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.
SPRING GREEN — When visiting the lovely rolling countryside that surrounds Spring Green it is almost required by law to bow to great architecture.
Start with Frank Lloyd Wright, revered by many as the greatest architect this country has ever produced and whose former home and studio at Taliesin draw legions of admirers to this area 45 minutes west of Madison every year.
But do not stop there, because another great architect — this one a builder of marvelous golf courses — also left his mark in Spring Green.
The Springs Course at House on the Rock Resort was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., whose bio at the World Golf Hall of Fame credits him with building or rebuilding more than 400 golf courses during a lifetime of inspired design. Just two of his designs were in Wisconsin — the unusual “double nine” layout at the Madeline Island Golf Club is the other — but much like Wright’s Taliesin studio, the Springs Course has been a worthy draw here since it opened in the late 1960s.
It has had several owners through the decades and was widely known simply at The Springs in its early years before the course was purchased by the uber-quirky House on the Rock, one of the most popular tourist magnets in southwestern Wisconsin. Even under new ownership, said director of golf Justin Bomkamp, “we’ve maintained the name integrity.
“(In 2000) we switched from The Springs to the House on the Rock Resort but we still call it the Springs Course. It doesn’t bother me when people call it The Springs.”
Today, the resort offers 27 holes of highly rated golf — Jones’ original 18 holes noted for narrow landing areas, numerous bunkers and lots of water hazards, and another dandy nine-hole layout designed by Roger Packard and Madison’s Andy North. When first-timers inquire about the original course, Bomkamp says, “The first thing I say is it is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, because that’s unique.”
And while it is tempting to think of the North Course, as it is known, as the resort’s “new” nine, Bomkamp said, “the 25th anniversary of the North Course is this season. In ’94 we opened it. When I describe it, (I say) narrow fairways, undulation, elevation changes, very secluded. When you play the North Course you rarely see anybody else.”
According to the book "Great Golf in Wisconsin," Jones worked with his son, Rees, when designing the Springs Course, but did not use detailed drawings. “Father and son simply walked the land, made rough sketches and decided what should go where. Little earth was moved and little brush cleared. The result was a course that fit nicely into a peaceful valley set back from the big (Wisconsin) river.”
The course is not especially long — just 6,590 yards from the back tees. But there are enough sandy and watery challenges to suggest Jones met his oft-stated goal that every hole should be a hard par but an easy bogey. The course’s signature feature is a sprawling double green, flanked by water and bunkers, that serves both the ninth and 18th holes, giving each nine a memorable finish. At a rugged 407 yards, the 18th is an especially challenging final test but one that can stand its own with any other finishing hole around.
On the spring day, I paired the front nine of the Springs Course with the North Course for my 18 and, despite heavy rains overnight, both were in fine condition. Bomkamp said his goal is to keep both courses playable, with less out-of-bounds areas than in the past, greens that won’t be confused with racetracks and reasonable carries for golfers of varying abilities.
“I want a shorter course (where) people are able to play faster,” he said.
Much of the play on both courses comes from nearby communities, he said. The resort is just 45 minutes from Madison and Middleton and draws from other southwestern Wisconsin communities as well, not to mention from golfers in Illinois and Iowa — “tremendous pull from the Quad Cities, as a matter of fact,” he said.
“It’s mostly local, but I’m constantly trying to change it.”
One trend he would like to encourage is the number of golf leagues from other communities who come to the resort for their end-of-season championships.
“September, October, definitely the fall is the busiest time for us,” he said. “The leaves are changing and people are coming out” to play before season’s end.
And why not? While some homes and other dwellings can be seen from each of the three nines, development has not come close to erasing the beauty of these golf courses set in a quiet, rolling river valley.
The adjacent 80-room House on the Rock Resort and Spa offers golf packages for groups or couples. If golf is not enough of a reason to visit, the resort is just across the road from the popular American Players Theater, and pretty little Tower Hill State Park is just down the road. Spring Green is also known for its many resident artists, but while there are ample reasons to visit the area it is still far from the hustle and bustle of, for example, Wisconsin Dells.
“I try to be the opposite of that,” Bomkamp said. “I kind of want the quiet people. We’re sort of off the grid. We’re just trying to be who we are and great at that, not be everything to everybody.”