Frozen tee: UW golf seeking prominence

Despite the cold climate, golf has found a home in Madison

Junior Eddie Wajda stepped into the first tee box at the Indiana Intercollegiate Invitational last April hoping to play three high-quality rounds of golf. Mother Nature, though, had other ideas. Rain and hail had already caused the Badgers’ normal Saturday practice round to be canceled. With temperatures hovering around 35 degrees and hail and snow sprinkled throughout the golf course, Wajda and the Badgers were informed Sunday afternoon that they would not have to battle the putrid weather conditions for three rounds this week, but instead only two.

The Wisconsin golf team is used to bad weather, however. Wajda’s attitude, “adapt and be an athlete,” is a mindset that is shared throughout the team. The Badgers know that their Midwest climate isn’t the same as Florida’s or Arizona’s. Bad weather is not an excuse, and for UW, it’s barely a hindrance. No matter what the wicked Wisconsin winters have to say about it, the Badgers are working to build an elite program in a state that is surprisingly full of elite golf courses.

The biggest key for the Badgers to combat the Wisconsin cold is their pristine indoor training facility. Renovated in 2012, the Badgers are able to practice indoors at the UW Golf Training Center at University Ridge, its home golf course, for much of the winter. The facility has a large chipping and putting area and multiple heated bays so UW can hit balls out on the range in the middle of a blizzard or rain storm. Such facilities are now standard in the Big Ten, as Midwestern schools have realized that to build elite golf programs, they need to make sure their golfers can practice year-round.

Andy North, a two-time US Open Champion and Thorp, Wis. native, didn’t have such high-quality indoor facilities accessible to him when he was growing up in this state. As a result, when it was time for the Wisconsin golf legend to make his college decision, he went to the University of Florida, trading snowballs for sunshine.

“I thought at that point in time if I was going to try and compete at the highest level I probably needed to go to a school where the weather was better,” North said. “They didn’t have indoor practice facilities or all the wonderful facilities that have been created in the past 20 years around the Big Ten.”

North, like so many other Wisconsin residents, grew up frequently playing golf in the Wisconsin snow, something he said was necessary if you wanted to be competitive in the Midwest. The winter months also served as North’s break from golf, though, and became a time to play other sports, which might not have been such a bad thing for the major champion.

“I think one of the neat things about growing up in the state of Wisconsin was that you had the opportunity to get away from the game so that when you had a chance to play you were so geared up to play and gung ho that you really worked hard to play,” North said. “I think over a long period of time that probably made me a better player.”

Wajda, a Brookfield, Wis. resident, echoed North’s sentiment.

“Something that a lot of people don’t realize is when you play golf it’s very easy to get burnt out so having those winter months, you have the ability to kind of recharge your batteries and rest up in order to get ready for the spring,” he said. “And then once spring comes and you can get outside you’re so excited that it’s easy to work hard as you’re itching to play real golf instead of just hitting balls indoors.”

But another key for the Wisconsin golf program in their battle against Mother Nature is not actually staying in the Midwest or indoors for much of the winter. Coach Mike Burcin says that three or four times a month during the winter, the Badgers take trips down South or West to mitigate the cold weather issue.

Such practice trips not only keep the Badger golfers fresh, but are also a good selling point to recruits around the country.

Burcin says that regardless of what institution you are at, you have to sell two things from a group of three keys.

“Academics, athletics, and program,” Burcin says. “We’re not missing anything and at the end of the day recruiting goes back to who are you gonna target.”

Burcin has a clear philosophy on who exactly he targets, one that he’s fine-tuned in part thanks to the coach of another elite UW program: Greg Gard.

“You know, Greg Gard has a great line which I’ve piggybacked on: ‘don’t chase rabbits,’” Burcin says. “Don’t chase kids you don’t have a connection to or don’t have a strong interest in you.”

The Badgers are confident they can build an elite program in the Midwest. The University of Illinois has done just that as they sport a top-five program nationally year-in and year-out. And while the University of Wisconsin might be known more for its football and basketball teams, the state as a whole is also nationally known for its elite golf courses, something Burcin sells as a differentiating factor for his program compared to other Big Ten schools.

“From kind of the central Midwest to the north Midwest there is no other state that gets as much national or international coverage for their golf as Wisconsin based on their professional events,” Burcin said. “Whether it’s the PGAs at Whistling Straits, the U.S. Open at Erin Hills or the Ryder Cup at Erin Hills in 2020, the golf in Wisconsin is as good as it gets for any state in the country relative to our weather and the golf conditions that we have.”

The Madison fan base was even able to show off its passion for the game this past June, when the Champions Tour hosted a tournament at the Badgers’ home golf course at University Ridge.

“We had 60,000 people come to the Champions Tour event that was at our golf course this summer,” Burcin said. “It was the highest-attended event on the Champions Tour which is unbelievable in Madison, a town of 300,000.”

Of course, while just having major championships and the Ryder Cup in the state is a major recruiting selling point for the Wisconsin program, practicing at such courses rather frequently is an even bigger advantage.

“I think our coach Mike Burcin is the first one to say that having those sorts of events inside of the state, getting to say that we get to play tournaments at Erin Hills or take day trips to Whistling Straits is definitely a recruiting tool because every golfer would love to play [at] those places,” Wajda said. “It’s something we have the ability to do right here at Wisconsin.”

When North was a kid growing up in Wisconsin, the state routinely hosted the Greater Milwaukee Open, but that was it. No Majors. No Ryder Cup.

“As a kid, that was what you sort of looked at. You saw the guys playing them and thought that someday, maybe you could do that,” North said.

But today, kids growing up in Wisconsin watch the best players in the world play at world-renowned golf courses that are within driving distance of their homes. The Wisconsin golf program isn’t a national powerhouse just yet, but the current group of Badgers thinks that they can go to NCAA’s this season. It took only one tournament for the Badgers to feel as if this team is better than last year’s team.

The elite golf courses are available. The recruits are interested. And whether indoors or outdoors, in rain or sunshine, the Badgers golf program is improving as well.

So if you rain or snow or hail on their parade, it won’t matter. This program is coming on strong.

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