After a birthday round of golf and lunch at Wild Rock GC, my wife and I headed home, which required passing through the unbridled hubbub that is Wisconsin Dells in summer.
The course had been busy, if not packed, but busy took on a whole new meaning when we drove by the giant outdoor water parks where seemingly thousands of swimsuit-sporting visitors were cavorting on water slides and in beckoning blue pools. Not for nothing is Wisconsin Dells the unchallenged Waterpark Capital of the World.
Still, quality golf has its place in this longtime vacation spot, along with Duck rides through the sandstone walls of the Wisconsin River, wax museums, elaborate mini-golf layouts, fudge shops and all the other tourist draws. No official statistics are available to show where golf fits in the spectrum of activities, said Bianca Johnson of the local visitor center, “but golf is a very important part of what we offer here in Wisconsin Dells.”
And it has been for a very long time.
Golf in the Dells began in 1923, when a shortish nine-hole layout was built to offer diversion to the crowds already coming to ride the river or camp along its banks. The community then was known as Kilbourn City — it wouldn’t become Wisconsin Dells until 1931 — but the region’s rugged river beauty had been attracting visitors for decades, in large part because of the wide distribution of landscape photographer H.H. Bennett’s iconic photos of river bluffs and wild waterways.
Today that original nine-hole course is part of the now 18-hole Cold Water Canyon GC (www.wisconsindellsgolf.com), which this summer built new tee boxes that stretched what had been a 5,600-yard course to about 6,100 yards, converting two par 4s to par 5s in the process.
“The reason was just to add length to the golf course (and) make it a little more challenging,” said Todd Campbell, director of golf. “We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback on it.”
Water parks, hazards
No longer a stand-alone golf course, Cold Water Canyon is now part of the sprawling Chula Vista Resort, just one of four golf-resort combos in Wisconsin Dells. The most heralded golf course, the multi-award winning Wild Rock GC (www.wildrockgolf.com), is part of the Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort. Another acclaimed layout is Trappers Turn GC (www.trappersturn.com), the 27-hole Andy North-Roger Packard design that is now owned by the Kalahari Resort. And yet another 27-hole attraction is Christmas Mountain GC (www.christmasmountainvillage.com), which is part of the Bluegreen Resort family.
At Wild Rock, director of golf Pat Stein said having the resort connection is definitely a bonus, even if the main draw is water fun instead of water hazards.
“If you ask anyone the first thing that’s going to come to mind is waterparks,” he said. But “Wilderness has always had a golf component since day one. What it comes down to is it’s just another nice amenity.”
At Trappers Turn, the resort connection helps even beyond the convenience it offers guests who want to play golf, said director of golf Patrick Steffes. The golf course is able to host larger outings than many others might be able to handle because of the sizable resort staff and facilities that can be tapped to help. Resort ownership also offers financial muscle for things like this year’s course improvements, he said.
“That’s been nice because we’ve had the backing to do some things, like the (renovated) bunkers,” he said. “We’re lucky to have the (resort) facilities and manpower.”
Still, golf course operators acknowledge their place in the pecking order.
Kalahari Resort sells out in summer primarily for its water parks, Steffes said, while at Coldwater Canyon Campbell said, “We definitely don’t live or die with the guests staying at Chula Vista.” While Coldwater Canyon does host corporate outings and offers seasonal memberships, walk-in public play is by far the most important component on the golf side. And some of that, Campbell said, comes from guests at competing resorts who enjoy lower green fees at his course than they find at the Dells’ premier courses.
As much as Wisconsin Dells is thought of as a summer draw, especially for visitors from Illinois, golf is big in the fall. Stein said more Wisconsin residents come to play then, but also golfers from other states make a trip to play a couple of the Dells courses and enjoy cooler, more colorful weather.
“September is as big for us as July,” Stein said. “For us every weekend tee time available is booked for September. Isn’t that amazing? You wouldn’t think that.”
Beyond the city limits
It’s worth noting that Wisconsin Dells golf includes more than just Wisconsin Dells courses. Both highly-regarded Reedsburg CC, just 10 miles from the Dells, and Baraboo CC, a similarly short distance away, benefit from their proximity to so many visitors who want to add a bit of golf to a family vacation.
While a large part of guest play comes from people who live less than an hour away, said Clint Hutchens, head pro at Baraboo CC (www.baraboocc.com), “we get a decent amount from the Milwaukee area who are here for the Dells.
“We don’t claim to be a Wisconsin Dells golf course in our literature but when I go to golf shows we make sure we’re all in the same section,” he said. “We kind of market ourselves as Wisconsin Dells golf. We’re pretty fortunate. We really have a lot of nice golf within a short distance here.”
Hutchens said the quality of golf is matched by the variety, from the top courses like Wild Rock and Trappers Turn to small-town country clubs and other courses more friendly to families and vacationers who don’t play much golf otherwise. Also in the area are Devil’s Head Resort (www.devilsheadresort.com), which boasts two scenic and popular 18-hole courses just south of Wisconsin Dells; Portage CC (www.portagecc.net), with 18 holes on the shore of Swan Lake; Spring Brook GR (www.spring-brook.com), a nine-hole course; and Castle Rock GC, (www.castlerockgolfcourse.com), an 18-hole layout in nearby New Lisbon.
“There isn’t a golf experience that you can’t get in this area. There’s not a genre of golfer that can’t have their needs met. We all refer golfers to other courses non-stop. For us and Reedsburg, we bounce golfers on and off all the time.”
And there’s one other reason for golfers to make the short drive to Baraboo, Reedsburg, Portage or other area courses, he said. “We’re not a hundred, $110 bucks a round. Even at our peak season we’re $40-45 cheaper.”
While many golfers head for Wisconsin Dells to play more than one course, the area shouldn’t be thought of as a true golf destination like the courses at Kohler or Bandon, Oregon, Campbell said. But that could change if Sand Valley GC, the new Mike Keiser development just 45 minutes north of Wisconsin Dells, becomes the draw that everyone expects it will be. One course will open officially next summer, a second is under construction and eventually there could be several more courses with prominent designer labels.
“I think it’s an exciting time for Dells golf with the Sand Valley thing going in,” Campbell said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see an increase in play.”
While Sand Valley will be its own golf destination, there may be lots of golfers who will want to play another, less expensive course while in the area, agreed Wild Rock’s Stein.
“I’m hoping it’s going to help,” he said. “I’m hoping it will bring more destination golfers.”