Wisconsin is a major golf destination

Sand Valley – Mammoth Dunes course Location: Adams County Designer: David McLay-Kidd Notes: Built on central Wisconsin sand dunes. Ranked #29 best public golf course in North America by GOLF magazine.

Last updated on June 29th, 2023 at 01:14 pm

Next May, Jon Kimsey and eight of his friends plan to be in Wisconsin playing golf. 

They’ll spend three days at Sand Valley in central Wisconsin and a couple more at Erin Hills in Washington County. 

There isn’t time on the itinerary for a stop in Sheboygan County to play Whistling Straits, but the group is already talking about a return trip to get the full Kohler experience. 

Kimsey lives in Birmingham, Alabama. The group met while working at an accounting firm in the city early in their careers. They’ve since gone their separate ways but continue to keep in touch.  A couple times a year, the friends unite for a golf trip, usually close to home in the South, but when someone retires, they go big. This time it’s Kimsey retiring as partner at Birmingham-based Warren Averett, LLC. His destination of choice: Wisconsin and Sand Valley, in particular. 

Kimsey played Bandon Dunes in Oregon a decade ago. The Keisers, the family behind the resort on the Pacific coast, also developed Sand Valley, located in Adams County.

“I know that the quality of the golf resort at Bandon is very special, and I’m assuming Sand Valley is no different,” said Kimsey, who originally read about the Wisconsin course in a golf magazine. 

But it’s not just Sand Valley that is attracting Kimsey’s group to the state. The chance to play a U.S. Open course and potentially a PGA Championship and Ryder Cup course in the future adds to the draw, plus the fact that the courses, while expensive to play, are accessible to the public. 

“Most of the (elite) courses in the U.S. (are private clubs, so) a normal person like me cannot access those,” he said. “So, having courses that have that pedigree of hosting Ryder Cups or U.S. Opens that I can go play is obviously a big plus.”

Wisconsin is now in the third decade of a run of major golf championships coming to the state that includes a U.S. Open, two U.S. Women’s Opens, three PGA Championships, a U.S. Senior Open, a U.S. Amateur and the Ryder Cup later this month. The U.S. Senior Open will return in 2023 and the U.S. Women’s Open comes back in 2025.

As impressive as the run of big championships is the fact that they have been played on public-access golf courses. Those courses help the state land three spots in the top 15 public courses in Golf Digest’s rankings. Wisconsin has 10 courses on the magazine’s top 100 public courses list. 

The combination of publicly accessible courses and regular television exposure to golf’s biggest audiences has helped make Wisconsin a golf destination that now competes with the Carolinas, California and even Scotland and Ireland for golf tourists. 

“Certainly Wisconsin, really in a matter of 25 or 30 years, has gone from a place where nobody traveled to (to play golf) from outside of Wisconsin, except maybe some guys from Chicago who came up and played in Lake Geneva. … Other than that, nobody nationally came to Wisconsin to play golf. It was a flyover state. And now it’s a destination state,” said Gary D’Amato, senior writer at Madison-based Killarney Golf Media. “The state has come miles and miles in a very short time.”

A major rise

D’Amato, who covered the sport for years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and now writes for Wisconsin.Golf, traces the growth back to the opening of Kohler Co.’s Blackwolf Run in the late 1980s. 

“It emboldened people to build upscale golf,” he said, noting that courses like The Bog and Country Club of Wisconsin, now known as Fire Ridge, soon followed. 

You could even trace it back a bit further to SentryWorld, which was developed by Stevens Point-based Sentry Insurance and debuted in 1982. The venue is considered by some to be Wisconsin’s first destination golf course. In its opening year, the course – famed for its “Flower Hole” with 33,000 annual plants surrounding the 16th hole green – received Golf Digest’s first-ever “Best New Public Course” title. 

D’Amato recalls thinking in the early 2000s that the state was emerging as a golf destination. At the time, the state had hosted one U.S. Women’s Open and had its first PGA Championship on the horizon. Erin Hills was still years from opening, and Sand Valley was more than a decade away, but major championships were putting Wisconsin on the map. 

“When I was younger, playing golf as a teen, I couldn’t have imagined that Wisconsin would be getting major championship golf,” D’Amato said.

The majors Wisconsin has hosted in its recent run have brought national and international attention to the state. While not a major, the Ryder Cup, one of the biggest spectacles in golf, will only serve to amplify the state’s growing profile. The event also comes amid a surge in interest in golf. Total rounds played increased 30% in Wisconsin in 2020, more than the nearly 23% increase seen nationally, according to Florida-based Golf Datatech. Through June, total rounds were up nearly 20% in Wisconsin and nearly 14% nationally.

