Ever been a casualty of a PGA Tour pullout? Milwaukee, Wisconsin has.
A month ago I went to visit my brother in Central Illinois to take in the U of I men’s basketball opener at the newly renovated State Farm Center. I’ll always call it the Assembly Hall, a unique arena that has stood the test of time. Featuring one of the largest self supporting concrete roof structures, the Hall is expansive and a great tutorial in architectural design. Besides, it’s just a neat looking place.
After watching Notre Dame mount a second half comeback to top the Illini I left the concrete confines and headed north the next day to return home. I’d pass through Milwaukee on my way back to Green Bay running a few errands. I had to stop off at the Milwaukee CC to deliver an item then made my way to a familiar eating establishment to catch a quick bite. On my way I decided to swing into Brown Deer Park, the site of the golf course that hosted the Greater Milwaukee Open from 1994-2009. On its last legs the PGA Tour stop was known as the US Bank Championship.
Brown Deer Park wasn’t an ultra course by any means. The short track featured deep rough to keep players honest but a handful of winning scores would eclipse -20 on occasion. Being played opposite of the Open Championship the GMO attracted a field of second tier pros looking to capitalize on the absence of the top names. Bo Van Pelt, not necessarily a household name on the PGA Tour, closed out the event with a victory in 2009.
Driving through the park in early December trees were bare, the roadway marked with potholes, and the expansive grassy areas empty. Back in the day the small village that accompanies every tour event was set up in the park. Free parking was available to patrons. Once you got out of the car the smell of grilled brats filled the air. Sure, it wasn’t the US Open but to Wisconsin golf fans the GMO offered a great opportunity to see some very good players rack up a bunch of birdies.
I went to the tournament a few times, even tried to qualify for the event and in its final year served as a starter on the tenth tee Friday afternoon. The GMO was a good way to spend a summer afternoon especially since the Brewers weren’t baseball’s juggernaut at the time. The layout allowed spectators chances to get close to the players and was a relatively easy walk compared to Herb’s course up north along the lake.
As the winter sun was setting I made my way to the entrance of the course. A small stucco clubhouse sits on a hill overlooking the putting green. It’s seen better days but serves the purpose of providing park district players with a spartan abode after their rounds. During the tournament organizers brought in flowers, plants, tablecloths, extra lighting and a fresh coat of paint to make the place presentable but it was a far cry from the clubhouse accommodations at The Memorial. But put a sizable purse out there and the guys would play a putt-putt course. I remember the range tee fronting the putting green facing out towards the east. The setup was actually pretty convenient for the players and offered fans decent sightlines.
Next I drove down by the 18th hole, a tree-lined, uphill par-five that offered finishers a chance for eagle. Two straight well placed shots needed to be executed to reach the putting surface. Grandstands sat tight around the green so errant attempts didn’t wander too far away. If you didn’t make birdie you were giving up a shot to the field. Several tournaments were decided on this hole.
Peering through the trees I could see a few of the stanchions that supported electronic scorecards still standing. Their green paint was probably peeling by now and I’m sure the park district wasn’t interested in assuming the expense to remove them. They weren’t in the way. They were just a subtle reminder of a few glory years.
I played the course a couple of years ago and surprisingly some of the bunkers had been filled in, most notably on the 16th hole. It was in decent shape but nowhere near the conditions during the tournament. Still for a park district course to host a tour event Brown Deer put on its best face and let fans have a few beers, a brat and an afternoon in the sun.
As I sat behind the wheel of my car thinking back to warm days when spectators roamed the grounds the desolate surroundings I looked over made me a bit sad the GMO had slipped into history. Tour stops are wonderful events. Losing one leaves a hole in the community. Yes, Kohler has hosted a few majors and the US Open is coming to Erin Hills in 2017 but an annual tournament stop is always something to look forward to.
It’s happened to other communities similar to Milwaukee. Endicott, NY, site of the former BC Open lost their tournament but now host a Senior Champions event. Chattanooga used to occupy the slot opposite of the Open Championship. Other major cities lost their events — Detroit the Buick Open and Chicago the Western Open although the BMW Championship, part of the FedEx playoffs, wanders into town every few years. Still, not having a yearly event in either of these two cities is tragic. They are two great golf towns featuring some of the finest layouts in the country. Yet like all sports the tour follows the money and in the past twenty years the cash train has moved to other venues.
There is also an impact of charitable causes being left in the cold. Numerous organizations across the state of Wisconsin benefitted from the GMO. Now they go without and explore other options. The PGA Tour is one of the greatest contributors to charities across the country.
At last light I drove out of the park leaving the memories of the GMO behind. It was Brown Deer where Tiger Woods uttered his famous words that launched his career, “I guess hello world.” He made a hole in one on the fourteenth hole. Corey Pavin won twice in Milwaukee; once at Tuckaway CC and the second at Brown Deer. A number of major champions hoisted trophies at the GMO including Greg Norman. All of that is now history.
I’m not sure if I’ll return to play the course again. Perhaps I will. Maybe a day will come up where I can grab three buddies and relive the sights and sounds of Milwaukee’s annual tour event. In a way it would be a bittersweet round. When you’re old school in this game memories and traditions matter and it’s tough to see them slip away.