En español | It's tough to find hidden gems when it comes to golf destinations these days, but you can still find some shiny options somewhat off-the-beaten track, including these three winners in the Midwest.
The Prairie Club (Valentine, Nebraska)
Location: 277 miles southwest of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and 323 miles northwest of Omaha, Nebraska
What it offers: The rolling ranchland and rustic beauty of Nebraska's Sandhills Region can be mesmerizing. It's also ideal terrain for golf, which is why the Prairie Club was built 20 miles southwest of Valentine (population: 2,760) near the South Dakota border, with two distinct 18-hole courses (public play alternates daily between each) in secluded splendor.
The Dunes Course by Tom Lehman and Chris Brands is a treeless, links-style layout with forever views, large blowout bunkers and massive fairways with extremely generous landing areas. It plays differently every day depending upon wind direction, but shots can be run up and onto most greens.
The Pines Course, designed by Graham Marsh, serves up a completely opposite but equally memorable setting: 100-foot-tall ponderosa pines line most fairways, with some holes skirting the edge of Snake River Canyon. Equally fun is the Horse Course, a par-3 layout designed by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford without formal tees; you call the spot from where you want to begin play on each of the 10 holes.
Insider tip: The huge greens on the Dunes Course average 14,000 square feet in size, so spend some time before the round refining your lag putting skills.
What you'll pay: Both 18-hole courses are the same price, starting at $89 from for on-site guests and nonguests. The Horse Course is complimentary.
Where to stay (splurge): Comfortable accommodations on-site include the Lodge inside the clubhouse, or the Cabins and the Bunkhouse a short walk away. Stay-and-play packages starting at $499 per night ($879 per night for couples) include unlimited golf, cart and daily breakfast.
Where to stay (save): Check into one of several no-frill hotels in Valentine. Choices include Comfort Inn, Harmony Inn & Suites, and Niobrara Lodge.
Big Cedar Lodge (Hollister, Missouri)
Location: 10 miles south of Branson, Missouri, and 60 miles south of Springfield-Branson National Airport, just outside of Springfield, Missouri
What if offers: Here in the Ozark Mountains, you'll find the country's hottest new golf destination: Big Cedar Lodge, the acclaimed wilderness resort built by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. Designed by a Mount Rushmore of golf legends and big-name architects, Big Cedar's five courses deliver a scenic medley of southwestern Missouri's stunning natural landscape — think dramatic limestone ridges, mesmeric green hills and sweeping views of Table Rock Lake, which the lodge borders.
Tiger Woods designed Big Cedar's newest course — Payne's Valley (a tribute to the late Payne Stewart, an Ozarks native) — which he debuted last fall on national TV, flanked by Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas. Ever since then, golfers have been flocking to the Ozarks to play the legend's first public-access layout in the United States, a course he designed for the everyday player, with wide fairways and friendly greens. But don't be fooled, there's plenty of water at Payne's Valley to keep things challenging, although the pristine environs will keep you smiling throughout your round, most notably at the 19th hole, a dramatic par-3 “bonus hole” that plays to an island green at the foot of a 200-foot limestone cliff and waterfall.
Big Cedar's other “must-play” courses include Ozarks National, a remarkable Coore/Crenshaw design opened in 2019 and where Phil Mickelson took home the trophy in his inaugural PGA Tour Champions event last August.
The opening hole at Tom Fazio's Buffalo Ridge, a perennial top public course in Missouri, features a herd of North American bison roaming the native prairies adjacent to the fairway. For short courses, you have two fun par-3 options: Mountain Top, a Gary Player-shaped 13-hole course that's walking-only and chock-full of thrilling mountain views atop Big Cedar's highest point; and Top of the Rock, an immaculate Jack Nicklaus-designed course that, hole for hole, some experts call the country's premier par-3 layout.
Insider tip: Plan your Top of the Rock round roughly two hours before sunset. As you finish your round, you'll witness Big Cedar's signature sunset ceremony off the first tee box, where a Civil War-era cannon gets fired and a bagpiper plays as the sun sets over Table Rock Lake.
