HAVEN, Wis. – “I once got my ass kicked in Wisconsin!” moaned Harold Ramis’s character in the movie "Stripes". So did Dustin Johnson five years ago. (Metaphorically! Metaphorically!)
But DJ did the ass-kicking on Thursday, getting some measure of revenge for his debacle five years ago at the finish.
There are still three, long, hopefully windy and drama-filled days to go. This week will be one last celebration of major championship golf for the season, but there’s plenty more than just golf this week. Music, culture, sports, great food, outstanding public golf and a chance to meet and mingle with the residents of the state that holds the honor of having the 2nd most golfers per capita in the U.S. (second only to Minnesota), Wisconsin is so much more than America’s Dairyland. Let’s take a closer look at all the sights, sounds, and sports the Badger State has to offer.
PUBLIC GOLF - ERIN HILLS AND LAWSONIA LINKS – A U.S. OPEN VENUE AND A GOLDEN AGE MASTERPIECE
Maybe it was my only getting two hours sleep the night before, maybe it was the lack of a visually arresting natural setting, or maybe I was distracted because I was still basking in the warm glow of a monumental rock concert the prior evening, but for some reason, it took me a while to warm up to Erin Hills, site of the 2011 U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open.
Then I reminded myself of the mantra I try to teach all of you: never mind what a golf course looks like, focus on how it plays.
Erin Hills doesn’t wow you with a pretty face – she’s neither a fiery red-head, nor a permed brunette - but once you look at the terrain and how architects Mike Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten carved the holes into all the existing land forms they found on the property, you began to appreciate Erin Hills for its nuance, its subtlety and its eminently natural feel.
Erin Hills does everything right architecturally: The fairways swerve majestically from side to side around knolls, center-line bunkers and fescue-covered knobs. The holes also feature outstanding vertical movement in the earth – rising and falling, undulating and heaving up to towering heights, but also plunging breathtakingly downhill as well. Finally, the greens have fascinating contours – like all truly great golf courses.
“We just tried to build the most natural golf course we could – all those contours were there, we just moved earth on four holes,” explained Whitten. “We let nature dictate the routing. Yes, it’s not a true links – we’re near Milwaukee, not the coast of Ireland, and here in America the game is played in the air as well as on the ground.”
The genius is in the subtlety, and that’s what I missed the first few holes. Sometimes great golf isn’t about oceans or waterfalls or cliff edges. Sometimes it’s something as simple as tying everything into exiting grades perfectly.
“We weren’t trying to build a U.S. Open course, we were trying to build the best $50 green fee course in America, sort of like Bethpage,” noted Whitten.
Sadly, that part of the mission failed. Greens fees are presently $245 with replay rounds priced at $145. Moreover, ownership changed the imprimatur to something along the lines of, “Make the course as hard as possible for the U.S. Open.” That brought about dramatic change. Over 100 bunkers were added – something that made the course harder for amateurs, but easier for pros, who’ll take a bunker over U.S. Open rough any day. It also resulted in the removal of what many called the best hole on the property – a hole eerily reminiscent of the Dell Hole at Lahinch, a blind par-3, but a charming one too.
“Sadly, the players would scream like Nancy Kerrigan if they had to play a blind shot in a U.S. Open,” observed golf expert Bruce Moulton, “Once again proving that golf pros are the last people you want designing golf courses. Ben Crenshaw and Geoff Oglivy being two notable exceptions.”
Now some of the charm and character has been traded for ungodly length – it can stretch to a ghastly 8,000 yards, but thankfully won’t play that long, even for the Open – but it’s still a fascinating course.
“The par 4s on the back are especially strong,” noted Moulton. “Some rise to dizzying heights like 15, others tumble downhill and around knolls like 12. No one who plays it ever complains that they got bored or that the course lacked variety. Sure, it’s a testament to how far throwing a lot of money at the USGA can get you, but they needed a Midwest venue, and they certainly weren’t going back to Medinah.”
By contrast, Lawsonia Links, the 1930 masterpiece of the Great Midwestern duo of William Langford and Theodore Moreau nestled in the sleepy resort village of Green Lake, has been restored to all its Golden Age splendor by Ron Forse and Jim Nagle.
What a golf course! The fairways are guarded by towering three-dimensional bunkers – they not only have sand, but long gull wings that rise ten feet in the air and extend diagonally across the fairway. The greens are pedestals, frequently with diamond shaped entry ways, testing both accuracy and distance control.
One of the great features of the course is the asymmetric routing. Featuring five par 5s and five par 3s, the course offers greater variety than the tired Doctrine of Symmetry with its hackneyed two par-5s and two par-3s on each side. At one stretch, the sequencing goes 5-3-5-3-5-3.
Ha! Try finding that at any other golf course! Just try! Perhaps only Inwood Country Club, site of the 1921 PGA Championship and the 1923 U.S. Open comes close with its 5-5-5-3-3 sequence on the front side comes close.
