With world-class venues and majors on tap, Wisconsin golf is booming
By Gary D'Amato
Florida leads the nation with 1,055 golf courses. Michigan bills itself as "America's Summer Golf Capital." Georgia has the Masters Tournament, California has Pebble Beach and Texas claims Ben Hogan and Jordan Spieth.
No state, however, has raised its golf profile faster or more impressively in recent years than has Wisconsin.
A run of major championships conducted by the PGA of America and United States Golf Association, along with a building boom of high-end courses that started with Blackwolf Run in 1988 and continues unabated today, has turned Wisconsin from a flyover state into an international golf destination.
"Wisconsin has kind of become the 'it' state for golf," said course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., who designed SentryWorld in Stevens Point and oversaw a recent renovation of the 33-year-old parkland gem.
Among the developments:
-- The 97th PGA Championship, Aug. 10-16, will be the third PGA at Whistling Straits since 2004. The faux links imagined and designed by Pete Dye for then-Kohler Co. CEO Herbert V. Kohler Jr. is ranked fourth on Golf Digest's list of "America's 100 Greatest Public Courses." The Ryder Cup will visit in 2020.
-- Erin Hills, which opened in 2006 and played host to the U.S. Amateur five years later, will be the site of the first U.S. Open held in Wisconsin in 2017.
-- Steve Stricker, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, will team with sponsor American Family Insurance to host a Champions Tour event at University Ridge in Madison starting in 2016. Wisconsin has been without a PGA Tour-sanctioned event since the Greater Milwaukee Open ended a 42-year run in 2009.
-- Amateur Jordan Niebrugge of Mequon finished in a tie for sixth at the Open Championship and appears destined to someday join an impressive list of touring pros from the state including Stricker, Andy North, Mark Wilson, Jerry Kelly and Sherri Steinhauer.
-- Mike Keiser, a Chicago businessman who developed the acclaimed Bandon Dunes resort in coastal Oregon, is building Sand Valley, a multicourse complex on a desolate 1,500-acre sand barren south of Wisconsin Rapids. Two courses already are under construction.
-- Not to be outdone, Kohler Co. is in the process of obtaining permits to build a fifth course just south of Sheboygan, in the Town of Wilson. Dye has said the new course would be capable of hosting major championships.
"It's great that people who want to build golf courses have discovered the kind of property that Wisconsin offers," said Stewart Cink, the 2009 Open Championship winner. "It's a great place to play. It really is. And it's beautiful weather, too, in the summertime."
In a state known mainly for beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers, golf is big business, and getting bigger.
The golf industry generated about $2.4 billion of direct, indirect and induced economic input, $771.5 million of wage income and 38,431 jobs in 2008, according to the Wisconsin Golf Economy Report, which was commissioned by Golf 20/20 for the state's allied golf associations.
"It's really an important part of our state's economy," said Gov. Scott Walker, citing that report. "The economic impact of golf in Wisconsin is about $2.4 billion and about $400 million of that is directly tied into tourism.
"It's not just the green that comes in. The economic impact directly ties to people's jobs – 38,000 jobs in the state are tied directly to golf."
America's Dairyland has long been a golf-crazy state. Though the season is short – seven months, at best – Wisconsin ranks 10th with more than 500 courses and second in golfers per capita, according to the National Golf Foundation.
It's only over the last 20 years or so, however, that golfers from outside the region have discovered exceptional golf in the Lake Geneva area, Sheboygan-Kohler and the central part of the state, from Hartford to Green Lake and from Wisconsin Dells to Stevens Point.
Stephanie Klett, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, hosted the U.S. Travel Association board of directors at The American Club in Kohler in 2014 and said her guests were "blown away" by the golf experience at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run.
"Literally, they said, 'We're coming back. We had no idea this was so good,'" Klett said. "You could see it on their faces. They had no idea this existed in our state. To hear that from people who are in charge of travel in other states said a lot to us. It was the best of the best of the tourism industry."
Klett said her department has started to aggressively market Wisconsin's golf courses internationally.
