Review for Whistling Straits (Straits)

Reviewer Score:
TaylorMade

Review:

The Straits course at Whistling Straits is a gem. It is wild, yet somewhat tame. It is beautiful along the shores of Lake Michigan but can turn ugly when the wind is strong in your face or a strong cross wind. It is long but can play shorter if the fairways are dry. It is hard but yet it is somewhat simple once one arrives on the green. It has some “easy” holes and some very difficult holes. The easier holes are spaced to allow one to right themselves after playing the more difficult holes, and these easier holes allow one to clear their mind from whatever negative thoughts are running through one’s brain. It has bunkers placed in the right spots, yet has bunkers that serve zero purpose to the defense of the course. It begins on a good opening hole and ends on a compelling hole in a bit of a man-made dell.

The collection of par 3’s, all of which sit on the water are very good, even the short twelfth. There is good variety in the par 4’s. While the par 5’s are all long, they both look and play very differently. For me the par 5’s are the most memorable holes on the course if not for the out-of-place fifth hole, which I was told was designed to protect a type of bird or animal, which once the course opened, they relocated anyway to get away from the golfers. It is hard to pick the best par 5 just as it is difficult to pick the best par 3 on the Straits.

My first visit to the Straits course was in June, 2003. There had been a late winter with cold days well into May that had morning frost. There was also a late ice storm. The course was in such poor condition that I wondered they would be able to host the PGA championship to be held the following year. I guess I do not know what good, warm weather and a good superintendent can accomplish. But when I played it, several of the holes had long spots of dirt. The greens were also filled with brown spots of “dead” grass and some mud spots from players. At the time I tried to overlook the poor condition and concentrate on the routing and design of the holes. I knew the history behind the course and the number of truckloads of dirt brought in as well as the number of times Pete Dye was “fired” from the job by Herb Kohler. I had read Mr. Kohler’s description of building the course where he said something like, “I gave Pete Dye an unlimited budget and he exceeded it.” I am grateful that Pete Dye was allowed to finish it. Despite the poor condition, I marveled at what Mr. Dye and Mr. Kohler’s money and vision had accomplished.

After playing it in 2003, I walked away thinking that it was a good course with many outstanding holes. There was no question it was beautiful sitting alongside Lake Michigan, yet it was diminished by the unnaturalness of the course. It felt like a “paintbrush” course where the artist could create his own interpretation of thousands of images running through his head. The artisit did not have to worry about what was there….he had a blank canvas. It felt very contrived to me and with the nearly thousand bunkers on the course, it felt very manufactured and at times silly, no matter the result.

After my recent round, nearly all of those thoughts went away which is why all courses deserve at least two looks. The course has been lengthened substantially since my first visit, yet probably not as much as technology has changed distances golf balls can travel. The course looks more natural now, even the cliffs and mounds nearer the lake seem to resemble what it is on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. Maybe my improved view of the course was influenced by playing the Irish course in the morning which is even more contrived. In any event, I marveled even more at what has been built on a piece of ground that was previously non-descript.

I walked away with a higher appreciation of the Straits course. After my first visit, I considered the Blackwolf Run River course to be better. Now I consider the Straits course to be the best course not only in Kohler, but also in Wisconsin.

There are only two “negatives” I have regarding the course. The first is there remain many bunkers that will never be in play. They also do not add to the visual appeal of the course. These unnecessary bunkers add to the cost of maintenance for a course that is already expensive to play. The second negative is that juniper bushes have been planted at the back end of several bunkers. I was told by my caddie is that the pros requested the juniper bushes be planted to serve as guide points for the course as well as identification of some bunkers that are harder to spot. These bushes should be removed. Getting close to the deep face of a bunker already likely leads to a dropped shot, but when one has no choice but to use a putter to putt backwards to the front of the bunker in order to get out, that essentially becomes a two shot penalty which is ridiculous. It also slows down play. Many of these bushes were added since my first visit.

