Swinging through northern Wisconsin: Hayward
From Spooner to Cable, golfers bag bargains and as much challenge as they can handle.
© Teal Lake Lodge
Super-wooded Teal Wing Golf Course spreads across a peninsula near Hayward.
For more than a century, the woods and waters of northern Wisconsin meant nothing but hard work for European settlers, who eked out a living there by trapping and logging.
It was only after the turn of the 20th century that folks in the south decided they could have a lot of fun up in the woods. So they left their offices and factories and headed north by the thousands.
Thus began the transformation from harvest to tourism.
If you look at a map of Wisconsin, the prime playground stretches from Hayward in the west to Minocqua in the east, sitting atop the “con” in Wisconsin like a furry caterpillar.
That stretch is dotted with deep lakes and shallow flowages that produce log-sized muskies, as well as dozens of golf courses that are capable of producing equally huge 18-hole scores.
In Hayward, where there still is animosity over losing the “Musky Capital of the World” trademark to Boulder Junction, near Minocqua, a group of course owners has decided that Hayward is entitled to be the Golf Capital of Wisconsin.
We are going to look at some traditional as well as championship courses that stretch from Rice Lake in the south to Cable in the north. For someone lodged in Hayward, they're all within an hour’s drive and offer substantial diversity in style and design.
We’ll meet a couple of fourth-generation resort operators who recently added golf to their list of amenities, a couple of “Daves” who enthusiastically maintain their community’s golf history and a couple of updated masterpieces that rate among the best championship courses in the state.
Starting in Rice Lake
The farthest south, in Rice Lake, is Turtleback. Located on the outside of the Rice Lake bypass, the course has had several incarnations since its opening as a nine-holer in the 1920s.
What once was the Hi-Dale course became the Rice Lake Golf Club in 1960, expanded to 18 holes in 1980 and, with ownership shifting to Ken Wilson in 1999, again was updated and renamed Turtleback.
Sporting a fancy new clubhouse with a big-city-style sports bar and a spiffy event and conference center, the course can hold its own with any within a few hundred miles.
Bent grass stretches from tee to green with enough water and sand to keep your mind from wandering. Standing high on the 13th tee, you look downhill to the turtle-shaped green that gives the course its name.
Unlike many courses in this part of the state, you are not intimidated by the encroaching forest primeval, so you can use all the clubs in your bag.
Turtleback’s length can be comfortable for most players, with tees ranging from red at 5,210 yards to black at 6,618. Equally comfortable are the $54 peak-season green fees, including cart, which is about half what you might see elsewhere at resort courses of this quality.
A bit to the north and east in Sarona is Butternut Hills Golf Club. Butternut Hills truly is a family affair.
Grandpa Karl Marshall designed and built the course, mom Jean Kallenback operates it and son Paul Osborn handles the on-course duties. With green fees as low as $28 for 18 holes walking, there is a ton of play from the local folks.
The course was carved out of the family farm, and the barn still serves as the clubhouse. The back tees play at a leisurely 5,600 yards, and there are a few ponds spotted here and there. But for a low-pressure, low-price experience, this is a nice option.
A bit farther east, just outside of Birchwood, is Tagalong Golf and Resort.
Built in 1922 by lumber heir Frank Stout for family and friends, Tagalong allegedly was patterned after the renowned St. Andrews course in Scotland, and the grasses and construction crew were carted over to keep everything authentic.
One could be picky about the resemblance to the Old Course, but then you might not be paying proper attention to what is a very nice course in its own right.
Less than 6,400 yards from the back tees, the course protects itself through the use of narrow bent grass fairways with long, links-style wispy rough. Some of the fairways are split into smaller targets with rough between, as well as sporting hollowed “grass bunkers.”
The Tagalong complex is a mishmash of condos, meeting facilities, hotel rooms and restaurants to go along with the golf, all perched on the shores of Red Cedar Lake. The whole thing looks as if it would be a nice self-contained northern option for retirees who winter in the South.
With peak green fees at $36 walking or as low as $100 for a foursome, this is one of the great bargains in the area.
A class act in Spooner
Flip-flopping back to the west and Spooner, we come to our first Dave, last name Torbenson, who runs the show at Spooner Golf Club. You probably won’t find a better-managed member-driven operation than Spooner Golf Club.
Of course, being member-owned, you had better be member-driven, but with reasonable family membership fees, an outstanding junior program and a PGA family course designation, this is the kind of course you would like to have in your community.
The family-course designation adds two more sets of kid-sized tee markers on each hole, so the 10-year-old can come out to play with mom and dad and have her own score card.
That works well with the club’s junior program, which includes 100 kids from age 6 to 17 who receive free lessons and a 2-month-long session in the summer to help develop their skills, manners and attitudes.