"We created a golf media kit for golf writers all over the world," she said. "We know how important golf is to international travelers – especially in Japan, where golf is such an expensive sport."
Though SentryWorld set the standard for upscale public golf when it opened in 1982, it was Kohler who put Wisconsin on the golfing map with Blackwolf Run six years later. It was unlike anything ever built in the state – a championship-caliber course with pristine playing conditions in the serene Sheboygan River valley.
In 1998, the celebrated course played host to a wildly successful U.S. Women's Open won by Se Ri Pak in a memorable playoff. The next day, Whistling Straits opened – and so did the floodgates.
The 2004 PGA Championship at the Straits – the first major championship in Wisconsin in 71 years – set revenue records that stood until this year.
"In the entire history of the PGA Championship, Whistling Straits now occupies the top two positions in terms of revenue from general ticketing combined with corporate sales," said David Kohler, who recently succeeded his father as CEO of Kohler Co. and is general chair of the 97th PGA Championship. "That's a pretty amazing accomplishment."
In 2005, Kohler Co. extended its hospitality portfolio to the United Kingdom when it bought the Old Course Hotel and the Duke's Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. The hotel borders the famous "Road Hole" on the Old Course and got plenty of TV time last week during the Open.
Herb Kohler, 76, has developed a deep and abiding love for the game and its traditions. To hear him tell it, however, he was a twice-a-year golfer with no grand plan when he hired Dye to build Blackwolf Run.
"We built golf in Kohler not because of some inherent passion that I had but because our clientele at The American Club were saying, 'Thank you very much for taking us to a private course over here or a public course over there but, Mr. Kohler, why in the world don't you have your own golf course?'" Kohler said. "That's a little bit embarrassing for a CEO and we had to respond. And we did."
The Kohler courses provided the impetus for a course-building boom in Wisconsin in the 1990s. Courses designed by Arnold Palmer (The Bog in Saukville) and Jack Nicklaus (The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls) soon opened and were followed by Erin Hills in the Town of Erin, Wild Rock in Wisconsin Dells and Keiser's under-construction Sand Valley.
Other highly regarded courses, such as SentryWorld and the venerable Links Course at Lawsonia in Green Lake, underwent renovations.
Sand Valley already has generated a national buzz; the first course is scheduled to open in 2017.
"I believe that Sand Valley is going to help our cause and that is to let golfers know in the region if not beyond that there is great golf in Wisconsin and not just over at Lake Michigan," said Mike James, the general manager at SentryWorld.
While the destination courses are important, nothing shines the spotlight on Wisconsin golf quite like the major championships.
"When you get an event of this caliber it elevates your state's image," Klett said, referring to the upcoming PGA Championship. "A lot of states will never have a major championship. People see Whistling Straits on television, with the beautiful shoreline and Lake Michigan in the background, and they go, 'That's Wisconsin?'"
And there's more on the way, including the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup, the richest event in golf.
Erin Hills was open for only five years when it hosted the U.S. Amateur and will be open for only 11 when it hosts the U.S. Open. It wouldn't have happened without original owner Bob Lang's passion and persistence and current owner Andy Ziegler's financial commitment.
Still, how did Erin Hills, built in farm country west of Holy Hill, land the U.S. Open – which is expected to produce an economic impact of $140 million to $170 million – when Chicago hasn't hosted the championship since 2003?
The answer is that the USGA loves Erin Hills because it's a public facility with a huge footprint, plenty of flexibility for course setup and an owner willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a successful championship.
"The single most significant reason that Wisconsin is hosting more major championships than any other state: Wisconsin truly gets it," said Jim Reinhart, general chairman of the 2017 U.S. Open. "When it comes to promoting the beautiful resources we have, the community and government get together.
"It doesn't matter which party or side of the aisle they're on, they try to make good things happen for the state."
When it comes to golf, good things are happening in Wisconsin. We may not be Scotland, but we definitely enjoy a few birdies with our brats.
This article was written by Gary D'Amato from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.