“It’s both unique and refreshing to have more one-shotters that are all different lengths, as well as more birdie ops on the par 5s,” observed Moulton. “Golf design needs more asymmetric routings just so there’s more diversity in the game.”
The regulars are fiercely loyal to the course. Once you play it, it stays with you for life. Richard Daley, who’s played the course for over 50 years, is most fond of the dramatic and exciting green contours.
“Several of the greens actually run away from the player, feeding into steep drop-off, including the two-tiered sixth green with its devilish false front, and the 12th green which sweeps steeply and sharply to the back and left,” he explained.
Then there’s the world-famous Boxcar hole – the par-3 seventh, where the green is supposedly perched on top of a buried train car. Steep drop offs front and right make for a markedly difficult shot even though players are holding short irons in their hands.
Lawsonia is one of those courses that exemplifies what golf really needs: Courses that are manageable in length – around 6,400-6,700 – but also have interesting green contours that defend par well, uneven lies to bring shot shaping back into the game, and charming character that males golfers want to return over and over again.
“That’s the lifeblood of the game,” surmised golf expert Pat Mucci succinctly in a prior interview. “That’s how you grow the game, from the ground up.”
MUSIC – OUTDOOR VENUE ALPINE VALLEY IS LEGENDARY FOR SEMINAL ROCK SHOWS AND A SUFFOCATING POLICE PRESENCE
Alpine Valley, in East Troy, has been everyone’s short list of places to see a rock concert for decades. From the Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffett to Bruce Springsteen and Motley Crue, Alpine became indispensable for concerts for fans from Chicago as well as Wisconsinites. Rolling Stone even listed Alpine as No. 6 in the country for outdoor music venues, but I have to ask the question – Why?
Just off the top of my head, the following outdoor venues have a natural setting that puts Alpine to shame: SPAC (Saratoga), Red Rocks, the Greek Theatre, The Gorge (Washington State), the Hollywood Bowl, Jones Beach (Long Island), Sugarbush North and Shoreline Amphitheatre.
I’ll take a breath and add Fenway Park, Alpharetta, Walnut Creek, Starlight Amp, Oak Mountain in Alabama, Cincinnati Zoo Amp, Oklahoma City Zoo Amp, Darien Lake, Hershey Park, Desert Sky Amp in Arizona -- you get the picture.
Alpine is set below a ski run, but other than that, it’s not pretty at all. It’s no Vermont or Lake Placid. Speaking as a lifelong skier, when your home mountain is Whiteface, Alpine Valley seems kinda rinky-dink.
Sadly, the most famous thing about the ski run is death. Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton’s manager, bodyguard and assistant tour manager were all killed when their helicopter crashed as they tried to take off to head a gig in Chicago.
Poor Clapton. He had to identify the bodies.
Further, when it comes to fan experience, Alpine ranks among the worst places to see a show in the country; It’s as bad as Nassau Coliseum, Landover Cap Center or any place in Binghamton/Broome County. Hunter S. Thompson would have raged that it was total Gestapo tactics, and he would have been right. Security in golf carts made the rounds of the parking lots every 10 minutes, poking their snouts into anything and everything. Male undercovers in “Addicted” T-shirts covered in marijuana leaves and women were disguised as hippie chicks in Bohemian skirts and tie-dyes, arrested a number of fans, sometimes violently.
Besides the suffocating police presence, no vending of any kind is allowed, since LiveNation has driven he place into the ground with its “Prize the last penny from the customer” business model. If you get caught selling anything in the parking lot – and I mean anything, quesadillas, soda pop, even water – it’s a $1,000 fine. BOGUS!
Inside the arena, it’s just as bad.
“There were four guards at every intersection in the arena. I’ve never even seen two per spot anywhere else, let alone four. And they were busting people hard just for seat jumping,” said Denise C., a fan from Appleton. “It was really heavy. A lot of them just had a chip on their shoulder and treated people horribly. And everybody’s wearing those 'LIVE NATION' from the ticket takers to the food servers to the freaking bathroom attendants.”
Moreover, prices gauged the fans to a ludicrous degree. A rack of ribs was $33, half rack 18. Mixed drinks were $18, beers were $11.75, and small bottles of water were $4.75.
“Oh yeah, but you get to keep the crappy commemorative cup,” snarled fan Tina F. from Oshkosh acidly.
It seems as though LiveNation has become everything we’ve been taught to hate: a crass corporate vulture preying on mass consumer culture.
Kinda like the Grateful Dead, but I digress.
That came to a head again this weekend at the recent Phish concerts and at the Dave Matthews Band gig a few short weeks prior. What was purported to be a police memo was leaked to the public about something supposedly called “Operation Catch the Limit” – a three-pronged law enforcement maneuver, complete with mounted police, undercover cops, on-site detention center, on-call judges and court stenographers. Dave Matthews was tagged as a “dry run,” but there were still 170 citations and 17 arrests that day. It was estimated that 190 were ticketed Saturday, with numbers not yet available for arrests either day. Moreover, there were 277 citations written in 2009.
