12 Most Hidden Gem Golf Courses in Wisconsin
Wisconsin has some terrific golf courses that are unknown to many travelers around the country. If you fly in to Chicago, Milwaukee or Minneapolis, many of these courses are reachable in no more than 3-4 hours drive (and some much less).
Let’s be clear on one thing, this list is NOT going to include courses which host national tournaments such as Erin Hills, Blackwolf Run or Whistling Straits or highly priced substitutes that are popping up like The Bull and Fire Ridge.
But if you are looking for value and diverse holes, this set of courses has them.
This list is in alphabetical order and for those of you not familiar with the areas we have included the general location as well.
1. Bog (Saukville — Milwaukee area)
I am not even sure how to describe this course. Hmm. Hard comes to mind. There are certainly no gimme holes on this one and nothing that screams out birdie. But you definitely have some room to miss it a bit off the tee and many holes have generous landing areas. But the routing of the course makes missed shots difficult to recover from. One nice element is you rarely have to worry about balls coming at you from other directions. Most of the holes are well defined. The most memorable are probably the Par-5 14th, which takes you into an open tee shot and then WAY up a hill to a blind green. Seems very easy to get there in two and challenge the shortcut but it is more difficult than it looks. The course does an excellent job incorporating the wetlands and other natural terrain. The condition on this course is usually excellent. Keep an eye out for deals since they do run lots of promotions.
2. Brown Deer Park (Milwaukee area)
You would think that a course that has hosted the GMO for so many years would be well known. But many people still fail to associate the tournament with this venue which can be played for a very reasonable price. With many holes cut through old oak trees, Brown Deer was the site of Tiger Woods’ first PGA event as a pro. Many of the holes will give you room to miss off the tee but you can easily end up being blocked out on your next shot if you swing wildly (like most of do!!). It is always fun to get a crack at a PGA Tour venue and especially when it can be done for considerably less than most PGA venues.
3. Geneva National (Lake Geneva area)
I had a long debate about this course. Although it is one of my favorite set of courses in the state, the typical asking price is $125+ at prime times. So ultimately I decided that you should know that not only would it be worth that cost for the 3 designs by Player, Palmer and Trevino, but that you can deals virtually every day in the afternoon (after 2 pm) for around $70-75 and they have standing specials allowing 36 holes for about $125 if you start early and take a short break between rounds. That makes these courses a bargain in comparison to some of the other Lake Geneva properties like Grand Geneva, The Abbey and Hawks View. Geneva National is semi-private with memberships available, but essentially two of the three courses are open to the public every day. My personal favorite is the Player but the Palmer is not far behind. Trevino is still a very nice golf course but just doesn’t quite measure up to the other two. The courses are almost always in great condition and the greens are usually quick. The setting is tremendous as the clubhouse is up high looking down over the finishing hole of the Palmer against the backdrop of Lake Como.
4. Eagle Creek Golf Club (Hortonville — near Appleton)
This one shocked me. Driving up to a friend’s cabin near Eagle River where they promised me some interesting 9-hole courses, I put my foot down and demanded we play at least one 18 hole course on the way up. In the middle of nowhere (Hey!!! Not everything in Wisconsin is the middle of nowhere you big city slickers!!!), this course had a surprisingly diverse set of golf holes that incorporates some streams, woods, marsh and wetlands. Although you have room off the tee on most holes, do not assume that being wild will give you a good angle on your second shot (though few of them will be blocked). Certainly worth a stop on the way up to Northern Wisconsin or for a Packers game. The 4th thru the 9th holes can stand toe-to-toe with almost any stretch in the state.
5. Lake Arrowhead (Nekoosa — Central Wisconsin — 35 miles north of Wisconsin Dells)
Boasting two courses (Pines and Lakes) in little known Nekoosa, Lake Arrowhead is one of the finest pair of public courses you can find. Located in central Wisconsin you can easily combine this with a trip to SentryWorld, The Ridges or Trappers Turn to makes for a fun weekend of golf. Many of the holes are carved out of the pine trees which line the fairways so hitting off pine needles will become second nature by the time you are done here. Both courses are highly rated as the Pines course originally opened in 1982 and is one of Golf Digest’s 75 Places to Play. The Lakes is a more difficult challenge and was named one of Golf Digest’s Best New Public Course in 1999.
