The Wait Is Over

After 15 championship-filled years, the Straits finally set as golf’s grandest stage

After 15 championship-filled years, the Straits finally set as golf’s grandest stage

Photography by Nile Young Jr.

KOHLER, Wisconsin — Time flies when you’re hosting majors.

On Jan. 24, 2005, the PGA of America announced that Whistling Straits would be the host site of the 2020 Ryder Cup. In the intervening years, the PGA Championship twice was held at the Straits, a second U.S. Women’s Open was staged at Blackwolf Run, and Erin Hills was built and hosted a U.S. Amateur and a U.S. Open.

Now, the 43rd Ryder Cup (almost) is upon us. The hype for what has become one of the world’s most anticipated golf events — technically, it’s still an exhibition — will build to a crescendo over the coming months. There will be no lack of storylines as top professionals from the United States and Europe try to play their way onto the respective 12-man teams.

By the time the teams convene at Whistling Straits for the biennial match play competition, Sept. 25-27, the words “Ryder Cup” will have appeared in social media posts hundreds of millions of times, whetting the appetite of golf fans worldwide. The battle for Samuel Ryder’s four-pound, 17-inch trophy is expected to attract a global television audience of 500 million in 150 countries.

Tickets sold out in less than an hour, and approximately 200,000 spectators will line the gallery ropes and fill the grandstands at Whistling Straits. Corporate hospitality chalets will line fairways by the dozen; the Ryder Cup brings in 35% more revenue than does the PGA Championship, according to Herbert V. Kohler Jr., executive chairman of the Kohler Co. The matches are expected to generate an economic impact of $135 million.

There’s a lot more riding on the matches than dollar signs. In fact, the players do not get paid to compete, though money is directed to their foundations by the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe. Instead, they play for pride, for each other and for their nation (or nations, in Europe’s case).

After decades of dominance by the U.S., Europe has won four of the last five Ryder Cups, seven of the last nine and nine of the last 12. The Americans’ record since 1985, even with superstars such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson leading the way, is a dis- mal 5-11-1. Two years ago, Europe breezed to a 17 1⁄2 – 10 1⁄2 victory in Paris.

Steve Stricker of Madison, Wisconsin, the U.S. team captain for the 2020 matches, is tasked with regaining the Cup just 90 minutes from his hometown. Padraig Harrington of Ireland is Europe’s captain.

“The last few Ryder Cups haven’t gone really the way we would have liked, but for me it’s all about moving forward,” Stricker said. “It’s about moving forward (and) learning from the past a little bit. Taking some of the things we haven’t done so well and then trying to apply that to this next time.

“And it’s about playing better. Bottom line is, they have played great and they have outplayed us.”

Stricker, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, is the first U.S. captain never to have won a major championship but has plenty of experience in team competitions as a three-time Ryder Cup team member and a three-time assistant captain. He also captained the Presidents Cup team to victory in 2017 and was an assistant to Woods when the Americans rallied for a 16-14 victory last year in Australia.

“It all falls on me,” he said. “That’s the good and the bad of the captainship. But I’m excited for the challenge. I really am. I’ll put everything into it.”

Whistling Straits, designed by Pete Dye on a two-mile stretch of bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, would seem to be, at first glance, less of a “home course advantage” than tra- ditional parkland layouts such as Medinah (site of the 2012 Ryder Cup) or Hazeltine National (2016).

The Straits resembles the classic seaside links of Ireland and Scotland aesthetically, but unlike those courses it is played through the air and not on the ground. It is target golf cleverly disguised by Dye, a master of illusion.

The course does not favor a certain style of golf. The three PGA champions it produced — Vijay Singh of Fiji in 2004, Martin Kaymer of Germany in 2010 and Australia’s Jason Day in 2015 — had different types of games, and Europeans and Americans have had an equal amount of success.

Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar all finished in the top 10 in 2010. Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Johnson and Kuchar all finished inside the top 10 in 2015. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tied for third in 2010, and five years later Justin Rose of England finished fourth and Kaymer, McIlroy and France’s Victor Dubuisson all finished among the top 20.

Stricker will make a handful of reconnaissance trips to Whistling Straits before the matches and will work with Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer of the PGA of America, to set up the course in such a way that it favors the Americans, which means wide fairways, short rough and fast greens.

“There’s no real tricks,” Stricker said. “They know how we like to set up the golf courses and we know how they like to set up the golf courses. I’m sure what (Harrington) has envisioned in his mind is the way it’s going to be. It’s (green speeds) not going to be eight on the Stimpmeter, like it was in Paris. It’s not going to be as high of rough as it was in Paris.”

The Americans also will have the energy and enthusiasm from a partisan gallery on their side. The fans’ roaring and rowdy support, which occasionally crosses the line on both sides of the pond, can make a difference, especially in close matches. The U.S. hasn’t won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993, though Europe has won in America three times since then.

“We’re going to have unbelievable crowd support here,” Stricker said. “The atmosphere should be much like Hazeltine (in 2016) or even more so.”

The qualifying window for the U.S. team extends through the PGA Tour’s 2020 BMW Championship, Aug. 20-23. Events that count toward qualifying include 2019 major championships, 2019 World Golf Championships, the 2019 Players Championship and 2020 PGA Tour events (excluding opposite fields).

The top eight players on the points list at the end of the BMW Championship will make the team, and Stricker will announce four additional captain’s selections on Sept. 1., following the Tour Championship.

Europe’s qualifying procedure is slightly different. The qualifying window extends through the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship, Sept. 10-13. Nine players will automatically qualify for the team — four from the Race to Dubai points list and five from the world points list. Harrington will announce three additional captain’s picks the week after the BMW PGA.

Stricker plans to play in a number of PGA Tour events in the coming months so he can play alongside prospective team members in practice rounds and get a feel for potential pairings for the four-ball and foursomes matches.

He’ll also be busy as host of the fifth annual American Family Insurance Championship. The PGA Tour Champions event is scheduled for June 5-7 at University Ridge in Madison.

“If you’re going to do it right and do it well, then you’ve got to put the time and effort into it,” he said. “(My) golf will take a backseat for a little while, but I’ll still continue to play. I want to see the guys out there when I do play. That will be part of my gig, to go out there and see how those guys are doing, how they’re playing, talk to them, communicate with them and go from there.”

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