“I saw them just stick their heads and hands inside car windows and reach for anything that they felt looked even remotely suspicious, and probable cause be damned,” raged Don L. from Fon du Lac.
“There are always mass arrests here,” raged Denise from Appleton. “They bust heads here like Philly beats up HitchBots. We have a saying here. Alpine Valley: Come on vacation, leave on probation.”
So why do people still go there? Because acts know that the fans have to put up with Extreme Bull#$%@ - with a Capital E, Capital B – so they kick down the jams like music was going to outlawed the following day. That’s the book on Alpine: the venue underwhelms, the music overwhelms.
Take, for example, Phish on Sunday. They played the best show of their tour, the best show of their year, and of the best shows since they re-formed in 2009. In particular it was one of the top 4-5 first sets since they’ve done in decades as song after song had fans gaping slack-jawed at old favorites they never expected to hear.
Opening with something they only played last Halloween and not again until Sunday, “The Very long Fuse” was indeed the firecracker that set off an explosion, both literally and figuratively. “Col. Forbin’s Ascent->Fly Famous Mockingbird,” a classic from the bands de facto rock opera about the fictional land Gamehenge, was so rare and so revered fans were thrilled just to hear it at all. But more importantly, they played that difficult, intricate suite perfectly, never missing a beat note or phrase. It proved a springboard for the band to just let fly with all their old classics, and so “Esther,” “Sloth,” “Weigh” and “Sanity” all followed, each one more incredible that the last, peak after musical peak. The set closed with “Split Open and Melt,” which is exactly what they did metaphorically. The set was so other-worldly, you felt like a wrung-out sponge, and you were only half way through
Second set held just as many surprises. Combining popular staples with throwback selections to the early ‘90s, the band was clearly intent on blowing minds with every song. Moreover, the band was energetic. This was a sing and dance show, not one where they wasted precious time in some self-indulgent 20-minute experiment that soared for 10, then bored for 10. They didn’t waste a lot of time aimlessly noodling, boring us with ambient noise, or playing anything off of Fuego, thank God, which they’ve overplayed since it came out. Best of all, they played a lot of songs. Nothing’s worse than going to a show and seeing six songs in a set, some of which featured rather mundane jams. People all too often confuse length with quality. Just because the played a song for 25 minutes, doesn’t mean those 25 minutes were all good. The classic example came last summer. They played a 29-minute “Chalk Dust Torture” (which they never finished) and everyone oohed-and-ahhed -- until they kicked down a sick Tweezerfest at Merriweather Post two weeks later, a show that also featured a first set “You Enjoy Myself,” the ultra-rare joke song “Jennifer Dances” and a stratospheric “Down With Disease.”
Oh, for those of you scoring at home: Tweezerfest – (noun), when the band goes in and out of Tweezer in between a bunch of other songs.
Anyway, Alpine’s second set opened with “Run Like an Antelope,” (which they all but never open with in 30 years). “Carini,” “Tweezer,” and Mike’s Song,” were the meatiest offerings after that, while the encores of Contact, (also ultra-rare now, though common in the mid-‘90s), and Frankenstein featuring Page on keytar were wildly popular. It led to some clever Tweets…
“Dear Watkins Glen (where they’ll finish the tour in a week):
“Dear Grateful Dead:
So I hear you guys played the Chicago area too?
“Someone should send a tape of that to Phil Lesh, so he’ll never show his face in Chicago again”
And that’s the story of Alpine – it’s one of the worst venues I’ve ever seen in more than 1,000 shows in 38 states in my career as an entertainment lawyer and music fan. But it’s also seen the best of the best musically.
“Before the show starts, you swear you’ll never go back. By the time the show ends, you know you’ll come back, even though you hate the place,” Denise concluded.
LAMBEAU FIELD, MILLER PARK, THE MILWAUKEE MUSEUM AND THE HARLEY
What else needs to be said about Lambeau Field? The Green Bay Packers aren’t just NFL royalty, they are one of the league’s cornerstone foundations. The Brewers on the other hand...
Lambeau’s lower bowl is so close to the field you can almost reach out and touch the players. There isn’t a bad seat down there as the sight angles are optimal. Inside, the place gleams with modern conveniences – sort of incongruous for a team so steeped in the ethos of being old school. It’s no Fenway Park or old Boston Garden in that regard. It has a Hall of Fame and enough restaurants to put every other place around the stadium out of business except Kroll’s.
“So much stuff got bought out around there,” said Bert from Green Bay. “They are gobbling up everything around there."
Where Lambeau has seen glory, Miller Park has endured a cellar team. Still, they have Jazz Under the Stars there on many Thursday nights. As for he arts, Milwaukee’s famed art museum has some of the great impressionist treasures of the World there right now. “Van Gogh to Pollack: Modern Rebels” is mesmerizing in its intensity. Gripping paintings from the greatest masters of those ages are keeping everyone spellbound, not just art aficionados, and the MAM, as she’s known to her friends, has succeeded in making art accessible to the masses, not just culture vultures. And of course the Harley Davidson Museum is all it was made out to be.