The Ryder Cup, taking place Sept. 21-26 at Whistling Straits, has an estimated economic impact of $135 million and 27 hours of television coverage reaching 160 countries. 

“The global reach of that big advertising period will again extend the reach and awareness of Kohler as a golf destination. The avid golfer, even the leisure golfer, they want to play some of the most iconic destinations in golf and this is certainly up there,” said David Kohler, president and chief executive officer of Kohler Co. and general chair of the Ryder Cup. 

D’Amato said major championships had a similar impact on the state’s golf scene. 

“I think people who watch those tournaments on TV saw how beautiful the courses looked and said ‘hey, I’ve got to get to Wisconsin and play this stuff,’” D’Amato said.

Travel Wisconsin, which markets the state to out-of-town visitors, has capitalized on the surge of national interest in Wisconsin golf as well as the exposure generated by the Ryder Cup. The group produced a series of vignettes highlighting Wisconsin staples like Harley-Davidson, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, Friday fish fries and great beer that will run on NBC as TV ads during the event, highlighting Wisconsin.

“We’re thrilled to have Ryder Cup broadcast coverage put Wisconsin on the international stage,” said Anne Sayers, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. 

Kohler Co. is expecting “full attendance” at the biennial competition but declined to provide an estimated figure. Originally, when preparations were underway for a 2020 event, tournament and local tourism officials anticipated 50,000 visitors at Whistling Straits each day. In addition, approximately 4,000 volunteers are needed for on- and off-course roles, and 1,300 temporary jobs are typically created with Ryder Cup service providers. 

As you might expect, Erin Hills competitions director John Morrissett said the exposure from the 2017 U.S. Open brought people to the course that had never played it before. 

“It’s a real thrill for people to go play where history was made, to be able to go see where Brooks Koepka won the first of his four major championships,” Morrissett said, adding the course put a plaque in the fairway of the 18th hole so players can see the same view as Justin Thomas when he hit a 3-wood from 299 yards to within feet of the hole en route to a record-tying 63 during the third round.

While the course has national and even international draw, he said most players come from Wisconsin or Illinois. The work of attracting golfers includes a variety of marketing efforts that range from email campaigns, a social media program that includes influencers, partnerships with state golf associations and select regional and national advertising. 

Michael Keiser Jr., managing partner of Sand Valley, said his course and every other course in the state benefit from the “incredible tournaments that Erin Hills and Kohler have hosted.” 

“It makes Wisconsin a global brand,” said Keiser, who is also co-owner of Dream Golf Resorts, which has the Bandon Dunes resort in Oregon and Cabot in Nova Scotia. “People from around the world and certainly all over the country are seeing that if you’re a serious golfer, Wisconsin is up there with any state or region, honestly, on the planet.” 

Before beginning work on Sand Valley over the past decade, Keiser acknowledged he didn’t have much of a perception of golf in Wisconsin. 

“To be totally candid, I didn’t realize quite how great it was,” he said. 

Keiser had played a round in Lake Geneva and one at Erin Hills. 

“I was like some or many Chicagoans, not fully aware of how outstanding the state was for golf,” he said. 

Fast forward a few years and Sand Valley continues to grow as a destination, literally. There are now two full courses at the site and a third in the works, plus a 17-hole par-3 course. The Keisers are also developing the Lido just north of Sand Valley. The fifth Keiser-led course in the area will be a recreation of a C.B. MacDonald-designed course on Long Island by the same name built in the early 1900s. The course was thought to be one of the best in America at its time but was lost to military use during World War II. 

D’Amato said he could see six or seven courses from the Keisers in the Sand Valley area. 

Keiser said the unique, sandy property benefits from having the availability of great land for golf but also didn’t want to look too far into the future. 

“We’ll take it one at a time, but I suspect we’re just scratching the surface,” he said.

The Keisers aren’t the only ones with an appetite for more great golf courses. Kohler Co. has been working for several years to build a championship-level course near Kohler-Andrae State Park along Lake Michigan just south of Sheboygan. 

The project was first proposed in 2014 and has gone through a number of challenges, including over the annexation of land into the city of Sheboygan, discovery of human remains on the site and wetland permitting issues. The project was granted a wetland permit in 2018 by the Department of Natural Resources only to have it overturned by an administrative law judge. Earlier this year, a Sheboygan County judge dismissed a Kohler lawsuit seeking to uphold the DNR’s original decision.

Asked about the proposed course, Kohler took a longer-term view of the company’s golf activity.

“Our role in the golf business is still pretty young,” he said. “We have a long way to go. Our company is 147 years old and we’ve got a long way to go and a big future ahead of us, so we’re committed to continuing to build our legacy and our position in very unique golf destinations. That (proposed golf) course can be an exciting element when it happens.”

D’Amato said he expects the course will become a reality.

“Eventually I think Kohler is going to win that battle and build another championship course,” he said. 

The Kohler effect

The Kohler golf brand has evolved into something far grander than what executive chairman Herbert Kohler Jr. had originally envisioned four decades ago. The five-star American Club Resort Hotel opened in 1981, and as the story goes, the then-CEO was handed a stack of guest surveys a couple years later.

“(Customers) had given suggestions that they wanted to play golf,” said David Kohler, noting that, at the time, guests were sent to local courses in the area when they wanted to play. 

Herb didn’t know much about golf, but he enlisted people who did, including renowned golf course designer Pete Dye. Dye, who passed away last year at the age of 94, is known for using the natural terrain to create courses that are vexing and challenging for the pros, yet playable for the leisure golfer, said David. 

“My father really learned the game of golf through the eyes of Pete Dye,” he said. “My father loves design, designing products and interior design, all forms of design. Through the process of designing the course together, he learned about the game, became passionate about the game, and started to play the game. The story was not a grand vision, though.”

Blackwolf Run’s two courses – thirty-six holes carved into the Sheboygan River Valley – eventually led to a second site along the shore of Lake Michigan. Designed to resemble the famed Irish golf club Ballybunion, Whistling Straits was “purpose-built for the largest championship events,” said Kohler – not just because of its challenging, European-style layout, but also because its 560-acre expanse is equipped to handle the infrastructure and parking required for large crowds. Ahead of the Ryder Cup, more than 1 million square feet of hospitality structures, corporate chalets and spectator platforms were constructed along the course. 

“We think it’s the largest construction build in the history of the game,” said Kohler. 

In addition to the American Club and Kohler’s two 36-hole golf venues, Kohler’s hospitality arm, Destination Kohler, is known for its Water Spa, restaurants and other upscale amenities that draw international visitors year-round. Kohler said all those attractions combined have put both Kohler and Wisconsin on the map as a destination for resort golf. 

“If you look back in history, that really set off the interest by others to build courses in Wisconsin like Erin Hills and Sand Valley that have followed, and all of that together has made Wisconsin an even richer site for the avid golfer,” said David Kohler, who credits his father with igniting the spark that set off Wisconsin’s golf explosion.

Kohler has certainly played a large part, but what other unique factors have come together to make Wisconsin a golf destination? 

Keiser said for Dream Golf the process of creating a golf destination starts with the land a course will be built on.

“We’ve never done a market study,” he said. “We look at our very local piece of ground and say, ‘Can this yield 18 holes that will exceed our guests’ expectations?’ and if the answer is ‘yes,’ then we move forward.”

The rest of a project comes into place if the team starts with great ground, he added. 

“We don’t choose to build on pretty good sites saying, ‘we can make this better.’ We try to build on the world’s greatest sites, saying, ‘we’ll do very little to this because it’s already great,’” Keiser said. 

Once a great course is built, then comes the work of attracting golfers from around the world. Major championships help, as do rankings in golf magazines. 

“Golfers who subscribe to those magazines, a lot of them have discretionary income and disposable dollars,” D’Amato said, noting readers will see a group of courses listed in an area and make it a point to go play them. 

New golf media brands like No Laying Up, The Fried Egg and the Fire Pit Collective have also told stories of golf travel and architecture in new ways that provide golfers with more inspiration for their trips. 

There is also growing popularity of buddies trips or golf travel in general. The National Golf Foundation found that 39% of adult golfers played at least one round of golf on a trip with an overnight stay and another 4 million golfers were interested in playing on a trip. 

Keiser said one factor in more golfers being interested in golf travel could be changing expectations in parenting. As dads become more involved in raising kids, they may be less likely to spend time every weekend at the country club and instead plan for one or two big trips per year. 

Keiser said for Sand Valley he thinks of Erin Hills and the Kohler courses as partners more than competitors, even if there is no formal partnership in place. 

“We don’t compete against each other, we really compete against Scotland, Ireland, South Carolina, California, Florida. That’s our competition, and I think we’re doing pretty good,” Keiser said. 

David Kohler shares that perspective. 

“The more that Wisconsin grows as a global and domestic golf destination, the better it is for all of us,” he said. 

Looking to the future

In Keiser’s view, the biggest challenge is getting players to return to his courses when those other states and countries are an option for the next trip. 

