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 2021 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.
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
It, too, is a stern test of golf, until the wind dies down and the beast becomes somewhat tamer. The par-3 17th directly borders Lake Michigan. It is protected by wooded planks in front and a 20-foot plunge to the lakeshore on the left. The 500-yard finishing hole requires a monstrous and accurate drive just to reach the fairway, and then you must negotiate a cloverleaf green that, according to Darren Clark, “depending on the pin placement could leave players with dogleg putts.” All of the holes have names: 17 and 18 are called “Pinched Nerve” and “Dyeabolical,” respectively. Shaun Michael, the defending PGA Champion in 2004, said, “I had a few words of my own I wanted to call them.” Larry Berle.