KOHLER, Wis.- The tweaking never stops, even on a layout that’s No. 3 on the Golfweek’s Best list of modern courses in the U.S.
The Straits Course at Whistling Straits, a 1997 Pete Dye design, already has proved that it’s tournament tough when it played host to the 2004 PGA Championship (won by Vijay Singh) and 2007 U.S. Senior Open (Brad Bryant).
Dye is renowned for tinkering with his courses, though in this case he was encouraged by owner Herb Kohler to make numerous changes, including at the oft-questioned 18th.
“It’s a great golf course but not a great finishing hole,” said Justin Leonard, who tied for second with Chris DiMarco at the ’04 PGA after losing to Singh in a three-man playoff. Leonard’s concerns about the par-4 18th were widely shared by other players. However, his views have particular poignancy because it was here, on the 72nd hole, that Leonard lost his lead after laying up with a 3-wood to the top of a hill overlooking a ravine, then trying to hit a 5-iron downhill across a center bunker to a hole location just behind it.
Now, thanks to considerable adjustment of the hole, driver will be an option. Dye engineered more rollout to the main landing area and created a spillway of secondary fairway to the left for a risky draw off the tee – shortening the second shot, though at considerable risk.
Another big change comes at the par-4 sixth hole, 355 yards down the prevailing wind line. If the hole location is on the left side of the green, it’s possible for bold players to consider driving the green. The right side of the green virtually has been split off into a dangling lobe of a putting surface, protected by no fewer than 13 bunkers, including one newly deepened pit in front that might make players feel like they’ve tumbled down a rabbit hole.
Back in the mid-1990s, Kohler brought Dye to a flat, abandoned U.S. Army air base overlooking Lake Michigan and said, “I’d like you to make it look like Ballybunion.” Dye concedes now that he wasn’t sure Kohler was serious, “but I didn’t say a thing.” Soon bulldozers and earth scrapers were busy cutting down the soil 60-70 feet and piling it up into huge dunes-like mounds.
The Straits Course is dramatic to the extreme, thanks to two miles of windswept, lakefront bluff, jaw-dropping interior views and intense shotmaking demands. Greens are perched over the edge of the lake. Seemingly generous fairways dead-end or fall off into oblivion. Ideal approach paths to the green are tucked behind ominous hazards that must be carried.
Unlike at most courses, the back tees for championship play (7,514 yards) sit below the grade of the regular tees and present confounding, semi-blind views of the holes. There are dense swaths of impenetrable fescue everywhere and more bunkers than the maintenance crew has been able to count.
“We quit at 900 on the Straits,” says Michael Lee, manager of golf course maintenance at the property. “We just don’t know, but we figure there are about 1,200 out there.”
Says Leonard: “There’s so much there to distract you. At first, you’re like a deer caught in the headlights. During practice rounds, you learn that the things that pull your eye are the things you don’t need to be careful about.”