Game Changers

Partners In Promotion: Wisconsin PGA & the Wisconsin State Golf Association

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Editor's Note: This story is running in the official Ryder Cup Program produced by GolfWeek.
Before the pandemic hit, the number of golfers was growing across America. Once Covid-19 fully arrived, there weren’t many activities people could participate in. But it was quickly discovered that golf was one sport people could play safely.
As a result, the number of people playing golf grew, and participation increased to record levels. Wisconsin golf courses were crowded with Wisconsin golfers and golfers from surrounding states that had tougher restrictions.
Golf in Wisconsin had grown in recent years, especially as a state for destination golf, with the state having several Top 100 courses that anyone can play.
But the questions remain: How to attract more players to the game and how to keep them walking on the golf course and not walking away from the game?
Those questions are being addressed by the Wisconsin PGA Section and the Wisconsin State Golf Association. Both organizations work together under one roof in West Allis. 
Joe Stadler, 54, has been with the Wisconsin PGA since 1993, served as its Executive Director since 1995 and has the section office focusing on these issues.
“Our marketing campaign that we started this year has focused on new players, it’s getting them fitted for clubs and getting instruction from professionals,” says Stadler. “We’re in the initial stages of promoting the opportunities of working in the game. We’ve had clinics for women primarily in the off-season as we try to take advantage of the growth of indoor simulator golf. We don’t have Topgolf here in Wisconsin yet, but we have some X-Golf facilities where we get people in a comfortable setting, where it’s more social and there is no pressure. Hitting a golf ball into a screen offers a different pressure point than trying to learn on the golf course.”
Stadler says that golf growth in Wisconsin the last couple of years has exploded.
“Wisconsin courses south of Madison or Milwaukee have been twice as busy the last two years,” says Stadler. “Many of our private clubs now have wait-lists to join and haven’t been this healthy in 20 years. Public courses that cost anywhere from $20 to $400 dollars to play have all been busy. Top-rated courses in Wisconsin, like Whistling Straits, Erin Hills and Sand Valley, it’s almost impossible to get a tee time on them.”
Stadler admits the next challenge for both organizations is to keep the momentum going.
“We’ve worked hard to help beginning golfers feel more welcome at the golf course,” said Stadler. “There was a time that goes back 20 years where some courses didn’t want beginning golfers. It took golf a long time to react to that and make changes. I think now all facilities are aware of being welcoming to beginning golfers.”
Stadler says in Wisconsin there has been an education in getting golf priced in a manner so facilities have money to improve course conditions and reinvest in improvements.
“Not just in Wisconsin but industry-wide there has been a movement to get everyone playing from the proper tees,” says Stadler. “At my age the days of playing golf at 7,000 yards are over. Golf is supposed to be fun, however it can be frustrating, but when people have fun at golf they will continue to return.”
Stadler says that through the PGA Junior League and Drive, Chip and Putt participation numbers in Wisconsin are rising.
“We had more WPGA professionals run local qualifiers to encompass more of the state for Drive, Chip and Putt,” says Stadler. “This could be a model for the rest of the country to get more kids involved. We’ve had a handful of kids from Wisconsin make it to Augusta National for the finals, but none have yet been overall champions. Last year our junior golf numbers jumped, but we didn’t know if that was because other sports were shut down. This year, numbers have increased another 9% and registration for junior golf in Wisconsin is at an all-time high.”
Stadler says there is an emphasis to include time on the golf course for beginners who are taking lessons.
“There was a time when beginners stayed on the range and off the golf course,” said Stadler. “That was an opportunity we missed during that time-frame, of getting people to play golf.”
Through the Section’s junior golf foundation, the message to parents is that getting kids on the golf course is a great way for families to spend time together and have fun.
Rob Jansen, 41, Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Golf Associadtion (WSGA), created one the most intriguing internships in golf this summer, promoting golf and golf tourism in Wisconsin that paid someone to play golf around the state and share their experiences. 
“The best way to showcase golf courses is by playing them, taking pictures and sharing the experience of playing there in the media and on social media,” said Jansen. “We created a position to do just that. We felt there would be interest from people wanting to get paid to play golf this summer all over Wisconsin and it did. We call it ‘America’s #1 golf internship.’ ”
Hundreds of applicants with strong credentials quickly applied.
As a result, it was tough to pick only one winner, so two were selected: Patrick Koenig of California and Bobbi Stricker (Ryder Cup Captain Steve Stricker’s daughter) of Wisconsin, who won the 2021 Wisconsin State Women’s Amateur in between promoting Wisconsin golf.
“Working with so many facilities around the state, the Wisconsin PGA professionals worked with us to set up dates and visits,” said Jansen.
Jansen says the Wisconsin PGA is the leader in player development in Wisconsin, but with the two organizations working together to grow the game, Wisconsin’s golf courses should be busy, even after the pandemic fades away and Ryder Cup matches have finished.