Blackwolf Run, circa 1988

A foursome plays Blackwolf Run – Hole No. 8 on the River Course – in 1988, the year the course opened.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to pay a lot for that muffler. Or that round of golf.

We’re not cheap. Not us, no-oooo. That sounds insulting. We are cost-conscious, frugal value-seekers who regret not buying Bitcoin five years ago when it was $5 now that it’s $60,000 or something, I don’t even want to know.

Since we’re not billionaires, the cost of golf matters. It always has but value is relative – Pebble Beach at $575-plus, for example – and strictly in the eye of the beholder.

I was reminded of that while searching for a story about a long-drive contest I wrote for The Milwaukee Journal in the 1980s per a reader’s request. While rummaging through my old Journal scrapbooks, I ran across a 1988 story under my byline that listed the 10 most expensive and 10 least expensive green fees in Wisconsin. I don’t recall how thoroughly I researched those numbers but here’s what I wrote then:

“Green fees are like cheap underwear. They keep creeping up. … You won’t find the 10 least expensive on anybody’s list of the state’s best courses while the 10 most expensive includes five or six generally rated among the state’s 10 best. Is any round of golf worth $51. Hey, that’s up to you, it's your money.”

That’s right, $51 was an outrageous sum to pay for golf in Wisconsin in 1988. Pebble Beach was still probably “only” $150. The $51 was what it was going to cost to play a new course that was about to open in Kohler named Blackwolf Run. Did you want to ride in a cart? Oh, that’ll be another $22. Thirty-three years ago, that was the No. 1 most expensive green fee in the state. Golf was cheap in Wisconsin, we were spoiled. Compared to what we were used to then, $73 was shocking.

Keep in mind that gas in 1988 was 90 cents a gallon in 1988 and the best-selling car was the smallish Ford Escort, which could be had for around $7,000, give or take a hand-crank window or cassette player.

Everything in the world has changed since 1988 and for emphasis, I mean everything. I’m not sure where the time went but it’s somehow been three decades since I lived in Wisconsin. Time is accelerating, I swear.

But back to my frugal point: I have no idea what the least and most expensive courses to play in Badgerland are now but thought it might be interesting to revisit the 1988 list and see what’s changed at those tracks. For starters, four of them are no longer in business. Second, $51 isn’t outrageous anymore; it’s barely above average. Golf costs more than it used to. Everything does.

Here's my 1988 list, which was based on weekend rates, some of which required carts for an additional fee. Weekday rates and municipal residency discounts were not considered.

Top 10 Least Expensive, 1988

Sundown Golf Course, Crivitz. Then: $7. The original nine holes opened in 1962; a second nine was added in 1968 and a third in 1992. One was par 32, the other two were par 35s but together barely exceeded 5,000 yards. Now: There is no now. The course name was changed to Woodland Ridge but it closed for good in 2013.

Hickory Hills Country Club, Chilton. Then: $7.50 to play the nine-hole course twice (but it was about to open a second nine). Now: $18 for 18 holes. The website has a picture of a rare double rainbow over a fairway. Hickory Hills opened in 1940, has a par of 71 and the course is just under 6,000 yards.

Reid Municipal, Appleton. Then: $7.85 for an 18-hole round at this better-than-average municipal track. Now: $31. Still a fair value. Last summer, a Thrifty Thursday package was good for 18 holes with a cart for $30. The original nine was built in 1928, then called Appleton Municipal. A second nine was added in 1941 and the name changed to Reid Municipal in honor of a donor who helped pay the costs. Now it's just Reid Golf Course. Former PGA Tour player J.P. Hayes was a Reid regular as a junior.

Lake Shore Municipal, Oshkosh. Then: $8 for 18 at this short-ish gem built in 1925 hard by the shore of Lake Butte des Morts and adjacent to Highway 41. The Oshkosh Corporation bought 35 acres of the course from the city for its new headquarters in 2017, however, and Steve Cummings, then Oshkosh’s mayor, defended the sale saying, “Golf is a sport that’s dwindling in appeal.” Local residents were asked to respond to an online survey whether they’d like the remaining land turned into a nine-hole executive golf course or a park. Of 1,072 voters, 72% chose park. So Lake Shore closed permanently.

Bridgewood, Neenah. Then: $8. Now: It was reduced to a nine-hole course in 2003, which was the beginning of the end. The course became surrounded on two sides by condos and apartments, on another by businesses and on the fourth by a hotel and conference center. The land became more valuable for non-golf use and the course struggled to get play, as large outings preferred 18-hole courses. Bridgewood closed in 2019. 

Far Vu, Oshkosh. Then: $8. Now: $24. The course is par 72, opened in 1964 and is just south of Oshkosh. In addition to several positive reviews on Google, one reviewer from two months ago wrote that “the fairways are like washboards.” The course is just south of Wittman Field and near the shore of Lake Winnebago.

Utica Golf Club, Oshkosh. Then: $8. Now: $32. According to the club’s website, “The course has many trees and the Finest of Greens.” I’m not sure about the use of capital letters or that claim but I admire the zeal. Also, “Water comes into play on 11 holes and there are 39 sand traps.” Utica Golf Club opened in 1975, is par 72, and is just southwest of Oshkosh.

Westhaven Golf Club, Oshkosh. Then: $8. Now: $43. While Westhaven, which opened in 1968, is still a daily-fee course, season passes are available. An adult pass for the year is $775, an additional $430 if you want carts included, according to Westhaven’s website. Do the math: An avid golfer who squeezed in 100 rounds during the year and walked would have paid only $7.75 per round. At 50 rounds, it’s still only $15.50.

