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Michael Lee and Robert Chris Williamson @ Whistling Straits

Traveling around the windswept golf course called The Straits, with its massive greens of bentgrass and rumpled, horizon-bound fairways of fescue, it’s easy to see why course manager Michael Lee BS’87 would arrange to keep his own yardwork to a minimum.

“My lawn takes me 20 minutes,” says Lee. It’s a cool spring morning, and we’re bouncing his pickup around the stunning environs of The Straits, one of two Kohler Company 18-hole courses that comprise Whistling Straits on the shores of a steely-surfaced Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

“I have mostly mulch and woody ornamentals,” Lee says of his home lawn. “Everything I have to do for weed control I can do while I mow my lawn.”

golf course
A scene from The Straits’ PGA Championship in 2010. Photo courtesy of Kohler Co. Banner photo: Whistling Straits course manager Michael Lee (blue jacket) talks turf pests with CALS/UW-Extension entomologist Chris Williamson on the fairway and on a putting green, with Lake Michigan at their backs. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann

This is in great contrast to the daunting challenge Lee faces in maintaining what has been deemed one of the country’s great championship golf courses.

And now the task has become almost herculean. The Straits, built and owned as part of The American Club by the Kohler Company, is hosting the prestigious PGA Championship this summer. From August 10 to 16, the eyes of the world will be on that course.

Though Lee will be toiling anonymously that week, guiding a staff of hundreds, his hard-earned skills as a golf course manager will be very much on display. Few, however, will truly understand what Lee and his staff do behind the scenes to maintain fairway and tee and rough and allow the television cameras to create what, in effect, is golf course art on our screens—sweeping vistas of perfectly tended dune and grass and emerald greens, with the big lake shining in the background.

But more than artful views are at stake. Lee, personable and easygoing and quick to smile, stands up well to pressure, those who know him say. And pressure there will be.

The PGA Championship, which dates back to 1916, is one of the most heralded events in golf. Each of the last two PGA Championships played at Whistling Straits, in 2004 and in 2010, drew upward of 300,000 people, and millions of households around the world tuned in to television broadcasts. The Wisconsin economy benefited to the tune of more than $76 million for each of the tournaments.

Lee is the first to say he could not shoulder the responsibilities of preparing The Straits for such worldwide scrutiny without plenty of help. And one of the places he counts on most for guidance in dealing with the course’s fussy turf is his alma mater, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—and, more specifically, the CALS-affiliated O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility, named for Oyvind Juul Noer, a CALS alumnus and one of the earliest internationally known turfgrass agronomists.

researchers on turf
A grid marks different treatments of turfgrass at the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility. Whistling Straits’ Michael Lee (center) and other golf course clients meet regularly with UW-Madison CALS’ Bruce Schweiger (left) and Tom Schwab (right), O.J. Noer’s facility manager, to discuss options. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann

The facility, where scientists use tools ranging from high-powered microscopes to lawn mowers, opened in Verona, Wisconsin, in 1992 as a partnership between the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, the University of Wisconsin Foundation, and the CALS-based Agricultural Research Stations.

Toiling in its maze of test plots, often on their hands and knees, are researchers who study everything from insects and soil to plant disease. For Lee, they are like a staff of doctors who can, at a moment’s notice, diagnose what is ailing a green or a fairway and prescribe a treatment. The Kohler Company (like many other golf course operators) contracts with the facility annually for these services.

Before and during the PGA championships, that role becomes even more crucial. The university specialists help Lee keep disease and insect problems at bay throughout the year. But in the weeks leading up to the championship they become his urgent care clinic, providing immediate help if something suspicious shows up. During the week of the championship they staff on-site, portable laboratories.

“We’re kind of at Mike’s beck and call,” says Bruce Schweiger BS’84, a CALS plant pathology researcher who serves as manager of the Turfgrass Diagnostics Lab housed at O.J. Noer. “If he calls, we’ll be there. We’re CSI Turf! That’s who we are.”

Continue reading this story in the Summer 2015 issue of Grow magazine.

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