Ryder Cup 2021: The best spot at Whistling Straits is a barn across the street
HAVEN, Wisc.—On one side of the red barn adorned with lights that sits in a field outside the course is a painting of a man who looks like a midwestern Rasputin. The man in the painting appears the closer you get to the barn, zigging and zagging across the landscape with purpose, which is apropos. For the property is called “Zig’s” and the man is Robert Ziegelbauer and you don’t have to be a detective to see the relationship between man and property.
“I don’t know what you are looking for,” he says to a volunteer who has wandered by, “but you’re in the right place.”
Ziegelbauer, who’s lived in Sheboygan his entire life, is a mason by trade. He manages all the rocks and boulders at Whistling Straits, and while one doesn’t necessarily associate stonework with golf courses it doesn’t take many treks around the Ryder Cup venue to realize this responsibility is akin to overseeing pine care at Yellowstone.
That is his job most weeks, that is. This week he has transformed his two-acre property into a social hall and campsite.
It has become something of a tradition for Ziegelbauer. This is the fifth time he’s turned his private property to the public. It started in 2004 when a marshal stopped asking if he could park his van in Ziegelbauer’s field months before the PGA Championship came to town. The request gave Ziegelbauer an idea: his house, which sits directly across the Whistling Straits entrance, could serve as a respite for his fellow course workers.
“People work so hard to get an event like this off the ground, for weeks and months before, and so much time during the week,” Ziegelbauer says. “I wanted to give something back to my fellow worker. This is for them.”
He obtained a temporary liquor license and a couple power generators. The gathering was such a hit among Whistling Straits employees and volunteers he ran it back at the 2010 and 2015 PGAs along with the 2007 U.S. Senior Open.
You don’t have to be on the grounds very long to see it’s attraction. There is a bar in the barn—which in this reporter’s opinion should be a prerequisite for any barn—and a mobile watering hole outside between the barn and Ziegelbauer’s house. About a dozen RVs have dropped anchor for the week in Ziegelbauer’s yard. The grounds are permeated with a savory smoke from the grill, which is sweating out $1 dogs and $2 burgers and brats. Come the weekend, there will be a live band. What Ziegelbauer doesn’t have, people provide.
“Folks come up and ask what they can do,” Ziegelbauer says. “People will bring extra generators. People will open up their RVs to people they just meet. if they need a place to crash. I swear you’ve never seen so many people just get along.”
The grounds are mostly dotted with those working the tournament, as the field has been co-opted for media and tournament officials parking. But this is not an exclusive affair; there are a handful of folks who got lost or had heard rumors about the pastoral pub and wanted to see if it existed, and they are all treated with a welcome wave in. There are dozens of conversations being handed yet everyone seems to be singing the same tune.
“That’s been one of my favorite parts, seeing how people interact with each other,” Ziegelbauer says. “You see people hearing out other’s problems and helping out, or someone who is lonely finding a bit of friendship when they need. It’s become a community.”
It’s also something of an analgesic from the Ryder Cup. For what started out as an exhibition has become spectacle, and that is mostly for the good. But it has also been accused of becoming bloated and overpriced and corporate and excessive, leading some to wonder if the event has drifted too far from its true spirit. Against that, the barn-turned-social hall, with its open doors and cheap drink and down-home vibes that turns unfamiliar visitors into instant friends, harkens back to what the original Ryder Cup was after. (Should anyone accuse Ziegelbauer of commercialism, he donates his profits from the week to the local Boys & Girls Club.)
“This is for everybody,” Ziegelbauer says. “More the merrier. If you like people, if you like a good time, this is the place to be.”
So should you be at Whistling Straits this weekend and hear laughter emitting from the fields across the course, let the red barn be your compass and the aroma of barbecue be your north star. On Tuesday night a patron asked a bartender when Zig’s shut down, only for a Whistling Straits worker to yell, “We don’t close until the last stranger leaves!” to cheers.
Ziegelbauer looked down from his house steps. He knew it was a lie. There’s no such thing as a stranger at Zig’s.
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