HAVEN, Wisc. - The whispers have been building for months.
The PGA of America has always tried to be creative when it comes to picking sites for the final major of the season, the PGA Championship.
But the selection of Whistling Straits for 2004 has created more buzz in golf circles than anyone could have anticipated. The world will be introduced to a wondrous Pete Dye design unlike any golf experience in America.
It's edgy, dangerous and dazzling all in the same breath. Some call it Pebble Beach on steroids. Others characterize it as golf on acid.
Whatever the name, the four-day telecast for the tournament will likely serve as one giant commercial to the virtues of golf on the bluffs of two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
In fact, some believe the tournament, which is Aug. 12-15, could change the landscape of major championships forever. If all goes well at the Straits, the USGA and PGA of America could give new consideration to modern designs like the Straits that previously have been overlooked in hosting majors.
"I have been doing this for over 18 years," said Jim Awtrey, CEO of the PGA of America, at media day in June. "It's the most anticipated major that I have seen, perhaps in that whole time. I think everybody has heard about the golf course. Some people have experienced it. But certainly it is what everyone is looking forward to this year."
The location of Whistling Straits, an hour north of Milwaukee, and the course's persona only add to the intrigue. And holding a major championship at a public venue always draws a stir. The 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in New York was called "The People's Open."
Few pros have even set foot on the property, which leads to more questions than answers surrounding the major. How will the world's best fair against the "Dyeabolical" design that will play the longest (7,597 yards) in major championship history? What will happen when the wind blows? Will they come away grumbling about the quirky links layout with 1,400 jagged bunkers, like they do so often at the British Open?
There's bound to be some controversy involved in playing such a unfamiliar setting.
Viewers will be amazed to learn the course's monstrous dunes emerged from flat farmland that was used by the U.S. Army as an anti-aircraft training facility (ironically called "Camp Heaven") in the 1950s. Dye brought in 13,126 truckloads of sand, approximately 800,000 cubic yards, to craft his masterpiece.
Nobody is more interested to see how it all shakes out than the venerable architect himself. Dye's courses have only hosted two other major championships, the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Indiana, won by John Daly, and the 1991 Ryder Cup at the Ocean course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
The pre-tournament rhetoric has the pros shooting somewhere around par, something Dye disputes.
"They will get to that golf course," he said. "They will shoot some numbers. Ten or 15 under (par) might do it. They will not be way over par like people think."
Believe it or not, Dye has actually been to the course several times this summer begging the PGA officials to cut the long fescue grasses down. The course's 37.5 acres of fairway have dissipated to 21, replaced by thick rough.
"It's been a wet spring and summer, so the rough is so much more lush than it should be," Dye said. "I hope it dries out a little bit."
The weather will ultimately determine the fate of the players. Everybody familiar with the property knows the wind will blow. But how much? And from which direction?
"The wind usually comes from the southwest," Dye said. "But a lot of times you stand on the tee and feel the wind at your back, and you look ahead and the flag appears to be blowing in the opposite direction. You hear that a lot from the players about The Masters."
The caddies will tell you a north wind could wreak havoc. That wind will make the shortish holes that start the back nine difficult -- the par-4 10th, 13th and 14th run 361, 403 and 373 yards, respectively - and will do little to tame the nasty finishing holes.
The 15th will play as the longest par-4 hole in major championship history at 518 yards. The 16th moves to 569 yards of nerve-wracking coastline. The tee shot at the par-4 18th will leave the pros guessing where to aim. It's completely blind from their tee, 500 yards from the humongous green.
Defending PGA Champion Shaun Micheel, who shot a mediocre 77 on media day in June, joked players will need therapists and couches out on the course to survive.
"I think you are going to see a 10- or 12-over cut," he said. "It's probably the most difficult and challenging golf course that I have ever seen. I have played Carnoustie last year in a European Tour event and found it equally challenging. The tees weren't back quite as far as they were today. But chances are maybe you are going to see a great champion."
So all this talk has you dreaming of visiting the American Club?
A trip to the old-world, 237-room hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places will rank with Pebble Beach and a pilgrimage to the British Isles as one of your favorite all-time golf getaways.
The resort's three other courses will remain open during the tournament, and are almost as good as the Straits.
The 36 holes at Blackwolf Run, the 7,142-yard Meadow Valleys and the 6,991-yard River courses, and the newer 7,021-yard Irish course, which opened at 2000, would be the headliners at any other property.
The accommodations are the part of the only five-star resort in the Midwest and the Kohler Waters Spa is an elegant, relaxing retreat after a round of golf. The nine restaurants provide variety -- from a Quizno's Classic Subs right across from the 121-room Inn on Woodlake to great steaks and seafood at the Blackwolf Run Restaurant and the classiest dining at The Immigrant Restaurant.
The standing joke about the American Club goes something like this: "This place has the best bathrooms of any golf course (or any hotel) I've ever seen!"
Yes, the bathroom fixtures of Kohler Co. president Herb Kohler Jr. are fabulous, but only a small part of the resorts' first-class experience.
Just remember, when the tee times at Whistling Straights begin filling up for next year, you heard it here first. The must-see TV this championship will provide should launch this property into rarified air.
August 6, 2004
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!