This Thursday, the U.S. Open Championship will be held in Wisconsin for the first time, as the world’s top players vie for a coveted title that has been contested since 1895.
At Erin Hills Golf Course, the United States Golf Association will provide the ultimate, most comprehensive test in golf: to identify the best of the best. And Jim Lombardo, a 1985 Wausau East High School graduate, will be in the thick of it.
Lombardo, head golf professional at Erin Hills since the course opened in 2006, runs the day to day golf operations at what is arguably Wisconsin’s best and most beautiful golf course.
Lombardo still speaks fondly of the courses of his youth, where he played as a member of the Wausau East golf team. But even he admits he’s come a long way since the first time he hit a golf ball, at Wausau’s own Rib Mountain Golf Course when he was just 13 years old.
“I actually hit a guy, hit him in the leg,” Lombardo said. “Not exactly a promising start to a career in golf.”
But Lombardo kept at it through high school and college, playing at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he graduated with a business degree.
After college, a friend suggested he get into the golf business, and Lombardo took his first job as an an assistant golf coach at a Waupaca course. From there, he moved on, working at several courses in Arizona, then back to Wisconsin in Oconomowoc and Mequon.
When he heard Erin Hills was opening up, he took a chance and went for an interview, where he was hired as the course’s first and only head golf professional.
“Everybody wants to be the golf pro,” Lombardo said. “It’s the best job. And now, what an exciting place to be.”
The U.S. Open is played at iconic venues around the country, with 51 courses to date holding the distinction of U.S. Open site. Erin Hills will be the sixth public access course to host the championship, joining Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Bethpage, Torrey Pines and Chambers Bay, according to the Erin Hills website. In the past, champions have included Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Andy North and Tiger Woods.
Lombardo said he does not have a single favorite golf player, but is looking forward to seeing them all play.
Having such a major golf event at Erin Hills is a bit like having the Olympics come to town, Lombardo said.
“This is just a huge thing that really puts Wisconsin on the map for golf,” he said. “And I have to say, I have a lot of Wisconsin pride.”
More than 35,000 spectators are expected to attend each day, including the members of Lombardo’s old high school golf team, Paul Hornung, Bill Byron and Paul Haering.
“They’re going to have a great time,” he said. “It will be great to have them.”
With so many spectators, Lombardo is sure to have his hands full, coordinating staff schedules and helping ensure the event runs smoothly. The biggest challenge, Lombardo said, is preparing for any possible contingency, from severe weather to medical emergencies or any other unforeseeable event that could happen during the tournament.
“The logistics, that’s been the biggest challenge,” Lombardo said. “But it’s all going to be worth it.”