Mammoth Dunes | Sand Valley GR

Mammoth Dunes | Sand Valley GR

As general manager of the new and widely praised Sand Valley Golf Resort, Glen Murray saw all manner of groups make their way to rural Adams County in 2017 — on couples trips, family trips, corporate excursions and, of course, buddy trips.

But there are buddy trips, and then there are buddy trips.

Murray said one that stood out included a group of golfers who flew to Wisconsin and then to Sand Valley for golf before flying out later for a Packer game in Green Bay. They flew back to Sand Valley for more golf, then winged away again to Minneapolis for more football before returning to Sand Valley for yet more golf.

“The jet set crowd,” Murray said, “certainly travels different than the rest of us.”

Of course, most golf pilgrims who come to Wisconsin travel far more modestly. But travel here they do in ever increasing numbers, drawn by the rising buzz about our growing stable of bucket-list courses and enticed by a string of televised major tournaments that have teased millions of golf fans with sun-kissed images of centerfold golf courses.

Wisconsin’s steady climb as a golf destination has been decades in the making.

When SentryWorld opened in 1982 with its signature flower hole par-3, it became the state’s first true destination course. Herb Kohler developed Blackwolf Run, raising the bar on high-end golf in the state, and later doubled down with two courses at Whistling Straits. Kohler courses have hosted multiple national tournaments. Erin Hills GC was just five years old when it was named as the site of the 2017 U.S. Open, which took place just as Sand Valley opened the first of two highly anticipated courses. And those are all frosting on a layer cake of traveler-worthy courses including Lawsonia, Northern Bay, The Bog, The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, Wild Rock, University Ridge, the Lake Geneva area and more.

Lots of places in the United States offer tempting opportunities for golf, but the number and variety of high-end layouts in Wisconsin can stand with — and even above — any other. Last year, Golf Advisor named Wisconsin the No. 1 golf destination in 2017, ahead of such dimple-centric sites as Central Florida, Indiana, Phoenix-Scottsdale and — wait for it — Ireland.

“Wisconsin is only getting deeper with bucket-list golf,” Golf Advisor wrote. “Central Wisconsin is set to boom as the Midwest’s next hot golf destination.”

It wasn’t the only lavish praise rained on America’s Dairyland in 2017. At golf.com, in a story naturally headlined “The Big Cheese,” Coleman McDowell said most golf meccas are on either coast, limiting accessibility for many. But not Wisconsin.

“OK, it doesn’t have Pebble Beach. Or any beach at all, really. So what does Wisconsin have? Major-championship chops, enough sand dunes to give Shivas Irons the shivers and, most importantly, a sweet spot smack in the middle of the country.”

As any good infomercial would say, but wait — there’s more. Golf Channel travel editor Matt Ginella similarly praised our greens and fairways, calling Wisconsin a prime spot for golf groups for its “depth of courses, value, prestige and Lake Michigan…”

The headline on a New York Times travel section story in May asked “Can Sand Valley Make Wisconsin the Next Golfing Destination?” Writer Tom Redburn, seemed to think so, quoting Josh Lesnik of KemperSports as saying, “There’s already great golf in Wisconsin. But soon golfers will look to Wisconsin as a place like Scotland or western Ireland, where they can go for a week and, within a short drive, play someplace special every day.”

In the Wall Street Journal — surely the bible for well-heeled business golfers — no question mark was needed for a headline declaring “Wisconsin Becomes a Golf Destination.”

On the eve of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, the Journal’s Brian Costa wrote, “The newest American golf hot spot has late springs, early falls and frigid winters. It is neither very wealthy nor very populous. Yet in the last 20 years, Wisconsin has gone from a completely unremarkable golf state to a frequent host of major tournaments and a destination for golf travel.”

The benefits of such attention extend beyond major-tournament sites. Craig Haltom of the Madison-based Oliphant Companies recently oversaw extensive improvements at Lawsonia’s Links Course and said the resulting increase in play at the venerable Green Lake resort was in part due to the rising attention paid Wisconsin’s superstar courses.

“What we’re seeing now is that people are coming to Lawsonia for the first time as they’re coming to play Erin Hills, Kohler and now Sand Valley,” Haltom said. “It’s great, and what I think all these places are seeing is the more, the better. ... We’re getting a lot of people in Wisconsin to play those world class courses. When you stop and think what’s happened in the state the last four or five years, this could be the number one destination for summer golf trips.”

A few years ago, Jason Kauflin created Wisconsin Golf Trips in hopes of riding that wave. Knowing that a U.S. Open televised around the world in 2017 would draw golfers’ eyes to Wisconsin, and anticipating many would be coming to play as well, he began offering custom golf packages — including tee times, lodging, travel and more — to visiting groups. And Kauflin said his instinct, that Wisconsin’s higher golf profile would make it a stronger magnet, was spot on.

“The answer is absolutely yes,” he said. “Groups that have not considered us before are putting Wisconsin at the top of the list.”

One big reason is that almost all of Wisconsin’s most highly rated course are public, if also pricey. But Kauflin said for many long-term buddy groups that seems not to be a significant barrier. He booked one group of 12 golfers, all from the east coast, for a trip to Wisconsin that will set them back about $42,000, before food and drink. His average quote is “right around 2,500 bucks a guy,” he said, and bookings for 2018 are already shaping up nicely.

“Going into 2017, a little over a year ago, I maybe had one or two leads on my desk. Fast forward to right now, I’ve got 10 groups booked for 2018. These groups are coming in and spending lots of money. These are world travelers that are finding us for the first time.”

And, the attention being paid Wisconsin isn’t likely to fade anytime soon. Kohler is looking at building a fifth course along the shore of Lake Michigan, Sand Valley’s second course, Mammoth Dunes, will officially open in 2018 and is already a contender for top golf course listings in the future. A third Sand Valley course is in the works.

And in 2020 the Ryder Cup will be played at Whistling Straits, ensuring once again the eyes of the golf world — not to mention its TV cameras — will be focused on Wisconsin golf. You can’t buy that kind of attention. But these days, Wisconsin doesn’t need to.

A Wisconsin native & longtime newspaperman, Dennis has been writing about golf for more than 20 years. When not profiling golf's colorful characters or the courses they play, he can usually be found golfing at beautiful Apostle Highlands GC in Bayfield.