Golf? During a storm? During the holidays? Inside a baseball stadium? You betcha
MILWAUKEE — Oh, the weather outside is frightful.
And oh, it was, even for here. Natives of Brew City, like myself, take pride in poo-pooing the thermometer and doing snow angels in shorts, but this was silly as I opened the car door. Five degrees. Minus-too-much wind chill. Snowing. And there was still daylight. Old man winter was just cracking his knuckles.
But the fire is so delightful.
And I was going to play golf?
Since we’ve no place to go.
Inside a baseball stadium?
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
Just days before Christmas?
Wild. And Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow was, in fact, playing in the background as I was playing Pebble about a short iron away from home plate at the home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
I wasn’t alone, either.
Let’s start here with a word on Milwaukee sports. Packer football may be the be-all and end-all — Aaron Rodgers’ future is currently being dissected at George Webb, the local greasy spoon — but Brewer baseball may be the heart. They’ve forever been an underdog, but that’s the city, too, so the Brew Crew are endearing. Golf, meanwhile, is the pride, passion and pastime. Lots of ink on this website has been used to describe the gems — Blackwolf, Whistling, Erin Hills, Sand Valley, Lawsonia, among others — but good luck finding a weekend tee time anywhere when it’s above freezing. Whitnall, Currie and Dretzka, loveable, tree-lined, Milwaukee munis, are packed.
Shawn DeMain and Luke Larson get it. They grew up just houses down from each other in Green Bay. They’re in the golf-simulator game as co-owners of a few of X-Golf franchises in the state, and sim business can also be good here. What Wisconsin has in quality of courses, it lacks in the number of days to play them — the season is maybe seven-months-long — so outside of the diehards, Wisconsin golfers come to DeMain and Larson’s place.
But wouldn’t you know where DeMain and Larson reconnected about a decade ago.
“Brewers-Pirates game,” DeMain said. “Fifteen innings; it was super long.”
You daydream some over nearly two full baseball games. He’s remembering this recently at American Family Field.
And wouldn’t you know where his and Larson’s latest X-Golf is.
And, of course, the Brewers’ first.
We’ll get through the timeline here quickly, because things moved that way. The Brewers called Larson around a year ago. (The running joke here is that the former college baseball player was finally getting to the bigs.) The sides agreed to a spot, in left field; to the left of Bernie Brewer’s slide. (For the uninformed, Bernie Brewer is a team mascot, and when the actual Brewers homer, he goes down a slide. It’s wonderful.) And the X-Golf at American Family Field opened on Sept. 16, with the New York Yankees playing the Milwaukee nine on the field down below.
“So we were drinking through a fire hose — what is it going to look like, is nobody going to show up, are we going to be super packed?” DeMain said. “And we saw some ups and downs as people again kind of learned that this was even here and what it was all about. You can make tee times for when the gates open up until first pitch; first pitch to the seventh inning; and seventh inning to the end. So it cycles a bunch of people through here. So again, fire hose.
“It was a lot of fun.”
The facility is a diamond, baseball pun intended. There are seven hitting bays, including a VIP booth that is positioned next to Bernie’s slide. There are two bars. There’s a food menu. There are new Callaways to use for the sims (and there’s a club-fitting area), and there’s a PGA instructor, Andrew Barrett, on site. (Before coming aboard, Barrett was the head pro at Brown Deer Park, where, notably, Tiger Woods made his pro debut.) To play on game days, you need a ticket to the game and a reservation (which can be made here), and you need to pay a fee, though the facility can also be treated as a sports bar.
All that being said …
Why is there a golf facility in a major league baseball stadium?
Though, if you’ve been to ballgames over the past 20 or so years, you kinda know: The baseball is not all you get for the price of admission. Come for the home runs, stay for the fireworks. Or the giveaways. Or the beer garden.
Or the golf sims. And if that concept was going to work anywhere, it was maybe Milwaukee and with Milwaukeeans.
“So for us, it’s all sports,” said Jason Hartlund, executive vice president and chief commercial officer for the Brewers. “It’s all about fan engagement, content creation, and this is something else that our fans can do during a game. … It’s just another opportunity for our fans to experience the ballpark in a different setting.”
Said DeMain: “You’re seeing a lot of stadiums create experiences. Lambeau Field [the Packers home] is a great example. You have the half football field and the sledding and the tundra zone, and I think sports teams are out there saying you can maximize both fan engagement, revenue and enjoyment overall if you create different atmospheres. Because people just want to be connected.
“You grew up with the Brewers, memories of you and dad at ballgames — we connect all that stuff together and I think people just want to be there. There’s a place called Curly’s in Lambeau Field, and I go sit back there when I go back home in Green Bay because you feel connected to the team. So I think putting people’s passions together — I’m super passionate about golf, and I’m super passionate about the Milwaukee Brewers — I think creates an awesome opportunity.”
OK. But I was also interested in the facility during the baseball offseason.
When three-million or so fans aren’t walking right in front of your facility.
And the weather outside is frightful and all that.
American Family Field mostly sits by itself a few miles west of downtown. Or, in other words, there are no other close-by businesses. So it becomes a destination, which is not an issue when baseball is being played, but what would things look like when just golf is?
My gang — my sister, her husband and her 14-year-old son, who all live in the Milwaukee area, and my wife — wondered that, too. Couple that with what my nephew thought of golf-sim joints — “I came here thinking it was going to be some tiny, packed-together simulator” — and there was trepidation about going to play golf … during a storm … during the week before Christmas … inside a baseball stadium.
Then we did. (To play in the offseason requires the reservation and the fee, though our time was complimentary, courtesy of X-Golf.) We played holes at Bethpage State Park and Pebble. (The sims also have a putting feature, and I was told it would take a minute to get used to it, but it was a nice touch.) We ate braised pork nachos and Wagyu burgers and drank craft beers. We saw a baseball field and Bernie Brewer’s slide in late December.
And we looked around, and it was crowded.
I asked a few of the folks involved to explain that to me.
“It’s awesome,” DeMain said. “And we’ve been fortunate enough to see that in our Brookfield and Mequon and Appleton locations. Why we opened these is we knew Wisconsin loved golf. And we can play golf for five to seven months a year maybe, so creating a space where you can do that, in a different setting, right — still golf, still serious golf courses, but be able to eat, drink, relax, spend time with friends — it’s been really warmly received and we’re super fortunate.”
“It shows that golfers are determined to play golf, is what it is,” Barrett said. “We know what we get in Wisconsin here, we get golfers that they want to say they play golf outside every month of the year, so they can say they play golf every month of the year. People just love golf. And this place has been busy. And what you don’t know, we actually had a lot of cancellations because of the pending snowstorm that is coming that people were worried about. So this place would actually be more busy than what you’re seeing right now. We’re crowded. You look at our tee sheet tomorrow, when the storm is really supposed to come, we are packed solid tomorrow. … So the fact that this is packed tells that people love being here, love playing golf, and they will put their snowshoes on to make sure they can play golf.”
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
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