The inside story of how Wisconsin became the Midwest’s home of world-class golf

    In 1998, when the U.S. Women’s Open was held at Blackwolf Run in Kohler and Whistling Straits was opening, it appeared that Wisconsin was on the verge of becoming a major player in the world of championship golf.

    But did any one back then even dream that southeastern Wisconsin would become the golf championship hot spot that it has?

    Consider, in addition to hosting the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, Blackwolf Run will host the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. Whistling Straits, located in Haven just north of Sheboygan, hosted the 2004 PGA Championship, the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, and will host the 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup. Erin Hills, which opened in 2006 in the Washington County Town of Erin, will host the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links this year and the U.S. Amateur in 2011.

    Robert Lang, who developed the course, hopes to one day bring the U.S. Open to Erin Hills.

    In addition, the U.S. Mid-Amateur will be held at the Milwaukee Country Club this year.

    These tournaments provide a huge benefit to the region’s economy. The U.S. Women’s Open, the U.S. Amateur, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup are broadcast on national television. When golf fans watch those events, the televised images of beautiful Wisconsin golf courses help shatter the myth that this state is nothing but frozen tundra. The tournaments also bring big crowds to fill hotel rooms and restaurants.

    But even after they are over, the exposure and the prestige of these events attracts travelers to Wisconsin to play at these elite golf courses. The parking lots at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits are always filled with several vehicles bearing Illinois license plates. Even before it has hosted a major event, Erin Hills attracted golfers from 40 states last year, as a result of overwhelmingly positive buzz in the golf world.

    How did all of this happen? How did southeast Wisconsin become a major golf destination? The props go to three people: Mother Nature, Herb Kohler and Bob Lang. Mother Nature provided the beautiful terrain, and Kohler and Lang provided the vision and the resources to mold the land into breathtaking gold courses.

    In the beginning

    It all started in the 1970s, when the Kohler Co. was trying to figure out what to do with an old brick building that was built in 1918 to provide hosing for the company’s immigrant workers.

    Herb Kohler, the company’s president and chief executive officer, rejected the advice of consultants and the preference of his own board of directors and transformed the building into a first-class resort called the American Club, which opened in 1981.

    The American Club was a big success. Many guests at the hotel liked to play golf and would go play at courses in the Sheboygan area, and they suggested that Kohler Co. build its own course. Kohler saw an opportunity, so he built Blackwolf Run, which opened in 1988. The course was designed by Pete Dye, one of the best golf course architects.

    Ten years later, Blackwolf Run was the host of the U.S. Women’s Open. I helped cover that event as a reporter for The Sheboygan Press. It was a huge success for Kohler, with record-breaking crowds and a thrilling ending. Jenny Chuasiriporn, a college kid and an amateur, hit a 40-foot putt on the 18th hole to force a playoff with Se Ri Pak. The huge crowd around the 18th green exploded in cheers as if they had just seen a last-second, game-winning Packer touchdown. Chuasiriporn’s jaw dropped, and she put her hand over her mouth as if to say, "Oh, my God! What did I just do?"

    It was a classic, but underappreciated moment in Wisconsin sports history. However, the next day, Pak beat Chuasiriporn in an 18-hole playoff.

    Kohler looked like a proud papa the whole weekend, and not just because of the U.S. Women’s Open. During the tournament, he unveiled his newest crown jewel with the opening of Whistling Straits.

    Kohler and his friend, former President George H.W. Bush, played the first round at the course, located along the Lake Michigan bluffs north of Sheboygan, before heading to Blackwolf Run to watch the U.S. Women’s Open.

    Backroom bargaining

    Once it opened in 1998, Whistling Straits was immediately considered one of the best golf courses in the country. Its spectacular lakefront setting earned rave reviews.

    The success of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and the quality of Whistling Straits put Kohler in a great position to negotiate with the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) for a major championship.

    Kohler was in talks with the USGA to have Whistling Straits host the 2005 U.S. Open. The U.S. Open may be the biggest men’s golf major of them all.

    However, the PGA beat the USGA to the punch. The PGA offered to pull its 2004 PGA Championship from Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. and award the tournament to Whistling Straits instead.

    With a bird in his, Kohler decided he couldn’t turn down the 2004 PGA Championship on the chance that he would get the 2005 U.S. Open, and the events were too close together to try to host both. So, Kohler accepted the PGA’s offer.

    The move by the PGA hurt some feelings in Louisville, but the 2004 PGA Championship was another huge success for Kohler, with an attendance record and another championship tied after 72 holes. Vijay Singh won a three-hole playoff with Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco.

    After the tournament, speculation again heated up about what would be the next championship hosted by a Kohler golf course.

    The USGA awarded Whistling Straits with the 2007 U.S. Senior Open. Golf legend Tom Watson appeared poised to win, but he faded, and the tournament was won by Brad Bryant.

    In an apparent attempt to box the USGA out of Whistling Straits, the PGA made a blockbuster offer to Kohler, awarding the course with the 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup. Reminiscent of Valhalla, the PGA pulled the 2010 PGA Championship from Sahalee Country Club near Redmond, Wash., and moved it to Whistling Straits.

    Lang’s bold venture

    Meanwhile, as Whistling Straits was hosting the 2004 PGA Championship, Robert Lang, a developer and the former owner of the Lang Cos., was making plans to build a golf course in southwest Washington County that he dreamed would one day host the U.S. Open.

    At first, Lang was planning to build a nine-hole golf course on the property located west of Holy Hill. Because he was not a serious golfer, Lang did not fully realize the potential of the undulating Kettle Moraine property that had been carved by glaciers.

    "I just thought it was pretty land," Lang told SBT in an Aug. 19, 200,5 cover story on the building of Erin Hills.

    He sent topographical maps to some of the top golf course architects in the nation. The architects were very excited about the property’s potential. Then Lang realized he had a chance to build a special golf course. He hired Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry of Columbus, Ohio-based Hurdzan-Fry golf Course Design Inc. and Golf Digest golf course architecture writer Ron Whitten to design Erin Hills.

    The buzz about Erin Hills and its beautiful natural setting spread quickly in the golf world. Even before it was open, USGA officials toured the property and began considering it for future championship events.

    The course was awarded this year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links before it even opened.

    When it did open on Aug. 1, 2006, Erin Hills was a major hit. The course received so much positive press that in 2007 golfers from 40 states came to Wisconsin to play at Erin Hills. Golfers from 20 states have already made reservations to play there this year, Lang said.

    The course recently was awarded the 2011 U.S. Amateur by the USGA.

    Most major golf championships are played at courses on the coasts, but there are a lot of golfers and golf fans in the Midwest, and once in awhile the PGA and USGA need to bring their championships to flyover country. The PGA seems to have established Whistling Straits as its top Midwest site for championship tournaments. It’s starting to look like the USGA may do the same with Erin Hills.
    Speculation has already begun about if and when Erin Hills will get to host the U.S. Open. If this year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and the 2011 U.S. Amateur are successful, Lang should achieve his ultimate goal.

    Andrew Weiland is the managing editor of Small Business Times.

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