With regards to pace of play on the Straits course, I know a person who was behind a large corporate outing of people who hardly ever play. His group’s round took seven hours yet ran out of daylight after playing the fifteenth. Seven hours for fifteen holes. My round took five hours, two for the front and three for the back. The back nine takes longer because the stretch from fifteen to eighteen is difficult, highlighted by the very difficult seventeenth. We finished sixteen only to find a group on the seventeenth green and two groups waiting on the tee. This was on a relatively calm wind day. So count on a five hour round if you tee off after 10 AM. But also count on perhaps a six hour day if the wind is strong. I do not think the long rounds are due to a marshall’s inability to control the pace. There is little they can do to hurry people along who either do not have the skill level for the course, or believe their skills are much better than their actual abilities particularly when they try to overpower the Straits course with length. Even if one hits it short, the player who hits it straight has a considerable advantage on the Straits course.

The course has many memorable holes including the second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth, eleven, and fifteen through eighteen. None of the other holes are “bad,” even the out-of-place fifth has some positive features.

From the Black tees the course measures a whopping 7790 yards, par 72 rated 77.2/152 which is amongst the highest ratings I have ever seen. The Blue tees are 7142 yards rated 74.3/145. The Blue tees are an adequate challenge for the top 0.5% of golfers. The Green tees, which I played are 6663 yards rated 71.9/141. There are two sets of lesser tees and a combination tee.

1. Par 4 – 493/405/370. This hole was considerably lengthened from my first visit for the Black tee. The hole is a dogleg left with a fall-off of the left side of the fairway where taller grass, rougher ground and scattered bunkers await. The right side of the fairway has a higher ridge line and also scattered sand and taller grass. Short of the green are two bunkers on either side, with another three on the left and one on the right. The rear of the green falls-off into a sandy area. The left side of the green has those bunkers sitting well below the surface with a final fall-off of perhaps 20 feet in height. The green is narrower at the front and has a bulge on the back right, but is essentially flat other than a front right swale. It is a nice opening hole if you find the fairway.

2. Par 5 – 597/533/521. I loved the second hole which seems to go forever. You can’t really see the green from the tee as the land falls away after the tee shot. An average length tee shot down the right side will likely result in a blind second shot so the left side of the fairway is preferred. There is a forced carry over sand off the tee about 150 yards. Sand is everywhere down both sides of the fairway, with a fall-off on the left side. The second shot has less sand down the left side off of the fairway while the right has sand seemingly every twenty yards. Everyone needs to avoid the center pot bunker 35 yards short of the green. A third shot is likely to be played slightly uphill. The green complex is one of the better ones on the course despite the flat green as there are numerous small bunkers on the lower left side with four larger bunkers off of the right. The fall-offs on the right into a hollow and the rear of the green could send a ball to a receptive bunker. Once you hit your drive you see Lake Michigan off to the left as the hole works its way closer to the water. It is a splendid golf hole.

3. Par 3 – 188/180/166. One probably will not pick this as the best par 3 on the course but it deserves high praise. The green is angled to the left creating a narrower landing zone. There is a slight false front at the green. Behind the green Lake Michigan also curves to the left. The safe play is always middle-right on the green or short of it. There is a fall-off on the left side to numerous bunkers or grass. Small bunkers are scattered down the right side with less of a fall-off into these bunkers. Larger bunkers are also placed on the ridge behind the green. You are playing from the tee looking towards the lake. This is the first time I saw a juniper bush set at the edge of a bunker in this case the first bunker behind the green. The green has two small ridges cutting horizontally across it with a back right swale and is canted front to back and right to left so a shot to the right side is the better line. This is both a visually appealing and fun golf hole although it was prettier back in 2003 when the juniper bushes did not impede the view of the lake.

4. Par 4 – 494/451/414. This is a terrific hole played perhaps as much as 75 yards from Lake Michigan to the left but this dogleg curves left consistent with the Lake. The hole falls gently from the tee with sand everywhere on both sides. There is an enormous amount of sand to the left early off the tee that is there only for visual purposes but I did not think they added to the hole. A large bunker on the left edge of the fairway and a juniper bush on a rise on the right serve as the guide points for the drive. The land falls gently down the left of the fairway until it reaches a final cliff near the shore line. There is also a large mound on the right side off the tee that will lead to a blind shot if one is behind it. The fairway is tilted a bit to the left and narrows at roughly 90 yards from the green. The green is angled right to left and has a narrow opening and a slight false front. Off the left side of the green is seemingly nothing but bunkers. Behind the green is a fall-offs and even more bunkers, several of which appear to be unnecessary but in this case I am certain someone has been in all of these. Further behind the green is a rise with more bunkers that do not seem to make any sense. The green has a slight dip at the beginning but is generally flat. This is another visually attractive yet fair hole if one finds the fairway off the tee.

