How a simulator helped revive an infamous Wisconsin course

Rainbow Springs Golf Course outside of Milwaukee closed in 2014. It was not considered a classic venue, but thanks to technology the course — and others — are being reconstructed, if only digitally

This sounds like a bad horror movie, or maybe a good one. Only “Jason” knows for sure but, thanks to computers, we now have the power to raise the dead.

Dead golf courses, that is.

More than one resurrection has already happened in Wisconsin. You may have heard about The Lido, a legendary Long Island golf course from the Roaring Twenties. It closed during The Great Depression and later vanished. Using the latest technology, The Lido was recreated to the smallest detail in central Wisconsin and opened this year as part of Sand Valley Resort’s portfolio of great tracks. It has drawn rave reviews.

Also back from the dead is Rainbow Springs Golf Course. It was not a famous course, more like infamous. It was located in Mukonago in Milwaukee’s distant southwest suburbs. This notorious golf-ball-eating course closed at the end of 2014 and melted into the state-owned Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Rainbow Springs Simulated
Rainbow Springs Golf Course has been recreated digitally and with few details missing.

Rainbow Springs lives again, however, thanks to simulator technology. You can play it on a golf simulator at Carl’s Place, a simulator sales outlet in Milton, Wisconsin.

High-tech terrain data, satellite images and drone footage were used to create a simulator version of Rainbow Springs that you can play on GSPro simulator software. Carl’s Place sells simulators and the accompanying pieces needed for home installation — hitting mats, curtains, screens, enclosures, lighting. It has a storefront demo simulator on which customers can revisit Rainbow Springs and once again experience its marshes, creeks, severe doglegs and maddening crazy angles.

Imagine driving in the Daytona 500 with turns in the corner banked away from the track instead of towards the infield. That’s how awkward Rainbow Springs felt.

I considered the course an acquired taste/addiction. Pardon my language, but Rainbow Springs’ North Moraine course, known as Big Mo, was an ass-kicker. Its sibling, the shorter and easier South Moraine course, was Little Mo. Big Mo was nearly 7,000 yards long. That was a beast with persimmon woods and blade irons. Plus, it played much longer due to the many doglegs.

During the 1980s, I made the trek from Milwaukee to Rainbow Springs several times a year with golfing buddies. Each time, after being humiliated, we swore off a return visit. But we always went back for another beating while believing, "This time, vengeance will be ours." Yeah, that didn’t happen. Simply playing 18 holes there without losing a ball was a remarkable feat. I’m not sure I ever pulled that off. I’d guess, No. Big Mo was a beast. Insert your favorite expletive here.

The highlight was always post-round, when we stopped at Jeff’s Root Beer Stand, a drive-in where a root beer shake (a.k.a. Black Cow) helped ease the sting of yet-another beatdown.

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Carl Markestad, owner of Carl’s Place, digitally recreated Rainbow Springs to pique the interest of his store customers.

"It was a unique course," Markestad says. "It was so back in the woods, it felt like a real escape from suburban life. It had no sand traps but all that water. It was a memorable place to play. The fact that it’s gone made it the perfect candidate to digitize. I thought recreating Rainbow Springs would be an attention-getting way to let customers see what simulator golf looks like."

The big story here isn’t that Rainbow Springs was digitally rescued. The important part is that any course, current or extinct, can be turned into a simulator course. While some sim golfers enjoy the chance to play the world’s most famous courses — Pebble Beach, Oakmont, the Old Course, Troon, TPC Sawgrass — others may be more interested in playing their local courses.

It sounds suspiciously like a business plan. Turn your course’s holes into a simulator layout, which Markestad’s expert technicians can do for $2,500-$5,000. You can install a simulator or two (or more) somewhere in the clubhouse, make sure the bar is open, and start a golf league as a way to increase revenue during the slow winter months. Especially in a northern state such as Wisconsin.

