It’s a good thing that Milwaukee airport’s new baggage claim system was designed to efficiently deliver a growing number of golf bags.

Whistling Straights, Irish
Whistling Straits; Photo Courtesy of Patrick Koenig

The heart of America’s golfing scene is not found in California, Arizona, Florida, or the Carolinas. It’s found in the heartland. Wisconsin, to be exact. 

The state boasts over 500 public courses, many of which have received industry acclaim in the form of top rankings, awards, and selections to host championship-level events.

No other state has more top-rated courses than Wisconsin, which claims 10 spots on Golf Digest’s 2021 list of “America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses” and nine spots on Golfweek’s recently-released list of “100 Best Courses You Can Play in the United States.”

Eight courses appear on both lists: Whistling Straits – Straits & Irish courses, Erin Hills, Sand Valley, Mammoth Dunes, Blackwolf Run – River course, Lawsonia Links and SentryWorld; Golf Digest’s list also includes Blackwolf Run – Meadow Valleys course and The Bull at Pinehurst Farms while Golfweek adds in University Ridge.

No matter which courses you choose or how you rank them, all 11 of these spectacular tracks are less than three hours from Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and fall within a 150-mile radius of each other. If a traveler wanted to try to hit all of them, the road trip would barely register 500 miles. Can you say bucket list?

Milwaukee International Airport
Milwaukee International Airport

The golf industry is one of the few that has benefited during the COVID-19 pandemic, with individuals returning to the sport or picking it up for the first time in record numbers. An analysis from Golf Datatech showed that nationwide, golf rounds were up 10-12% in 2020; however, in Wisconsin, that number was almost double, coming in closer to 20%.

The recreational golf boom continued this year as well. The National Golf Foundation reports that the state was up 30.4% in rounds played through June — well exceeding the national average increase of 22.8%.

And it’s not just the locals driving those numbers. According to the Wisconsin State Golf Association (WSGA), Wisconsin attracts golfers from all 50 states and 20+ countries on an annual basis. 

“My 2021 was ridiculous,” said Jason Kauflin, owner of Wisconsin Golf Trips, a tour operator for the state focused mainly on inbound groups looking for a custom stay and play packages. “The pent-up demand for the traveler is obviously there…and 2022 is showing no sign of slowing down whatsoever. 

Of note, Kauflin says, the majority of those golf travelers finding Wisconsin are affluent travelers, with approximately 75 percent of his groups seeking higher-end experiences.

Kauflin’s customers are flocking to Wisconsin domestically from states that have their own share of great golf courses, such as California, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Texas.

While Wisconsin winters can certainly be harsh, its spring and summer more than make up for it with comfortable average highs of 67-80 degrees from May through September. Fall is also a gorgeous time to visit the state. There are still plenty of warm days in October and even November; plus, fall golfers can multitask by doing a little leaf-peeping while playing their rounds.

When it comes to international travelers, Kauflin’s bookings have understandably slowed in the wake of the pandemic, but the demand is there, too. He’s already booked groups from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in Europe over the next two years.

Kauflin says another challenge for international travelers is the limited number of international flight options into Milwaukee, but he hopes that will change.

“The international traffic is there. Would it be interesting to see what would happen if we had more direct flights on an international scale? Absolutely,” he said. 

Currently, Air Canada, Delta, American Airlines, and United all fly international passengers on connections to Milwaukee with JetBlue entering the market in March of 2022. 


Kauflin attributes much of the state’s popularity as America’s number one golfing destination to several factors.

“When I first started planning golf trips, I used this tagline from day one, ‘No other destination can compete with Wisconsin’s combination of quantity, quality, and variety,’” he recalled.

However, once Kauflin started partnering with state tourism entities such as Visit Milwaukee and Travel Wisconsin, these organizations pointed out that accessibility is another important aspect to consider.

“Early on, I didn’t give accessibility as much credit. I didn’t think it had as much weight as the other three attributes. However, the more I have traveled to other high-end golf destinations, the more I understand how valuable it really is,” Kauflin explained. 