What you'll pay at Payne's Valley: From $180 in low season
You'll pay the least at: Mountain Top, from $80 in low season
Where to stay (splurge): Big Cedar Lodge, a 4,600-acre lakeside retreat that is often voted the best resort in the Midwest. Its accommodations are spread across a collection of lodges, cottages, glamping units and private cabins. From $399
Where to stay (save): At the just-opened Angler's Lodge, another Johnny Morris project, 94 rustic-but-stylish rooms are just 10 minutes from the golf courses (with a complimentary shuttle). From $199
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Kohler (Sheboygan County, Wisconsin)
Location: 72 miles north of Milwaukee and 142 miles north of Chicago
What it offers: Golf lovers near and far make the pilgrimage to teeny Kohler, Wisconsin (population: 2,146), home to the Kohler Co., for one reason primarily: to play the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, host of multiple PGA Championships and this September's Ryder Cup. It's one of four 18-hole Pete Dye courses in the Destination Kohler rota, and one of the country's preeminent courses, ranked 23rd in America by Golf Digest.
Framed by 2 miles of Lake Michigan's Caribbean-blue colored waters, the Straits Course (walking only) might be the best links-style routing this side of Ireland, punctuated by 1,000-some-odd bunkers and roaming sheep in its fairways. There, choosing your favorite hole is akin to choosing your favorite Beatle — they're all prodigious, in particular, its family of par-3s, where each tee shot plays to a postcard-like green along the coastline. Few scorecards leave the Straits Course scot-free; the 17th hole (Pinched Nerve) and 18th hole (Dyeabolical) contend for the stiffest two-hole finish on the planet.
The destination's three other 18-hole courses aren't mere add-ons but championship tracks in their own right. On the same piece of property, but inland from Lake Michigan, is the Irish Course, Whistling Straits’ bluff-laden sibling, a less-punishing round of golf inspired by the prolific courses of southwestern Ireland.
Twenty minutes away, two parkland courses on the Sheboygan River at Blackwolf Run — the River and Meadow Valleys courses — introduce a different side of Wisconsin's landscape. “There could not be a better natural setting for golf,” Pete Dye says of the River Course, bedecked with large undulating greens, strategic bunkering, and water or gorges on 14 of its 18 holes. At Meadow Valleys, generous fairways bisect idyllic rolling grasslands, though its rough will certainly punish the errant tee shot.
There's also a new fifth option for golfers that has been met with wide applause: the Baths of Blackwolf Run, a casual, 10-hole, par-3 course next to Meadow Valleys that was more than five years in the making. The Baths, which can be played as an 18- or 27-hole routing, and the adjacent two-acre putting course make for the perfect spots to settle any remaining golf wagers.
Insider tip: Take full advantage of your caddie at the Straits Course ($70 fee plus gratuity), where wind, knee-deep fescue and other elements will challenge you. A caddie will read greens, provide target lines and, if you're lucky, point out the resident bald eagles nesting in the trees along the 10th fairway.
What you'll pay at the Straits Course: from $410 in low season
You'll pay the least at: the Baths, $75; complimentary if on a golf package
Where to stay (splurge): Once a dormitory for immigrant workers in the early 20th century, the American Club Resort Hotel in Kohler is now a plush five-star property with multiple restaurants and bars and one of the country's best spas. From $389
Where to stay (save): Settle into the Inn on Woodlake, on Wood Lake in Kohler, and you'll have access to a beach and practice putting green. The famous Kohler Chocolates shop is a short stroll from the hotel. From $224
Tom Mackin is a former senior editor at Golf magazine who’s based in Scottsdale, Arizona; he’s teed it up in 20 countries across North America, Australia/Oceania, Asia and Europe.
T.J. Olwig is a St. Louis, Missouri-based travel writer who’s penned stories for BBC Travel, Delta Sky, Missouri Life and Virtuoso Life.