Whistling Straits | 2015 PGA Championship

Golfers putt on No. 18 on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits during a practice round at the 2015 PGA Championship. (Rob Hernandez / WisDotGolf)

First came the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, which set attendance records reflecting Wisconsin’s pent-up demand for major championship golf.

Then came the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, the first men’s major in Wisconsin in 71 years and a rousing success. That was followed in quick succession by — deep breath — the U.S. Senior Open at the Straits (2007), a second PGA at the Straits (2010), the U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills (2011), a second U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run (2012), a third PGA at the Straits (2015) and the first-ever U.S. Open in Wisconsin, at Erin Hills (2017).

No other state can claim a similar run of big-time golf, at least not in recent years.

Spoiled? Yes, we certainly are.

But the biggest and best is yet to come.

Preparations already are under way at Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup. The biennial competition between 12-man teams from the United States and Europe is just 19 months away (Sept. 25-27, 2020). And while the stroke-play major championships generate excitement throughout the world of golf, there’s nothing quite like the Ryder Cup to stoke the flames of partisan passion.

Fans decked out in red, white and blue or Europe’s blue and yellow show up hours before the first match, fill the grandstand around the first tee and start chanting and singing before the sun rises. It’s a spectacle that must be experienced to be appreciated.

“I can definitely tell you that’s one of the key differences from a PGA Championship, is that atmosphere on the first tee,” said Jason Mengel, championship director for the 2020 Ryder Cup. “If you were at Hazeltine (in 2016), you know what I mean.”

The Ryder Cup is about raw emotion and stomach-churning pressure. It’s about match play, mano-a-mano, your best against ours. It’s about multimillionaire golfers playing for teammates and country instead of prize money, which creates pressure unlike anything they face in weekly PGA Tour events.

Wide-eyed Ryder Cup rookies are known to become nauseous on the first tee. After blowing what he thought was the deciding match in the “War by the Shore” in 1991, an inconsolable Mark Calcavecchia wandered off into the sand dunes at Kiawah Island in tears.

On the flip side, who can forget the U.S. team’s green-swarming celebration when Justin Leonard holed a cross-country putt for the clinching halve in 1999? Or the epic singles match between Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy at Hazeltine that had millions of golf fans on the edge of their seats?

What began as a little friendly competition between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1927, with the players competing in relative anonymity for a trophy donated by English seed merchant Samuel Ryder, is now among the most anticipated and watched events not only in golf, but in all of sport.

“The household reach of the Ryder cup is well over half a billion and it goes out to well over 150 countries and territories (on TV),” Mengel said. “There are a lot of eyeballs on the event.”

The Ryder Cup also is the richest event in golf thanks to high-profile sponsorship deals with companies such as Omega, BMW, Anheuser-Busch, UPS and Constellation Energy. David Kohler, president and CEO of Kohler Co. and the 2020 Ryder Cup chairman, told Wisconsin.Golf in a 2016 interview that corporate hospitality at Whistling Straits would be double what it is for a PGA Championship, with as many as 80 on-course chalets.

The PGA of America announced last month that it had sold out its 30-person hospitality suite inventory — with a beginning price of $195,000 —  nearly two years in advance of the 2020 matches.

Hefty television rights contracts and ticket and merchandise sales add tens of millions more to the bottom line. About 250,000 people reportedly attended the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, including 45,000 on each of the three competition days.

“The Ryder Cup will be the most significant sporting event ever contested in Wisconsin,” Mengel said. “When you look at the economic impact, recent Ryder Cups have been north of $135 million.”

Tickets are distributed through a random draw. Mengel said registration for tickets and for volunteers will open in late spring at rydercup.com.

Europe will be the defending champion at Whistling Straits, having whipped the Americans, 17½-10½ at Le Golf National in France in September. Europe has been victorious in four of the last five Ryder Cups, and in nine of the last 12.

Padraig Harrington of Ireland will captain Team Europe in 2020. The U.S. captain has not yet been named, but it has been rumored for months that Madison’s Steve Stricker, a three-time assistant captain, would be tabbed.

No matter who leads the U.S. team, the 2020 Ryder Cup will cap an incredible run of big-time golf in Wisconsin.

“I’ve been to the last five or six Ryder Cups,” Mengel said. “I can tell you it still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”


Gary has covered golf in Wisconsin since 1980 and is a multiple award winner in the GWAA writing contest. He was inducted into the WSGA Hall of Fame in 2017 and joined Wisconsin.Golf in 2018 after a distinguished career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.