When most people think about Wisconsin, many immediately flash to rabid Green Bay Packers fans, Miller High Life Beer, big blocks of cheese and incredibly harsh winters. That would be your typical incorrect stereotype just like everyone in California surfs, parties and says “gnarly” and everybody in Alabama lives in a mobile home. Okay, the Alabama part may be true, but whose keeping track of that stuff anyway? What Wisconsin should get some bonus points and recognition for is three awesome golf courses that serve up some of the most picturesque and challenging golf holes in the country. And once again … YES … they are in Wisconsin!
It can all be found at the Kohler Resort, about an hours drive north of Milwaukee on Highway 43, along the coastline of Lake Michigan. If the Kohler name sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place it, you probably sit on, or wash your hands in some of their plumbing products everyday. In additon to being the world headquarters and manufacturing facility for Kohler Plumbing, the Kohler family puts a lot of emphasis on the word “Resort.” Herb Kohler had a vision and may be sitting on what represents the best hidden gem for those seeking the ultimate golf experience. Golfest 2012-Whistling Straits got the chance to enjoy that experience on May 20-24th.
True, most knowledgeable golfers probably recognize Whistling Straits because it hosts the high-profile PGA Championship every five years or so. Most remember the 2010 PGA, when a golfer who grounded his club in a bunker (Dustin Johnson), became more famous than the person who actually won the tournament (Germany’s Martin Kaymers.) Even with that notoriety, Whistling Straits is seldom mentioned in the same breath as more trendy golf hot spots such as Pebble Beach, Pinehurst. or Bandon Dunes. That’s not exactly fair, but that sort of brings this thing full circle to Wisconsin … home of Aaron Rodgers, beer, cheese and snow. Here is a recap of our trip! We encourage you to come to your own conclusion:
Travel Day (May 20th) … Eleven avid golfers from four states embarked on this journey, and for most of us it was our first ever trip to Milwaukee. Until today, we never really had a reason to come to the city that brings you the Brewers and the Bucks. Once we secured our rentals, our GPS was set for the Inn at Woodlake which would provide our accommodations for the next four nights. Well, at least some of us set our GPS’es headed North. Utah’s Bob Potts and Californian Jeffrey Adkins accidentally hit a destination from Golfest 2009 in their Garman device and followed instructions like they knew what they were doing. The problem was, our 2009 trip was to Chicago, so instead of heading north into the heart of Packers’ Country, they cruised south about 70 miles into Bears Country. That’s what happens when golf enthusiasm and adrenalin trump common sense. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west boys!
On Sunday afternoon, when we stepped off of Southwest Airlines, we were pleasantly surprised that we were greeted with 88 degree temperatures and a little humidity. In reality, most of us who froze through Golfest 2008 – Michigan were expecting extremely cold weather and packed accordingly. That’s the kind of frostbite-related trauma you suffer when you stand on the first tee box at Bay Harbor (on the other side of Lake Michigan) with the wind howling and the temps clocking in at a frosty 39 degrees. And that was before the wind chill was factored in. All of us were traveling big and many of us were already at the max weight limit on our luggage, before we made our Whistling Straits sovienir purchases. We had packed lots of layers; like in shorts, pants, rain paints, t-shirts, short sleeves, turtle necks, long sleeves, waterproof gloves, vests, wind shirts, jackets, and rain gear. And two pairs of shoes, in case it rains! For the first time in Golfest history, there were more pants and rain gear on one of our annual adventures than shorts. Some call it wisdom, some call it experience, some just call it smart. About halfway on our one-hour jaunt to Kohler, we began feeling smarter, when it began pouring rain drops the size of quarters. At this point we don’t know what to expect.
One thing that all of us Golfestian’s agreed on early on was that all of the locals are extremely friendly. It only took a couple of conversations with Kohler Resort locals to realize that we were in Wisconsin because of their distinct dialect. “Oooohhhh, don’t chaa’s know? … Da’ cheese kurds are graaytt!” Apparently in Wisconsin, it’s proper etiquette and a common practice to begin all of your sentences with the word “Ooohhh.” Like in .., “Ooohhh, we’d like to welcome you good folks to Wisconsin!”For those of you at home trying to figure out what I’m talking about, go watch “Fargo” on NetFlix. I know that Fargo is a couple of states to the left of Wisconsin, but they talk the same. A heavy immigrant influence drives this area. Funny stuff, but they probably say the same thing about us tourists from California. “Gnarly dude!” … “Oh, don’t cha know?” … “Bitchin.'”Dinner was served up Pub style in the American Club at a restaurant called the Horse & Plow. We all horsed around some, and a few got plowed!
Blackwolf Run – River Course – May 21st, 2012 … As expected, everyone was very anxious to get to the golf course for our 10:00 a.m. tee times on this sunny morning. Some California Golfestian’s were anxiously bouncing around their hotel rooms and down the hallways at 5:30 a.m., despite the two-hour time difference. Doesn’t anyone just sleep-in anymore? Most searched out coffee, checked on the weather, wolfed down breakfast at the Inn, before boarding the shuttle bus for Blackwolf Run. By the way, this is the same course that is hosting the U.S. Women’s Open on July 5-8th. They hosted their first one back in 1998 when Se Ri Pak of Korea won in an exciting Monday morning playoff. During the Open, the population of the Village at Kohler will surge from 4,000 to 120,000 people. “Oh, goodness, it will be crowded, eh?”
Purple shirts dominated the Blackwolf Run driving range and practice greens for nearly two-hours. One golfer from Minnesota wanted to buy mine off my back. Maybe he needs something to wear to the next Vikings game? Most of us Golfestians justified the extended practice session as shear determination of our quest to master and conquer the challenging River Course. I think a few Golfestian’s may have worn themselves out. The weather was warm, but with 10-15 mile per hour gusts. As a side note, there were only two sightings of pants in our group. Most of the cold weather gear stayed at the hotel.
Blackwolf Run, which is also referred to as the “Original Championship Course,” is rated as the 11th best public golf course in the country. And they don’t get those ratings by being easy! So we played with fore-caddys, figuring that their personal course knowledge would save us a few strokes today. Unfortunately, Blackwolf Run had other plans and played extremely tough, even after the early morning winds died down. This is an absolutely beautiful Pete Dye designed golf course that rewards anything on the short grass, but dishes up harsh penalties for any and all wayward shots. One of those penalties would be called the Sheboygan River, which comes into play 13 times on the 18-holes. We may have unintentionally raised the water level a few notches with some golf balls. Golfest rookie WIllie McClinton (Las Vegas) may have put everything in perspective. He thought he had Blackwolf Run’s number after scoring a birdie on the first hole. However, he followed that with a pair of double bogey’s, a par and a triple bogey. This 9.8 handicapper finished with an uncharacteristic 92. He was humbled!
The course featured many elevation changes which dished up many scenic views. Utah’s Bob Potts (10-handicapper) had the best day, shooting an 86 (44-42). The back nine played easier than the front with three of the four par-3’s on the course. Five other rounds were in the 90’s, and five were in the 100’s. All were hard fought. The Golfest “Triple-Bogey Max” rule was our unintentional friend. Afterwards, all of the Golfestian’s enjoyed refreshments in the clubhouse, before three players (Todd Baltzley, Willie McClinton, and Mike Barbone) spun off to play the nearby Jack Nicklaus designed Bull Course. The rest of us left our clubs at the facility where they were conveniently transported to tomorrows destination.
After a shower in one of Kohler’s finest creations (a five-headed beast), a power nap or two, a couple of aspirin, a few more cocktails, most of us were ready to go again. Dinner was served up back at the Blackwolf Run clubhouse where pork chops and bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin dominated most plates. This food flowed through the veins a lot easier than the artery-hardening cheese kurds we ate last night. Most of us spent some quality time on our iPhones checking to see what Mother Nature had in store for us at Straits Course tomorrow. The forecast calls for temps in the 60’s, with a slight wind slowing in off the Lake, giving us the same feel as walking the Old Course at St. Andrews. “Oooohhh, it should be fun, eh?
Whistling Straits – Straits Course – May 22, 2012 … Golfest 2012 was dealt a somewhat surreal golf experience on the Straits Course, home of the PGA Championship. If you didn’t know where you were at, and were told it was “Scotland or Ireland,” you would probably go with the flow and agree with one of those locations. The old stone clubhouse provides the backdrop, and the flag of Ireland flying proudly out front pretty much seals the deal. No matter how you slice it, Whistling Straits dishes up the ultimate old school golf experience. In fact, this is the sister course to St. Andrews and the layout and the landscape mirrors the toughness and roughness of any British Open … except in our case … the weather was absolutely PERFECT. Mother Nature partnered up with us and served up nothing but sunshine, no wind, and according to locals, a somewhat unusual mix of golf weather that they are not normally accustomed to. We deemed it a perfect day in paradise … even if Wisconsin was the paradise. What was even more “bitchin” (I’m from California) was several sightings of course designer Pete Dye and Se Ri Pak. They were seen inspecting several holes, possibly looking for ways to improve on the perfection that already exists before the 2015 PGA Championship. Based on our experience, that may tough to pull off.
The Straits Course runs along two-quality miles of Lake Michigan real estate. It requires that you walk the rolling hills with a caddy so that one can truly enjoy golf the way our golf forefathers envisioned it. That would normally be a four or five mile walk … if you hit it relatively straight … more if you don’t! According to Jim Dee’s (Indiana) pedometer, he walked 22,011 steps today. That’s about double the normal distance, which means either he didn’t hit it terribly straight, or did a lot of pacing in his hotel room.
In a unique personality trait, this course offers up 967 bunkers and between the 11 of us, we probably found 10 percent of them – some of them more than once. The eighth hole alone has 102 sand pits. By comparison, the 12th and 14th holes “only” had 18, which is still hard to comprehend. Jim Allen & Jim Dee took the opportunity on the 18th hole to symbolically ground their clubs in the same trap as Dustin Johnson. Couldn’t pass that one up! In fact, having a caddy to direct us around the obstacles and hazards was a great thing, because many of the hazards are “obstacle illusions.” If you didn’t know better (and we typically don’t), the hazards would’ve prompt most of us take an alternative route. Most are for “backdrop” purposes and don’t get in the way, if you follow instructions (and we typically don’t unless we’re driving a car to Chicago.) Because it seemed like every hole was literally next to Lake Michigan, we reached for our camera often to capture the views. Either the tee box or the green overlooked the extremely blue waters. And the greens were absolutely awesome — divot free, fast, and extremely true on the roll.
Willie “Rhino” McClinton got back on the “Straits and Narrow” and got his A-Game back and shot a Golfest low of 83 today. Mike Rittner heated up with the weather and carded an 85. On the other side of the calculator was Mike Barbone who enjoyed the best value per stroke for the second day in a row. Almost everyone thought they played better than their final scores showed, but that was because by the luck of the draw, everyone had a couple of bad holes that caused their scores to inflate faster than the national debt. Some bunkers were 30′ lower than the greens they were surrounding, which meant if you weren’t a trick shot artist, you carded a triple-bogey and quietly limped away!
Based on the post round debriefing at the bar, the Straits Course quickly leap-frogged into the top five for most of us. If you based our personal favorites on our group purchases in the pro shop, Whistling Straits skyrocketed to number one! McClinton and Baltzley spun out and played the Bull again!