5. Par 5 – 603/563/543. Most people would rate this hole as the worst on the course. It bothered me the first time I played here but it made more sense on round two. There is a very sharp dogleg right, perhaps as much as 90 degrees as the fairway runs out due to a large pond. I could not see any reason for a player to try to cut the dogleg given the mounds, bunkers and water down the right they would have to carry while not allowing their ball to run into the pond down the left. I did not see much reason for anyone to try for this green in two as the green is set right against the pond which continues behind the left half of the green and overall the green is very shallow. The smarter play is to play the second shot to the right but as far left as one dares for a shorter and better approach to the green, albeit the third will also play over the water. The green’s surrounding bunkers are well behind the hole and should not be an issue.

6. Par 4 – 409/378/360. I think this could be the most under-rated hole on the course due to the marvelous green complex. This hole plays as a sharp dogleg right with the turn about 60 yards from the green. The green is a plateau green. The left side of the green has higher ground tilting the fairway to the right. There is a bunker right of the fairway about 100 yards from the green. The best play is down the left side to have a view of the green as the right side can be blocked by a high mound between the green and fairway. The bunkers near this hole are deep, particularly the one fronting the green which appears almost like a wedge and sits down about eight feet (or on the right side depending on the direction of the approach shot). There are bunkers everywhere if coming in from the right side of the fairway. There is also a deep bunker behind the green. This smaller green is the most undulating greens on the golf course and it falls off at the back left.

7. Par 3 – 221/205/185. This hole is even prettier than the third although there is no bend in Lake Michigan behind the hole. Instead, the lake sits down the right side but with large rocks to prevent erosion. The fall-off on the right is both sharp and steep and this green is placed closer to the water than the third so there is a chance missing right will result in a ball in the water unless it catches some of the bunkers on the right. The left side has much higher ground and fronting bunkers. The large/long green is angled left to right with the smart play aiming for the left center of the green or short of it. The green is relatively flat.

8. Par 4 – 506/470/429. From the tee Lake Michigan sits off to the right down a gentle, but steady slope littered with bunkers. The tee shot is blind to a fairway that sits off to the left a bit and snakes its way left, then right to the green. The tee shot works somewhat away from the lake but the green is placed nearly as close to the lake as the seventh green. There are bunkers and difficult grass lies all down the right side continuing alongside the long, deep green. The right side of the fairway can result in a blind second shot if one is not far enough down the hole. The left side has a large, long bunker placed into the hill beginning about 60 yards from the green. This hole reminded me of the tenth at Pebble Beach although the look is very different and Pebble’s is closer to the water. It felt like there are 100 bunkers on this hole. The green is long with the worst bunkers being a deep one on the right middle and a raised bunker on the front left. The green has a couple of interior spines and swales. It is difficult, but fair and very attractive.

9. Par 4 – 442/412/384. Much like the fifth this hole feels a little out of place because of the thick trees down the right side. There is a long bunker down the middle prior to the beginning of the fairway. There are also large rises down the right and left that can kick a ball back onto the fairway or at least near it. The green is downhill from the tee to the green and sits in the bowl/hollow well below the clubhouse. Built into the hill on the right are numerous large bunkers while the left side offers a single large, irregular shaped bunker. Hit too far right and one could be blocked by a large tree. Balls landing short of the green have the chance to run onto the green which has several horizontal ridges and a back right plateau. The one bunker to avoid near the green is placed inside the line of the green on the left middle. Three other bunkers are also on lower ground on the left side. The right side of the green has a long, thin bunker set at the bottom of a 15 fee drop-off. Farther off to the right is Seven Mile Creek. I felt this hole to be visually attractive than a challenge.

