Hitting the Green: Landing a major golf tournament scores economic payback.
submitted by Tom Still

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Luring the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els to Wisconsin for a golf tournament may seem like a transitory, made-for-TV event, given the putt-and-run nature of professional golf. But the dollars left behind by the pros, their fans and sponsors can be an economic hole-in-one for states where tournaments are staged.

Last week’s announcement that the 2017 U.S. Open will be held in Kettle Moraine’s Erin Hills Golf Course continues Wisconsin’s run of attracting front-line golf tournaments — and the revenue that follows as certainly as the gallery of fans.

The 92nd PGA Championship will return to Kohler’s Whistling Straits Aug. 9-15, marking the second time one of golf’s top four tournaments has been held on the shores of Lake Michigan. The 86th PGA Championship in 2004 was also held at Whistling Straits, which Golf Digest has named one of “America’s 100 Greatest Courses.”

A study of the economic impact of the 2004 PGA Championship by NorthStar Economics Inc., a Madison-based firm, concluded the tournament brought in more than 300,000 fans and $76 million for Wisconsin’s economy. Of that total, it was estimated that $46 million came from outside Wisconsin.

In July 2007, the U.S. Senior Open Championship, also held at Whistling Straits, drew about 188,000 fans and generated an estimated $20 million for the state economy.

With the surprising (at least, to outsiders) announcement that the 2017 U.S. Open will be held at Erin Hills, Wisconsin has firmly established its claim to being one of golf’s new hotspots. During the next decade, six championship golf events will be held here: this year’s PGA Championship; the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills; the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler; the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits; the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills; and the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.

The Wisconsin Edge
There are many reasons why Wisconsin’s tee time on the pro circuit has finally arrived. The state has many challenging, well-designed courses, with Whistling Straits, Erin Hills and Blackwolf Run impressing even the most skeptical players and fans. Wisconsin’s summer climate is more comfortable than many tournament states; it has an established tourism infrastructure that has long attracted golfers of all descriptions and talents; and it has a growing roster of professional and ex-professional golfers who aren’t shy about telling Wisconsin’s story; and two state agencies charged with economic development, Commerce and Tourism, have worked well together.

It probably doesn’t hurt to have a governor who’s an avid golfer, either.

“Hosting the U.S. Open will be an incredible economic opportunity for Wisconsin,” Gov. Jim Doyle said after Erin Hills was selected for the U.S. Open. “In Wisconsin, we have shown that we know how to put on a major golf championship, and we’ve seen the positive economic impacts that come with hosting one through commerce, tourism, and worldwide attention.”

Most important is that Wisconsin has determined patrons in Herb Kohler, chairman and CEO of the Kohler Co., Bob Lang, the original owner of Erin Hills; and current Erin Hills owner Andy Ziegler. They insisted on quality at every turn and were tireless ambassadors for the state within the golfing world.

The economic impact of the 2017 U.S. Open could surpass $200 million, according to at least one estimate. That seems like ambitious shot off the tee until the number is compared with an analysis by San Diego State University of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. That economic benefit was estimated at $142 million, so $200 million nearly a decade later may not be out of bounds.

Of course, major golf tournaments can generate their share of controversy, as well. The Kohler Co. came under fire recently for its role in pushing for a new I-43 interchange to handle tournament traffic, although it is paying for half the project’s cost. Some have questioned whether the roads around Erin Hills can handle tournament traffic, and whether there are enough hotel rooms nearby to accommodate visitors. But that’s often the case at major tournaments, with fans staying an hour or more away from the course.

It goes without saying Wisconsin doesn’t want an economy built on golf. Manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and other sectors will define the state for decades to come. But if a state known for its cold winters can also attract crowds and cameras while the weather is warm, so much the better.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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