|The Wisconsin Golf Hipster|
By Joseph NorthI golfed in Wisconsin before it was cool.
I can say I was a local when Blackwolf first appeared on the black and white pages of Golf Digest's news and notes in the mid-90s. And before Tiger teed it up at the GMO (or Stanford for that matter).
I golfed in Wisconsin when Whistling Straits was still an overgrown WWII training ground and when Sand Valley was comprised exclusively of windswept sand dunes and eager beaver loggers rather than earthmovers and intrepid visionaries.
Yes, I lived for Wisconsin golf before it was cool.
I loved the sport. I loved the state. I religiously read Gary D'Amato's Wisconsin golf beat. I'd write him emails and ask him to meet and discuss the emergence of the game in the state. I worked at a slue of southern Wisconsin courses - first as a cart boy, then as a pro shop attendant, then as a course ranger. I rubbed elbows with some of its finest amateurs and admired the rise, fall, and rise again of Steve Stricker.
Now the word is out. Just like seeing Nirvana open up for your favorite band in 1989, or wearing a well-worn Modest Mouse T-Shirt to a local indie show in 1996 - I can say I was there. But now, I kind of feel like "that guy" who wears the band T-shirt to that same band's show. The aging Wisconsin Golf Hipster in a 2017 U.S. Open polo. Which is cool in one sense. However, the golf spotlight is firmly on Wisconsin this year, and its once secret heartland courses are set to be broadcast on a global scale. To be completely honest, I'm not sure how I feel about that.
Yes, I went to Erin Hills range when the course was closed for the season. I absorbed the cobalt sky and imagined playing its awe-inspiring, fine-fescue-lined fairways before it was strengthened into a 7,800-yard majestic beast. Even as an adolescent golf geek, I would design my own golf holes with the natural contours of my hometown in mind - dreaming of the day that Wisconsin would become known as a famous golf Mecca and I would finally be recognized as the virtuosic course design talent that I knew I would be.
Still waiting on that global acclaim as a course architect. Alas, the former might just be true. Like a short par-4, the destination golf courses of Wisconsin are now reachable in a few hours from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. While Lake Geneva and The Dells has long been perfect for family vacations, some how, some way Wisconsin's most remote, untouched tracts of land are now prime destinations for golf day-trips, and the state's vast wastelands have regenerated as a greened ground zero for your next buddy golf trip.
Seemingly overnight, the land of beer and cheese has become golf's CBGBs.
These high profile Wisconsin courses are all new. They're all playable. They're all public. And now GolfAdvisor.com recently named Wisconsin the No. 1 golf destination IN THE WORLD.
Wikipedia tells us that this summer's U.S. Open will be the first in Wisconsin, but the state's fifth Major Championship.
The PGA Championship was played in 1933 at Blue Mound in Wauwatosa, and at Whistling Straits near Kohler in 2004, 2010, and 2015. In addition, the U.S. Women's Open was played at Blackwolf Run in Kohler in 1998 and 2012, and the U.S. Senior Open at Whistling Straits in 2007. The PGA TOUR formerly stopped in the state regularly with the Greater Milwaukee Open (1968 - 2009), preceded by the Milwaukee Open Invitational (1955 - 1961). And Erin Hills hosted the U.S. Amateur in 2011 in prep for the Big Dance.
While Wisconsin has an established a lineage of fine championship golf, and it's STILL expanding. "Wow. How?" you might ask. Well, let's take a look shall we.
1. Whistling Started A Wildfire
The 2004 PGA at Whistling Straits cleared the fog over Wisconsin from the national golf lens. Coverage of the event revealed a sun-drenched, emerald green oasis with as many bunkers as dimples on a golf ball.
The massive crowds signaled something special was happening along the western shores of Lake Michigan. In a land where the Packers had once ruled water cooler conversation, it was clear that golf was beginning to become more to Wisconsinites than your grandpa's pastime. Again, it was becoming cool in Wisconsin to like and play golf.
As recently as 2015, the course hosted its second PGA Championship - and could be on tap for a return in 2025. But not before it hosts the 2020 Ryder Cup.
2. Erin Hills Created A Mystique
A conservative estimate of, say, 90% of the 150 player who will peg it for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills will have never seen the course before a few weeks ahead the championship. Jordan Spieth notwithstanding, even the game's best don't know what to expect from the course which has been custom built for the firmest, fastest and (sometimes) fairest test in tournament golf. I live less than 20 miles from the course and already this spring it's the talk of the neighborhood. The usual "how was your winter" stock-in-trade has been replaced by "did you get your tickets yet?" and texts from Minnesota buddies looking for solid stay-and-play deals on the way to EH. (Google: SentryWorld).
3. Welcome To Stricker's Back Yard.
The American Family Insurance Championship, a PGA TOUR Champions event, to be held June 23-25 at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, is one of the newer Tour stops for the senior pin seekers. Sticker will lead a star-studded field that will even feature a performance by Darius Rucker. The former Hootie & The Blowfish lead singer - perhaps an aging golf hipster in his own right - has become a bit of a fixture on Tour, with recent appearances at the Ryder Cup (where he likely buddied up to Stricker) and the Pebble Pro-Am. U-Ridge is, again, a top public course you can actually play without breaking the bank. The only thing Strick has left to do in his career (aside from pluck a major) is win at a professional level in his home state. After a runner-up finish in the AmFam's inaugural year in 2016, could this be the year one of the Badger state's finest breaks through on his home turf?
4. Go Pack And Go.
The LPGA Classic at Thornberry Creek will be held the week after 4th of July outside of Green Bay in Oneida. The Championship Course will host the world's best female golfers. The Championship Course "can challenge the most proficient players, with more than 70 sand bunkers and 11 water hazards placed strategically throughout its 18 holes."
This might be the only year in Wisconsin history where Packer fans are actually looking forward to the golf season more than the Pack's regular season. Here's to hoping Wisconsin golf gets off to a fast start, and runs the table when it counts.
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