And, by the way, the course is pretty nice, too. Impeccably maintained at 6,400 yards, the Tom Vardon-designed layout has a classic style that dates back to 1930.
© Spooner Golf Club
At first, members refused to play Spooner Golf Club's 408-yard 18th hole, now one of Wisconsin's Great Eighteen.
The 18th hole, a 408-yard par four, has been chosen as one of Wisconsin’s Great Eighteen, even though the members refused to play it during the 1950s because they thought it was too hard.
In the 2010s, technology finally has caught up to the 80-year old design.
If you can make tee times online three weeks in advance, 18 holes without cart costs $35. But sometimes, you can find green fees as low as $20 on the course's website.
Heading for Hayward
Our second Dave is Dave Blake, who is in his 30th year running the program at Hayward Golf Club in Hayward.
This, too, is a PGA Family Course. Here, too, is a junior program with more than 100 kids, but this one extends to the local high school, where Blake is the golf coach.
It is hard to imagine anyone doing the same thing for 30 years and maintaining an unbridled sense of pride and enthusiasm for his job.
The course was first built on the Hayward city line in 1924 as a member-owned golf and tennis club. After some changes in ownership, the Hayward Civic Club took over and currently is in charge.
The club acquired land across the road for a second nine, and in 1998, Ken Killian redesigned the original nine to match the style and rolling topography of the newer nine.
With poa-grass fairways, there is a bounce in every step as you work your way around the layout, which measures 6,700 yards from the back tees.
The original “in-town” nine (now the back nine) plays its way through a residential neighborhood, but there is no fear of broken windows, as most of the holes are internal.
The mature trees and new grading give the feel of some of the classic big-city country clubs. The newer nine plays more open and has a fresher championship style.
Hayward Golf consistently is rated as one of the best in the state and is wildly popular among the locals as well as seasonal residents. With green fees peaking at $41 in the middle of summer and less the rest of the season, it is no surprise that the course has been named a Top 100 Good Value by Golf Digest magazine.
Across town is Hayward’s newest course, the Pete Dye-designed Big Fish Golf Club. Dye, best known for the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, always has something up his sleeve, and at Big Fish, he was able to combine a flat half-links course with a rolling half-woods course.
The result is two nines that could not be more different from each other, but it makes for very entertaining golf.
Big Fish is a big course at more than 7,200 yards from the back tees. It has been ranked as the seventh-best public course in Wisconsin and in 2005 was named one of Golf Digest’s best new courses.
If you aren’t familiar with links-style courses, you will be taken aback as you drive through the farm-like front nine to the clubhouse. You will wonder what all the fuss is about.
In Rice Lake, Turtleback is named for the turtle-shaped 13th green.
Once on the course, however, you will begin to appreciate why links golf can be very challenging fun. By the time you finish the ninth hole, you will have figured out how to deal with the long dry rough and the grouped bunkers.
But by then, it is too late.
The back nine is carved through rolling woodland, with a mature forest separated by perfectly groomed fairways. It is more like you would expect from a course in this area, but better than most.
Big Fish lacks the warmth of the other member-driven clubs we have visited; it has more of a big-resort “I’ll-never-see-you-again” feel.
Rates peak at $75, including cart. They're the highest in the area but still very reasonable for golf of this caliber, so maybe they will see us again.
Hayward National Golf Club doesn’t get the buzz of the other courses in the area, but it offers an extreme value at just $30 on weekends walking and only $30 during the week with a cart. With a full 6,364 yards from the back tees, this can be a bargain for family play.
East of Hayward, tucked comfortably into the center of the peninsula that is home to Ross’ Teal Lake Lodge, we come to Teal Wing Golf Course.
Golf Digest had the best description of it. When it named the course to its America’s 50 Toughest Courses list in 2007, it said, “Apparently, no trees were harmed in the making of this golf course.”
When viewed from above, the course resembles either the soft outline of a single rose or the swirling chaos of a tornado, and at ground level, there is little change in the perspective.
The Ross clan has been in the lodging business for six generations and on this site since 1921.
Currently, fourth-generation resorter Victoria is taking the reins from parents Tim and Prue. When the family gathered to plan the course in the mid-1990s, they each took a piece of the project, as if it were a Harvard Business School exercise.
They then ventured to a California mountaintop to snare a hermit-like builder to come out of seclusion. With the family’s dedication to the preservation of the land and the standards of the Audubon Signature Program, the result is a course that barely disturbs its surroundings.
In fact, this spring, the 16th hole was closed while a mother bear and four cubs were in residence.
The fairways are very tight, with little forgiveness if you should wander off, and if you fly your approach past any of the greens, your next shot will be a drop. Victoria says they are tackling a couple of holes each year to make the course a bit more user friendly, but they don’t want to stray far from the wooded personality.
