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.
SUPERIOR — This area often gets lost in the shadow of its bigger and busier sister city of Duluth, but the script flips when it comes to golf.
Residents of northwestern Wisconsin might cross the bridge to play at Duluth’s Canal Park, to shop at the busy stores on Miller Hill or to spend time on Lake Superior’s north shore, but for golf much of the traffic goes the other direction. When I arrived at Nemadji Golf Course for a recent round of golf, vehicles with Minnesota’s blue-and-white license plates almost certainly outnumbered cars and trucks from our own state.
And that’s entirely understandable, given that fully 60 percent of play comes from across the state line. The 36-hole, municipally-owned facility has long enjoyed a reputation as the best place to play in what is known as the Twin Ports region, so it’s no surprise the Bong Bridge would be busy with Minnesota golfers heading over to take on Nemadji.
(Quit your snickering. Not that kind of bong. The bridge was named for the American fighter pilot Richard Bong from nearby Poplar, Wis., who earned lasting fame in World War II as America’s “Ace of Aces.”)
Nemadji is, simply put, one of the busiest courses in Wisconsin, which is surprising given the golf season on the edge of Lake Superior can be as much as two months shorter than courses in the southern part of the state enjoy. Maybe it’s that shorter season that makes golfers want to play more in the north, or maybe it is that, numbers aside, Nemadji has lots to offer Twin Ports players, as it has since its first course opened in the early 1930s.
For many years, Nemadji was an 18-hole layout, until it went to 27 holes in 1984 and added yet another nine holes, designed by Roger Packard, in 1991. In addition, it offers both putting and chipping greens, a full driving range, a par-3 practice course along with fully equipped pro shop, restaurant and bar. Nemadji also has an active junior development program and hosts about 70 events a year.
Today, 18-hole golfers generally play either the older North-South courses or the newer East-West layouts, and the two options make for quite different experiences. The North-South is generally flat and straight-forward, what longtime course operator and PGA pro Mark Carlson called “your basic muni,” though after the relatively basic opening three holes it runs through an often pretty northern setting.
The East nine, generally regarded as the best of the four, and the West nine are somewhat longer and present more woods and water challenges. On a previous visit some years ago, I enjoyed the East-West course but this time I played the North-South, which golfers waiting at the first tee assured me — correctly, as it turned out — would be an enjoyable experience.
One other thing they told me proved true as well. While trouble can be found, the North-South course has room to not only find most errant shots but to play them without serious penalty. As a result, it is a course is that allows even someone playing it for the first time to spray the ball a bit and still shoot a flattering score, which might be another lure for those golfing Gophers looking for a place to play.
Nemadji’s scenery and condition would be other draws.
In 2016, a consultant’s survey of 10 public golf courses in the Twin Ports area ranked Nemadji No. 1 in six out of seven categories including best golf course, best clubhouse, best golf shop, best value, conditioning and more. Nemadji ranked third for scenery and view, not surprising in that it was an inland course being compared to others with Lake Superior views.
Carlson, who has been at Nemadji since the 1970s and has operating it through a lease agreement with the city since 2005, said the golf course not only welcomes Minnesota players but needs them, as well. The average income in Superior is around $40,000, he said, and on its own the city would not be able to support a 36-hole operation. But with a two-state base of loyal players, it is able to produce crowded parking lots and busy tee sheets that would make lots of other golf course operators green with envy. (Count the operators of Duluth’s struggling municipal golf courses among them.)
After so many years under Carlson’s care, the courses are going to soon get new operators. Carlson is retiring at the end of the golf season; in his place, the city of Superior has hired KemperSports to manage the golf operation, a move Carlson wholly endorses for what has become a challenging golf environment even for busy, popular courses.
Aside from the crowded parking lot, there was ample evidence of the place Nemadji holds in the hearts of those who spent their lives playing it.
Never in all my golf wanderings have I seen a course with so much attention paid to golfers who will never tee it up again, so many “in memory of” plaques on ball washers, on hole markers and so many memorial benches. A bench dedicated to Steve Arnovich read, “Every pass complete, every pitch a strike, every drive straight forever.” There was even a memorial garden developed by the Nemadji women’s club remembering “a good golfer, a great friend.”
I played pretty well, for me, but given so many memories to the dearly departed I passed on my round it wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t. By the time I finished the final hole, I was just happy to be above grass and playing.