate time to appreciate what the state has done to move up both lists in the last 30 years.

Prior to 1988, the year Herb Kohler decided he’d add the first of four Pete Dye golf courses to his offerings at the American Club, the state of Wisconsin had hosted one major, the PGA Championship at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in 1933 (Gene Sarazen), and a Walker Cup at Milwaukee Country Club in 1969. Both are private.

Blackwolf Run
Blackwolf Run

Since Blackwolf Run’s original 18 holes hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, and counting this week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, the state of Wisconsin will have hosted seven men’s and women’s majors in 20 years. Plus, the U.S. Amateur was at Erin Hills in 2011 and the Ryder Cup is coming to Straits in 2020.

Safe to say, Kohler and Dye not only had the vision, they had the execution and they’ve accomplished their mission.

“When we first talked to Pete and asked him to come to Wisconsin to take a look, when he came into town the first thing he saw was a population sign on the edge of town,” says Kohler. “Population 1,923 people.”

Dye’s response: “Who’s gonna come up here and play golf?”

The dynamic duo kept building, and the golfers kept coming. And so did the major championships.

“I had determined from the beginning that our interest was majors,” Kohler told me for a Golf Channel interview I did leading into the 2015 PGA Championship. “I had determined from the beginning that our interest was majors. Not weekly tournaments. Majors. That was how we would differentiate and go to the top if we could be good enough to get majors.”

List of major golf events in Wisconsin

I know, I know. Just because a course hosts a major championship, and especially a Ryder Cup, it doesn’t automatically make that course “great.” But what it does do is bring feet, eyeballs and necessary exposure to get played, rated and ranked. It leaves indelible images and everlasting discussions about holes, shots and champions hoisting significant hardware while impacting the opinions of all who lean into the ropes or glue themselves to their TVs.

Se Ri Pak’s playoff win at Blackwolf Run inspired Korean domination on the LPGA Tour. We’re still discussing and debating what would’ve been Dustin Johnson’s first major championship in 2010 had he not “grounded” his club in a “bunker.” And who will ever forget Robert Beck of Sports Illustrated’s picture of Dash Day literally dashing into the outstretched arms of his father, who had overcome adversity and outlandish odds to become a major champion.

Erin Hills
Erin Hills

And given Dye’s impact on the world of architecture, the setting of both Straits and Blackwolf Run, the current state of Erin Hills and the golf volcano that’s about to erupt at Sand Valley in Rome, Wisconsin, the Badger State just might be scraping and clawing it’s way into the top spot for public golf in America.

Sand Valley
Sand Valley

Insiders and lists of great golf in Wisconsin go beyond the four courses at Destination Kohler, Erin Hills and Sand Valley, which already includes a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design that opened earlier this year. A David McLay Kidd course will open next year. And there is at least one, probably two, and potentially three more courses to come to Nekoosa, which is even smaller and more remote than what was Kohler in 1988.

Oh by the way, they still don’t have the permitting, but Kohler and Dye have designs for a fifth course at the American Club.

“The Wisconsin vs. California comparison is an interesting one,” says Kevin Price, a friend and avid golfer who lived in Wisconsin for 10 years before moving back to Monterey, California in 2009, which is where he was raised. “What’s the most macho public trip in each place? I’d say Pebble, Spyglass, Bayonet, Pasatiempo and Harding Park is an ultimate Northern California itinerary. In Wisconsin, you’d play Erin Hills, Blackwolf Run River, Straits and eventually both new ones at Sand Valley.

“In that matchup, I’d take California. But only by a slim margin. Seriously, it’s close.”

Price and other Wisconsin insiders also swear by Lawsonia Links, SentryWorld, Lake Arrowhead, Washington County and Brown Deer.

California could counter with Torrey South, CordeValle, PGA West (Stadium) and both at Pelican Hill.

“What Sand Valley does is makes a Wisconsin trip an absolute must,” says Price. “We all know Mike Keiser is going to do it right. And with the space he has out there, the mind reels at the possibilities.”

If you shelve Wisconsin’s short season for a second (roughly April 1 through October 31); acknowledge there’s no ocean but admit Lake Michigan is a worthy alternative; and recognize that a remote course only adds to the adventures and charms of getting there, if you’re top-seeded California, you have to put the pin in on 18, remove your cap and shake hands having won this match 1-up. But down deep, you know this budding golf state they call Wisconsin is a little like a 22-year-old Jon Rahm, a favorite and my pick to win at Erin Hills.

Rahm and Wisconsin are already competing with the elite, and they’re both only getting better. And fast.