HAVEN, Wisc. - On August 1, 2000, The Irish Course at Whistling Straits danced her way out onto stage, and almost despite themselves, critics and purists started falling at her feet. The bawdy, irreverent little sister to the world-class Straits Course has already vaulted to 60th position on Golf Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play" list, and every golf connoisseur's must-play list.
Set behind The Straits Course, the 7201-yard, par-72 Irish Course still offers breathtaking views of Lake Michigan from holes 2, 8, 11, 12, and 13, along with a collection of short par 3s that tempt you like a quartet of Sirens, and risk-reward par 5s that test your will and judgment.
Course architect Pete Dye said of his work here that he "used every trick I've ever learned" in routing the layout and molding what was essentially the extra sand and earth left over from the construction of The Straits Course into 18 completely memorable and utterly unique golf holes.
Like her older sister, The Irish Course boasts over 500 sand bunkers filled with native sand. After a rain, these bunkers - many of which are waste areas and do not require raking - become hard-packed and extremely conducive to bladed sand-wedge shots. (HINT: Try to pick the ball clean with a pitching wedge if possible.) Also like her big sis, The Irish Course has five sets of tees, shortening the course from 7201 to 5109 yards, and making it enjoyable for all handicap levels. And finally, ten of her holes have water in play, so precision and forethought are paramount.
Despite Dye's admitted "trickery" in designing this course, it is anything but tricked-up. There is more than a hint of leprechaun to be found in the collection of par 3s, but their often occluded, booby-trapped greens are faithful to some of the best short holes to be found on the Emerald Isle itself.
The 160-yard 6th is a perfect example of Dye's playful take on Irish golf. The partially blind green is a veritable island of bent grass surrounded by more sand than is to be found on all the beaches of Florida combined (or so it seems from the tee). Hit this relatively flat putting surface, and birdie is a possibility; miss it, and bogey doesn't seem so bad.
Nos. 11 (208 yards) and 13 (183 yards) are holes you may be telling stories about over frothy pints for years to come. The 11th (named "Lamb Chop" after the sheep pen located behind the enormous sand dune to the right of the green) features a half-hidden green, sand between you and it, and two sodden-walled bowers hidden just to the left of the putting surface. These deadly bunkers - which really do look like bomb shelters - have nine-foot high walls, making them practically inescapable.
No. 13 is Director of Golf Steve Friedlander's favorite hole. In Friedlander's words, "It's a blind tee shot to a huge 14,500 square foot green with tremendous undulation. If you don't pay attention to you pin sheet, a three-putt looms large." And of course, if you miss the green there is as always a penalty: sand short, right, and long, and wetlands to the left.
If the par 3s - which rate as the four easiest holes on the course (yeah, right) - are simultaneously as accessible yet profound as a W.B. Yeats poem, the par 5s require as much concentration and intellectual prowess as a James Joyce novel. The fairways of all four par 5s are crossed at some point by one of the four streams meandering through the property. As such, players are forced not only to weigh the risk-reward factors, but also to precisely measure lay-up yardages so as not to go too long into the streams, or stay back too short from the greens.
The 555-yard 8th is a raw beauty that can be tamed by raw power. A massive drive to the end of the first half of the fairway will leave a 200 to 230-yard second, and a big choice. If you lay up, you need to stay short of the gaping bunker set squarely in the center of the fairway, 50 yards in front of the green. If you try for the green in two, you need to clear the sand. The bunker appears to be much closer to the putting surface than it is, however, making both lay up and go-for-it shots tricky.
The 558-yard 18th may be the shortest of the long holes, but it contains the single toughest shot on the entire links. All but the most Daly-esque drive will leave you with either a lay-up to a sliver of fairway sloping drastically down toward a 30-yard wide ravine, or a heroic forced carry over that same hazard. The longer option, however, doesn't buy you much advantage, because you're left with a short third shot that is steeply uphill to the elevated green. Considering all of the trouble surrounding it, you'll be happy to discover that this is one of the largest greens you'll ever find at the end of a par 5.
Since it lacks any holes playing right alongside Lake Michigan, one might think that The Irish Course would be envious of the sheer beauty of her big sister, The Straits Course. But this dazzling youngster has a playful yet contemplative nature all her own.
One of the best vistas on the course may not even be of Lake Michigan. As you stand atop the 10th green, you see clusters of toiling figures dotting the rolling landscape. Nothing evokes the feel of true linksland golf like this timeless, Old World scene, where the animated shapes in the distance might just as well be mythical beings as golfers.
As part of the famed Whistling Straits complex, the course naturally offers the same luxuries as The Straits Course: Caddies are available, both regular and forecaddies, and are required before twilight. Walking is encouraged, but golf carts are available (though they must be kept on cart paths, which can slow play). Green fees (regularly $198, with caddie) also buy you unlimited range balls on the sprawling practice tee and full access to the cushy locker room in the imposing stone clubhouse.
The conditions are immaculate, with fast, firm bent grass fairways and greens, and fescue roughs that are left largely uncut, unless the sheep wandering the property grow particularly peckish. Pace of play is rated at 4 hours and 40 minutes, with six minutes built in for a snack at the concession stand behind the 8th green. This pace, however, might be optimistic if, as is the case on The Straits Course, caddies are double-looping (and working for two golfers on opposite sides of the fairway).
In short, if you can only play one course at Whistling Straits, and you can't get a tee time on The Straits Course, do not feel shortchanged playing The Irish. The 26.5 million-gallon lake that comes into play on the last three holes may not be Lake Michigan, but a round here will be one you will always remember. Dye's own estimation of The Irish is that "There is nothing in the United States that has the look and feel of this course." And he is correct.
This complex lass will tease and confound you, and please you no end. Don't be surprised to find yourself speaking with a bit of a brogue round about the 4th hole - she has a way of getting under your skin.
Location: Haven, WI, 9 miles northeast of the village of Kohler
Rates: $198 (includes caddie fee of $50, but not gratuity); Twilight rate $104 w/o caddie, $115 with golf cart
Caddies: Forecaddie required before twilight, optional thereafter
Yardages/Ratings/Slopes: 7201/75.6/146 (black); 6750/73.5/141 (blue); 6414/72.0/137 (green); 6038/70.3/133 (white); 5109/65.5/121 (red-men), 70.0/126 (red-women).
Greens: avg. size 7,000 sq. ft.; bent grass.
Tees: 1,500 sq. ft. each; bent grass.
Misc.: 27 acres of fairway; 150 acres of rough; over 500 sand bunkers filled with native sand; 10 holes with water in play; lessons available at extensive practice facilities through the Kohler Golf Academy.
July 22, 2004