Is this the end or the beginning?
That question popped as the fireworks soared high above yet close by from a second floor porch among the amphitheater setting. Perhaps it was the reflection of the colorful display on the lake and its fountains below that evoked such philosophical thinking. Or maybe it was just the size of the explosions, each one looking like it could be the start of the finale.
The folks at Grand Geneva, for their two cents, call it a start. On their web site they say “Start Your Week With A Bang” to promote the fireworks which take place just after dark every Sunday night (Memorial Day through Labor Day). For the couple wearing bath robes, the families sitting on blankets, the elderly man in the lawn chair and the kids in flip-flops on the pool deck, the coming Monday morning hardly looks like a back to work or school day.
Lake Geneva in southeast Wisconsin has a way of making people forget what day it is. A popular vacation destination, it has always produced memorable times and stories to tell. If only this second floor porch and the walls of its room could talk.
Fifty years ago last spring, a quiet countryside section of Lake Geneva was transformed in ways almost unimaginable to local residents. That was when the Playboy Club-Hotel opened there shortly after Hugh Hefner purchased 1,300 acres as an extension of his ever-growing empire and real estate developments.
There was pomp and circumstance. In the summer of 1966, Hefner himself arrived by helicopter for the groundbreaking accompanied, of course, by Playboy bunnies. There was a dynamite explosion, too, atop the Indian Knob, skydivers and bleachers for spectators to sit as Hefner spoke.
The original Playboy Club opened in 1958 in Chicago. So, why Lake Geneva this time around? Hefner became attracted by its proximity to large metropolitan areas and its background as a resort area. The sprawling countryside was the perfect spot for his new getaway.
Over the years, the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva became the place to be for workers, guests and yes, entertainers. Performers included Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Sonny and Cher. Eventually a state-of-the-art recording studio was built there where nationally-known musicians and bands of the 1970s and 1980s came to lay down their tracks. It was as cool as old-school cool gets.
It did not last forever, however. The Playboy Club era ended in 1982 when Playboy took its business ventures in a different direction. Memories and artifacts of the era still remain in a walkway display case just off the lobby of the main lodge at Grand Geneva, the resort name which now occupies the original interconnected buildings of straight-line architecture.
Since the end of the era, there have been many necessary improvements and upgrades (a waterpark, too!). More recently, the Marcus Corporation-owned destination – which now emits a more family and conference-centered vibe – added 29 luxury villas to the property’s portfolio. The two 18-hole golf courses remain a central draw for visitors.
Back to that walkway display case for a moment and another old school cool tie-in. One of the photos featured is of Jack Nicklaus in front of a hole sign at the Briar Patch course which opened in the late 1960s on property. Nicklaus was just starting his legendary pro career then – in between Masters titles – when he consulted with Pete Dye on the design of the course, which was later renamed the Highlands and renovated by Bob Cupp in the mid-1990s to become more resort friendly.
Narrow fairways with ample movement, fescue and marshy areas highlight the Highlands course. Though not overly long (6,659 yards from the Tournament tees) it is challenging enough with options off the tee on its short par-4s and a green complex with run-off areas at the snake-like par-5 No. 11 that would make Augusta National jealous.
The routing begins at a par-4 which runs adjacent to the Holiday Inn Club Vacations on property. Hole No. 4, a par-3 that can play up to 200 yards, is all carry through an narrow chute of trees and over the White River which fronts the green. To get to No. 5 golfers basically drive over the airstrip of the still-functioning private airport at Grand Geneva, which served guests of the Playboy Club decades ago. It once displayed the Playboy bunny logo in the grass at one of the ends.
The routing of holes 7-12 in a nook on the property mimic the routing of the middle holes at St. Andrews in a loop fashion where golfers could get crossed up if not paying close attention.
That coziness is a contrast to the Brute, the other 18-hole course at Grand Geneva, which is bigger and bolder. It has large circular bunkers and greens which generally tilt in one direction. The fairways are hilly and three of the par-5s generally look similar with uphill approach shots and bluegrass rough leading to the green (no real fairway layup areas). Each offers a majestic look.
Said course designer Robert Bruce Harris upon the completion of the Brute, “I’ve tried to design it so it will be a pleasure for all classes of players. I think it’s going to work out to be about the most beautiful course in America. But I am a modest man, and I would like to have golfers give their evaluation.”
