Len Ziehm 2017-09-09 07:58:38
Even amid a flurry of activity elsewhere in Wisconsin, Grand Geneva remains one of the state’s prime golf destinations as it nears its 50th anniversary WITH THE BIG tournaments held recently at Erin Hills and Whistling Straits and the opening of Sand Valley, it may seem the luster could be off the Wisconsin golf destination that started all those good things. Don’t you believe it, though. Grand Geneva is doing just fine, thank you. Dave Hallenbeck, director of golf at the Lake Geneva resort, has seen it all in his four decades there. He’s impressed with what’s gone on in golf throughout Wisconsin as well as what’s gone on at his home base. “Blackwolf Run [Kohler], The Bull at Pinehurst Farms [a Jack Nicklaus design in Sheboygan Falls], Erin Hills, Sand Valley. These are world-class golf properties that I never would have expected in Wisconsin. Geneva National has been very successful. They have a wonderful facility over there,’’ said Hallenbeck. “Keeping up was our biggest challenge.’’ But Grand Geneva has more than kept up with what’s been going on around the Badger State, and that goes for neighboring Illinois as well. The resort is an easy drive from all parts of the Chicago area, and its courses are well known to players from that area. Coming up in 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the resort and the 25th anniversary of its ownership by Marcus Corporation. Both milestones are meaningful, because no Wisconsin destination has the history that Grand Geneva does, and that’s all been beautifully chronicled in a coffee table book, A Grand Tale: The History of Grand Geneva Resort, published by Nei-Turner Media Group. The building of the Playboy Club-Hotel started it all. It was completed in 1968 and brought visitors by the droves to Lake Geneva. Hugh Hefner was, of course, the man behind that. Hallenbeck, now 63, arrived during under the late head golf professional Ken Judd 40 years ago. Golf wasn’t part of the equation when Hefner started the Playboy Club; skiing was the sport of choice. But golf arrived shortly thereafter when architect Robert Bruce Harris designed The Brute, a course way ahead of its time when it opened. “At the time it was massive, and that’s what Playboy wanted,’’ recalled Hallenbeck. “Big greens, big bunkers, one of the longest courses at 7,300 yards from the tips. In the 1960s, that was unheard of.’’ There’s still a mystique about The Brute. The most amazing thing about it now is that the course still operates with its original greens. That’s unheard of. Even Hallenbeck admits that something will have to be done at some point, though. “Over 50 years the greens have settled, and we’ll have to address those issues,’’ he said. “We’ve got to tear them up, but that’s a whole year project, and that’s hard to do when you’re packed every day. Overall, The Brute has withstood the tests of time, which is amazing.’’ Playboy departed in 1981, selling the resort to Chicago-basked Americana Hotels Corporation. The resort endured two foreclosures before Chicago’s JMB Realty Corporation took ownership in 1988, and present owner Marcus came on in 1993. Marcus took a resort that had fallen on hard times and revitalized it, with golf being a big part of the process. Grand Geneva’s other course is more historically significant than even The Brute. It opened as the Briar Patch, a joint design effort by legendary designer Pete Dye with a young Jack Nicklaus functioning as a consultant. Nicklaus was at the height of his storied playing career, having won the 1965 and 1966 Masters tournaments before being brought to the resort before the Briar Patch’s completion in 1967. The Briar Patch was Nicklaus’ introduction to golf architecture, but won’t go down as one of his premier architectural efforts. Architect Bob Cupp was brought in for a 1996 renovation. “He redid the whole course,’’ said Hallenbeck. “From a playability standpoint it’s a very nice golf course.’’ The course was renamed The Highlands after Cupp completed his work, which included the development of fescue fields. The end result is a beautiful course, one different from The Brute, with exceptional greens. Both are popular with visitors. Unlike Blackwolf, Whistling Straits and Erin Hills, the Grand Geneva courses haven’t made a splash hosting big tournaments. They won’t, either. Instead of being a tournament venue, The Brute and Highlands are popular destinations for charity events, and that’s been great for Hallenbeck. “My goal was to raise $1 million for charities in my career,’’ he said. “That was my goal 40 years ago. At the end of this year, we will have raised $25 million.” Grand Geneva hosts about 25 charity events each year. The Easter Seals Golf Classic and National Italian Invitational celebrated their 40th anniversaries this year. Juvenile Diabetes, United Way and Make- A-Wish have also benefited from hosting tournaments at Grand Geneva. “I’ve been on up to 20 charity boards,’’ said Hallenbeck. “When I started on them, I was the kid. Now I’m the senior member, and I’m working with the grandkids of some of the people I had worked with on some of these charity committees.’’ He calls children’s charities “my passion,’’ and worries that there’ll be no one ready to pick up those projects when he retires in about two years. But that’s a concern for later on. Plus, with his two children getting married this fall and already settled in the area, Hallenbeck doesn’t plan on straying very far. For now the immediate issue is what will happen at Grand Geneva as it heads into its second 50 years. “I suspect the newest thing will be just trying to be as competitive as we are with everything,’’ said Hallenbeck. “Marcus is so good at doing what they do. They’ve already expanded the villas.’’ Grand Geneva also offers more activities and dining opportunities than most Midwest golf destinations, and the views are stunning throughout. That suggests the second 50 years could be even better than the first.
Published by Chicagoland Golf Media, Inc.. View All Articles.
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