This month, the best players from the United States and Europe were set to battle on the shores of Lake Michigan for the right to hoist what is arguably the most prestigious trophy in all of golf, the Ryder Cup. The eyes of the golf world would once again have fallen on Whistling Straits, set among the farmlands of Haven, Wis. Instead, there will be no fans, no players, and no Ryder Cup for the seemingly doomed year of 2020.

I spoke with Michael O’Reilly, a PGA golf professional and Director of Golf Operations for the Kohler Company, which includes Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. As a director, O’Reilly spent the past five years preparing for the 2020 Ryder Cup. We discussed the challenges of preparing for the Ryder Cup, the importance of the event to Wisconsin, and how a global pandemic derailed years of tedious planning.  

COVID-19 has forced organizations around the world to put sporting events and social gatherings on hold or be held without fans in attendance. This may be an appropriate solution for some pro leagues, but the thought of a Ryder Cup without golf fanatics from the United States and Europe squaring off to scream their allegiance hasn’t settled well with the PGA or would-be spectators worldwide.

The final decision for the Ryder Cup was to push the event back one year and hope that the virus no longer poses a major risk by September 2021. 

“The PGA of America is going to adhere to the guidelines and advice of the county, the state, and the national government on what they feel we can or cannot do. We’ll continue to seek advice from the experts in the government as well as in the healthcare industry,” O’Reilly says.

The postponement of the 2020 Ryder Cup was a crushing blow to Wisconsin tourism, which was expected to bring in nearly $80 million in revenue and hundreds of thousands of fans from across the globe. Whistling Straits was expecting approximately 50,000 spectators a day at the Ryder Cup, making it the largest event the course would have ever seen. O’Reilly was ready for the crush of people. 

“We have to build more for the event on the golf course as far as corporate hospitality and bleachers,” he says. “With a major championship or a stroke play event, there are players all over the golf course throughout the day. With a Ryder Cup, there’s possibly only four groups on the golf course at any given time. So, the way spectators watch play and get around the golf course and how they follow play is very different than your typical tournament.”

When planning for the Ryder Cup, spectator experience is job No. 1. O’Reilly is always thinking about how fans will be entertained and informed when they are two, three, four holes away from the action, waiting for play to come to them. Since the 2015 PGA Championships there, changes have been made adjacent to holes so spectators can more easily get around the golf course, and more large screen TVs are available around the property

As part of 2021 and beyond, preparing for thousands of spectators to converge on a single hole is significantly different than it was in the months and years before our global pandemic. There are factors being considered now that would have never been discussed in previous Ryder Cups. But the hurdles are worth overcoming at Whistling Straits. 

On this seemingly heaven-sent course during the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships, plenty of drama on a course and exciting finishes were abundant. The Pete Dye-designed course is a challenge to any player because of its length and the naturally high winds that can push your ball into Lake Michigan on eight of the holes. 

“I certainly think that the home team has the advantage, and that’s why it’s important that we have fans at the golf course to cheer on the U.S.A. or if you’re in Europe, to cheer on their own team — that’s what makes the Ryder Cup such a special thing,” O’Reilly says. 

For each Ryder Cup, the home team’s captain can make some golf course setup decisions, so there is gamesmanship there. Whistling Straits’ lengthy links-style golf course, however, can’t be deflected.

“What can really give it some teeth is the wind. There’s nothing to protect the golf course from the wind so if it’s blowing, there’s nothing blocking it and it’s a constant wind. In the fall, we tend to get a lot of wind and that’s when it can really show its teeth and be a difficult golf course for anyone,” O’Reilly says. 

Whistling Straits is consistently ranked among the top five public courses in the United States. And the Kohler Company’s American Club is known for its Forbes Five Star service to guests from all over the world. 

“When we’re preparing for an event like the Ryder Cup or a different major Championship, we’re still open for play and for guests to come shop and dine in our restaurants. So, it’s balancing the needs of our regular guests while also preparing for an event that may be a month or two months or six months away,” O’Reilly says.

We’re rapidly approaching two years since the European Ryder Cup team defeated the U.S. team at Le Golf National in France. Another year will pass before the United States has its chance to earn the title once more. This time, on home soil. 

For now, we focus on the issues that we currently face. Although the Straits course will remain silent for one more year, O’Reilly and the Ryder Cup team will be prepared long before the battle begins. 

Layne Gustafson

Layne Gustafson is a self-described golf fanatic from Green Bay, Wis. He’s been working in the golf industry since 2014, including at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. He hovers between a single- and double-digit handicap is always working on improving.