Wisconsin’s centerfold golf courses, those celebrated layouts that host major tournaments and draw golfers from across the land, get a lot of attention, for good reason. But this state is blessed with many more deserving golf destinations any state golfer would enjoy experiencing. In this ongoing series we call "Hidden Gems," we will highlight some of those courses on what might be viewed as a Badger bucket list.
SAYNER — Call it a funky golf hole, if you must.
Call it a novelty, or more politely, unique. It’s both of those.
But whatever you call it, add fun to it because the fourth hole at historic Plum Lake Golf Course is a hoot. Fun and funky, the green on this 146-yard par 3 is in a deep depression, so deep an extra-long flag stick is employed to give golfers an aiming point on the course’s signature “sugar bowl” hole. Get your ball past the guarding bunkers in front and it should filter down toward the target.
It’s become iconic for many who have played it. When a few friends heard that I’d again visited Plum Lake for a quick nine they immediately asked if the “sugar bowl” hole was still there.
Of course it was! Who would remove something like that?
Oddly, one of Plum Lakes’ developers almost did.
In 1909, two years before the town of Plum Lake was even established, summer resident Fred James convinced Herb Warner, who was developing a summer resort nearby, that a golf course would be good for the local economy. Warner donated land for the project, as well as labor to help clear the site of stumps left from logging. That part wasn’t easy; when stumps as large as six feet across were removed they left holes that kept sinking and had to be filled and topped many times. Tracks from narrow gauge logging trains also had to be removed.
The course was originally built and tended by Tom Bennet, who used horses to mow fairways and hand mowers for greens. Bennet thought it a good idea to fill the 20-foot depression on the fourth hole, according to the club’s history, “but Mr. Warner insisted that was a unique feature not to be changed, and it hasn’t to this day.”
Good on you, Mr. Warner.
Early members included a number of prominent Chicagoans, including Charles Goodyear, of tire company fame, and Louis Janes, the 1902 U.S. Amateur golf champion and his father, Fred. Then, as now, wealthy Chicagoans loved to summer in northern Wisconsin and Plum Lake, near Sayner in Vilas County, was the last stop on the railroad line.
The golf club became the social center for many who vacationed on scenic Plum Lake. In addition to golf on the land, there were regattas on the lake (there still are to this day) and, by 1923, a larger clubhouse was built to accommodate all the activities, a handsome gathering place with a wrap-around screen porch outfitted with rocking chairs for post-round decompression. Like the course itself, the clubhouse has been largely unchanged — it has been featured in several national magazines including Architectural Digest — and no one today should consider playing the course without allowing time for a beverage on the porch and a long gaze at lovely Plum Lake.
The nine-hole Plum Lake course is all the proof you’ll ever need that just as good things come in small packages, great golf comes on small courses. And, despite a memorial marker on the course that claims one Frank Hixon once played Plum Lake in just 27 shots, the course is no pushover.
(About that impressive score: a longtime member at Plum Lake once told me there were some suspicions about Hixon’s 27 and that some wondered if he might have had some drinks before turning it in. But Shawn Savel, the course’s general manager and acting superintendent, said he tends to believe it. “I think so because I play with a gentleman who shot 29 and bogeyed the first hole,” Savel said, “so yes, I believe it.”)
Either score would be a real achievement. The first tee demands a blind shot to the top of a steep hill. The second hole is a looong (440 yards from the white tee) par four with out of bounds on the right and a green that is easy to roll off of in any direction. The ninth hole, a fun par four, also requires a blind tee shot to a steeply rolling fairway that offers few level lies. But don’t tee off until you hear the bell rung by the group in front or dimpled injury could result.
Savel moved from Illinois to northern Wisconsin at about 12 and played the first round of his life at Plum Lake a short time later. He left for college but soon return to the north, first working at St. Germain Golf Club and eventually returning to Plum Lake.
Returning to Plum Lake is also what many golfers do every summer once they’ve discovered the fun to be had. If there’s one complaint from players it’s that the course can be a bit bumpy, Savel said, but his response is they should just slow down and enjoy it for what it is — a pleasurable two hours of golf in a beautiful North Woods setting with a rocking chair on the porch awaiting their finish.
And most get that.
“Ninety-five percent of the people that come through the door will come back,” he said. “It’s unbelievable to tell the truth. Sometimes I wonder if everybody knew about us how busy would we be?”