"We’ve had a handful of courses do it," Markestad says. "We’re working hard to pitch this to golf clubs. If you don’t have people coming to your golf course in the winter, you may not keep the club open. But if you have people coming in to play sim golf, they’re going to want bar service.

"And if you share your sim version of the course online, people all over the world can play your course. I know, it’s not like someone is going to travel across two continents to play your little club in Wisconsin. But every little bit of exposure helps. Even if only people within a hundred miles see the sim version of your course, a few of them may come over to try the real course."

Replicating a real course on a simulator seems like a daunting task. Markestad says it’s relatively easy for the average well-practiced computer wizard. The U.S. Forest Service publishes LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data for large areas of the country. LIDAR uses pulses of laser light that cuts through vegetation and maps the terrain. Markestad's crew downloads the terrain data of the area they want, then superimpose an aerial photo of the course — Rainbow Springs, this time — over the LIDAR data.

How hard is it to get aerial photos? Google Earth has aerial imagery going back to 2011 or more. Older scorecards are useful. After that, finding someone who has played the course helps because they may know whether some of the trees were pines or maples or birches, adding to the realism.

Any course can be digitized. Markestad’s crew has already done simulator versions of more than two dozen courses in Wisconsin. Some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t, including Blackwolf Run River and Meadow-Valleys, Apostle Highland, Big Fish, Hayward, Horseshoe Bay, Mammoth Dunes, Ozaukee, Sand Valley, The Meadows of Six Mile Creek and Whistling Straits.

Carl's Place mostly sells golf simulators and launch monitors, and designs golf simulator spaces, but the Milton, Wisconsin, company also designs and brings courses to the screen.

Rainbow Springs, because it’s extinct, is the most unusual example.

"The ideas are practically limitless," Markestad says. "One creator made a ‘Honey I Shrunk the Golf Course’ course. So when you’re in the rough, there’s a giant bug and the blades of grass are like giant trees, like the movie where everything is a gigantic prop."

His Rainbow Springs resurrection has undergone vigorous testing. The testers include Markestad’s father, Marvin, and some pals who regularly played Rainbow Springs in an informal league that Marvin ran.

"Rainbow was my favorite course," Marvin Markestad says. "For us locals, it was the nicest course around. There were courses in Lake Geneva but they were pretty high-priced. Rainbow was affordable. To be able to play it on a simulator is great fun. It’s pretty accurate."

Rich Peterson, one of Marvin’s regulars, says he always made sure he had at least six golf balls in his bag so he could finish nine holes. "I hit a slice and the course doesn’t favor that," he says. "For me, the course was tight. A couple of holes on the simulator brought back the same fears I used to have on the real course — "I’m gonna go right and into the swamp. I can’t hold it on the left."

Mike Anderson, another regular, started playing Rainbow Springs in the late 1970s after he finished high school.

“I knew the people who worked there, so I played it a lot," Anderson says. "I liked the challenge of Big Mo. But the 15th hole, there was always a big branch that hung over the corner of the green. My ball always found that branch. I think it had my name on it."

Thanks to Anderson’s experience, Carl Markestad instructed the sim designers to tweak one of the trees by the 15th green, move it closer and bring that same overhanging branch into play.

"I think my best round at Big Mo was 73, but I had plenty of 90 rounds, too," Anderson says. "I do miss playing there. The challenge was the thing. When we play the sim version, we do the flyover before each hole and it brings back so many memories. It is very realistic."

Of Rainbow Springs’ many infamous holes, none were more challenging than the par-4 12th. "There’s a swampy area before the fairway starts and by the time you reach the fairway, it doglegs sharp left through a narrow gap in the trees," Carl Markestad says. "Even if you hit that gap, the land slopes toward the swamp. You’ve got to pick your poison — hug the trees or hug the swamp. We’ve already had some 8’s and 9’s there on the sim."

That sounds like the Rainbow Springs I remember. In a word, mean. I think I miss it. Then again ...