WisBusiness: New license plates to tout Wisconsin as golf destination

By Brian E. Clark

FOND DU LAC – A Manitowoc legislator is proposing a "Golf Wisconsin" license plate that he says might raise between $100,000 and $200,000 annually to promote the sport among kids and boost golf tourism.

"I want to build on the success of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which drew 300,000 spectators and had an economic impact of $76 million – far more than was expected," said Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, an avid golfer with a four handicap.

"We need to keep the momentum going to make our state even more of a destination for golf and to build participation by young people," said Ziegelbauer, a Democract.

He noted that Sunday was Golf Wisconsin Day. Junior duffers got to play for free at 150 courses statewide. More than 9,000 kids participated in the program last year.

Under his bill, drivers would pay an additional $25 annually for a Golf Wisconsin license plate. After the Wisconsin Department of Transportation recovered the initial cost of creating the plate, 75 percent of the proceeds would go to junior golf programs administered through the Wisconsin section of the PGA. The remaining 25 percent would go to the Department of Tourism to promote golf in Wisconsin.

Ziegelbauer, who shot a 82 on the Rolling Meadows golf course on Friday, stressed the importance of including the Department of Tourism’s web site address on the plate (travelwisconsin.com) as a way to support the state’s nearly $12 billion annual travel industry.

Last year "travelwisconsin.com" attracted more than 3 million unique visitors to its Web site.

Ziegelbauer said there are several other license plate proposals now before the Legislature, including one that would honor families of veterans killed in battle. Another would promote hunting. Wisconsin has nearly 80 special plates, but that pales compared to Illinois’ 240 plates of New York’s 300. For Ziegelbauer’s proposal to fly, his bill must be passed by the Legislature and then signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle.

Several years ago, Ziegelbauer said a Department of Transportation study said the state had too many designs for specialty plates. Since then, steps have been taken to make them more standardized. The transportation agency does not take a position on new specialty plates.

"I love golf and know a lot of other people who are passionate about the sport," Ziegelbauer said. "I think this idea could catch on and raise a lot of money."

But Ziegelbauer said he knows that not all of Wisconsin’s license plates have been as successful as sponsors hoped.

The lowest-earning specialty plate brought in only $38,000 last year, while the endangered species plate raised more than $550,000 for conservation efforts, he said.

"But even on the conservative side, I think we could raise $100,000 and maybe even twice that much for golf," he said.

No figures are available on the economic impact of the sport on Wisconsin’s economy, but Ziegelbauer called it "huge."

According to figures from the state Department of Tourism, Wisconsin ranks ninth for the number of public courses in the nation and is fifth per capita in number of golfers.

"Obviously, the PGA Championship was special," said Ziegelbauer, who lives just 10 miles from Whistling Straits and was involved in the contest’s planning.

"But that is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "It is something that we should promote. We draw a lot of people from Illinois and Minnesota and we can use money raised by the plate to create more young golfers through new programs."

Ziegelbauer said the state’s golfing profile will continue to rise in coming years, thanks to more major tournaments on Kohler golf courses.

Whistling Straits will be home to PGA Championships in 2010 and 2015. In 2020, it will host the Ryder Cup matches, if enough quality hotel rooms can be guaranteed in the area.

Ziegelbauer said other top events, including the Senior U.S. Open and the Women’s Open, will be played in coming years on Blackwolf Run, a Kohler course. And the Arnold Palmer Cup will be played at Kohler’s Irish Course.

Joel Weitz, honorary Wisconsin PGA president, said he backs Ziegelbauer’s idea.

"I think people would support this," he said. "Golfers love their sport and I think they would like to help junior programs."

"The PGA Championship put Wisconsin on the national and international golf stage," he said. " I think the whole state benefited from that tournament. It showed us in a positive light."

Jerry Huffman, a spokesman for the state Tourism Department, said golf is one of the main reasons travelers come to Wisconsin.

"It is one of our hottest attractions," he said. "And because the license plate proposal would help build the customer base through youth programs, we’d look on it extremely favorably."