After the normal routine of shower, nap, meds, and refreshments, we celebrated with a group dinner at a nice Italian place called Cucina. It was a 100-yard walk from our front door of our hotel at the Shops at Woodlake. Golfest ate like kings. Only one round remains on this trip? “Oh, we should stay anudder day longer, eh?”
Whistling Straits – Irish Course – May 23, 2012 … Golfest played the Irish Course today, just inland from its more famous sister Straits Course. And to be fair, it doesn’t deserve to play second fiddle to any course, because it’s a unique 18-hole experience, with or without its beachfront sister. This outing provided us a more realistic “Ireland-experience” at Whistling Straits with the the wind machine rachetted up a few more realistic notches. It was in our face to the tune of about 20 mph as we teed off on the first hole. Adding a couple of clubs was pretty much the norm for the day, unless you’re really sadistic amd like coming up short and fighting your way out of deep bunkers.
We went out as three complete foursomes today with Mike Fitzgerald of Golf Exclusives joining us. Mike has helped us book and dial in the details of our great Golfest trips over the past five years. He lives in nearby Chicago and decided to take the opportunity to join us. Mike decided to capitalize on the fact that we were in carts again … cart paths only … but in carts, with forecaddies. Mike even sweetened his appearance by picking up all of our forecaddy fees in the pro shop! Thank you Mike! Here is a well deserved blatant plug: Go to www.GolfExclusives.com
The Irish Course featured a lot more elevation changes, forced carries, and rolling hills than the Straits. And for true realistic feel, there is even a large flock of black-faced sheep that roam the grounds and keep the rough down — except where I was hitting! The Irish has a lot fewer “lake views,” but the fairways are wider and friendlier. The wind also became more user-friendly on the back-nine and we all finished with a smile on our face. Some of the scores may have reflected that because we had four players in the 80’s today. Willie “Rhino” McClinton (83), Bob “Pottsie” Potts (86), Jeffrey “Future Man” Adkins (88), and Craig “Double” Decker (89) notched those honors. Overall, there were six birdies today, compared to only one on the Straits course.
As with any Resort, golf can be just a sidebar to everything else that you can do. The Kohler Resort is the same. In addition to the golf courses, you can visit the 500-acre nature preserve, Kohler’s massive design center, the raquet club, trap shooting area, or spa. And there are many quality places to eat, especially in the American Club, a historic hotel that opened in 1918. While most of us were just “golf-focused” and missed most of the other attractions, we did have an outstanding final night dinner at the Immigrant Restaurant in the American Club. Located downstairs, down a long corridor of stone-line walls has to be one of the finest dining establishments in Wisconsin. Sports coats are required, but that has never held any charter Golfestian away from a quality meal.
It was a unique experience that offered up a “Tasting Menu,” meaning you ordered off a menu and created your own four or five course meal. You could order anything from Carpaccio to Ahi Tuna and Tiger Shrimp, to Beef Tenderloin and Beet Ravoli. Each dish was accented with a variety of spices and components that the average person doesn’t even have in their kitchen. It was all served up gourmet Food Channel style with an assortment of other tastes and flavors that rocked your taste buds. We used our 2 1/2 hour dinner experience to acknowledge our two Golfest Champions – Gross and Net. Willie McClinton ran away with the Gross title, while Mike Rittner won the Net by only one stroke. Congratulations boys. See if you can do it again next year, eh?
And just like that, our whirlwind tour known as Golfest 2012 – Whistling Straits was over. We just played 54 of the best golf holes that Wisconsin could dish up during a 54-hour period … and we enjoyed each and every one of them to the fullest. Whistling Straits lived up to its stellar reputation by dishing up three unique golf courses that bumped a few courses out of our personal TOP TEN list. And we came to the conclusion that quality golf should be synomous to Wisconsin, just like the Packers, Miller High Life, Cheddar & Snow. Eh?
The Straits Course at Whistling Straits was named the 2012 Golfest Golf Course of the year in 2012!