There still are a few Ross family members keeping an eye on the whole process from on-property burial sites, so the current crew had better maintain the traditions.
Teal Wing plays to par 72 with five sets of tees ranging from 4,029 yards to 6,379. Rates peak at $49 (walking) on summer weekends, with discounts for twilight play. Carts are extra, but this is a very walkable course and worth the effort.
On to Cable
Twenty miles to the north, near Cable, Lakewoods Resort on Lake Namekagon has another fourth-generation operator taking over management duties. When Lakewoods general manager PC Rasmussen and Teal Lake’s Victoria Ross were small children, they would run around together when dragged by their parents to winter resort and vacation shows.
© Beth Gauper
Hayward has the biggest musky, but not the Musky Capital title.
Lakewoods got into the golf business in the mid-1990s when it built Forest Ridges Course with local course designer Joel Goldstrand. The course is carved out of native forest with ponds and wetlands galore.
Some of the holes have views of Lake Namekagon to the north, but the star holes are a very impressive collection of par threes.
Holes No. 7 and 13 have knee-knocking carries from tee to green over areas that have been untouched by human beings since the Ojibwe lived nearby. No. 13 was selected as one of Wisconsin’s “Great 18.”
A couple of the fairways are sloped away from the natural curve of the hole, which forces a shaped shot that may not be the strength of the everyday golfer. In the last few years, however, the woods near the fairways have been brushed and cleared, so you have a chance of a recovery shot if you stray.
With the five par threes and par 71 total, the course plays short at 6,062 yards from the back tees, but the slope of 137 will offer plenty of golf for all players.
Peak-season rates are $48 walking (don’t walk) on weekends and only $30 during the week, with discounts offered in the afternoon. If you live in that part of Wisconsin, you pay even less.
While you’re there, visit the resort for a look at its wall of fame. It gives a pictorial history of the area and the family’s involvement, from Anna and Phillip in the early 20th century through Hans and Gladys, Phillip and Kathy and now to PC.
Telemark Golf Course, also near Cable, offers an inexpensive big-course option, with green fees set at a low $30 for peak-time play. The course features a relatively flat front nine with a back nine that more resembles the local ski hill.
Telemark Lodge, in sight of the golf clubhouse, is a separate operation and has opened and closed, plagued by financial difficulties.
The folks who own Telemark also own Spider Lake Golf Resort, which is 40 miles away by paved road or about eight miles on a woodsy stretch of gravel. Spider Lake is a nine-holer that you can play for $13, or figure out your own stay-play-fish-swim package with an overnight at the resort.
Other nine-hole courses in the area include Barker Lake Golf Course Legend. A Scottish links-style course allegedly built by one of those Chicago gangsters, it sits on the shores of Barker Lake, about 25 miles east of Hayward.
Lakewood Golf and Pizza, eight miles east of Hayward, is a fun place to take the kids for golf and aaahh Pizza.
Last but not least is the self-proclaimed “Best 10 Hole Golf Course in the World,” Wildwood Marshes Golf Club, sitting low in the cranberry bogs east of Hayward.
This Joel Goldstrand-designed course one day will be a grown-up 18-hole course, but with 11 holes currently open for play, it qualifies for its particularly unique status.
Trip Tips: Golfing around the Hayward Lakes
For golfing farther east, see Swinging through northern Wisconsin: Minocqua.
Lodging: Spider Lake Lodge is a 1923 lodge that now operates as a B&B, beautifully updated by current owner-operators Jim Kerkow and Craig Mason.
This spectacular property is right out of the Adirondacks school of décor that only needs a triple-cockpit Chris-Craft out front to complete the picture.
Check for guest-chef dinner events. It offers easy access to both Hayward and Cable golf courses.
Dining: The Ranch on Hayward's east side dates back to the gangster days, and according to legend, some of the waiters were G-men trying to get the low-down on evildoers.
Current keepers of the history are sisters Cheryl Haupt and Beth Morgan, with Beth’s husband Barnaby in the kitchen. The food is plentiful, tasty and reasonably priced, and the legend continues with the pre-dinner relish tray (with pickled herring) and the Friday-night fish fry. It's open for dinner only; call 715-634-2090.
Here are our picks for the best golfing in northwest Wisconsin.
Best places to golf
- Turtleback, Rice Lake
- Hayward Golf and Tennis, Hayward
- Big Fish, Hayward
- Spooner Golf Club, Spooner
Most intimidating tee shot
- Hole 13, Forest Ridges, Cable
- Hole 7, Forest Ridges, Cable
- (Tie) Every tee shot at Teal Wing
- Hayward Golf & Tennis, Hayward
- Turtleback, Rice Lake
Last updated on April 23, 2012