Whistling Straits is set on the western edge of Lake Michigan, simply head for Destination Kohler. If you didn’t know the history behind Whistling Straits, you’d believe that the 560-acres of land had been shaped by the hands of time. But you’d be wrong. Whistling Straits was the vision of Herbert V. Kohler, Jnr. who transformed a former airfield into one of the most dramatic courses on the planet. Naturally, Pete Dye and his team of bulldozers were involved. The earth certainly moved here at Whistling Straits.
In 1998, the course opened for play and even Pete Dye felt that building Whistling Straits was a “once in a lifetime thing”. Architects are generally presented with uninspiring land and a tight budget; this was not the case at Destination Kohler. It took a few million dollars and a Herculean effort to build the incredible Straits course, which is sculpted for two miles alongside the Lake Michigan shoreline.
After the 2004 PGA Championship, the field were united in their view that this is one of the best golf courses in the world and it’s surely one of Vijay Singh’s favourites, especially after his play-off win. The PGA Championship returned to Whistling Straits in 2010 and it was Germany’s Martin Kaymer who lifted the title after a play-off win against Bubba Watson, claiming his first major and becoming only the second German major winner after Bernhard Langer. Dustin Johnson should have been the third man in that play-off but incurred a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a bunker.
Jason Day bagged his first major title in 2015 winning the PGA title by three shots from Jordan Speith after carding a record score of 20 under par. We think the Straits course will only get better and by the time it plays host to the Ryder Cup in 2020 it will be considered a modern classic.
With an interesting figure of eight routing for both outward and inward nines, the layout is extremely well-balanced and utilises the natural elements to full effect There are far too many good and interesting holes to mention here. We’ll just close by saying that Whistling Straits is an architectural engineering work of art and it’s and absolute must-play course.
Whistling Straits is my favorite course in the western hemisphere. It is officially in Haven, Wisconsin, but it does have a Kohler address. It is the sister facility of Blackwolf Run, which is also a highly rated course. Whistling Straits is built on an old airfield with two miles of frontage on Lake Michigan. When the courses were built, supposedly 800,000 tons of fill were utilized. Interestingly, the Irish course is rated tougher than The Straits, with several forced carries and large waste bunkers. Additionally, there is a herd of about three dozen, Scottish, black-faced sheep roaming the courses. As an aside, I have heard of courses that are now utilizing goats from an environmental perspective, especially to keep underbrush down in hazards.
The Straits is reminiscent of the classic Scottish links courses. It wasn’t created by God, but rather Pete Dye’s artistry and Herb Kohler’s money. My caddy told me that there were over 950 bunkers on the Straits course. Just thinking, but if you have that many why not go for broke and have 50 more to get it over 1000? The routings are two figure eights, the front heading south and the back heading north. The first hole is welcoming. A slight dogleg left, favor the middle off the tee to avoid the fairway bunkers left and right. The 2nd is a par 5 that parallels Lake Michigan. Favor the left off the tee to avoid a blind 2nd shot. Depending upon the wind, big hitters, may be able to get home in two. However, a pot bunker is lurking in the middle of the fairway about 30 yards out. I would consider this a quasi-redan narrow green with deep bunkers left and a collection area long and right. Both times I have played it my wedges failed to stick. The first par 3 is a fun hole, but club selection can be problematic depending upon the wind. This green contours hard left towards the lake. The last time I played it the pin was way left, I hit a good 7 iron that landed back middle of the green. It was fun watching that ball zip down the slope and settle next to the cup for an insta-birdie. The 4th hole is a beast and I am glad I called PBFU on the tee. The number one handicap hole, it is long and tricky. Favor the right all the way through the hole, everything will slide hard left towards the lake. The green appears to hang over the edge of the lake, right is best. One of my favorite holes is the par five fifth. The hole heads inland and is called Snake. It is an apt description, a reverse S with water on your right on the tee shot, and water on your left for the second and third shots to a narrow green. Be smart and play it as a 3 shotter. Number six, Gremlin’s ear (yes, it is shaped like an ear), is a drivable par four for big hitters. However, danger lurks. It is a kidney shaped green with a nefarious pot bunker on the middle inner curve. One of my playing partners went for it off the tee and he ended up in the pot bunker to set up his double bogey. Almost impossible to extricate oneself. I played it a little more traditionally. I was on in reg, but the pin was on the front right closest to the interior pot bunker. Sadly, I was on front left closest to the interior pot bunker. My birdie putt was a joke. While I was probably only twenty feet as the bird flies from the pin I had to putt at a right angle to avoid the bunker. I lagged it about fifteen feet to the left and had a fifteen footer coming back downhill to the hole. I hit a pretty good putt; it lipped the hole and slingshotted about five feet to the left. You probably already know that I missed that putt, too. As I stumbled off the green, my caddy tried to cheer me up by saying I hit two really good putts. I replied, “Was one of them the 6” I tapped in on my fourth putt?” The 7th is a long world class par 3 with Lake Michigan now on the right. This long green will make club selection a challenge and then there is the wind. I successfully nestled a bunt driver onto the green. The 8th is a long demanding par four. Off the tee you must be left to avoid the ravine. This will lead to a long approach over the ravine. For the 9th favor the left off the tee. Too far right and you may be blocked out. There is a steep dropoff right, left is better.
