The Morgan Stanley Wisconsin State Open golf tournament will be significantly bigger in 2019.
But that’s not enough for executive director Joe Stadler and the Wisconsin PGA, which runs the annual gathering of the state’s top professionals and amateurs. They want it to be better, too.
That’s why Stadler is literally putting out a call for all men, women and children to try to qualify for the expanded 2019 State Open, which will be played Aug. 19 through 21 over the Palmer and Trevino Courses at Geneva National Resort in Lake Geneva. Playing the first 36 holes of the 72-hole event on two courses will allow the field to be expanded from 156 golfers to 204.
To aid the call for qualifiers, Stadler made sure the seven qualifying sites are all top-notch — securing four private country clubs and three of the state’s top public facilities, including The Irish Course at Whistling Straits for the $25 site fee that amateurs and WPGA members pay on top of their $110 qualifying fee and non-WPGA professionals pay in addition to their $185 entry.
The WPGA caps each qualifying site at 84 golfers. None of the sites over the last five years has attracted more than 74 golfers, but Stadler hopes the lure of the additional spots and qualifying sites the quality of The Irish Course will draw at least one capacity field.
“We need to figure out the best ways to get the word out that there are going to be 40 to 50 more spots available at the seven qualifiers,” said Stadler, whose tournament committee has watched qualifying interest — an average of 305 golfers given it a try annually over the last five years — dip below the 300 mark each of the last two years. “The real key to success, to me, is can we drive more people to qualify? Quite frankly, if we get the same 325 golfers to try to qualify and just 45 more of them get in the field, that doesn’t do much for anything.”
Indeed, while interest has waned in recent years, the standard for reaching the State Open continues to get more demanding. Each of the last two years, qualifiers have, on average, needed to break 75 to do so and, in some cases, go as low as 72 just to get through.
The WPGA’s tournament policy committee has lifted as many of the barriers to qualifying as possible to encourage participation. In December, it relaxed residency requirements that had made it difficult for mini-tour golfers who have relocated to warm-weather states to continue pursuit of their professional careers to even qualify, now allowing any golfer with a high school or college diploma from a Wisconsin school to enter qualifying or request an exemption.
The expanded field is also a response to the growing number of competitive golfers coming through the junior ranks thanks, in large part, to the WPGA’s ultra-successful Junior Tour and, more recently, its PGA Junior Leagues. The WPGA is also hoping to appeal to the growing number of collegiate golfers from Wisconsin and give them one, final competitive outlet each August before they head back to school and begin their own fall collegiate schedules.
“There are so many good players in our state,” said Stadler, who estimates WPGA club pros comprise just 15 percent of the qualifying fields. “Someone like me would be an example where maybe I felt like I couldn’t quite get it done, but now there are going to be like five more spots at Washington County (Golf Course). Maybe I feel like ‘Hey, now I can shoot 74 instead of 72 and I’ve got a much better chance to get in.’ We’re going to have to rely on our (WPGA) membership to promote this to players who are maybe the 3-, 4- or 5-handicappers who can certainly play to a level to get into a State Open. Now, they’ll have a much better chance to get in.”
The 2019 State Open will be the first of a two-year experiment with the new format. The WPGA will also expand the field to 204 in 2021 when the State Open will be played at The Irish Course at Whistling Straits and the Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run near Sheboygan after celebrating the 100th State Open in 2020 with a traditional 156-player field at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club in Wauwatosa, which played host to the first State Open in 1919.
If the larger field proves successful, Stadler said provisions are in place to find secondary courses for the 18-hole facilities that are hosting in 2022 (Ozaukee CC in Mequon) and 2023 (SentryWorld in Stevens Point). At this point, he said, the State Open will remain a 72-hole event over three days with the 36-hole finale played at the primary site on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Geneva National promises to give the 204 golfers in the 2019 field all they can handle in the Trevino Course, the primary site, and the Palmer Course, the secondary site.
“The Trevino Course holds up real well in competition,” Geneva National head professional Bryan Brotchie said of a 28-year-old layout named after golf legend and course designer Lee Trevino and that played host to the 2012 Women’s State Open. “It’s strong. It’s the longest (of Geneva National’s three courses). The green complexes and bunker placements make that course very difficult. The Palmer Course, what makes that one unique is the green complexes. There are a lot of front-to-back (and) back-to-front (slopes). Those greens, they’re very tricky. It’s the kind of golf course where you want to play to the 150-yard marker and then take it from there. A lot of our members like Palmer because there is more forgiveness (off the tee).
“They both have sections where they are very tree-lined (and) secluded. There are others where they are home-lined and then there are some that are out in the open, almost links-ish style.”
In addition to the courses designed by Trevino and Arnold Palmer that will be used for the State Open, Geneva National features a third layout designed by Gary Player. Brotchie said his facility is as eager to showcase two of its layouts as it is the 204 golfers who will play on them.
“Everyone here is looking to use this to heighten the profile with Sand Valley, Whistling Straits and Erin Hills,” Brotchie said, referring to Wisconsin’s three top golf destinations. “We’re kind of the gateway to everyone coming in (to Wisconsin). We want to set ourselves up for that as being one of the landmark kind of places you want to go to when you come up here for golf.
“It’s been a great run for Wisconsin golf and we want to continue to be in that conversation.”