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Whistling Straits team working overtime—again—to prepare for Ryder Cup

August 02, 2021
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HAVEN, Wis. — They let me out on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits by myself, as a single, before the first tee time of the day, which sounded a little like paradise to me, and in fact it was. It was a clear, bright morning, but more importantly it was cool on the western shore of Lake Michigan, with a crisp but not ruinous wind pushing in off the water.

Coming from the sweltering hell of endless summer in North Carolina, simply being allowed to walk around in tolerable weather would have been worth the flight, but the fact that I got to play golf at a beautiful course with nobody in front of me and only slower foursomes behind me … let's just say I didn't rush to be done with it. I meandered, took photos, recorded some thoughts, and—as a former mediocre golfer striving to regain mediocrity after years away—dreamed of breaking 100 from the blue tees I had no business playing beyond a vague journalistic impulse to recreate something slightly closer to what the pros will face during the Ryder Cup in September.

What can you say about this course? Pete Dye crafted it to look like Ballybunion Golf Club in County Kerry, Ireland, at the request of Herb Kohler, and the goal was always to host championship golf. It's not a “true” links course, and it may not play very hard unless the winds are up—the course's logo is a kind of Aeolus-like wind god, although he is not always invoked, but it's a miracle of construction, it's beautiful, and it will be a scenic staging ground for the Ryder Cup.

When it comes to architecture, my education is below remedial, so I tend to think of courses aesthetically, as in, how they make me feel. The Straits Course used to be a stretch of land with a stream running through the middle that was "pancake flat," per David Kohler, the CEO of the Kohler Company. It was once an abandoned airfield, then a site of an aborted attempt to build a nuclear power plant, and there are whispers that at one time it was a key venue for drug traffickers running their product up and down the east coast of Wisconsin. When Herb Kohler bought the land in the early 1990s and told Dye what he wanted it to look like, Dye's reaction was along the lines of, "you're even crazier than I thought." But they hauled in 7,000 truckloads of sand and moved an almost inconceivable amount of soil. With Dye and his wife Alice plotting out each step, and Kohler driving an old Jaguar with snow tires through the mud to check their progress, they created something spectacular.

So, the aesthetics. What does it look like? The short answer is “pretty close to Ballybunion,” and the longer answer involves rolling terrain dotted by scores of dune-like bunkers, many of them out of play and existing solely to unify the landscape. There is thick rough covered in tufted hairgrass with bluestem shooting up in patches, wild carrot, a handful of ash trees, broadleaf cattails around the ponds and, of course, the firm, dense pad of fescue in the primary rough and fairways (Whistling Straits was likely the first resort course in America with fescue fairways).

All of it framed by cliffs descending to the gray, foreboding, almost ominous waters of Lake Michigan. To describe how it feels to be there gets into feelings that are embarrassing to type, and rather than resort to words like "magical," I'll simply say that on all three of my trips, from the fall when I saw bald eagles flying around a stand of pine trees, to the barren winter that makes Wisconsin look like the most remote place on Earth, to this latest trip, I've only ever wanted to stay.

Rory McIlroy hits a shot during the final round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Richard Heathcote

We're two months from the Ryder Cup. Aside from the inevitable seasonal changes as summer transitions to early fall, and tweaks around the rough and bunkers, the course is playing about like it will when late September comes. Most of the big decisions about green speed, length of rough and width of fairways have already been made between U.S. captain Steve Stricker, PGA of America Chief Championship Officer Kerry Haigh and those who oversee the work on the Straits directly. Plus, it's not a very changeable course, which is a function of geography—unlike Hazeltine National, the 2016 Ryder Cup host, you couldn't significantly alter the Straits Course by cutting down trees or widening the fairways to any great degree.

More than most others involved in the Ryder Cup, Chris Zugel and his team were able to pick up where they left off last summer in terms of course conditions when they were prepping the place for a September 2020 contest (the pandemic, of course, forcing a one-year delay). They won't miss a beat when it comes to having it in the ideal condition this September. Which doesn't mean the work has tapered off.

"There's always something we need to do, and it's almost like we engineer our worries," said Zugel, who served as the superintendent of Whistling Straits until he was promoted last year to director of golf course maintenance for all five of Kohler Company's courses. He has a staff of roughly 80 on hand to help make the rest of the subtle changes needed for the Ryder Cup. Though he's not nervous about the course itself, he has enough to occupy his mind that he fills his office with sticky notes of various ideas and concerns—he wants to be a calming influence on his staff, and this is how he keeps himself from flooding them with texts—and puts in 12-hour days, every day.

