Swinging through northern Wisconsin: Minocqua
For nearly a century, golfers have relished the woods and lakes between Sayner and Rhinelander.
© Timber Ridge
At Timber Ridge near Minocqua, the signature 16th hole is studded with railroad ties and sand.
The woods and waters of north central Wisconsin offer some of the best vacation opportunities in the Midwest.
Stretching from Hayward in the west to Minocqua in the east, you will find fishing, boating, swimming, hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and Friday fish fries.
There's also a little bar at nearly every intersection — sometimes, two.
The area has a 100-year history of golf, dating to the opening of the Plum Lake course in Sayner in 1912.
Where Hayward is boisterous and brash, Minocqua is relaxed and comfortable. Its cross-state rival claims the world’s largest musky, the world’s best hamburger, the world’s best 10-hole golf course, the Lumberjack World Championships and the title of Wisconsin’s Golf Capital.
Minocqua has almost twice as many residents, but folks there temper their boasts with a bit of Midwestern humility (except for Rollie and Helen’s World’s Largest Muskie Shop).
Cleverly nicknamed the Island City, downtown Minocqua sits squarely in the middle of Lake Minocqua, crossed by two bridges that carry travelers on U.S. 51.
Hayward is a quick drive from the Twin Cities, but the Milwaukee and Chicago folks who vacation in Minocqua need 4½ to 6½ hours to get there.
Perhaps that defines the two towns' personalities, as visitors to the Minocqua area tend to stay longer and are more able to develop a vacation inner peace.
Though it doesn't hold the Golf Capital title, it did wrest the Musky Capital of the World trademark back from Hayward, after a protracted legal tussle.
And the Minocqua area gives its counterpart a run for its money with stylish, high-quality golf courses between the historic Plum Lake in the north to the beefy Northwood municipal course in Rhinelander, to the south.
Rhinelander is more businesslike than Minocqua. With its Wisconsin River location, it has some industry and a bigger-city vibe. The city-owned Northwood Golf Club was designed by Don Herfort and opened for play in 1989.
This is not your normal muni-course. This is a professional, big-time golf course stretching more than 6,700 yards, with a first-class bar and restaurant, practice facility and GPS on the golf carts.
Golf Digest has awarded the course its second-highest ranking, 4½ stars, and named it the third-best municipal course in the country in 2003. That makes peak rates of $45 walking a relative steal.
As you line up the tee shot on the par-3 11th hole, you will notice tightness in your throat and dampness in your palms. It's only 130 yards, but the green appears to be an island with zero room for error.
There is, in fact, more room behind the green than it might appear, so a few times around the course will improve your score. A huge rock water feature that is visible from several holes dominates the middle of the course.
Like some other muni-courses, it feels as if the staff is just there to take your money and has little interest in whether you ever come back. So if a very nice course is good enough for your experience, this will do just fine.
If you don’t choose to start your day with “crabby,” there are a lot of other options.
PGA Professional Tom Dolby and wife Kalynn head up a service-oriented staff that holds sway over leagues, lessons and clinics that provide a wealth of entertainment value to residents as well as casual visitors.
The course features five sets of tees, ranging from 4,700 to 6,700 yards, that accommodate junior members as well as big hitters.
There is plenty of personality to the course layout without the ball-gobbling intrusion of the northern forest. Signature No. 16 is a 165-yard par three that appears to be all railroad ties and sand when you contemplate your tee shot, but most of the holes are built to be friendly to the community residents.
Peak rates are $47 for 18 holes walking in midsummer, and twilight rates are deeply discounted.
A few miles north of Minocqua and across the road from Trout Lake is Trout Lake Golf Club. The historic claim to fame for Trout Lake is that it is the oldest 18-hole course in this area; by 1926, it had a full 18 in play.
Originally a potato farm, the clubhouse is the original residence, with wrap-around porches and cozy sitting areas to watch the meandering Trout River out the back door.
The river also is the dominant feature on the course. Pro Mike Osborne, whose soft Kansas drawl belies his devotion to his adopted home, and superintendent Randy Swonger have overseen a million-dollar renovation, introducing native-grass areas that add personality and intrigue to the course.
With bouncy poa-grass tees, greens and fairways, there is a consistent feel and perfect conditions throughout.
Trout Lake has received four stars from Golf Digest as well as a 2008-2009 Best Places to Play designation, and it has hosted Wisconsin PGA events. Rates peak at $47 on summer weekends, with bargain twilight rates and coupons galore if you look around.
On the well-run St. Germain Golf Club, No. 5 is the beginning of a gorgeous stretch of fairway.
Even closer to Minocqua is the St. Germain Golf Club, owned and operated by the town of St. Germain. This municipal course is a beautiful blend of sophisticated in-town golf club with some distant corners to remind you that you are still in the woods.
The front nine was designed by Gilmore Graves in 1993 and in 1996 was followed by the back nine, designed by Don Stepanek. The two were magically integrated into a full 18 that flows effortlessly through stands of white and Norway pines.
The local version of Amen corner, made up of holes 5, 6 and 7, is tucked in the farthest reaches of the property. This is where you need to slow down your game and take a minute to remind yourself that a great day on the golf course is about more than shots and scores.