6. Lawsonia (Green Lake)
Apparently there are two Green Lakes in Wisconsin so make sure that you pick the right one to end up here. These courses could not stand in more stark contrast to each other. Unlike Lake Arrowhead which features two courses with similar feel, at Lawsonia you have the Links Course (which is a links style course) and the Woodlands (which has a lot of trees — go figure). But the interesting part about these two is that the ground under the courses feels different too. The entire Links Course has a much firmer feel to the ground and you will get much more roll and bounce. One of the hardest par-3’s you will find anywhere as you hit the 7th hole which reportedly has a rail car buried underneath. Miss off the edge of the green and you will have a brutal pitch shot. On the Woodlands, you get a completely different style with a quarry on the 2nd hole, a lot of trees and some challenging elevation changes. This is an excellent venue if you want to get in 36 in one day without having to move around. And if you want to stay overnight on the way back from central Wisconsin and some of the other courses, we recommend the Barnacle. Do not expect luxury (nor phones in the room) but it will be an experience!!
7. Oaks (just outside Madison)
This is one of those courses that leaves you shaking your head and saying “how did Iput up such a bad score here??” There are some very difficult holes, but many of them look innocuous as you line up to play. So “sneaky tough” is probably the best description of this course. One element I really liked is the diversity of the holes which required you to hit many different clubs (unless, like one of my foursome, you can hit it 325 every time and then you only need a wedge). When you get done playing you will realize that this is a well designed course that requires excellent shot-making to put up a good number. Don’t get flustered on a few of the tough holes and take yourself out of the round (and don’t hurt your back like I did trying to hack a 7-iron out of thick weeds instead of pitching out).
8. Ridges (Wisconsin Rapids)
What do you do when you have a tremendous nine hole layout but many golfers do not want to come and play because you are not a full 18? You buy a bit of extra farmland around the property and throw up another 9 holes. Now if this sounds like I am bashing the front nine I really am not. It still has a few interesting holes but let’s be serious. It was only put there to draw you to the back-nine. And that is fine. Because the back-nine is worth the entire trip. A dogleg left around a steeply banked hill opens the back. And before you get done, you have played some of the most interesting and unusual holes you will find anywhere, and only a couple of them are completely unfair (yes #13, I am talking to you!!). This is definitely a course where a bit of local knowledge would go a long way as some of the shot values are very deceptive. The Ridges is one of the most “different” courses I have played but I truly enjoyed the experience, and not only because I was able to eagle the last hole (but hitting my second shot off a tree, and then hitting a put that I thought was going to stop 15 feet short of the hole and was complaining and moaning as I turned away before I saw it drop in the hole).
9. Silver Spring Country Club (Menominee Falls)
This is an unusual selection because it is really a different caliber course from most of the others. This is more of a municipal type of venue, but it has a lot of interesting holes and has expanded to a 36 hole facility (Island Course and Falls Course). You would expect to see this diversity at higher end courses, but Silver Spring CC can really require a lot of good shots. From the downhill dogleg right to open, to the island green 8th hole (the only natural Island green in Wisconsin), you will get plenty of challenges here making it an easy stopping point if you are at meetings in Milwaukee or on your way to a Badger or Packer football game. This is a very fair venue even for high handicappers but do not make the mistake of thinking it is an easy course or that you will shoot a low number!! If you only have time for one of the courses, I recommend the Island Course.
