SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - Competitors in the 86th PGA Championship, as well as the spectators and television viewers, are going to be blown away by the venue of that major championship: The Straits Course at Whistling Straits.
Even if John Daly is gunning for the title on Sunday afternoon, the real star of the tournament is going to be the awe-inspiring Pete Dye layout.
You can quote us on that.
The multitudinous accolades, awards, and top ten lists that have been pinned to The Straits Course's lapel since its opening in 1998 fail to convey the majesty of the place. But here's a small sampling, nevertheless: No. 8 on "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" and No. 29 "Top 100 Courses in America" (2002, Golf Magazine), No. 2 "Top 75 Resort Courses" (2002, Golf Digest), No. 3 "Top 100 Modern Courses" (2001, Golfweek Magazine.
To get a feel for what a remarkable achievement the design and construction of this course is, however, consider this description by none other than Pete Dye himself: "I should say this with some degree of modesty. But in my lifetime, I've never seen anything like this. Anyplace. Period."
The Straits Course represents all that is great about often controversial (and sometimes criticized) Pete Dye designs. It is a mad, maddening, madcap masterpiece of golf course architecture. Picture van Gogh with dirt under his nails instead of paint. It's a wonder Dye hasn't cut off his own ear.
The artistic vision of Dye can be appreciated when one considers that the land on which the course sits was once farmland upon which Wisconsin Electric Power Company once planned to build a nuclear reactor. After the Kohler family (of plumbing fixture fame) acquired the land and contracted Dye to build a golf course, 13,126 truckloads of sand were hauled in to transform the gently rolling landscape along the Lake Michigan shoreline into wicked, roiling dunes reminiscent of the pounding waves that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald.
More amazing yet, according to Steve Friedlander, General Manager and Director of Golf at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run in nearby Kohler, is that Dye "puts nothing on paper. It's all by feel. Occasionally he'd crouch down and draw what he envisioned in the dirt with a stick, so that the bulldozer drivers and the rest of us could see what he saw."
Despite the fact that the sand was carted in by truck and sculpted more by Dye's genius than by Mother Nature's patient hands, The Straits Course ranks as one of the world's best links layouts. After all, Kingsbarns, perhaps the last great links design that will be built in Scotland, was also shaped in large part by earth-moving machinery. Dye's design contains all of the best features of both new links layouts like Kingsbarns, as well as those of centuries-old tracks, like Balcomie Links at Crail. In fact, the green on No. 15 of The Straits Course - with its broad sweeping contours and view of Lake Michigan - is almost the spitting image of the green on No. 11 at Balcomie Links - with its view of the Firth of Forth.
All of the elements of the best British Isles links courses can be found here: The layout runs along two miles of uninterrupted lakeshore. Eight holes hug the rocky, blustery shore, and all 18 offer stunning vistas both up and down the strand. The fairways are natural fescue grass. The course is walking only, and caddies are required. A flock of Scottish Blackface sheep even wanders unfettered throughout the property during the golfing season. (And rack of lamb is one of the clubhouse specialties. Hmmm....)
Of course, when the best golfers in the world assault the 7,343-yard, par 72 layout (which will be stretched to just under 7,600 yards for the championship), they will be focusing on the golf holes themselves. And there may be no finer collection of 18 holes anywhere in the Midwest, both in terms of visual beauty and in terms of shear shot-making opportunity.
The Straits Course, despite its stark appearance and more than 500 bunkers, is actually quite forgiving off the tee. Unless you play from the tips, there are few forced carries on any holes other than the par 3s. This said, if you spray, chunk, or top your drives, you will need Ballesteros-like iron and wedge play to salvage bogey or better.
However, if you are struggling with your game, beware slow play: Player assistants (i.e., rangers) will let you know if you start to fall behind, and they will stay on your group until you've picked up the pace, maybe even asking you to move up a set of tees. This is all well and good, since the normal round lasts nearly 5 hours here. But in my estimation, the single biggest factor slowing down play is the fact that the mandatory caddies are all required to carry two bags.