The back starts with a dogleg left. The best play is just left of the fairway bunker. Decent drive should give you a wedge in. Good birdie oppty. The 11th is the longest hole on the course. Favor the left off the tee. There is a massive bunker in front of the green starting about 100 yards out. Best to avoid it. The first time I played it I failed miserably. The second time I wisely aimed right, but the terrain tilts right and I ended up in a pot bunker. Perhaps the third time will be a charm? The twelfth is called Pop Up, the shortest hole and it is extremely deceiving. A short par three surrounded by bunkers and a forty-foot cliff on the right, it looks fairly benign on the scorecard. The first time I played it, two members of our foursome hit the green. All of us three putted or worse, and the best score was a 5! That is right. Both guys who were on the green four putted. The second time I avoided three putting. There is a lot less pressure after you shank your tee shot into the lake. The 13th is a good birdie oppty. Favor the left off the tee. The approach will be blind and downhill. You want to be about ten yards left of the flag and play at least one club short, as the ball will chase down the hill to settle on the green. The 14th is also a scoring hole. Short dogleg left, favor the right off the tee to give you a green light wedge into the green. The 15th is a 500 yard par four. Favor the left and Godspeed. The 16th is the shortest par five. Possible to reach, but it is uphill with forced carry over bunkers. The 17th, Pinched Nerve, is my favorite hole on the course. It is a long par three, slightly downhill with a twenty-foot cliff left that drops down to Lake Michigan. The pin was back the day we played, and I whipped out my trusty $17 Adams five wood and hit a high baby draw that landed softly and rolled back towards the pin. I was hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, but alas, it was not to be. This set up my demise on the 18th, which is called Dyeabolical and another 500 yard par 4. I don’t care for this hole a good drive on the right can be penalized if it goes through the fairway with a downhill lie out of the gunch. There is trouble just about everywhere. I can pretty much guarantee that 18 is both Dustin Johnson’s and my least favorite hole. Having said that, what a golf course.
My only issue was pace of play. I highly recommend it.
Was overall pretty surprised with this course. As a big fan of Mike Keiser's resorts, I didn't expect to enjoy the ritzy brute that is the straits. Playing it from the tips might have been the biggest challenge of my life, but even from all the way back it still has so much variety (I still used every club in the bag). If you miss fairways and greens, you're gonna be brutally penalized. I wouldn't imagine this course to be fun for a double digit handicap, but its still somewhat playable. Even though tons and tons of sand was piped in, the course overall feels pretty natural. While the holes on the lake usually get most of the hype here, I feel like the inland holes are still incredible. 5, 10, 11 and 18 are some of the coolest on the property.
What a golf course and to think it was a flat old Army Camp before they moved truck loads of sand to create this masterpiece. Every single hole is a test of golf but if you struggle to play out of sandy waste areas this is a course you Amy wish to avoid. My personal favourite was the 18th a wonderful finishing hole.
One of the best ‘seaside’ courses you can find. Nearly every hole has a lake view. Plenty challenging but playable if you take what Dye gives you and don’t try to bite off too much. Best Dye course ever.
