SAN DIEGO — When it comes to Wisconsin's most prominent exports, sand and granite would seem to be heavy underdogs next to, say, beer and brats.
But if you want the real dirt, it didn't take much drilling beneath the surface at this week's Golf Industry Show to celebrate what's in our own backyard.
While golfers might have to venture off the beaten trail to learn what makes them special, some of the state's top courses have leaned on Kafka Granite of Mosinee and Waupaca Sand and Solutions to make their facilities stand out. Most recently, Kafka Granite provided the materials for the granite pathways at Erin Hills near Milwaukee, site of the 2017 U.S. Open, while Waupaca Sand supplied the Fredonia Bunker Sand to University Ridge Golf Course in Madison for its bunker renovation projected, half of which was completed last fall.
"They (Erin Hills) had an issue with their pathways washing out," Kafka Granite owner Glenn Kafka said. "Because they're an Irish course, it's very steep in spots. They actually called Chris Zuegel (the superintendent at Whistling Straits in Haven) and Chris told them about me and the product that I have, which is the wax polymer. ... I met (Erin Hills superintendent) Zach (Reineking) and Zach showed me some of his fescue grass and his limestone and asked 'Can you match this color?' I said sure so I went back, whipped some up in the lab and brought it back to him. He said: 'That's great so bring me some.'"
Kafka said over "five or six years" leading up to the 2017 U.S. Open, he figures his company dropped close to 1,000 tons of the material over the narrow paths on the walking-only course. Despite a rainy stretch before the Open and more than 690,000 fans on the grounds that week, the work not only withstood that test, but Kafka said it held up well despite another wet golf season in 2018.
"It's been wonderful for them," Kafka said of the beige blend mix. "It completely eliminated their wash problems and it wasn't slippery. They could walk on it, (being) steep, without slipping. And it had a natural feel. They love it and they've been great customers and great advocates for Kafka Granite."
Meanwhile, officials at Waupaca Sand are eager to gather feedback to its work on the bunkers at University Ridge, a project initiated at the request of the PGA Tour Champions to improve playing conditions for the American Family Insurance Championship.
Work began last fall to rebuild the bunkers using the the Better Billy Bunker Method, in which the bunkers are given a two-inch base of pea gravel, covered with a polymer spray, before the Fredonia Bunker Sand was added. Bunkers on the back nine will be completed by May 1, almost two months before the Am Fam Championship, with work on the front-nine bunkers scheduled to begin this fall.
"We have supplied materials for their maintenance for a long time," said Rob Johnson, sales manager for Waupaca Sand. "We knew after their (2018) tournament, one of their requests was to provide better bunkers for the future tournaments. We got involved with (University Ridge) superintendent Phil Davidson and his search for a quality bunker sand to put back in. Several were looked at — we looked at a lot of performance characteristics of these newer, angular bunker sands — and ultimately one was chosen."
Johnson said the Fredonia Bunker Sand, named for the central Wisconsin community where the sand is made, "is a relatively new product for us" and is "considerably firmer" than the sand that had been in the bunkers at University Ridge. The sand was one of six varieties showcased this week at the Golf Industry Show and Johnson said it was chosen to match the needs specified by the course and the Better Billy Bunker Method will keep the sand cleaner and "non-contaminated," making for better, long-term conditions.
"You can see the different earth tones there; that can sometimes be a factor," Johnson said. "Performance, these days, is really more what people are looking for. It seems nowadays, these angular bunker sands, which create a firmer bunker, are what's being preferred."
Kafka said his company has done similar work to help solve water drainage and erosion issues in the bunkers at Whistling Straits. In fact, the two parties teamed up to take recycled materials from Kohler Co. bathroom fixtures and make it part of the Better Billy Bunker system lining its golf course bunkers.
"He likes to recycle their products there," Kafka said of Zuegel. "So we use some of their slags and some of their waste porcelain. ... It ended up working excellent for them and they like that recycled value."