4 of Wisconsin’s Most Memorable Golf Holes

Four unforgettable experiences from some of our state’s finest courses.

From our May 2019 special Milwaukee Golf issue

Golfers sometimes struggle to define what makes a hole great, but the easy answer is that it’s a hole you remember long after your round is over. Great holes are scenic, and demanding but fair. Some have made history, deciding major championships.

These four Wisconsin holes have that, and if one is a bit short on history – Sand Valley, after all, only opened in 2017 – they all dazzle the eye and challenge the shot-making skills of golfers. In short, they’re memorable.

Whistling Straits

Photo courtesy of Kohler Co.
Ggolf holes don’t get any more scenic – or demanding – than the penultimate hole at architect Pete Dye’s jewel north of Sheboygan. It has been immensely popular with spectators at the numerous major championships Whistling Straits has hosted (another, the Ryder Cup, is due in 2020).

The tee shot is downhill to a large green, but the penalty for a miss – Lake Michigan to the left, a sharp incline of sand dunes on the right – can be severe. Not for nothing is the hole named “Pinched Nerve.”

No. 17

Par 3, 249 yards

Whether or not nerves played a role, Darren Clarke – later a British Open champion – shanked a four-iron shot on this hole in the third round of the 2004 PGA Championship. His ball finished 70 yards to the right on a side-hill expanse of sand. The fun-loving Clarke, who had recently lost 40 pounds, later quipped, “My new fitness certainly made it easier getting up and down those hills at the 17th.”

Erin Hills

Photo by Erin Hundley
The go-for-broke drama provided by this finishing hole played out on the world stage in the third round of the 2017 U.S. Open. The young American star Justin Thomas, facing a second shot of more than 300 yards, with Holy Hill in the distance and a sea of sand and fescue between his ball and the flagstick, rocketed a three-wood to within 8 feet of the cup. He drained the eagle putt for 63, the lowest score in relation to par in the tournament’s history.

No. 18

Par 5, 663 yards

It was a thrilling moment in a championship – won by Brooks Koepka – that led Golfweek journalist Bradley Klein to write: “Erin Hills reaffirms the USGA’s idea that a new public course can be worthy of a U.S. Open.”

As for the 18th hole, amateurs may take heart – the hole typically plays downwind. The key is not getting distracted by the beauty and taking care to miss the numerous fairway bunkers that lie in wait for an errant first or second shot.

Sand Valley

Photo by Evan Schiller
This uphill par 5 encapsulates what golfers love about Mike Keiser courses: stunning beauty and enough difficulty to challenge top players while remaining playable for the rest. Keiser, who developed Bandon Dunes in Oregon before setting his sights on central Wisconsin, rediscovered an often-forgotten component of high-end public golf: It’s supposed to be fun.

Sand Valley, the first of three planned 18-hole regulation-length courses on the property (there’s also an 18-hole par 3 course), opened in 2017 to rave reviews, including Golf Digest’s best new course of the year award. Keiser hired famed architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, who did a Bandon course, to design Sand Valley.

No. 4

Par 5, 593 yards

From the tee, the sprawling No. 4 looks daunting but doable. It’s long and uphill, but the wide fairway encourages the golfer to bang a driver.

It’s on the second shot, when the fairway pinches in and the golfer sees vast dunes and natural waste areas left and right, that things get interesting. Hit a good second, and you’re in birdie position with a good third shot. Miss and you could be looking at a big number. The green is open – without the forced carry over sand or water hated by average players – but a pitched false front requires finesse to hit and hold the green.

The Links at Lawsonia

Photo courtesy of The Links at Lawsonia
A good first hole embodies the spirit of the entire golf course, and that’s the case with the opener at The Links course at Lawsonia, an affordable gem (59th on Golf Digest’s 2017-18 ranking of America’s best public courses) that will host the WSGA Amateur championship in July.

Built in 1930, The Links – there’s also a Woodlands course at Lawsonia, of completely different character – has the features of a Scottish-style links, with few trees, cavernous bunkers, generous fairways, high grasses and undulating greens with steep drop-offs to claim mishit shots.

No. 1
Green Lake

Par 4, 418 yards

The first hole on The Links is just uphill enough to make it a blind tee shot, which tells you this course is going to be a bit different. While you can’t see the landing area, it’s substantial, with the golfer deciding how much of the gentle dogleg right to bite off. You won’t want to miss left with your second shot, as the large green features a dramatic drop-off – a 20-foot wall of grass.

“Great Wisconsin Holes” appears in the May 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer and former longtime columnist for Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.