Double-looping means caddies have to scurry from one side of the fairway to the other, and from one side of the green to the other, which takes time. For $50 (caddie fee) plus gratuity, golfers want a caddy who is available at all times to help find balls, select clubs, and read putts, not available half the time. If every member of every foursome were to wait for his/her caddie to do everything that a caddie should, pace of play would grind to a halt. Either more caddies need to be hired, or caddie fees need to go up to allow one caddie to carry one bag each.
After a mild, slightly uphill opening hole, the routing turns sharply to the right and holes 2-4 play south along the shoreline. The par-4 4th - which is long from any tee - is particularly treacherous. Mounding to the right of the fairway makes you think about staying left, but the fairway slopes left toward waste areas and the lake. And an approach from the left side to the slightly elevated green must traverse several nasty sand traps.
The 214-yard seventh is the hole that is pictured on the scorecard, in all the course publicity, The American Club brochures, and here. Yet all these photos fail to do this breathtaking par 3 justice. It has all the drama of the famed 16th at Cypress Point, and more elevation than the 15th at Kingsbarns. Wide right is in the lake; wide left is not much better. And the green runs away from the tees on a diagonal line that can add two clubs to a back pin position.
On the way to the appropriate tees of No. 8 (par 4, 462 yards from the back tees), just take a moment to stand on the championship tees, from which there is absolutely no view of the fairway, hiding some and 20 feet above and 100 yards away from these back tees. There are times one is happy not to be a scratch golfer.
The back nine is, if anything, even more spectacular than the front. Holes 12, 13, 16, and 17 all play directly along the water. No. 12 is the shortest par 3 at just 166 yards from the tips, but the green is nearly 50 yards deep and the single, sprawling teeing area is 170 yards deep, offering an infinite combination of tee and pin placements. And if the wind is up, club selection can be infinitely vexing.
No. 17 is another long par 3 (223 yards) that is Director of Golf Steve Friedlander's favorite on the course. "[The 17th is] a long hole with a steep bank left of the green and a visually narrow putting surface that makes you think about where not to hit it versus where to hit it," remarks Friedlander. Leaving it short is not a bad play, if you can chip it close to the cup.
Approaching the green on the brawny 470-yard, par-4 18th, you realize just how well this course is set up to host a major championship: The 9th and 18th greens are dug into the base of a massive dune, atop which the gray stone clubhouse looms like Heathcliff's mansion in Wuthering Heights. The sloping, bunker-specked sides of the dune will offer the thronging crowds views of both greens and the tees at Nos. 1 and 10.
According to Friedlander, the entire course was set up from the start with hosting a major in mind. The radical dunes on all the fairways will provide excellent sight lines, while keeping most spectators out of range of stray shots and TV camera lenses. The only work that's been done to alter the course for the championship has been to move a few bunkers closer in around the 300-yard mark on several holes, where the pros will land.
Speaking of pros, have many visited the course yet? "Quite a few have come up here to play," reports Friedlander, who doesn't like to name names. "We haven't heard anything but great comments. They say that even at 7,600 yards, length won't be an issue...if the wind doesn't pick up. If it starts to blow, who knows?" The best players in the world might just go from being figuratively blown away to being literally blown away.
When The Straits Course opened in 1998, former President Bush played the inaugural round, along with an impressive cast of entertainment and sporting stars. At the PGA Championship, though, the spotlight will be on the course itself, the likes of which no U.S. major has seen before. Even at the revered Pebble Beach, only ten or so holes offer ocean views. At Whistling Straits, Lake Michigan is omnipresent, and the atmosphere is Old World, not Disneyland.
If, as we predict, the television audience for the 86th PGA turns out to be the biggest ever - irrespective of who wins - as viewers tune in to drool over the spectacular scenery, Whistling Straits could become a household name, and a regular major venue.
July 19, 2004