Hole in One

Elegance and comfort are better than par at some of Wisconsin’s best golf club wedding destinations.

An hour before midnight, under the harvest moon near Lake Michigan, Susan Tamblyn and Steve Connors slipped outside the Irish Barn at Kohler’s Whistling Straits with their wedding photographer.

“Steve and I were standing there, looking back at the barn and the people dancing,” says Susan. “All around it was pitch dark, but the barn was just glowing with the lake behind it. It was just one of those moments when everything you planned turned into exactly what you wanted, and everyone is having the exact kind of time that you wanted them to have. That moment made the eight months of planning worthwhile, because it was exactly what I wanted it to be.”

Susan and Steve, then living in Chicago, had sought a unique setting for their Labor Day weekend wedding in 2007. “A lot of people we knew had weddings at big reception halls,” she says. “We were looking for a more intimate setting, more of a weekend getaway that happened to include our wedding.” They talked about Maine. They talked about Napa. But those locations would have made travel daunting for their Chicago-area families, so they narrowed their search to the Midwest and looked at state parks and family-owned farms. While looking for sites online, Steve, a student at a California golf school, decided to check the dates of the U.S. Open tournament and happened upon Whistling Straits, a golf course near Sheboygan.

“We wanted something rustic, but something that had enough facilities for people to be comfortable,” Susan says. “We came across the Irish Barn at Whistling Straits, and it was exactly what we wanted.” One road trip to Sheboygan to see the facilities, and the couple was sold. “It looked almost like the rolling hills of Ireland,” she says. And the barn, which is open on one long side, offered views of the championship course and Lake Michigan. They signed a contract in November for the next year’s September wedding.

For Susan and Steve, the wedding and Whistling Straits were just what they’d hoped for their 150 guests. Tee times were reserved throughout the weekend for the golfers, the famous Kohler Waters Spa was available for the soakers, and a historic bratwurst factory in Sheboygan also provided entertainment.

Country clubs have long been a bridal favorite. Now, well-appointed destination golf courses are becoming a trendy option. But it’s important to give some thought to the details before committing to such a wedding, says events planner Ginger Gant of Ginger & Company in Madison. “Keep in mind airport and transportation scenarios and how arduous—or expensive—you want the trip to be for your guests.” Travel logistics are key. At Kohler’s Whistling Straits, for example, Gant says fly-in guests will need transportation from the airport just 15 minutes away. “You don’t want your guests to spend more time getting to the wedding than actually attending it,” she said. “That said, if you can be extravagant for yourselves, and your guests for themselves, it will be a memorable occasion.”

Wisconsin offers a plethora of settings as idyllic as Whistling Straits. Wedding planner Jen Getz-Miller of Pelham + Otis in St. Paul, Minn., recommends a combination of two resorts on one lake: Stout’s Island Lodge and Tagalong Golf & Resort in Birchwood in northwestern Wisconsin. Getz-Miller has designed several weddings that use the lodge and golf course, including her own in July 2005.

Reachable only by boat, Stout’s Island Lodge is a secluded, Adirondacks-like estate in the middle of Red Cedar Lake, with a rolling green “croquet” lawn perfect for weddings.

Think Great Gatsby and rustic elegance, Getz-Miller says. In the early 1900s, Frank D. Stout had inherited part of his father’s lumber fortune and lived a life of ease in Chicago. He built the lodge as a summer retreat for his family, with 4-inch-thick plank floors and carved beams imported from Germany. The family nicknamed it “The Island of Happy Days.”

Over the years Stout also purchased acreage on the mainland and built the Tagalong Golf Course as a private course modeled after the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland. A 10-minute pontoon ride from the island, Tagalong is now a separately owned and operated resort. “But it’s not uncommon for weekend destination weddings to ‘take over’ Red Cedar Lake just like the Stouts used to do every summer,” Getz-Miller says. Many weddings use Tagalong for the rehearsal dinner, golf outings and “guys night” at the clubhouse and Stout’s for the ceremony and reception, she said.  “My husband’s family members are all great golfers, so it was a perfect combination to toggle between both places all weekend long, and guests loved the pontoon boat rides in the middle of July,” she says.

Stout’s Island Lodge will rent the entire island and all of its rooms for larger weekend weddings from late spring to fall, so it’s perfect for a weekend wedding destination—like having “your own private island,” Getz-Miller says.

The Private Club Option
By contrast, members-only country clubs don’t necessarily offer the all-encompassing experience of a destination golf resort, but many offer lovely old architecture in settings that are easy for guests to access. The only difficulty is that some may require a sponsor or impose a non-member use fee (either a specific sum and/or a percentage of the bill).

Horseshoe Bay Golf Club in Egg Harbor can accommodate up to 300 people in the clubhouse, but only allows members or individuals with a member sponsor, says Carrie Baldwin of Door County Meetings & Events. The golf club got its start in the early 20th century when the Frank E. Murphy family began acquiring land in the area and established Murphy Farms. In 1998, a world-class golf course at Horseshoe Bay Farms, designed by architects Rick Robbins and Brian Lussier of Robbins & Associates, was built.

In Madison, Gant likes Blackhawk Country Club for its stunning mountain-like setting with a breathtaking view of the sunset; Bishops Bay Country Club for its indoor dining or lakeside dining under a tent on the lawn; and Nakoma Golf Club with its built-in Tudor charm. Baldwin recommends checking out facilities on the Web before visiting. “The benefits of being at a golf course are the beauty of the facility and the landscape,” she says. There’s also the possibility of golf outings for the group as well as on-site coordinators and first-class service. But if you want privacy, make sure golfers aren’t allowed in the clubhouse during your event.

Regardless of the facility, call the club directly to make an appointment for a site visit and tour, Gant says. “Make sure the location, setting and associated costs are what you had in mind.  If it’s a match, you can take the next step of finding a member, usually a family friend or business associate, to sponsor you.”