Touted as perhaps the greatest sporting event ever to be held in Wisconsin, the Ryder Cup has had to endure a one-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Anticipation for one of the world’s most unique and passionate spectacles in sports, which pits teams of golfers from the United States and Europe, is beginning to soar again as preparations at the scenic Whistling Straits layout in Sheboygan County enter the home stretch.
The Ryder Cup traditionally is held every other year at alternating sites in the United States and Europe. Whistling Straits had been set to host the event last September but when the pandemic lingered those plans had to be scrapped.
The latest installment of the Ryder Cup is set to be contested Sept. 24-26 at the 7,790-yard course along the shore of Lake Michigan in the unincorporated community of Haven, near Kohler.
Barring a major flareup of the COVID-19 crisis that halted or altered most major sporting events for well more than a year, the 43rd Ryder Cup will take place in front of capacity crowds.
“Our plan is to host the Ryder Cup with full spectator attendance,” said Jason Mengel, Ryder Cup director at PGA of America. “We continue to work with local public health authorities, and we are currently working on the specific guidelines that may be required of folks who attend. We need things that are out of our control to continue trending in the right direction, but certainly signs are positive right now.”
Ryder Cup officials previously said that they expected daily attendance to be in the 40,000 to 45,000 range.
“I don’t want to speculate on exact numbers, but we are planning for everyone that currently has Ryder Cup tickets to be able to attend,” Mengel said.
It’s unlikely, he said, that spectators will have to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend.
“I don’t think we will require it, but certainly if the current (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines are still in place come September, non-vaccinated individuals will be required to wear masks, but certainly those guidelines could be updated.”
The construction of temporary structures along the Whistling Straits course, including the Ryder Cup “stadium,” is well underway with a little more than two months remaining before some of the world’s greatest golfers gather for one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports.
Mengel said he is proud of the how the Ryder Cup staff that has been on site at Whistling Straits has remained focused despite facing pandemic-related challenges.
“It’s been a very busy year,” Mengel said. “Every aspect of the event needed to be revisited, from corporate sales to ticket sales and volunteer recruitment. Thankfully, we’ve had a high rate of retention when it comes to volunteers. Even our operational planning needed to be tweaked given the extra year of planning.”
Anticipation for the Ryder Cup, which will be held in Wisconsin for the first time, had been climbing until the pandemic put the event in jeopardy. At first, officials were unsure if the Ryder Cup would just be cancelled instead of moved back one year due to lingering uncertainty about the pandemic.
“I think what the postponement has done is just amped up that level of excitement,” Mengel said. “We’ve seen an amazing surge in corporate hospitality interest. Anecdotally, every time you watch a golf tournament there is a Ryder Cup reference or story line. We’ve certainly seen that with the last two major championships, which have had big ramifications on the team rankings and qualifying process.”
The United States has lost seven of the last 10 Ryder Cup competitions, including the most recent, in 2018, held outside of Paris.
The PGA opened an office, from which Mengel and others work, at Whistling Straits in October 2017.
Nearly four years later, those on site are now witnessing deliveries of golf carts, generators and other items, a telling sign that this year’s Ryder Cup isn’t far off, he said.
“It’s been really exciting. This is what we’ve worked so hard for,” Mengel said.
The event is projected to have an economic impact of $135 million for the region, based on past domestic Ryder Cup championships.
That’s welcome news considering that the Ryder Cup had originally been scheduled as part of what was to be a series of lucrative and attention-grabbing events in Southeastern Wisconsin in 2020, which also included plans to have Milwaukee host the Democratic National Convention. Instead, the pandemic led to a massively scaled down and almost entirely virtual DNC while the Milwaukee Brewers played without fans at Miller Park (now American Family Field) and the Milwaukee Bucks and other NBA teams had to temporarily relocate and complete the season sequestered in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida.
Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and nearly every other scheduled event in Southeastern Wisconsin fell victim to the pandemic, but Ryder Cup officials opted to give the region another shot at serving as host, banking that the COVID-19 crisis would be under control by this fall.
The respective Ryder Cup teams will be formed through a qualify process and picks made by U.S. captain and Wisconsin native Steve Stricker and Pádraig Harrington, who is leading the European squad.
Six automatic spots on the U.S team will be determined through a qualifying process that runs through the PGA Tour’s BWM championship, which ends on Aug. 29. Stricker will select another six team members following the Tour Championship, which concludes on Sept. 5.
On the European side, there are nine automatic qualifier spots determined by points after the European Tour’s BMW PGA championship, which ends on Sept. 12. Harrington’s three captain’s picks will be announced shortly after.
Stricker has visited Whistling Straits multiple times over the past two years and has suggested minor changes to the course, a benefit given to the home country captain.
“Captain Stricker has suggested some subtle tweaks that unless you are out there with a caddy you probably wouldn’t even notice,” Mengel said.
Outside the ropes, Ryder Cup organizers have collaborated with Kohler Co., which owns and operates the course through Destination Kohler, its hospitality and real estate arm, to create new spectator access routes, widen cart paths, soften mounds and create new concession areas, all of which is designed to enhance the overall spectator experience, Mengel noted.
“When you arrive on site through the main spectator entrance you are going to come into the Dye Plaza, named after Pete Dye, the golf course designer here, and his wife and frequent collaborator, Alice. That area is going to function as Downtown Ryder Cup and it intentionally designed for a striking arrival experience and really a daylong hang out for spectators,” Mengel said. “That’s much different than how that area has been utilized at Whistling Straits in the past.”
Tickets for the Ryder Cup sold out shortly after going on sale, but a small number of corporate opportunities remain, Mengel said.
“We really have seen a great jump in demand and excitement for our corporate offerings all spring and summer,” he said.
The popularity of golf, in general, rose dramatically during the pandemic and has had golfers flocking to Whistling Straits to get in a round on the Ryder Cup site.
“Judging by the lack available tee times on the Straits course this summer, I think that’s a great sign,” Mengel said. “Golf was well-positioned for the pandemic. It’s naturally socially distant and it’s outdoors, so we really saw the industry flourish across the board over the past year.”
The boisterous first-tee atmosphere will be at the top of the list of highlights for Ryder Cup spectators, he said,
“It’s something I’d put up against anything else in sports,” Mengel said. “What we’ve done at Whistling Straits and with our lead design architect Derek Blaylock from Stewart Sports and Events is take that atmosphere and really try to translate it throughout the entire first hole and really throughout the entire golf course.”
NBC and the Golf Channel will provide 27 hours of live coverage from Whistling Straits, which is almost certain to be a boon to Wisconsin’s tourism industry, Mengel said,
“That will be a critically important week for that industry,” he said.