When Whistling Straits opened in July 1998, course owner Herbert V. Kohler Jr. grabbed a microphone and waxed romantic about designer Pete Dye’s masterpiece on Lake Michigan. Kohler put words to the post-card views around him, proudly going on about sandy dunes, knolls, cliffs, hollows, gullies and wind-warped trees.
“Pete Dye has always made the most of the glorious possibilities that land affords,” Kohler went on. “He is nature’s best collaborator, and this time he has truly outdone himself. The course offers a succession of spectacular views, each more remarkable than the last.”
Others agreed. Whistling – tucked away in Haven, Wis., about an hour north of Milwaukee – is high on golf’s build-it-and-they-will-come list, recreationally and professionally. Third in Golfweek’s Best Modern Course rankings, it has played host to the 2004 PGA Championship and ’07 U.S. Senior Open. It has played to rave reviews, of which Kohler says, “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Next up are the PGAs in 2010 and ’15 and the Ryder Cup in ’20. That means it bats cleanup this year in a major-championship rota that might be the best of any year in the game’s history.
If golf dirt has a version of the ’27 Yankees, then Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews’ Old Course and Whistling might be the lineup.
In its two majors to date, Whistling Straits has been something of an equalizer course, favoring no type of player other than the one who plays solidly. The par-72 layout was listed at 7,514 yards at the ’04 PGA but didn’t play long because of firm turf.
Vijay Singh shot 8-under-par 67-68-69-76–280 and beat Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco in a three-hole playoff. Ernie Els and Chris Riley finished a shot back, and Phil Mickelson was among those two behind.
The ’07 Senior Open leaderboard had a similar mix of players known for either length or accuracy but mainly for ballstriking. Brad (Dr. Dirt) Bryant shot 6 under, overtook third-round leader Tom Watson and won by three over Ben Crenshaw.
“Both tournaments saw a variety of styles on the leaderboard,” said Jim Richerson, Whistling Straits’ general manager and director of golf. “Pete did a great job with the design to create that. It really doesn’t favor one style. It favors those who are playing well and who manage the wind and weather and their game.
“Pete’s vision was about controlling the ball, flight and distance. You have to hit a lot of different shots.”
Leonard, a medium-length hitter, couldn’t agree more. You might say this is his type of major.
“Some memories (of the playoff loss) notwithstanding, I’m really looking forward to going back,” Leonard said. “I enjoy the golf course. It doesn’t favor a certain kind of player. You have to play well. The best thing I take from it is that I played well, even though the ending isn’t what I wanted.”
No, it wasn’t.
The Texan had the 86th PGA Championship – a field he wasn’t even in until he received a special invitation in the mail in late June – in his control on the last five holes of regulation. But he bogeyed three of them and lost to Singh in the playoff.
Putting ultimately cost the 1997 British Open champion his second major title on the linksy-style Straits. Though he missed a 7-footer for par at 14, he had a chance to ice victory at the 518-yard, par-4 15th. He hit what up to that point was the shot of the tournament, a 3-iron from 218 yards to 6 feet of the hole.
Had he made it, he would’ve had a three-stroke lead with three holes left. But he missed off the left edge and missed a 5-footer for par at the next. Still, he took a one-shot edge to the 489-yard par-4 18th and hit a good drive. But, facing 204 yards to a left pin and 197 to clear a fronting dropoff, Leonard chose to aim at the hole instead of playing safe on the right side of the green. His 5-iron shot came up a yard short of clearing the depression, and he missed a 10-footer for par.
Singh hit two brilliant tee shots on the first two playoff holes, Nos. 10 and 17, and at 1 under was in the same position as Leonard had been, one ahead going to 18. He played to the right side and two-putted from 45 feet for victory.
“You could always get up-and-down from the right side,” Singh said. “Maybe (Leonard) misclubbed. I was surprised to see him come up short.”
This year, Singh, Leonard and Co. will see a Straits course that again will play more than 7,500 yards, one that could stretch to 7,700, one that has a few new wrinkles, particularly on Nos. 3, 6 and 18.
“Pete is always tinkering,” Kohler said. “He built a crazy bunker in the middle of the green on 6. He created a double fairway on 18. If you’re one down on Sunday and the wind isn’t killing you, you can go to the new fairway on the left if you can fly it 300 yards. If you do that, you’d be in position to hit a wedge to the green.”
Kohler said a number of players came up to him in ’04 and complimented the course. A couple, including Mark O’Meara, suggested a retooling of 18. “Mr. O’Meara said, ‘Mr. K., you have to have a double fairway at 18. You can’t have a 3-wood shot into that green.’ ”
So it has come to pass.
On the 183-yard third, Dye wrapped a bunker farther around the back left, giving the visual impression that the left side of the green is in the lake. A little dropoff back left has turned into a dramatic one, complicated by sand.
The sixth, named Gremlin’s Ear, measures 391 yards from the back but was driveable at least one day in 2004 with the tee up. Dye made the hole more difficult by putting a new bunker in the middle of the green, separating the left and right halves in a figure-eight shape. With the tee up, players must drive left if the pin is left. With the tee back, right pins are more challenging.
About the only problem last time was that the PGA probably set a record for grass stains. Numerous spectators slipped down the course’s grassy, hilly slopes, some accidentally and some intentionally. Ankle sprains were the most common injury. According to the PGA medical report for Monday-Friday, an average of eight people per day were transported for further care and an average of 33 were treated on-site for minor injuries.
“We’re trying to encourage people to wear golf shoes instead of tennis shoes,” Kohler said. “When the fescue dries, it’s like a sheet of ice.”
If the ’04 PGA had another problem, it’s that Tiger Woods wasn’t in the mix to stir television ratings. Woods opened with 75 and finished T-24, six shots out. He left there in a 0-for-10 drought in major championships.
Though a force since the day he turned pro, Woods has matured as a player since ’04. He has won at a higher percentage rate and proved he can win majors on courses that supposedly didn’t suit him, such as Royal Liverpool and Southern Hills.
Whistling Straits, another so-called equalizer, could be next, though in the wake of Woods’ performance at Firestone, he’d have to find some form pretty quickly.