What's left to say about Whistling that hasn't already been said before. Had the chance to play this course twice while there, (even though the other 3 are just as worthy of replays). The course sits directly on lake Michigan which means that the conditions and wind change every day. The two rounds could not have been more different from each other. The first round was a calm day allowing us to fire at pins. The second round was simultaneously one of the most fun and difficult rounds of golf I've ever experienced. We played on a day with almost 30mph winds that basically threw out all course knowledge I had gained from playing the previous round. Add in the large drop off towards the lake that several holes have as protection and the word intimidation doesn't do justice the feeling you have thinking about what to hit into some of the green. One of the most amazing things about the course is that almost every piece of the land was manipulated by Dye. While on the course, everything feels as if it was completely natural and shaped by wind and time but a look at the surrounding areas and you realize everything around it is flat farmland. Just an exceptional job by Dye creating a true modern masterpiece.
Take away the land value and mansions surrounding the course and only the course quality, challenge and the beauty and views...most people by far would prefer Straits over Peeble Beach.
Now consider that the Staits is at top playing conditions most of the playing season, where Peeble is only at top playing conditions for events and that will be the only time you will play the greens fully cut and rolled. That I believe that puts this marvelous Staits Course at even par with Kiawah for the "Best Public Golf Course in the U.S."!!!
Sand, fescue, and amazing lake views: that’s what you get when you play the Straits course. Eight of the greens (including all four par threes) hover perilously on the bluff over Lake Michigan, and the holes are oriented on several of them to point the player towards the lake, making the green approaches more visually intimidating. The massive dune landforms as part of the design are all man-made, as the property was exactly the same as the surrounding flat farmland on the bluff overlooking the lake prior to the Dyes coming in. It’s a striking difference that you note in only a couple of places, the extreme ends of the property. The only hole that feels like it’s truly natural to the landscape is #5, the long par five bordering a pond that seems so out of touch with the rest of the land. But when you’re on a lakeside hole, you forget all that and think: what a place! Admittedly, having only played it in its nascent form, I might not be the best judge of the course in its current state, but I remember it quite well. (One impression that stuck in my college-age mind: it seemed like all the employees of the club – even the Straits course’s grounds crew! – were beautiful young blond women. Was it heaven?)
My favorite holes: #4, a brute of a par four with a blind approach, #8, a long, mounded par four overlooking the lake, #12, a short par three with a funky shaped green, #14, a par four that (for us) turned back into the wind and provided challenging angles of attack at the green, and #17, one of the most terrifying par threes I’ve ever seen, playing straight down a hill at the lake.
On a personal note, this course was the site one of my golfing career highlights. Holing out from 110 yards for eagle on #9 in front of a few dozen people looking down from the clubhouse to shoot a then-career-best 33 on the front nine is a memory I’ll always cherish. It’s a spectacular golf course and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should ultimately prove to be Pete Dye’s greatest lasting legacy.
Played July 2, 2001
Credit architect Pete Dye in creating a golf canvass on land that was anything but golf centric in its earliest days. The land that the Straits course occupies was formerly an abandoned airfield called Camp Haven -- existing from 1949-1959. Owner Herbert Kohler saw the possibility in having a golf course situated immediately alongside Lake Michigan but taking that vision and transforming it into the course one sees today would take someone with immense creative genius. Enter Pete Dye.
Consider the following: more than one million tons of cubic earth was used to fill the site. Over 13,000 truckloads of sand were also used equating to 80,000 cubic yards of such material.
So before people go on about how "natural" the course is it's important to always remember how much of a man's hand was responsible for the actual finished product. When people discuss Herculean creations such as Shadow Creek and Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah -- the genesis of the Straits is easily in that conversation.
Dye's finished product is meant to replicate the famous dunes lands of Scotland and Ireland. The vistas provided by Lake Michigan are akin to being adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean or Irish Sea when playing across the pond and there are days when the fierceness of the wind -- hence the name "whistling" as coined by Kohler -- is more than apt.
In such a short time the Straits has been ground zero for a number of key golf championships. Since 2004 the Straits has been the host venue for three (3) PGA Championships -- most notable for the fact that no American was among that roster of winners. In 2020, the course will stage the Ryder Cup Matches -- the ultimate team event in all of golf.
