2004: PGA from the couch

Mosel, Wis.

This year’s PGA Championship will give home viewers a welcome chance to see one of modern golf’s finest courses. Of the nearly 2,500 courses opened during the boom-boom ’90s, the Pete Dye-designed Straits Course at Whistling Straits is the first one to hold a men’s professional major.

Here’s a couch potato’s guide to what you’ll see and hear:

Players complaining. PGA Tour pros are really, really good at griping. They’re used to receptive fairways, readily visible lines of play and predictable conditions. That’s why they’ll be squirming at The Straits.

To start with, they will struggle to see the fairway landing areas. Dye does what no other modern course architect would dare: he makes the landing areas less visible from the championship tees than from the forward or middle tees. How? Simply by building them lower, not higher, thereby reducing sight lines so that crack golfers face additional uncertainty along with extra real estate.

Practice rounds will be slow as players align themselves with whatever it takes – dunes, distant silos or fleeting clouds – to get a fix on the target. And if there’s any wind (as there always is along Lake Michigan), expect the players to get really queasy and to express themselves accordingly. This is not a course they’ll like at first. Not that their moaning and groaning should be taken seriously. Golf professionals as a group are stunningly ill-educated about architecture and express themselves for the most part in very self-serving tones.

Did we mention wind? It prevails out of the southwest, which will make two of the par 5s (the 598-yard fifth and the 618-yard 11th) reachable in two for some, despite the scorecard length of the holes. The wind tends to be relatively modest in mid-August, but can vary dramatically and also shift during the day. That makes course setup dicey, especially for those par 4s listed at 500-plus yards (Nos. 8, 15 and 18) where carries to fairways can get out of hand with a subtle wind shift. 44A lake that looks like an ocean. Lake Michigan is no piddling little fish pond. If it looks huge on television, that’s because it is in reality, though aerial camera work will exaggerate the effect and make it look like water is more of a factor than is actually the case. The lake is a direct factor on six holes, including all four par 3s. But the genius of the routing at The Straits is how Dye has created long views of the lake as distant background to approach shots. The effect is theatric, powerful.

Generous greens. Putting surfaces averaging 8,700 square feet will make up for a lot of tee-to-green difficulty. Ultimately, this will soften the effect of the blind shots and wacky fairway bunkering to make scores low enough where the results won’t look like a massacre. There hasn’t been a major with greens this large since the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions in Houston. The difference is that at The Straits, there isn’t a level position, and many of the hole locations will look as if they’re hanging onto the putting shelf for dear life. The looniest locations are sure to be at the 143-yard 12th hole, where the far back right section looks like it wouldn’t hold a sombrero.

“Off color.” No need to adjust the color on your TV set if or when the golf turf at The Straits appears to be something other than green. There’s not a blade of verdant bluegrass to be seen out there.

The fairways and roughs are a mottled-looking mix of fescues, which means caramel-colored golf turf. This is links-style golf, and let’s just hope the announcers on TNT and CBS don’t make the common (American) mistake of referring to it as heather or hay. Fescue fairways thrive on firm, dry conditions and help the ball stand up and roll a long way. Fescue roughs, by contrast, make for notoriously unpredictable lies, which will make wayward shots something of an adventure.

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