News & Opinion

Wisconsin’s golf titans: 9 to know

One in a series of previews for the June 15-18 U.S. Open

Welcome to Nine Degrees of Wisconsin golf. Everything you need to know about golf in America’s Dairyland, host of next week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, can be covered in nine names:

1. Andy North. The tall man from Madison won a pair of U.S. Opens seven years apart (1978, ’85). He was one of the great scramblers. I once watched him work through his bag in the Muirfield Village practice bunker, deftly splashing with his sand wedges and all the way down to his 3-iron without much difference in the result. He was also a great lag putter. Those two skills made him a contender on the stupid-hard USGA setups of the 1970s and ’80s. North didn’t get the credit that he deserved because he finished with only three career wins, even though two were as big as they come. Physical problems beset him, and I lost track of how many surgeries he had after he passed the 25 mark.

2. Steve Stricker. He would be the most successful golfer from Wisconsin, thanks to 12 PGA Tour victories, but yaknow, oh yah, he never won da Big One like Andy. Oddly, it took the native of Edgerton, near Madison, some time to finally hit his groove. Ten of his wins came in his 40s. He owned the title of “best putter on Tour” for a long time in the 2000s. Tiger Woods used to ask him for putting help.

3. Jerry Kelly. One of golf’s most amazing stats is that the durable Kelly, a three-time PGA Tour winner and now part of the over-50 crowd, has won more than $29 million on the PGA and Champions tours. Kelly was an all-city hockey player at his Madison high school, and he went to the University of Hartford with plans of playing more, except Hartford dropped its hockey program. His favorite way of saying hello to his Tour peers and media pals used to be unexpectedly forechecking them into a locker or punching them in the arm really hard. Very funny.

4. Sherri Steinhauer. This Madison native won eight times on the LPGA, including the Women’s British Open three times. Her best-known highlight was holing the clinching putt in the 1998 Solheim Cup.

5. Manuel de la Torre. The late de la Torre was one of the game’s great old-school instructors, Wisconsin’s version of Harvey Penick. He was the long-time pro at exclusive Milwaukee Country Club. De la Torre taught Masters champ Tommy Aaron but was best known for working with many LPGA stars such as Carol Mann, Martha Nause and Sherri Steinhauer. All you need to know about golf is in his 2001 book, “Understanding the Golf Swing.” He died in 2016 at 94. 

6. Herbert Kohler Jr. Wisconsin wouldn’t be a golf destination without him. In 1972, he took over the Kohler Co., the big name in bathroom fixtures, and got into golf in the ’80s by building Blackwolf Run, which hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens, and Whistling Straits, which held three PGA Championships, a U.S. Senior Open and will host the 2020 Ryder Cup. He also bought the Duke’s Course and the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews.

7. Mark Wilson. He came from Milwaukee, was runner-up to Woods in a U.S. Junior and became the 1996 college player of the year at North Carolina. Wilson bucked the trend of big hitters on the PGA Tour by using his accuracy and strong short game to win five times, most recently in 2012.

8. Don Iverson. He was Wisconsin’s golfing royalty until North came along. Iverson, a native of La Crosse, won the 1966 NAIA championship for Wisconsin-La Crosse. He played the PGA Tour in the 1970s and scored his only victory at the 1975 B.C. Open, edging David Graham and Jim Colbert by a shot. 

9. J.P. Hayes. He once won a duel with Stricker to win a State Amateur, played college golf at Texas-El Paso and took up residence there after he got on tour. Hayes, who grew up in Appleton, won two PGA Tour titles and $7 million during a 20-year run that ended in 2012. 

That’s Wisconsin golf. Now, pass the cheese curds, please.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle