Milwaukee County's golf courses - an expansive and diverse group of course touching all corners of the urbanized county - is a hidden treasure under our noses.
From our May 2019 special Milwaukee Golf issue
Of the many things Milwaukee is famous for – beer and festivals come to mind – something civic boosters rarely seem to tout, but should, is the county’s outstanding public golf.
Milwaukee County’s 15 county-owned golf courses rank second in total holes only to Los Angeles County’s Municipal Golf System, according to the Florida-based National Golf Foundation.
The quantity is matched by the quality and variety. From Brown Deer Park, where Tiger Woods in 1996 played his first tournament as a PGA tour pro, to Lake Park – beginner-friendly, with no hole exceeding 100 yards – county golf provides both a challenge and a good time.
“There’s truly something for everyone,” says Bill Linneman, director of rules and competitions for the Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA). As a kid, Linneman rode his bike to Lincoln Park to play the nine-hole course. Later, he was a longtime member of the men’s club at Brown Deer.
“I think what the county has is fantastic,” Linneman says, “and I think it is underappreciated by the golfers in Milwaukee. Compared to other cities, we are blessed to have great facilities within minutes of where you might live in Milwaukee.”
Archie Dadian of South Milwaukee, a two-time WSGA Amateur champion and public golf legend, played in national public links tournaments across the country.
“There’s no question in my mind Milwaukee County’s courses are better,” Dadian says. “Condition, price, you name it.”
The man in charge of this somewhat hidden gem, and one who also recognizes its challenges, is Chet Hendrickson, golf services manager for Milwaukee County Parks. He’s had that role since fall 2011, having started with the parks department in spring 2000, when he was a golf shop assistant at Brown Deer.
The rapid growth the game experienced in the 1990s with Woods’ arrival has leveled off. In Madison, there have been discussions about closing one of the city’s four municipal courses.
“Industry wide,” Hendrickson says, “golf is not growing like anybody wants it to grow. But we’ve been able to stave off much decline through a variety of different channels. Even with limited budgets, we try to continuously invest in our golf courses and infrastructure.”
In the last few years, Hendrickson says, county courses have gotten new irrigation systems and cart paths, bunkers have been redone and holes redesigned. Clubhouses have been remodeled.
“Our parks director [Guy Smith] has been very supportive of golf,” Hendrickson says, though there’s pressure, too. “The golf revenue consists of around 40 percent of the entire parks department revenue. As the golf season goes, so goes the parks department.”
Weather plays a big role, and it was not good in 2018. “An incredibly wet spring,” Hendrickson says. “Then once we got past Labor Day, we couldn’t catch a break. A good stretch of weather was never on a weekend. You can do everything correctly, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, you aren’t going to get people on your golf course.”
They’ve worked on the things they can control, including in the past several years expanding the popular “players discount” program – which provides savings every time you play – to make any resident of Wisconsin (rather than just Milwaukee County) eligible.
“We started seeing a lot more players coming from our neighboring communities,” Hendrickson says. “It’s helped us stave off the decline.”
In golf there is an expression about a player being good “through the bag,” which means he or she hits every club well. Milwaukee County’s courses are good through the bag. Bill Linneman notes that Dretzka Park and Oakwood Park held qualifying events when the PGA Tour had a Milwaukee stop. The superintendent at tournament-tested Brown Deer handles that job at Lincoln Park, too.
“People who travel here for other reasons, like business,” Hendrickson says, “are blown away by our public golf courses.”
NOTE: Player discount card ($20 a year)
offers discounts at many county courses.
Savings vary, up to 50 percent
for some rounds at Brown Deer Park.
4 Milwaukee County Golf Courses You Should Try
Brown Deer Park
The walls in the hallway between golf shop and bar in Brown Deer’s recently renovated clubhouse also pay homage to Woods’ PGA Tour debut at Brown Deer.
Yet Brown Deer’s excellence was noted before Woods’ arrival. The course three times hosted the USGA’s Public Links championship (1951, 1966 and 1977). Designed by George Hansen in 1929, Brown Deer, at 6,759 yards long and par 71, is the jewel of Milwaukee’s county courses.
Woods finished tied for 60th in 1996, earning $2,544. But in the final round, he gave a preview of the excitement that would surround him by scoring a hole-in-one on No. 14. “It was wild,” Woods said later. “I thought it might be short, but when it hit and bounced and people started jumping up and down up by the green, I started getting excited.”