For the tee shot on No. 1, which drops down to a fairway below, golfers can literally walk from the patio of the Links Bar and Grill (just off the golf shop) right onto the tee box. And Nos. 9 and 18 finish in grand fashion along the big lake to the amphitheater setting which serves as the “bleachers” for the fireworks viewing on Sunday nights.
Not coincidentally, those manmade lakes along Nos. 9 and 17-18 were shaped with the Playboy theme in mind. From high above, one looks like a heart and the other like a bunny. There is also a sculpture along the par-3 No. 16, too, that has been there since the 1960s. It doubles as a rain shelter but also stirs the imaginations of golfers who often wonder just what it is.
Nicklaus notwithstanding, Grand Geneva has hosted a number of sports stars and celebrities at its courses. Among them are Mike Ditka, John Denver, Brett Favre, Mickey Mantle, Stan Mikita and Bart Starr. Even World Golf Hall of Famers Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino took swings there.
The latter trio’s more prominent mark on golf in Lake Geneva, however, would come decades later.
From the veranda of the Bar 55 behind the remodeled Ridge Hotel in Lake Geneva, guests can see all the way across Lake Como to the golf courses at Geneva National Resort. The drive to get there is about three miles but the view through the trees from a circular porch area is like looking through a window to a links holy land. The golf Gods are calling. Should it be 18 holes or 36 today?
In the 1990s, Palmer, Player and Trevino were summoned for a new project, to design great golf on that property across Lake Como. Having just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of their first two courses, Geneva National is still going strong as not only a destination for retirees to live and vacationers to stay and eat, but also to play any one of three signature courses.
One of the courses each day is generally reserved for the members while the other two are available to the public. The member course rotates but no trip to Lake Geneva is complete with playing all three.
Geneva National has all the feel of a private club from the long, gated entrance to one-of-a-kind dining experiences. In fact the Hunt Club Steakhouse, inside a historic mansion, is a part of the Player Course where the sixth and 11th holes converge.
Trevino loved to hit fades. He not only made a living, but also a Hall of Fame career doing so. So it should come as no surprise that his signature course at Geneva National tailors to such shots on at least seven tee boxes not counting par-3s. A left-to-right tee shot is particularly useful at the par-5 No. 5 which sports a large bank to the left and a narrow creek that fronts the green. The Trevino course is probably the most straight-forward of the three courses with no real tricks but plenty of opportunity for creative shot-making.
The Palmer Course, on the other hand, is a contrast with sharper angles especially on the first two holes. It culminates to a wild finish with tumbling holes on the back nine including No. 14 which is a heavily-wooded, three-shot par-5. Hole No. 16 is a long par-3 with Lake Como as the backdrop (think No. 17 at Pebble Beach) and No. 17 is wild par-5 that moves left along the lake with a few strategic trees and bunkers that define the approach (think No. 18 at Pebble Beach). At No. 18, 14 bunkers make shot placement especially paramount off the tee. It finishes with the grand Geneva National clubhouse as the backdrop.
The Player Course was the last to be completed, but is certainly not the least, winding through wetlands on more of a secluded part of the property. It continues the theme of hilly fairways at Geneva National but has much more risk-reward element with options and lines off the tee. Architecturally, the most fascinating may be the fifth hole, a short par-4 with split fairways defined by a tree and five fairway bunkers. The entire left side is a hazard. A wildly-sloping, bean-shaped green caps it all off.
For those that like to practice, the range at Geneva National also has Lake Como as the backdrop. The music that often is heard there is coming from speakers built into the rocks that line the practice area cart path.
Remembering the Past, Embracing the Present
Long-known as a playground for Chicagoans (Lake Geneva is just 20 miles from the Illinois border), Illinois residents continue to flood to Lake Geneva during the summer months when area is most busy (dinner reservations at top spots and beach spots can be tough to find). The grand estates built there over a century ago that still stand are another nod to the past. And the Riviera Ballroom downtown on the lakeshore is a historic landmark that boomed during the Swing Era with Big Band stars that stand up to those stars of the Playboy Club era.
Perhaps nothing, however, can beat a simple boat ride at sunset or a long lakeside walk by many of the preserved mansions along Shore Path. The entire 21-mile winding journey, for those up for it, can take 10 hours which just might get some weary minds thinking again.
Is this the end or the beginning?