10. SentryWorld (Stevens Point)
One of the finest public courses you could find anywhere in the country. SentryWorld was built by Sentry Insurance and contains the infamous Par-3 16th known as the “Flower Hole”. This hole has 45,000flowers and numerous of species of flowers. It is truly a sight to see in full bloom. Typically very well manicured, SentryWorld is worth the trip if you are able to get there (or to sneak away from your family at the Dells if you are vacationing there). Every single hole has its own space and routing so there are almost no places on the course where you will be in someone else’s fairway or vice versa (yet will manage somehow, don’t we?). One of my favorite holes is the Par-4, 13th and not only because I was able to snake a couple of skins from one of my good buddies two years in a row from the most unlikeliest locations. A sharp dogleg right it tempts you to drive over the bunkers to cut the corner but you really do not need to cut it that finely as a solid tee shot leaves only a middle iron into a green which is set on a difficult angle to the fairway. The sand is typically VERY soft and fine so you should expect a very buried lies if you are unfortunate enough to hit it into the bunkers. 17 is another difficult hole as it winds down to the left with a very tough angle to a narrow green set between a lake and an (unfairly) close fence with a cart ball that will bounce you OB (no, I am not still bitter about that shot!!). Make sure you start early enough because I am still not sure that I have ever completed 18 in full daylight. If this course was in Chicago, it would cost $150 or more. Great layout and very interesting holes.
11. Trappers Turn (Wisconsin Dells)
This facility features three nines: Arbor, Canyon and Lake. Do you remember many holes where you have a fan circulating the air around the green? That is what you typically see on the Par-3 7th hole on the Canyon. From the tee, the funnel down to the hole looks inviting until you get a bad kick that sends you to the far side of the green with severe undulations. The closing Par-5 hole on the Canyon is something you rarely see. Almost straight downhill, a good drive with a bit of draw can go well over 300 yards. But then you are still left with a long second off a downhill lie to try to reach the green in two. Tempting but trouble lurks on each side. The first hole of the Canyon is very pretty with a dogleg and a stream defining the setting. In between you probably see a more diverse set of topography here than any other course I can remember. You have a mix of rivers, lakes, trees, links, quarry, hills and ravines. Plenty of stay and play packages as well as many of the Wisconsin Dells resorts.
12. University Ridge (Verona — Madison area)
Here I go again stretching the definition of hidden gem. This course has a well deserved reputation in the area and regionally but lacks a lot of national recognition. (I always felt that they misnamed the course from a branding perspective because University Ridge is too generic to be associated with Madison, Wisconsin, while Badger Ridge would have created a much better branded connection — but that is another story). The nines are vastly different as the front nine is a links style course. The second hole is an interesting Par-5 with a tough carry on your tee shot and a semi-blind 2nd (if you can reach) into a green that is sunken down in a ravine. If you are a big hitter, go play the 4th hole from the back tees. I dare you!! That is probably one of the most intimidating tee shots that I have ever seen. And even if you get it in the fairway you have a tough uphill second shot which will be partially obscured by trees if you are in the left half of the fairway. The front features the rare combination of 3 of each hole: Par-3, Par-4, Par-5. This allows you to score a little bit if you hit the ball well. Back when you make the turn to the back nine, one of the biggest changes of scenery on any course. The back is cut out of woods almost all the way around and while there is room to make it playable, you cannot be wild. When you stand on the 10th tee you will see what to expect for the rest of your round. The 16th is a very unusual Par-5 which allows you to play left or right of some enormous trees, the right side allowing a very good chance to get home in two (but miss your tee shot and you are in BIG trouble). A tough Par-3 17th runs along the edge of a pond and if you survive to that point you reach the closing hole which is a big uphill, dogleg left, Par-4. Cut off as much as you dare but if you don’t cut off anything you will have almost no chance to reach the green in regulation. A great pro shop with a huge selection of merchandise, great practice facility and putting green allows you to spend plenty of time warming up for the challenge.
One of the notable omissions here is Wild Rock at the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells. I have heard great things about the course but did not include it here since I have not yet played it. There are also some very interesting nine hole courses if you get up around the Eagle River area. If you only have time for nine, I suggest Lake Forest Golf Club and Plum Lake Golf Club (a beautiful setting if you can time to end as the sun is going down — 9:30 pm in the summer).
We hope you enjoyed this list and welcome your feedback in the comments and your recommendations for what other areas you would like to see us cover.
Featured image courtesy of JD Hancock via Creative Commons.