The soft hand of the designer on this gorgeous stretch is certainly the best possible use of this land. Playing to a robust 6,651 yards, the rest of the course is an interesting blend of double doglegs, double fairways and double bunkers that dare you to unravel the best way to play each hole.
The operation is run by pro Brian Baldwin, who is beyond a class act. In addition to the business duties of running this Golf Digest 4½-star facility, he scrounges equipment and prizes for his junior program, which runs every Tuesday for six weeks in the summer.
The program is free and open to all, whether you are there for one session or all six. The whole thing ends with a July tournament for the kids, and for $15, it includes golf, hot dogs and prizes.
High-season rates top out at $46, with twilight rates just over half that. There are also attractive 10-play passes and town resident discounts. Rather than sucking cash from the town’s park and rec budget, the course actually returns money to the town coffers, a rarity among municipal courses.
A few miles farther east is another municipal, Eagle River Golf Course. The entrance to the course is unceremoniously located behind a shopping area in Eagle River, and the view from the clubhouse doesn’t seem very dramatic.
As it turns out, that view is of the practice area and the first few holes from the original 1923 design.
Once you reach hole No. 6, you begin a swooping up-and-down, back-and-forth ride through a beautifully crafted, rolling landscape that is mostly the 1988 back-nine creation of Don Herfort.
Particularly noticeable are the contoured fairways that are graded to accept shots regardless of ball flight. Even if one strays, the bordering woods have been meticulously brushed, allowing a punch-out to get back in play.
In 1912, Plum Lake Golf Club near Sayner became the first golf course in Wisconsin's north woods.
The result is a very well-maintained, player-friendly course that has received four stars from Golf Digest for the last 10 years.
Pro Brad Missling oversees a strong junior program with a camp, league and Saturday clinics. The course also has hosted the Wisconsin PGA Match Play Championship as well as regional tournaments.
This is a great value course, with rates topping out at $38 for 18 holes and twilight rates of $15 for unlimited play.
When the snow flies, the Nordmarka Ski Club takes over, using the course for 11K of groomed cross-country trails.
Our tour of the Wisconsin woods will end where it all began, Plum Lake Golf Club, just north of Sayner and about a half hour northeast of Minocqua. This nine-hole, 3,100-yard classic was built in 1912 on the shores of Plum Lake.
Shawn Savel currently manages this laid-back facility. How laid back is it? On a recent visit on a drizzly spring day, there was a sign on the clubhouse door that said, “Out running errands, play golf if you want – Shawn.”
In spite of its age, the course continues to win awards both for its historical significance and its quality of play.
In 1912, Woodrow Wilson defeated incumbent William Taft and a gone-rogue Teddy Roosevelt, and politics certainly were discussed in the wooden chairs on the wrap-around deck of the clubhouse.
For a $25 green fee, this is a wonderful opportunity to be part of the history of the Wisconsin north woods.
Trip Tips: Golfing around Minocqua
For a guide to golf courses in the Hayward area, see Swinging through northern Wisconsin: Hayward.
For more about the area's gangster history, see Chasing gangsters in Wisconsin.
Dining: If Smokey’s Restaurant was in a big city, one might say it is self-indulgent, with a menu beyond the capabilities of the kitchen staff and service laced with misplaced arrogance.
The Trout River is the dominant feature of Trout Lake Golf Club near Minocqua.
Since it is in Manitowish Waters, northwest of Minocqua, you could just say that it tries hard. The owner has assigned staffers to create the best fine-dining site in northern Wisconsin, and they do try hard, but like high-schoolers in a class play, they may not fully understand the part they have been given.
Still, you have to appreciate the effort. The building has a certain casual elegance, and overall, Smokey’s is worth a visit. 715-543-2220.
The Rhinelander Café and Pub in downtown Rhinelander definitely is the town gathering place. Turn right when you walk in and you can pull up at the breakfast-lunch counter, or turn left and cozy up to the bar.
Walk farther in and you will be in the massive dining room, where you can eat three tasty home-style meals a day at bargain prices. If you can’t find a place to park on Brown Street, there is a big lot in the back with a door to the dining room. 715-362-2424.
You often hear someone say, “no trip is complete without . . . ” but in the case of McGregors Blink Bonnie Supper Club in St. Germain, that’s all you hear.
Known locally as “The Blink,” this steak house is located almost across the street from the St. Germain Golf Club, which makes it the perfect conclusion to an afternoon on the links.
They don’t take reservations, so the crowd literally will tail-gate in the parking lot in the late afternoon, waiting for the doors to open. The wait can be more than an hour during busy times, but the full bar is renowned for classic cocktails, so who cares (except the designated driver).
Parking tip: Street parking appears free and plentiful in downtown Minocqua, but looks are deceiving. The parking meters are tucked up by the buildings across the sidewalk from the street, so bring your change.
Here are our picks for the best golfing in northeast Wisconsin.
Best place to golf
St. Germain Municipal, St. Germain
Most intimidating tee shot
Hole #11, North Wood, Rhinelander
Eagle River Golf Club, Eagle River
Last updated on June 21, 2012