7625 N. Range Line Rd., Milwaukee; 414-352-8080
18 holes, with player discount card: M-F $41, weekends $46
Whitnall is not overly long – it’s a good walking course – but its tree-lined doglegs still challenge the low-handicap player. “It’s one of those courses where the more you play it, the more you’ll like it,” Hendrickson says. “And the better chance you’ll have to do well. You have to know where to hit it at Whitnall.”
The course was designed by George Hansen in 1932, three years after he designed Brown Deer Park. “Short, tight, old-fashioned greens sloping back to front,” Bill Linneman, director of rules and competitions for the WSGA, says of Whitnall.
6751 S. 92nd St., Franklin; 414-425-7931
18 holes, with player discount card: M-F $27, weekends $32, weekends after 2 p.m. $27
In 1930, it was expanded to 18 holes, and that course, consisting of all par 3 holes under 100 yards, is now a perfect place for kids and others new to the game to get started.
“It’s a great course for people beginning the game,” Hendrickson says. “We do a lot of youth programming out there, junior tournaments.”
Lake Park was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
The golf course is not just for kids. It’s unusual for a par 3 course to have 18 holes. Hendrickson says golfers of all ages utilize Lake Park to work on their short games.
“You don’t even need to carry a bag,” he says. “Just bring two or three clubs.”
3233 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee; 414-961-3206
18 holes: $9 seven days a week, junior / senior / disability $7
“It’s probably our most diverse golf course from a demographic standpoint,” Hendrickson says.
Lincoln Park plays to a par 33 that includes a couple of drivable par 4 holes. It was recently renovated with new bunkers. The course’s sandy soil drains well and allowed for a Feb. 27 opening in 2018.
“It’s in fantastic shape,” Hendrickson says, noting that Tim Wegner, the superintendent in charge of Brown Deer, also oversees Lincoln Park.
Bill Linneman of the WSGA learned the game as a boy at Lincoln Park. “I could bike over there,” he recalls. “You could play it for something like 30 cents. We’d go around two or three or even four times and sit at the counter between rounds and eat a cheeseburger.”
1000 W. Hampton Ave., Glendale; 414-962-2400
9 holes, with player discount card: $13 seven days a week
Meet the Dean of County Golf
A great set of public golf courses should produce a great player, and Milwaukee County’s did: Archie Dadian.
Dadian first played golf at Grant Park. He was 14. That summer, a friend he was playing with got mad and started breaking clubs, old wooden-shafted irons. “Don’t break them,” Archie said. “I’ll buy them.” He did.
By the time he was 15, Dadian was shooting in the 70s, and he never looked back.
Dadian briefly turned pro in the 1960s but after an injury at a tournament in North Carolina regained his amateur status. He worked as an insurance examiner and never joined a country club, preferring the public links both for economic reasons – “We had four children to put through college” – and for the variety of the courses .
Hip issues have limited his play in recent years, but Dadian notes that may change this season.
“I’m hoping to get back,” he says, “maybe play a tournament.”
Best Private Club Course
While which public golf course in Wisconsin is best is a question likely to start a spirited discussion among golfers, there is a consensus on the best private club course.
Milwaukee Country Club (MCC) in River Hills, with a layout that dates to the 1920s, ranked 74th on the list of America’s 100 in Golf Digest greatest courses released by January.
“It will test every part of your game and leave a lasting impression,” says Madison native Sherri Steinhauer, the women’s British Open champion who was taught by the late Manuel de la Torre, longtime MCC pro.
Bill Linneman, director of rules and competitions for the WSGA, caddied at MCC as a teen.
“It’s the greatest course in the state of Wisconsin in terms of history and stature,” Linneman says, noting that the WSGA State Amateur will be held at MCC in 2020. “The variety of holes is unbelievable. It’s from the golden age of golf architecture.”
One of the Golf Digest panelists said: “Just exudes that old-school, pure golf vibe.”
To top it off, in July 2018 Golf Digest ranked the MCC locker room as the 16th-best in American golf, noting: “The bratwurst and sausage highlight the daily spread. Rumor has it Brett Favre was asked to leave after knocking over a trophy while tossing a football between locker rows.”