“Our second hardest job is getting somebody to come to the resort,” he said. “The hardest job is getting them to come back, and that’s what our great teams, our hospitality team and operations team, do so well.”

Keiser added that the goal is to make a customer want to come back many times per year and every year, and the resort’s success is based in large part on the “genuine and authentic friendliness” of its staff.

“I do think there’s something about the Wisconsin hospitality and sort of Midwestern friendliness that allow us and our competitors to recruit great people that our guests want to come back and see,” he said. 

Morrissett said the best form of marketing is making sure guests have “a tremendous time from the time he or she arrives to the time of departure.” 

“If they have a great time, they’re likely to return,” he said.

As for major championships returning to Wisconsin, the state may be coming to the end of an impressive run of big-time golf, but D’Amato doesn’t expect that to hurt the state’s standing as a golf destination. 

“I think the word is definitely out,” he said. “Wisconsin’s built this reputation as a home to major championships and I think that’s going to have a lasting impact, even if we don’t get any more for a long time.”

D’Amato also doesn’t expect the planned major tournaments in 2023 and 2025 to be the last for the state, even if factors outside of the state may have made it harder to land the same events. 

The PGA Championship, for example, moved from August to May, making it less likely it would return to Whistling Straits since Wisconsin’s climate means turf would just be growing in when the tournament is held. 

“You know they’re going to go after more stuff and they’re probably already in discussions with the PGA for more stuff,” D’Amato said of Kohler.

David Kohler declined to disclose specifics but said Kohler Co. is evaluating options and talking to the sport’s governing bodies. 

“I think you’ll see a history going forward of unique events that will continue to be held at both Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run because it’s very much in our interest and passion to continue to host pretty incredible competitions and unique events at both destinations,” he said. 

The United States Golf Association has also begun awarding U.S. Opens to anchor sites, planning to bring five U.S. Opens to Pinehurst in North Carolina, four to Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania and two to Marion Golf Club, also in Pennsylvania. There are just 14 openings available through 2050. Still, D’Amato thinks Erin Hills could fight for one of those spots.

“I think the USGA absolutely loves that property because of all the room for infrastructure (and) parking,” he said.

D’Amato added that SentryWorld is another course the USGA likes.

“They’re never going to bring the U.S. Open there because of not enough hotel rooms and that sort of thing and its remoteness, but I think they’re going to continue to bring USGA championships there,” he said 

In its early years, SentryWorld hosted several high-profile golf events, including its first USGA championship in 1986: the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. But that momentum slowed following the death of Sentry Insurance chairman John Joanis, who was a golf enthusiast and spearheaded the development of the course, said general manager Mike James. 

In 2012, the company decided it was time for reinvestment; SentryWorld shut down for a year and the entire property underwent a major renovation, upgrading everything from the irrigation system to the clubhouse. The project sparked discussion of SentryWorld’s potential, with Wisconsin’s golf scene on the rise. 

“Just before the reopening (in 2014), our chairman Pete McPartland and I talked and he was interested in hosting meaningful golf tournaments, and so off we went,” said James.

SentryWorld reached out to the NCAA, Big Ten and the Korn Ferry Tour, before ultimately forging a renewed relationship with USGA. When SentryWorld landed the 2019 U.S. Junior Girls Golf Championship, it was a launching point into the realm of championship events, said James. Earlier this year, USGA announced SentryWorld as host of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open. The major is expected to attract more than 75,000 attendees and generate $20 million in economic impact to central Wisconsin. 

As SentryWorld has reclaimed its spot amongst Wisconsin’s championship golf courses, it has continued to develop the property and its amenities, such as the 51,000-square-foot field house, event venues and restaurants. A new 64-room boutique hotel, The Inn at SentryWorld, will open this fall near the 18th fairway. 

Similarly, other courses have continued to reinvest. In June, Kohler Co. added The Baths at Blackwolf Run, a 10-hole par-3 course and 2-acre putting course.

“You have to keep things fresh and new to keep people coming back,” Kohler said.

At Erin Hills, a new 63,000-square-foot putting course, The Drumlin, opened in 2019. The course is lit up at night and open until 11 p.m., so it’s especially fun for overnight guests, said Morrissett. 

“A number of changes and improvements we make are geared toward our daily guests and are not necessarily taken with a major championship in mind,” he said, noting that Erin Hills draws anywhere from 100 to 160 golfers daily during the season. 

The continued investments are just one sign of what is to come for Wisconsin as a golf destination. 

“The best is ahead of us. It’s already so great as a state and I think we’re just getting started,” Keiser said.

BizTimes Milwaukee associate editor Arthur Thomas contributed to this report.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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