A luggage carousel circus; navigating shuttles with your clubs in one hand and suitcase in the other; inconvenient rental car situations; top courses located hundreds of miles away from the airport…the golf trip logistics alone can be the stuff of nightmares. 

But that’s not the case at Milwaukee Mitchell International. The airport is a perfect size; it’s a cinch to grab your clubs and walk across the street to pick up your rental car. From there, Golf Digest’s third greatest public course in America and site of the 2020 Ryder Cup, Whistling Straits, is just over an hour’s drive away. You’ll not only make your tee time, but you’ll have plenty of time to warm up on the range, too. 

Factor in the proximity of the rest of the state’s top courses and Wisconsin poses a quadruple threat to its rival destinations.

 “The proximity of our state’s bucket-list courses makes Wisconsin unmatched when it comes to world-class golf, accommodations, variety, and convenience,” agreed Rob Jansen, the Executive Director of the WSGA.

 “There’s certainly no other place you can go and play this many top-100 golf courses without a private jet or helicopter. It’s like booking Bandon Dunes, Chambers Bay, and Pebble Beach in one trip,” mused Kauflin.

Aside from the convenience factor associated with traveling into Milwaukee Mitchell International, the notion of accessibility can also refer to the courses themselves.

There’s a reason the industry publications designate the top “public” courses and “courses you can play.” Many states boast a variety of high-quality, iconic, and award-winning golf courses; however, the average golfer will likely find that his odds of getting a hole-in-one are better than, say, getting a tee time at a private course such as Augusta National.

In Wisconsin, on the other hand, the average golfer can tee it off on all of the same courses as the pros, such as Whistling Straits, for example.

“Sure, Chicago had the Ryder Cup in 2012 and Minnesota hosted the tournament in 2016. But it’s apples and oranges,” said Kauflin. “You can’t get on one of those golf courses if you don’t know someone or are not a member.”

Whereas Medinah CC (Illinois) and Hazeltine National GC (Minnesota) are private clubs, Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin is one of just four public courses in the U.S. to host the prestigious event and the first since Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina hosted the tournament in 1991.

The Straits Course reopened to the public less than 72 hours after the Americans played Team Europe in the 43rd Ryder Cup this September. 


In addition to the Ryder Cup, Wisconsin has hosted and continues to host many professional USGA and PGA events, proving itself a major golf destination in every sense of the word.

Previously Wisconsin was the host site of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, the 2004, 2010, and 2015 PGA Championships at Whistling Straits, and the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, and the state is looking forward to hosting the 2023 U.S. Senior Open at SentryWorld and the return of the U.S Women’s Open in 2025 at Erin Hills.

These tournaments have also had an impact on golf fans flocking to the state, both as spectators and, also, for the chance to play on these world-class public courses. 

“The Ryder Cup has been exactly what most people in the golf industry expected it to be and it has certainly shone a light on Wisconsin golf for the somewhat-experienced golf traveler,” said Kauflin, praising the spectacular television coverage of the event, complete with new drone footage and interesting angles. 

“My phone has been ringing off the hook since the Ryder Cup. The interest of people finding other spots in Wisconsin through Whistling Straits has certainly increased; no doubt about it. That’s part of why I’ve been so busy, for sure.” 

Kauflin notes that there is typically a large increase in international traffic after a Ryder Cup is hosted in the United States as the international fans see where the course is and make an effort to get there. 

“With travel restrictions and confusion (due to the pandemic) still going on, that’s been a little bit delayed. However, the domestic traveler is certainly making up for it….Erin Hills, Sand Valley, Kohler… 2022 is way more booked than any year has ever been.”

Wisconsin’s momentum as a golf destination shows no signs of slowing down either. Sand Valley is scheduled to open its next course in 2023, The Lido. 

Jansen puts it perfectly. “For anyone who doesn’t believe Wisconsin is America’s #1 golf destination right now, just wait.”

Caitlin Moyer

Caitlin Moyer has been hacking and hoping since she was 10. Over the course of her career in the sports industry, she's had the chance to play the game with LPGA, MLB and NBA players, as well as NASCAR drivers and celebrities, but her favorite playing partner is her dad (even though he is a stick). Inventor and sole practitioner of the one-flap™ golf swing (patent pending).