When I asked him if he was nervous, he answered with another question: "Were you nervous for your wedding?"

It took me a moment to understand the meaning, but it became clear—yes, you're absolutely nervous for your wedding, but it's also exciting, it's also a showcase and if all goes well, it's supposed to be fun and rewarding. For Zugel, the chance to show off the course to millions of people watching on TV is exciting, but no excitement on that level comes without nerves.

Chris Zugel is excited to show off the Straits Course come September, but it comes with some nerves, too.

Mike O'Reilly, the golf operations manager, has a hand in just about everything that happens on Whistling Straits, which means that part of his job is balancing the interests of the Ryder Cup with the interests of the resort and the Straits Course itself. The Straits will continue to function "normally"—minus the grandstands that are already being constructed around the course—until less than two weeks before the teams arrive. He's felt a distinct upsurge in morale with the staff and guests in recent weeks, after the long process last year that culminated in the decision to postpone the Ryder Cup to 2021.

"It was announced that the Ryder Cup would be here back in 2005," he said. "So we have 15 years of build-up, and then we're told that the party's not coming to town. So we lost that excitement a little bit, but now it's back."

Of course, there was no time to mourn—one of the first things they did was re-open the tee sheets for the original Cup dates in September. Business as usual, and despite their disappointment, they also knew a Ryder Cup with fans in 2021 would be better than one without fans in 2020.

O'Reilly pointed to the summer as busiest time for him, as he juggles course bookings that are going out further than ever before, sometimes two years in advance with the surge in golf travel, ensuring that the current experience at the course isn't compromised by Ryder Cup preparation. He also manages the staffing concerns while serving on the Ryder Cup executive committee and overseeing contestant services and scoring for the Cup specifically. That can drill down to something as specific as organizing the marshals, coordinating their uniforms, making sure they have transportation to the right spots, and training them.

As golf operations manager, Mike O'Reilly has a hand in just about everything that happens at Whistling Straits beyond simply the Ryder Cup.

It's hard to imagine someone busier than O'Reilly and Zugel at this point, but if that person exists, it's probably Jason Mengel, the tournament director himself, who is tasked with planning an incredibly elaborate event and who had his work paused on a dime in 2020 due to the pandemic. We laughed about how we had previously met in February 2020, when the pandemic existed but was barely a concern yet, and how in an hour-long interview neither one of us had mentioned it once.

"The world kind of changed on us," he told me, of the ensuing months. "We were very optimistic that things would improve by September, but this wasn't the case, and by July 8 we ended up announcing the postponement, and then it was like starting from scratch again."

The difference is that the "runway" this time was far shorter, and when the event got postponed, their corporate sponsors, hospitality sponsors, ticket holders and even volunteers had the chance to step away from their commitments. A major part of his job, then, over the past year has been retaining those he could—more than 80 percent—and building the numbers back up to where they were before. But that was just the start of the battle, because every plan he had formulated over the years—Mengel's job entails moving to new locations around the country to plan the PGA of America's flagship events, which means bringing his wife and three children wherever he goes—was delayed, complicated and, in some cases, derailed. "Damage control" doesn't begin to describe what he's been tasked with, and all of it has happened a year after he found a tumor in the lining of his brain and had to endure four brain surgeries and spend almost a month in the ICU at St. Luke's in Milwaukee. There are no superheroes in real life, but for Mengel to cope with managing an already stressful job that has to be almost entirely re-planned, on the heels of a major health scare, puts him about as close as anyone can come.

And together, people like Mengel, O'Reilly, Zugel and hundreds of others have managed to prepare the event, the course, and all the logistics surrounding it, for a second time. It's an elaborate operation under the best of circumstances, and the COVID-19 delay was just about the worst of circumstances. These are people who are very good at controlling the elements they can control, but in 2020 all of them received a crash course from the universe about the things they can't. Somehow, they're almost ready again, and if there's any justice, their second, more difficult cycle of labor will be rewarded with a flawless Ryder Cup in September free from the tide of COVID that seems to be rising again. There are greater tragedies in the world than a delayed or canceled Ryder Cup, but still, these people deserve to catch a break.