Countryside Golf Club, Kaukauna. Then: $8.75. Now: $30.50. Countryside opened in 1965, built by Joe Schmidt, who worked at a local mill at the time. He later quit the mill to run the course and added a second nine in 1971. A nice touch on the club’s current website is two photos of each hole, giving potential customers a look at the course. An adult season pass in 2021 cost $1,025, $350 for juniors.

Winagamie Golf Course, Neenah. Then: $8.75. Now: $26 (another $16 for a cart). Winagamie has three nines – Pines, Woodlands and Highlands – and is on the west side of the Fox River Valley with excellent views. It opened in 1962 and features rolling terrain with hundreds of evergreens.

Top 10 Most Expensive, 1988

Blackwolf Run, Kohler. Then: $51 ($22 more for a cart). That was big money when Milwaukee County residents with a discount card could play Brown Deer, get a hot dog and a drink and still have change from a $10 bill. Now: $180-$190 for either of Blackwolf Run’s two 18-hole designs, the River or Meadow Valleys. The new king of the hill in pricing is obviously neighboring Whistling Straits, site of the 2021 Ryder Cup, where green fees hit $410 last summer, plus $65 for a caddie and a recommended $50 tip. Don’t add it up – that’s $525, about what Pebble Beach costs.

SentryWorld, Stevens Point. Then: $40 (with required cart). Now: When it was last open to the public, it cost $175 for a round of golf. However, the price will rise to $275 when it reopens in 2022, which will include unlimited food and alcohol as the course goes to a new high-end model featuring tee times 20 minutes apart. That’s right, only three foursomes per hour. But with the high price, even only a dozen foursomes a day (48 players) means $13,200. It would take 132 players paying $100 each to equal that. SentryWorld opened in 1982 and was remodeled in 2014, then modified again in 2021 in advance of the 2023 U.S. Senior Open.

Devil’s Head Resort, Merrimac. Then: $40 (with cart). Now: $79 (with cart) and there’s a second track, the Glacier Course, that opened in 2000, to go with the original 1972 layout, the Prairie Glen Course. They’re resort courses that cut into Baraboo Bluff in south-central Wisconsin. A year’s membership is available for $999 (plus a $10 cart fee per round).

Abbey Springs, Fontana. Then: $37 (with cart). Now: $98 (with cart). A $2.5 million renovation project began in August that includes rebuilding 16 greens. The work is on schedule and the optimistic reopening date is May 2022.

Lawsonia Links, Green Lake. Then: $29.50. Now: $120 Links, $95 Woodlands. The Links course is a heralded 1930 classic featuring elevated greens, big bunkers and sprawling greens, a course any avid golfer must play at least once. It’s a bucket-list course. The Woodlands opened for play in 1983 but recently underwent a major renovation and is scheduled to reopen in May 2022.

Lake Arrowhead, Nekoosa. Then: $22. Now: $58 ($20 extra for cart). The Pines Course opened in 1982, the Lakes Course was added in 1998, so Lake Arrowhead now has 36 holes of play. It’s near the fabulous, attention-getting Sand Valley development but it has done well. It’s much less expensive than Sand Valley ($225 peak summer) and has benefited from Sand Valley’s walking-only policy. Some golfers walk 18 at one of the Sand Valley courses, then head up the road to Lake Arrowhead and play a second 18 while riding in a cart.

Madeline Island Golf Course, La Pointe. Then: $20. Now: $40 ($20 extra for cart). You can’t get much farther north in Wisconsin than Madeline Island, which is on the largest of the 23 Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. It’s near Bayfield, Wis., and 85 miles east of Duluth, Minn. The course has several double greens, the 6th and 15th holes share a fairway before going their own way and seven holes overlook Lake Superior. While the course is technically private, limited public play is accepted by advance reservation.

Hillmoor Golf Course, Lake Geneva. Then: $18.99. Now: The course has been closed since 2010 and the land has been sitting vacant while lawsuits fly. Some residents who attended a July 26 city council meeting urged the city of Lake Geneva to buy the course and rebuild it. But continued legal action by the owners against the city has stalled any progress.

Evergreen Country Club, Elkhorn. Then: $18. Now: $45. The original 18 holes opened in 1973, built by Dick Nugent and Ken Killian on land that had been a dairy farm; a third nine was added in 1994. Milking the details for all they’re worth, Evergreen is located 10 minutes north of Lake Geneva. Don’t have a cow but Fridays at Evergreen feature an all-you-can-eat fish fry.

River Falls Golf Club. Then: $18. Now: $41.15 ($10 extra for cart). Built in 1929, River Falls GC was originally nine holes, with a second nine added later. Forgotten history: In June of 1893, a lightning bolt struck a Ringling Brothers Circus tent pole during a performance in River Falls, killing seven and injuring 12 members of the audience and performers.

Old Hickory Golf Club, Beaver Dam. Then: $18. Now: $61 (with cart). Old Hickory dates back to 1920 and is one of the state’s most fun tracks. It is centrally located and easily reachable from Milwaukee, Madison and Fond du Lac.

Gary Van Sickle, a University of Wisconsin grad, has covered golf since 1980, including more than 100 majors. He began his career at The Milwaukee Journal and went on to write for Golf World and Sports Illustrated, among others.

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