I've played the course several times over the years and fortunately, with just one exception, the weather has been good. Pity anyone forced to encounter the harshest of elements because the Straits gives no quarter. When the world's best players have been at the Straits for the various PGA Championships those events have been always in August. Should any future PGA's come to the facility the new time frame in May will likely show another side of the course.
Kohler has attempted to add all the extras when playing there. During a round it's not uncommon to see the 40 or more Scottish Blackface sheep that roam around the property.
The course begins with a modest mid-length par-4. Just to get the round going. The early holes move in a southerly direction and the par-5 2nd is a long and testing three-shot hole. Once you reach the 3rd, Dye then has face Lake Michigan immediately to your left. The most challenging aspect of the Straits is the psychological horror Dye creates for the short holes. Throw in a healthy dosage of wind and you can certainly have some serious scorecard wreckage. This is especially so at the 7th, 12th, and 17th holes. When the pin is cut to the extreme right at the 12th the landing area appears as the size of someone's bedroom.
The Straits does have low points. The pond one sees at the par-5 5th was necessitated because of environmental reasons. The hole is still a good one but the inclusion of pond is a misfit for what the course is seeking to demonstrate viscerally.
The inward half of holes is where the qualities of The Straits does reach a crescendo. The dog-leg left uphill short par-4 10th is often missed by many for the fine hole it presents. Plenty of options and plenty of scores can happen here. Dye excels in always throwing in a range of mental images that can easily distract the feint of heart. Players must thoroughly commit to the shot they're attempting to play. That's not always easy when a 20-30 mph crosswind is howling.
The ending trio wraps up the round in a very demanding way. The par-5 16th can be a birdie hole but not without three solid shots to get to the green. The long par-3 17th has been mentioned by others. Suffice to say, the slightest pull will result in someone from your group throwing you a lifejacket because unless the high grass intervenes you'll be humming the bars of that famous Bobby Darin song -- "Splish Splash."
The ending hole provides mixed emotions for me. The length is certainly present -- 520 yards. The hole goes uphill before turning left and descending to a green that is not only massive in size but is cordoned into various sections so an able and accurate approach is central to leave the final green with a smile intact instead of a paralyzing frown.
There's little question that high stakes tournament golf will be a permanent feature for Whistling Straits. The costs to play are exorbitant and the pace of play can be frustrating as people attempt to circumvent the endless obstacles -- over 1,000 bunkers present throughout the property with eight holes hugging the shoreline. Kohler has provided a golf oasis with other courses and the American Club provides first rate lodging, food and related amenities.
Is The Straits the best Dye course?
I would say no given such others as The Ocean Course at Kiawah, Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic and The Golf Club just outside of Columbus are all vintage designs. However, the Straits is clearly an impressive creation given what was on the site previously. Having the Ryder Cup Matches there in 2020 will be most interesting to watch in how the course is prepared for the bi-annual tussle between Europe and the USA.
The downside is when the course is overloaded with golfers clearly beyond their comfort zones and pace of play resembles a funeral procession. Those who venture to play The Straits had best move up one tee box because the course does not suffer fools gladly and you will certainly Dye for it. No pun intended.
by M. James Ward
The Straits course is an outstanding layout and probably my favorite Pete Dye course I've every played. The course is laid out in an interesting figure of 8 loop that brings the wind into play in a slightly different direction on every hole. In this feature the course is similar to Muirfield. The course starts on an inland hole then turns out to Lake Michigan. All told 7 holes run along the lake with the water most dangerously in play on 3 of the 4 par 3 holes. The course is full of undulation and elevation changes. Every hole presents a different and unique challenge. Dye has provided a number of spectacular shots but almost every hole has a safe route or bail out area that makes the course quite a bit of fun to play. Caddies are required but the course is very easy and enjoyable to walk.
Although the layout and design have features in common with a links course, the ground is not true links land and the course does not play hard and fast like a true links. However this is a fantastic layout easily on par with Pebble Beach and other spectacular waterside courses. The Kohler resort is a first class destination and I would encourage every golfer to play here. Read my full story here: The Wisconsin "Pearl" Golf Trip