The Wisconsin Women's State Golf Association has always taken its unique role on the Wisconsin golf landscape with great honor despite the challenge of managing the multiple and oft-conflicting priorities of its membership.
On one hand, there has always been a proud and important social component to the WWSGA and its events. Many of its golfers just want to have fun.
On the other hand, the WWSGA has been charged with providing the state stroke-play and match-play championships (among others) for Wisconsin's most competitive female golfers. And, since the 2005 merger of the WWSGA and the Wisconsin Women's Public Links Association, the winners of those events have been considered to be the undisputed state champions.
Despite its best efforts and even better intentions, the WWSGA's reach has not always extended to every corner of the demographic it has sought to serve. Since 2015, the championship flight of its match-play event has never attracted more than 16 golfers and its stroke-play event — the Wisconsin Women's State Amateur — has never drawn more than 36 golfers.
By contrast, the Wisconsin Women's State Open, open to professional and amateur golfers and administered by the Wisconsin PGA, has averaged 51 golfers over that same span.
Of course, both have barely scratched the surface when it comes to tapping the potential interest in those events, considering Wisconsin.golf research shows more than 350 women have competed at various levels of collegiate golf over the last five years and, according to 2018-19 National Federation of State High School Association data, more than 2,000 girls are competing at 155 high schools in Wisconsin.
In 2020, the WWSGA will eliminate one of the most frustrating and misunderstood components to participation in its events when it merges with the Wisconsin State Golf Association and officially transfers the administration of its championships to WSGA staff. Jeanne Whitish, president of the WWSGA, and Rob Jansen, executive director of the WSGA, confirmed the decision in a conference call last week with Wisconsin.golf and explained that both parties agreed the changing demands on the women's events made this a good time for them to pool their resources and provide opportunities under the same umbrella organization that has been assisting the WWSGA for years.
"This was just a national extension of that at the right time with the right leadership in both organizations," Jansen said. "We always try to focus on what's best for the golfer, what's best for the game. The benefits that we're going to see from this are going to be great for the golfer and ... help grow participation in the women's events and elevate the events themselves."
Whitish sees huge potential for the leadership in her organization to channel their energy toward that growth while the WSGA administers the events.
The WWSGA has sponsored three events (the Husband/Wife, the Mother/Son and the Father/Daughter) that created administrative headaches trying to route male registrations from the WSGA database to the WWSGA database. Likewise, the WSGA has long offered a series of Net Partner events in which two men, two women or a man and a women are able to compete in a unique format where the net score of each golfer is added to their net bestball score.
"It felt like there was an awful lot of duplication of effort, based on the administrative side of what we were doing," said Whitish, who added that merger talks started in the spring of 2018. "On one side, you had the (WSGA), which had some paid staff and certainly the knowledge, know-how and resources. And then you had the WWSGA, which was completely volunteer and trying to make a best effort to put on decent tournaments for women.
"When you looked at two BlueGolf (tournament software) contracts. And two schedules. And two (membership) fee structures that most golf courses were confused by in the first place, it seemed like a conversation that was, at least, worth being explored. ... With our being absorbed by the WSGA and set up under that umbrella, we are able to draw on the expertise of directors who could help guide it and, to the WSGA's credit, their very first approach was they wanted to hear from the women that we were requesting this action. It was all done very respectfully (and) jointly with the idea that we can put the added time and energy into helping grow the game and, at the same time, increase the tournament experience for the women and the exposure."
Indeed, this is the heyday of women's golf in Wisconsin.
While it currently lacks a presence on the LPGA Tour, Osceola native Casey Danielson has emerged from the first weekend of the 144-hole LPGA Tour Q-Series in a tie for 36th place. The top 45 finishers and ties after the final 72 holes this week in Pinehurst, N.C., will receive Category 14 membership on the LPGA Tour Priority List for 2020, the first step toward the former Stanford golfer giving Wisconsin someone to follow at the highest level of the game.
Wisconsin's presence in the college game has never been stronger, either.
The University of Wisconsin is ranked No. 72 in the latest GolfStat Division I national rankings while UW-Green Bay checked in at No. 200 (up 39 spots in the last six months). The state has Division I golfers dotting the country, from Spartanburg, S.C., to Santa Clara, Calif. UW-Whitewater is ranked 15th in the GolfStat Division III rankings while Carthage College (No. 27) and UW-Stout (No. 30) are at the doorstep of giving Wisconsin three schools in the top 25.
Whitish said her organization recognized that more needed to be done to tap into that demographic of competitive golfers while continuing to serve many of the loyal and long-standing members of the WWSGA.
"The WWSGA position was that they were state tournaments and it was supposed to be the best players in the state that participated," Whitish said. "The championship level is certainly a very important portion of all of this. But there is also the whole series of women who play below that championship level that really energize the group. That's more of where the masses are.
"I can't wait. I think we're going to have a great season."
At the same time, Whitish and Jansen know this move could have a profound impact on women's golf well beyond the 2020 season.
Many icons within the soon-to-be former WWSGA — including WSGA Hall of Famers Katie Falk, Syd Wells and Maggie Leef — have served as mentors, of sorts, to the next generation of women golfers in Wisconsin. Whitish hopes that generation will take a more active role in becoming rules officials and tournament volunteers in addition to having their voices heard on the women's golf committee that will function under this new structure.
Whitish said Peg Carlson, another of those veteran golfers who has been very giving of her time to younger golfers in WWSGA events, has been appointed to the WSGA board of directors and will chair the women's committee. "That is also a major change, to see women entering onto that board," said Whitish, who has been invited to participate in strategic planning with the WSGA, too.
"We'll have a much cleaner line directly to the folks inside the WSGA that can cause changes, if they are required," Whitish said. "I just think we're going to see an elevated experience, whether it's from setting up the course, whether it's developing local rules for a particular tournament or whether it's having local rules officials around — things you take for granted when you are playing in a WSGA event. ... We're pretty excited to see what the end result can be."