The PGA Championship returns to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where people love golf and embrace their tightknit roots.
About 45 miles south of Green Bay and 60 miles north of Milwaukee is the city of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on the western shore of Lake Michigan, with a population of roughly 50,000. Acuity Insurance is headquartered there, and just to the west in the town of Kohler is the Kohler Co., best known for its bathroom plumbing products.
Sheboygan, the hub of the region, is surrounded by dots of towns such as Waldo, Oostburg and Gooseville. This is dairy country and farms abound.
Although its mailing address is Sheboygan, the Whistling Straits resort is located in Haven, an unincorporated community in the town of Mosel, north of the city. Herb Kohler, of the Kohler Co., founded it.
Chris Zugel is the golf course superintendent of the resort’s The Straits course, which hosts the PGA Championship from Aug. 10 to 16. It’s the third time in 11 years that the course has hosted the event. Born outside Boston and raised in Atlanta, Zugel has been superintendent at the Pete Dye-designed The Straits course for eight years. As a boy, he and his family vacationed near the site of the Straits, visiting relatives who still live nearby.
According to Zugel, the Greater Sheboygan area is a tight-knit region where a significant majority of residents live in the towns in which they were born and raised.
“It’s odd for me being from Atlanta. They’re all from here,” Zugel says. “They’ll never leave Sheboygan.”
Consequently, Zugel does not have a large hiring pool from which to choose. Kohler, Acuity and the dairy farms are the area’s leading employers. Zugel has a small year-round staff. He has two assistants and shares three mechanics with the River Course, also part of the Whistling Straits resort.
It’s an oddity for a facility that has hosted and will host significant golf events, including majors and the 2020 Ryder Cup, that such a large part of the maintenance staff is seasonal. According to Zugel, his seasonal crew ranges in age from high school students to those in their early 30s, with most in their early 20s. Many times they begin their stints while in high school and leave after graduating from college.
“It’s sad on the last day when they have to go and join the real world,” Zugel says with a chuckle.
During the shoulder seasons, Zugel has a staff of about 15, and that increases to 25 once schools are out. He has about three workers who have been with him since 2005, the year after the Straits made its debut as the venue for the PGA Championship. Another four or five of his staff have been coming back for a slightly shorter time.
That means every season Zugel is teaching newcomers how to do it right.
“Training is a huge part of what we do. There’s a lot of handwork,” he says. “Not just using equipment, but the way we do it.”
Once they are hired, Zugel says his workers tend to return annually.
“These guys are pretty loyal,” he adds.
He also says that the locals are ingrained with an ethic that any superintendent would prefer.
“It’s a very proud heritage,” Zugel adds. “They are very loyal and very hard-working.”
In the 1840s, the area saw a wave of German, Irish, English and Dutch immigrants. In the early-20th century, Slavs and Lithuanians immigrated to the Sheboygan area.
According to Zugel, a key to having good help return each year is creating the right working environment.
“We have a strong sense of team atmosphere,” he says.
For that reason, he looks to employ people who know each other.
“I like to hire groups of guys, guys from the same towns that carpool together,” he says. “It goes back to that team atmosphere. You’re not that lone wolf out there.”
Zugel has identified one managerial technique that resonates with his perpetually young crew.
“I found listening is a pretty good tool,” he says.
There is also the annual cadre of interns, six of them this season. According to Zugel, he makes sure he doesn’t bring in too many.
“I like to give them my time so they are not just here … they are part of what we are doing,” he says. “I like to keep it at a number where I can give them the time they need.”
One of the longest-serving employees on the golf side at Whistling Straits is Heidi Georgeff, Zugel’s office manager. Now 34 years old, Georgeff began her stint at the resort as a member of Zugel’s grounds staff the summer after she graduated high school.
“I mowed greens right from the start. I enjoyed it,” says Georgeff, who had no prior golf course experience.
She continued to return every summer as she earned associate degrees in education and Spanish at nearby Lakeland College. Georgeff was on her way to bachelor’s degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan when the office manager position opened in 2006. She applied and was hired.
“I just kind of fell into it. It was open, and I really liked working here,” Georgeff says.
She was born and raised in the small nearby town of Howard’s Grove and still lives there. She coaches the high school girl’s basketball team. She has traveled to nearly every state in the U.S. and to Mexico as well, but is perfectly happy to remain where she is.
“I really do think it’s the people,” Georgeff says of what makes the area special.
“Everyone is so proud of the towns that they live in,” she says. “They are all different, but very much the same.”
Sheboygan, though, is the center of that small universe.
There are other unifying forces for the various townspeople, and that includes the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers and University of Wisconsin sports teams. Many will make the drive to Green Bay and Milwaukee to see games. Georgeff’s family has four Packers season tickets.
Wisconsinites also love brat fries and being outside, Zugel says.
“People love their golf up here,” he adds. “They love the outdoors. You get a sunny day and nobody is inside.”
They also like a reason to celebrate, and the PGA Championship is a great reason.
“Anything [like this] that happens in Wisconsin is a state holiday,” Zugel says. “Being in Sheboygan, it’s even bigger.”
COVER PHOTO BY CHRIS ZUGEL