Sixty-five years ago, American missiles flew over Whistling Straits. Not the golf kind — nothing like what Dustin Johnson will launch during the Ryder Cup next week. We’re talking the military kind, because Whistling Straits was not Whistling Straits in the late ’50s. Nowhere close. The tract of land was known as Camp Haven, an antiaircraft training ground for the United States Army. Team U.S.A.’s uniforms looked quite a bit different back then.
Camp Haven is a distant but apt reminder that big-time golf is still a new delicacy in America’s Dairyland. Even 30 years ago, the idea of Wisconsin becoming one of the golfiest states in the union was just an improbable dream of plumbing magnate Herb Kohler. Now, after a yearlong postponement due to Covid, we’ll see Kohler’s marquee course — the Straits — and golf-mad but sometimes bitterly cold Wisconsin host its first Ryder Cup.
“People laugh at us because of the weather,” says Andy North, two-time U.S. Open champion and proud Wisconsinite. “If you’re running a golf course, you’re basically shut down for five months. But then, if you get nice weather in April, you can’t keep people away.”
He’s not wrong. Wisconsin ranks sixth in the number of golfers per capita in the U.S. and 10th in the number of courses. In the springtime, driving ranges use snow shovels to gather their golf balls. “If I’ve answered the ‘How could you ever be a good golfer growing up in Wisconsin?’ question once, I’ve done it a million times,” North says. “It’s because when you were, you went at it 100 percent, all the time. That’s how people are here.”
Wisely, North played his college golf in warmer climes, at the University of Florida. But these days, he pegs it a dozen times a year up in Madison, the state capital. He’s designed three courses in the state and just unveiled a short course in Wisconsin Dells. Next week, at Whistling Straits, you’ll find North as the ultimate homer near the first tee, “yelling and screaming and acting like an idiot,” he says.
A lot of Wisconsin will be there alongside him. And much of the country as well. Think back to October 2019, when tickets for this Ryder Cup sold out in a mere 50 minutes.
Beyond “Wisconsin Nice” and loads of Cup action, what will greet visitors is a constellation of world-class golf courses that makes this a perfect host state. Everyone will tell you it started with Herb Kohler and the now four stellar courses by Lake Michigan that make up Destination Kohler: Whistling Straits (the Straits course and the Irish course) and Blackwolf Run (the River course and Meadow Valleys course). The visibility, lure and success of those tracks helped Erin Hills snag its U.S. Opens (Brooks Koepka dominated there in 2017; the women will take it on in 2025), which then helped pave the way for Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes, two of a possible eight courses (seriously, they have the land) at Sand Valley Resort. Then there’s SentryWorld, host of the Senior Open in 2023, and golf-junkie favorite Lawsonia, which is having a resurgence all its own. Though these properties compete for buddy-trip dollars and attention, they quietly work together — in the name of communal success and, in part, because of Wisconsin’s short playing season.
“It’s a good group of people,” says Mike O’Reilly, director of golf at the Kohler courses. “I’m friends with the guys at Erin Hills and the guys at Sand Valley. Our guests are visiting all three destinations and even a couple others. They’re making week-long trips here now versus the two- and three-day trips that were typical years ago.”
O’Reilly is a native Chicagoan — exactly the type of talent Wisconsinites like to poach from the Land of Lincoln. He caddied at the Kohler courses in the mid-’90s before Pete Dye even laid sod on the Straits course. Jobs elsewhere beckoned, but O’Reilly was stuck on Sheboygan, moving up through the golf shop ranks, all the way to the resort’s top golf gig. At 44, with more than half his life devoted to Wisconsin golf, O’Reilly has witnessed as much as anyone what focused golf investment can do for a region.
One result is the rebirth of Glenway GC, a city-owned nine-holer in Madison approaching its 100th birthday. Michael Keiser, a managing partner at Sand Valley, is overseeing (and funding with his wife) the rehab project, hoping to create an expansive, family-friendly community space for golfers and nongolfers alike. Unsurprisingly, Andy North is a consultant on the project. If all goes well, Glenway could be a model for other city courses across the state and country. “Whether you hit it 300 yards or 110 yards, whether you’re scratch or a new player, there are fun and unique challenges,” Keiser says. “In order to grow the game, I feel strongly that golf needs a lot more Glenways.”
When money from big resorts begins to trickle down to muni nine-holers, you know the game is in a healthy place.
And so is Wisconsin. Great golf events demand a great stage: Wisconsin and Whistling Straits are eager and ready to provide it. In return, they’re hoping the international exposure will deliver some extra cheddar — in the form of cheese-fueled golf tours across the state.
On the front lines at the Cup, Team U.S.A. will, not coincidentally, be led by Wisconsin golf royalty: 12-time PGA Tour winner Steve Stricker. The affable, even-keeled captain knows plenty about making the game feel like family. In July, his daughter Bobbi took a break from her summer internship at the Wisconsin State Golf Association to win the Women’s State Am. Stricker’s wife, Nicki, was on the bag. Stricker’s father-in-law, Dennis Tiziani, won the State Open in 1973, and his brother-in-law, Mario Tiziani (who won the State Open in 2002), is his manager and will lead caddie operations during the Cup. They’ll all be out there at Whistling — in every likelihood, yelling and screaming and acting like idiots.
At the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, while Stricker striped wedges on the range, spectators alternated between the local Big 10 chants.
Both were hopeful to get a nod from the Stricker, who had become the unexpected center of attention. No one seemed to care that the man warming up next to him was Tiger Woods.
But you heard that right. Steve Stricker is Wisconsin’s golf guy. This will be Wisconsin’s golf moment.