Now it’s time to look ahead to big events at Medinah, Whistling Straits

Is there a more beautiful par-3 anywhere than No. 7 at Whistling Straits?

Usually columns for the final issue of a season are used for look-backs at the high (and sometimes – low) points of the goings-on in the previous spring and summer months. This year I’ve coaxed Chicagoland Golf publisher Val Russell into indulging my preference to move in another direction.

Rather than looking back at the Chicago golf season of 2018 I’m going to look ahead – to two events in particular. Sometimes anticipation turns out more exciting than the event itself. I doubt that’ll happen this time but upcoming events at Medinah and Whistling Straits merit attention well in advance.

Once the last putt drops in the BMW Championship at Aronimink in the Philadelphia area, on Sept. 9, Medinah will go on the clock as the site for the FedEx Cup Playoff tournament in 2019.

And, once the last putt drops in the Ryder Cup matches at LeGolf National in France on Sept. 30, Whistling Straits will be on the clock as the host for the 2020 matches in Wisconsin.

Given the Chicago golf tournament calendar of the last three years, a look-back column might sound bittersweet. There won’t be any U.S. Opens, NCAA Championships, major events on the LPGA Tour or PGA Tour Champions or an inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open to captivate enthusiasm during the cold-weather months as there has been in the recent past. In fact, none of those biggies are scheduled in the Chicago area in the foreseeable future.

There won’t be a Western Amateur in the area for the next two years, either, and the Tour’s Rust-Oleum Championship appears unlikely to return at this point.

Sounds like a downer? Well, that doesn’t have to be the case. The 2019 BMW Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup are big-time, historical attractions on world-renowned courses and they’re not all that far in the future.

Medinah last hosted a big event in 2012, when the Ryder Cup was played on its famed No. 3 course, and the American side went down to a crushing defeat with a disastrous showing in the singles matches on the final day. This time Medinah will be in play for the first BMW Championship played in August – it had been a September attraction until the PGA Tour revamped its schedule for 2019 – and there’s some uncertainty about the event’s future as well. The tourney’s sponsorship agreement concludes after the tournament at Medinah, and the Western Golf Association hasn’t announced sites for the event after 2019.

The Ryder Cup made its appearance at Whistling Straits two years before the main event.

As for the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, a tournament two years down the road may seem too far off to think about now, but that shouldn’t be the case. The staff at Whistling Straits is well into the planning stages, based on our visit to Kohler, Wis., last month. Kohler is just a two-hour drive, so it’s pretty much a home game for Chicago golfers. They turned out in droves for the three PGA Championships, two U.S. Women’s Opens and one U.S. Senior Open played there.

There is also one most notable difference between the Whistling Straits Ryder Cup and those in the recent past. Whistling Straits is the first public course to host the event since South Carolina’s Kiawah Island welcomed the matches in 1991. That means that all golfers will have the opportunity to play the course that hosts the Ryder Cup – something that hasn’t happened in a long time. It should mean big business in Kohler, both leading into and immediately after the Ryder Cup comes to town.

Kohler’s pro shops and gift shops are already stocked with merchandise bearing the logo of the 2020 Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup itself was brought by as part of a nation-wide tour on Aug. 22 and more preview events will be held during and immediately after this year’s matches in Paris.

Director of golf Mike O’Reilly has no doubts Whistling Straits will be ready for its first Ryder Cup.

“It’s not like the Ryder Cup is our first rodeo – just our first Ryder rodeo,’’ said Mike O’Reilly, director of golf operations at both Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. He grew up in Darien and went to Downers South High School prior to beginning a 10-year run in Kohler as head golf professional in 2013. In addition to his present role with the Kohler courses O’Reilly is also on the executive committee for the 2020 Ryder Cup.

“The planning process for the Ryder Cup is similar to our PGA Championships, but everything is amplified,’’ said O’Reilly. “The number of volunteers needed is bigger. The number of spectators we can expect is bigger. The demand for tickets is elevated. While the number of people that will be here won’t be much bigger (than for the last PGA Championship in 2015), the demand for tickets will be much bigger. Unfortunately several thousand who want to purchase a ticket won’t be able to do that because the demand is so much greater.’’

In case you’ve forgotten what Ryder Cup fever was like prior to Medinah’s year as the host site, tickets to the matches don’t go on sale. The recipients are determined via a lottery. Those who want to be on hand for the action can file an interest form on line, and attendance will be limited to 40,000 to 45,000 per day. That was roughly the same size gallery as attended at Medinah and Minnesota’s Hazeltine layout – the last American site for the matches in 2016. Ticket prices haven’t been announced for the shootout at Whistling Straits.

The uncertainty of the lottery aside, the biggest problem for 2020 Ryder Cup patrons will be finding lodging. There’s more available than there was for the 2015 PGA Championship but, O’Reilly admits, “there’s certainly not enough.’’

“People will stay in roughly a one-hour radius and private home rentals will be off the charts for the Ryder Cup,’’ said O’Reilly. “What helps is that here you can park on site. You’re not taking a bus to the course. That’s a big advantage.’’

One Kohler attraction that won’t be at the Ryder Cup is the 22 black-faced Irish sheep that have roamed the fairways at Whistling Straights and the adjoining Irish Course. They’ll be removed for the Ryder Cup. Otherwise, it’ll be all systems go come 2020.

“The Ryder Cup will be one of the biggest sporting events in Wisconsin ever,’’ said O’Reilly. We’re trying to get as many people involved as possible.’’

The 22 sheep that have roamed Whistling Straits won’t be around when the Ryder Cup comes to town.