10. Par 4 – 391/376/334. Much like the Irish, the tenth on the Straits climbs nearly straight uphill and is littered with bunkers, many way off to the left that are unnecessary. I would say 60% of them have zero value on the left side. From the tee you play across Seven Mile Creek and try to avoid the center bunker which is deep and will result in a blind shot. Miss left of the fairway and you are on much lower ground and likely in a small bunker. There is another interior bunker on the right side about 70 yards short of the green. The green sits off to the left with a sharp fall-off and numerous bunkers off the left/front side. The green has a lot of movement in it, although none that is dramatic. It is a nice green complex, but this is my least favorite hole on the course.

11. Par 5 – 645/563/544. I really like this hole from the tee to the green. The hole bends right until coming back a bit to the left as one nears the green. There is sand off of both sides with the right side of the fairway falling lower. The left side has a long bunker with seemingly ten fingers to it. The second shot needs to avoid three deep and separated bunkers on the right. The left side offers a very deep bunker of about 15-20 feet and is 100 yards in length ending at the beginning of the green. I did not see many places to climb in and out of this bunker which has embedded sleepers covered by grass. The smarter play is to stay short of this bunker and leave a shot of 125 yards into the green. The green is angled to the right with a false front. There is a deep bunker middle left of the green and a fall-off at the rear into a tiny, deep bunker. The green has subtle movement with the most difficult pin positon at the back right. Even more the second, this par 5 demands three quality shots.

12. Par 3 – 163/138/118. Probably the least of the par 3’s on the course except from the Black tee, the green is once again at the edge of the lake. The hole plays downhill from the tee. Miss the green to the right and one’s ball could tumble all the way 40 feet down to the rocks and water below although it is more likely to get hung up in the grass or the bunkers built into the side of the hill. The green is angled left to right and has a tilt towards the water. There are bunkers built into the side of the hill on the left of the green as well as several near the back left that squeeze the back of the green to a mere seven yards wide. I asked whether they put the flag back there given its near in-accessibility and I was told every seven days. If one lands on the left or even center of the front two-thirds of the green, there is no way to putt close to the green. If one tries to hit a shot to this small portion of the green they have to carry a front bunker as well. The green is probably the second most undulating green on the course. I felt this hole to be a bit too quirky.

13. Par 4 – 402/389/364. This is another quirky hole playing as a semi-blind shot from the tee to a generous fairway. Longer hitters can catch a slope and have the ball propel far down the fairway. Bubba Watson drove this green in the most recent PGA. The tee shot should favor the left side of the fairway as it is sloped to the right. Miss the fairway to the right and one is in dunes or one of the 30 or more bunkers on the steep slope down to the water. The left side of the fairway has a ridge holding other bunkers. The bunkers on the right continue to the green with the lowest bunker being perhaps as long as 200 yards. There is a small bunker left of the green and several behind it. The green has a lot of movement and pace is critical on it. Much like the twelfth, I felt the hole to be a little too unconventional.

14. Par 4 – 396/360/346. This hole plays slightly uphill from the tee and is another semi-blind shot. This hole has a sharp dogleg left with the green angled the opposite way. Bigger hitters will try to cut the dogleg but there is a long inner bunker there. The right side offers large hills with some bunkers built into it. The tee shot should favor the right side for the better look into the green. Again, a juniper bush has been placed at the final fairway bunker on the right. I did not care for the design of the hole but the green complex is fabulous. The right side falls-off considerably into deep and irregular bunkers, where at one point it narrows to about 3 feet. There is no chance of recovery if one is unfortunate to find this spot in the bunker. The rear of the green falls into more bunkers. Thankfully the left side of the green has no bunkers. The green itself is long and thin with various ripples, one of the more interesting green surfaces on the course. For me this concluded the weakest stretch of the course from 12-14. From here to the finish, the final four holes are a complete test of golf.

15. Par 4 – 503/464/429. This long hole bends to the left with a small break just beyond the halfway point of the fairway. The left side of the wide fairway is preferred for both length and a better view of the second shot. Large bunkers are on both sides off the tee. A long and wide bunker begins on the left side about 125 yards from the green while the right side has scattered bunkers. The green is somewhat flat and open at the front. This hole is a combination of power and control. The green ends with a nice view of Lake Michigan. It is hard to say which is the best par 4 on the Straits course – for me, it is either 4, 8 or 15.

