By Rob Hernandez
LAKE GENEVA, Wisconsin — As rich as the golf has become in Walworth County in recent years, Dave Hallenbeck remembers the days when you could drive a golf ball from Genoa City to Whitewater and not have it pass more than a handful of golf courses.
“I started here when it was the Playboy Resort in 1977,” said Hallenbeck, the director of golf at what is now the Grand Geneva Resort. “Golf here has always been very strong. But when we started years ago, we didn’t have the number of golf courses we do now.”
Indeed, there are now more than a dozen courses in the greater Lake Geneva area and nearly two dozen within a 30-minute drive from Geneva Lake. Of those, six have more than 18 holes on the property — including the 54-hole Geneva National Resort, which offers three 18-hole tracks designed by legends Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player.
This year, the Walworth County Visitors Bureau will showcase the growth of its golf and the quality of its courses by launching the Lake Geneva Area Golf Trail. The trail will be a collection of 10 area courses working together to create the Lake Geneva Area Golf Passport.
The passport features seasonal discounts and promotions designed to encourage golfers to sample all that the region has to offer when it comes to topnotch golf. “We want to make Walworth County a golf destination,” said Kathy Seeberg, executive director of the Walworth County Visitors Bureau. “It ’s not just a day trip anymore. We want people to come and experience the variety of golf courses in the area. “From the par-3s to the championship courses, it really is a family affair.
While the golf is catching up, the Lake Geneva area has long been a vacation destination, and families from everywhere have been flocking to Walworth County for generations. With Geneva Lake serving as the hub of activities, the area has been a popular family destination in the summer for fishing, boating and swimming. In addition, the charm of downtown Lake Geneva has drawn shoppers eager to scavenge through its many antique shops, look for unique gifts in boutique shops, or check out the creative works of the area’s many local artists.
But these days there is much more to do in Walworth County, which has adopted a slogan — “Naturally Fun” — that reflects a region making the most of its natural splendor.
From biking to bowling, galleries to gardens and horseback riding to hiking, there is something for everyone in the Lake Geneva area. The same can be said for its golf, too.
Since Hawk’s View came on the scene in 2001, giving the area its first facility with a par-3 layout, Lake Geneva has been able to boast one of the most diverse medleys of golfing options of any destination in Wisconsin, covering every age and ability level.
“There’s a big push from the WSGA, the PGA, the USGA to get kids more involved (in golf),” said Matthew Boesch, the head professional at Hawk’s View Golf Club, where his Barn Hollow “short course” has enjoyed as much popularity as its 18-hole championship Como Crossings course. “(Barn Hollow) is the most family-friendly course you’re ever going to play. … You can be a 6-year-old and still get around.”
Others have taken notice, too. In 2014, GolfAdvisor.com named Barn Hollow one of the nation’s top 10 par-3 courses, ranking it on a list that also included Bandon Preserve at Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Threetops at Treetops Resort in Michigan.
Wrote GolfAdvisor.com’s Mike Bailey of Barn Hollow: “Like (Como Crossings), it’s well-conditioned and has plenty of water and sand, but its greens may be even more challenging.”
That kind of praise doesn’t surprise Boesch, who agrees the greens are “spectacular.”
“When people play it, they don’t expect that,” Boesch said. “They come out for the first time and, after their round, they’re like ‘Oh my gosh; that was amazing!’ It’s perfect for family golf because not only is it doable for the kids, but the avid parents taking their kids out have a blast as well. It’s not just a pitch-and-putt.”
The Brute at Grand Geneva was a fixture on most state top 10 lists before the proliferation of championship courses in the Sheboygan area bumped it down. Still, the five championship courses at Grand Geneva and Geneva National remain ultra-popular — both facilities enjoy huge outing numbers — and are considered vital cornerstones for Lake Geneva in Wisconsin’s competitive destination golf market.
“We and Geneva National are kind of the big kids on the block,” said Hallenbeck, whose 36-hole facility features the famed Brute Course, designed by Robert Bruce Harris, and the popular Highlands Course, a former Pete Dye/Jack Nicklaus design that Robert Cupp freshened up in 1996, when the name was also changed from the Briar Patch.
“But that doesn’t mean all of us aren’t in this together. When some courses are busy, the rest of us enjoy being busy. … We really are kind of like a family.”
Lake Geneva’s family portrait reflects courses that range greatly in age, but each with a unique place in the area’s golf landscape.
What is now Majestic Oaks at Lake Lawn Resort (1921) and Delbrook Golf Course (1928) — both in Delavan — helped shape the golf picture in Walworth County ahead of the Great Depression. Country Club Estates in Fontana (1929) and Whitewater Country Club (1934) both opened as nine-hole private clubs, but have since joined the public-course lineup.
Golf course development stayed relatively quiet around Lake Geneva area until the early 1960s when Alpine Valley opened its golf resort near East Troy. Other courses started to pop up around it in the 1970s — Abbey Springs in Fontana and Grand Geneva Resort in 1970 and Evergreen Country Club in Elkhorn in 1973 — before Geneva National (1990) and Hawk’s View (2001) completed the picture of what will be the Lake Geneva Area Golf Trail.
“There’s a lot for everybody,” said Dan Plens, the head professional at Lake Lawn Resort whose Majestic Oaks layout is the only course on the trail to sit along Delavan Lake. “Grand Geneva and Geneva National are your upper tiers. We’re (in) that second-best option if you’re looking for an affordable weekend or mid-week getaway. You can stay here, play golf here at an affordable price, then venture down and play those courses.”
There is more traffic coming from more places to the fairways of Walworth County.
Hallenbeck has seen more golfers from Milwaukee, Madison, Rockford and Beloit. But it will take more than a few foreign license plates to change the Lake Geneva area’s reputation.
“We’re still Chicago’s playground,” Hawk’s View’s Boesch said. “Our bread-and-butter market will always be northern Illinois, Chicago and the northern suburbs.”
But with more golf and a wider range of courses to offer than ever before, the people who operate Lake Geneva’s golf facilities are eager to see how far they can extend their reach.
The region has long competed with the Kohler-fueled courses of the Sheboygan area as well as Door County and the North Woods for the title of Wisconsin’s most active golf destination. Once the much-anticipated Sand Valley Golf Resort, near Wisconsin Rapids, completes central Wisconsin as yet another stop on golfers’ travels around the state, there figures to be so much traffic coming and going that all regions of Wisconsin will gain.
That’s good news for the fledgling golf trail, Boesch said.
“We’re not going to see huge results from this short-term,” Boesch said. “I think it’s just about getting the word out, similar to the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama. Everyone knows about that.
“Branding ourselves as one of the Midwest’s top golf destinations is going to be important for us to continue to thrive. … It’s going to be important to separate ourselves.”
And when it comes to distinguishing the golf of the region, the Lake Geneva area believes that its courses are better off standing together than they are apart.
“I was born and raised here,” Hallenbeck said. “I love the area. It’s an amazing place to come to. It’s affordable. From the fishing to the boat rentals to the hotels to the restaurants, it’s just a really cool place. And all of us need each other. We need the other courses as much as they need us to make (Lake Geneva) a golf destination. If you’re going to be successful in this business, you need to be successful together.”
Please visit www.lakegenevagolftrail.com for more information about golf in the Lake Geneva area.