By Carla Minsky
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
We’re calling it. 2017 is officially the year of golf in Wisconsin. That proclamation is grounded in an impressive array of facts, foremost being that the U.S. Open (June 12-18), will be contested in Wisconsin for the first time. Erin Hills in Erin is only the sixth public access course to host the championship and that says a lot, given this is the 117th U.S. Open. There’s also the LPGA Classic (July 3-9) at Thornberry Creek in Oneida, and the PGA Tour Champions American Family Insurance Championship (June 23-25) at University Ridge in Madison. So yes, this is the year of golf in Wisconsin.
Some 1,300 media will converge in Wisconsin to capture the magic of the U.S. Open, with 35,000 tickets available each day for fans to witness in person. The 5,000 volunteer opportunities were quickly snapped up and now it’s up to the players to battle each other and the challenges the course will provide.
The 652 rolling acres of Erin Hills, a product of colliding glaciers, once served as a grazing farm, which, as it turns out, is an ideal previous life for a golf course. “The natural terrain had not been changed, and we moved as little earth as possible to show off the property,” said John Morrissett, competitions and marketing director for the course. “The golf world will see the best of the Kettle Moraine.” Morrissett also mentioned that the course interior has a mere five trees, thus exposing the natural undulations of the land.
When asked if wind will play into the equation, Morrissett replied, “We’re excited about the timing, as the wind will not have settled into a normal pattern in June. The wind could come in several different directions and that challenges players’ judgment and ability to adapt.”
The course closes with a long par 5 that lines up with views of Holy Hill Basilica in the distance.
According to Morrissett, the fact Erin Hills is such an expansive property leaves plenty of room between holes and atop mounds and hills for natural vantage points for the fans. “Spectators will not feel cramped or crowded.”
“This is a point of pride for Wisconsin – you can only be first once – and it’s a responsibility we take seriously,” said Morrissett.
U.S. Open Fan Experience
Perhaps one of the people most enthusiastic about Wisconsin getting its day in the sun is Janeen Driscoll, public relations director for the United States Golf Association. “We’re so excited to be in Wisconsin. It’s such a welcoming community,” said Driscoll.
Driscoll went on to say they will be working with area farms and purveyors to stock the food court with favorites like cheese and sausage.
Driscoll also said golf fans should consider snagging tickets for the practice rounds and not just the championship rounds. “Those tickets are often available right up to the event. Fans can bring cameras, and you can be closer to the players and the action. It’s a great experience for families.”
One final tip from Driscoll for those lucky enough to be attending: “Look for grandstands allowing you to see multiple holes at the same time. That makes for an exciting day.”
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Best Public Courses
Wisconsin has more than 500 public courses, so how do you begin to rank the best, at least unofficially? That’s where Jeff Schwister, executive director of Golf Course Owners of Wisconsin, and Brian Weis of GolfWisconsin.com come in. A Q&A session with the two produced insights that every level of golfer will want to make note of as they map out their golf wish list.
Q. What are the best public courses in the state?
Jeff: You have to start with Erin Hills, the courses at Kohler, University Ridge in Madison, Lawsonia in Green Lake, SentryWorld in Stevens Point and The Bull in Sheboygan Falls. Washington County is a top municipal course in the country.
Q. What public courses would you recommend for experienced golfers looking for a challenge?
Brian: Erin Hills, Whistling Straits and Sand Valley are not for the faint of heart. You also have the physical demands of walking 18 holes.
Q. Where would be a good place for beginner golfers to start?
Jeff: Get a feel for the game by playing a course close to home. Make it a staycation. Missing Links Golf Course in Mequon has heated bays in their driving range so, in theory, you could hit balls all year long.
There’s also Thornberry Creek’s 9-hole course in Oneida.
Brian: Washington County and Hartford Golf Club have a 3-hole for beginners.
Q. Best driving range?
Both: The Bog in Saukville. Range balls are included when you play. The driving range is 180 degrees so you can hit with or across the wind to see how you fare in different weather conditions.
Q. What are some of the most scenic holes in the state?
Brian: #17 at Whistling Straits is a par 3 and you have Lake Michigan running the full length of the hole. Wild Rock’s #6 is an elevated par 5 and you can see 20 miles into the distance. Lawsonia’s #7 is called the “railroad car hole” and it’s rumored that when they built the course in 1930 they buried a railroad car to elevate the green there and it’s a daunting shot. And there’s the famous 16th hole at SentryWorld with 10,000 flowers.