16. Par 5 – 568/545/535. A favorite ending for Pete Dye is a 5-3-4 finish. This par 5 seems to go on forever, straight off the tee but then winding right and back left. Bigger hitters who find the fairway and get a favorable roll-out will try for the green in two but any miss left will see a ball tumbling down the dunes, likely ending in a bunker as there are three rows of bunkers on the lower ground. From the tee down the entirety of the left side are bunkers as well as a gradual decline to the water. The right side off the tee for the average player offers more room but the second shot must carry over a rise where there is a lot of sand with the juniper bushes at the end of several bunkers. This was the first time I hit into a bunker with a juniper bush at the end of it. While it was a very poor shot, the narrow channel of the bunker had the juniper bush blocking any exist front, right or left. My caddie said to try to go through it and I amused him by trying. It was like hitting into jello except one could not find the ball. Another bunker on the right side had another juniper bush at its end. As to the finish of the hole, the green sits on higher ground almost like an infinity green. It is a splendid par 5 marred only by those juniper bushes. The bunkering on this hole on the right side has definitely been changed since I first played it.

17. Par 3 – 249/223/197. This is one of the hardest par 3’s I have ever played. Much like the island greens at PGA West, TPC Sawgrass or the par 3 over water at the Ocean course at Kiawah, this is an all-or-nothing hole. The hole plays downhill but the wind is often in one’s face negating that favorability. The green is likely 40 feet below the tee, possibly more. Miss left and one will likely be in one of the many bunkers or their ball can go the rest of the way to Lake Michigan which sits to the left. The famous Alice Dye bunker fronts the right side of the green. Beyond this bunker are numerous bunkers built into the side of the hill to the right side. The best line is right over the Alice Dye bunker, which is on a raised mound of perhaps 15 feet. But don’t go too long right as there are many bunkers with raised edges that are hidden behind the Alice Dye bunker. I found the front of the Alice Dye bunker as the wind kicked up. The sand inside the Dye bunker is very soft compared to the rest of the sand on the course and I felt fortunate to get out. The green tilts towards the lake on the left. It is a visually stunning hole and the most difficult par 3 on the course.

18. Par 4 – 520/487/424. From the Black tee the hole plays uphill to a plateau fairway with a forced carry of perhaps 190 yards. The fairway is angled from the Black tees but plays straight from the other tees. The fairway actually bends well left for those players who want to try to carry a shot 280 yards over sand and rough area but also believe they can have their ball run short of the drop-off into Seven Mile Creek which snakes its way diagonally left to right. The safer play is to play right/straight short of the drop. There is fairway on the other side of the creek which ends in a four-leaf clover type green. A front bunker and mound guard the right side of the clover with a rear bunker also on the right of the back clover. Short of the green along the left are numerous bunkers. There are bunkers everywhere down the right side, built into the side of the hill both before and after Seven Mile Creek. I felt 60% of these were unnecessary and did not add to the visual. The fairway drops off to the green about 60 yards in front. Due to the four-leaf clover effect, the middle of the green both horizontally and vertically are very long. The most visually compelling part of the hole is the amphitheater where the green is located at the bottom. This hole is also quirky and very non-conventional, but unlike 12-14, it somehow works.

It is difficult to say whether this is Pete Dye’s finest work. But it certainly holds it own against the TPC Stadium course and the Ocean course at Kiawah. All three of these courses are very different than the Golf Club. I have not played Teeth of the Dog. But Straits is better than PGA West Stadium, Pete Dye, and The Dye course at French Lick. I like it also much more than Harbour Town.

The course could possibly be ranked higher if not for the five holes that are inconsistent with the rest of the course – the fifth, ninth, and twelve-fourteen. In addition, although having an interesting green, the uphill tenth is a relatively unexciting hole. The eighteenth might also be too unconventional. In some regards I think Mr. Dye tried to do too much here with resulting in too many unnecessary bunkers. But after playing it the first time, I had it barely in my top 100 when I had only played 250 different courses. I am up to well over 800 courses, including more than 630 on this website, and it is solidly in my top 75. There are so many great holes on this course.

Date: May 29, 2021


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