Grand Genevas two golf courses offer unique Midwest experience


lake geneva highlands
                          The Highlands Course at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa (courtesy Grand Geneva)

LAKE GENEVA, Wis. – The Brute is big, bold and brawny.

It’s as American as a golf course gets in its look and design.

The Highlands is a rolling, winding layout with an old-world feel to it.

It’s a Scottish-themed design.

If you’re looking for uniquely different golf experiences on a pair of courses that share first-class amenities and immaculate conditioning, Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is a doorway to two worlds. The resort is a short getaway from Chicago, Milwaukee or Madison. It sits in the rolling hills in southeastern Wisconsin, close to the Illinois border. Nestled on a giant, sprawling property, the resort is quietly set apart from the bustling activities of Lake Geneva, a popular vacation destination and weekend retreat.
For more special features, travel tips and course reviews visit

With fall’s arrival, there’s an added bonus to teeing it up at Grand Geneva this time of year. The entire region is on the verge of the spectacular, with autumn’s colors busting loose on the tree-lined hills running through the courses.

While The Brute and The Highlands courses offer completely different looks and tests, they share the same rolling terrain, a terrific foundation for the architects who built these courses. With so many tees built on the tops of hills and mounds, there are some memorable vistas to play your shots into.

Standing on high ground at the first tee of The Brute, you’re immediately greeted by its striking features. Everything about the course looks big. The fairways are vast, the bunkers massive, the greens immense. The fact that it’s all so finely manicured adds to the striking nature of the bold design.

You feel like there’s room to rip your driver off the first tee. That’s the tempting allure of this course, the invitation to attack. There’s a confidence this design emboldens you with on most of the tee boxes. There’s room in the vastness, but that’s the beauty of Robert Bruce Harris’ design. There isn’t as much room as you think.

You won’t lose a lot of golf balls at this course, but you’ll lose more shots to par than you thought possible playing the wrong angles.

Because that’s what The Brute is all about, finding the right angles subtly hidden in all that room this course gives you. It may be a Brute, but it’s a clever Brute.

The course is long, with the par-72 layout playing 7,085 yards from the back tees with a 73.8 course rating and 136 slope. It’s even long from the white tees at 6,554 yards with a course rating of 71.9 and a slope of 131. That’s as short as you’ll see it without moving to the forward tees.

But while you’ll need your driver to make a score here, the real test is in the second shots into the monster greens, which range from 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. If your iron play isn’t on, you can wear your putter out. Misplayed approaches leave the real possibility of three-putts. The greens are daunting, not just in their massiveness, but also in their slope. You’ll find yourself playing lots of big breaks if you aren’t smartly under the hole.

There are no awkward swales in these greens, though, no maddening humps or aggravating oddities. The greens are immensely fair. The challenge is in the way these greens are tilted. Depending how far you miss the hole left or right, you’re playing potentially enormous breaks.

You can let your driver out on The Brute, you have to, but those giant, saucer-shaped bunkers in the corner of doglegs will swallow misses. There are only 68 bunkers on the course, but it seems like there are more. Standing in the middle one of those bunkers, you feel like you’re in a desert.

The Brute is not wide open at every tee box. There’s variety in the tee shots demanded. The par-4, 374-yard third hole is a downhill shot with the landing area funneling between a pair of ponds. You have to lay up there, where you’re looking at a short iron or wedge uphill to the green. The 10th hole is a demanding tee shot to a pinched landing area between the bends in a stream. At 440 yards, it’s a long par 4 where you want to hit driver. The 17th offers the toughest tee shot on the course. It’s a 420-yard par 4 requiring a blast to a severely narrowed landing area. And with a stream fronting the green, you want to save your best drive for here.

The Brute lives up to its name, but there’s a sense of fair play in its brutishness. It’s a terrific looking course that leaves you wanting more when you’ve totaled up your score.

Grand Geneva’s courses are built onto a sprawling 1,300-acre property that was so alluring, Hugh Hefner chose it as home for one of his Lake Geneva Playboy Club Hotels in 1968. Sixty bunnies once stayed here. In fact, the old Bunny Dormitory still sits off the second fairway. Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minelli, Bette Midler, Bill Cosby and Sonny and Cher were among the entertainers who performed here. Hefner sold the resort in 1981.

Today, with millions of dollars invested in renovations, the Milwaukee-based Marcus Corporation runs a family-friendly resort that also specializes in meeting the needs of the corporate world with lots of convention-center and meeting-room space. It’s a Golf Magazine Gold Medal Resort and AAA four-diamond resort with 355 recently renovated rooms. There’s an indoor-outdoor water park at the resort’s Timber Ridge Lodge, a horse stable and riding trails, the Well Spa + Salon and fitness center and fine-dining restaurants that includes the Geneva Chop House and the Ristorante Brissago. There’s also the Mountain Top ski hill for winter visitors.

While The Highlands can get overshadowed by The Brute’s giant profile, it’s the perfect complement to the big course.

Originally designed as The Briar Patch by Pete Dye with Jack Nicklaus consulting, The Highlands was redesigned by Bob Cupp and later Bob Lohmann. The par-71 layout works its way through the hills, trees and wispy prairie grasses more subtly. It plays 6,659 yards from the tournament tees with a 71.5 course rating and 125 slope. It’s 6,207 yards from the championship tees with a 69.2 rating. While The Brute offers three sets of tees, The Highlands offers four.

The Highlands is a shot maker’s course, where working the ball around these doglegs is rewarded with approach shots into the course’s smaller, flatter greens. You’ll love the setting at the 192-yard fourth hole, a par 3. A creek winds in front of the green, then turns toward the tee box, where the sound of the rushing water adds to the feeling you’ve successfully gotten away. The tee shot at the eighth hole is equally invigorating through a tree stand and over a chasm. It’s a 345-yard par 4 back in a serene, wooded setting.

There’s a full-sized driving range, practice short-game area and practice putting green connecting both courses.

Playing The Brute and The Highlands, you feel like you’ve taken two different trips to two different regions of the Midwest. That’s part of the resort’s appeal. Grand Geneva’s the doorway to both.