A major anniversary: Kohler properties celebrate in 2013
HAVEN – The Straits course at Whistling Straits opened in 1998 to much fanfare, a Pete Dye creation across a landscape that was once flat farmland, and then an army training facility. The earth has moved in the last 15 years along the shores of Lake Michigan, with the water breaking below and wind sweeping across the top. Dirt shifts, and the roots of the fescue grass fairways and rough move with it.
The high fescue and bunkers remain largely maintained by the elements, though man has helped with some changes, from the dramatic to the cosmetic, along some holes and the winnowing of the fairways to 22 total acres.
Unlike traditional Midwestern golf courses, layouts often dotted with trees, the Straits has matured uniquely. There are trees, but they're few and far between the hundreds of bunkers and the bluffs and dunes. It has matured in its playing history, too, having hosted the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championships and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open as preparation for the 2015 PGA Championship and the 2020 Ryder Cup.
"It's been a pretty neat thing to see the golf course mature and the property mature and everything come together," said head professional Mike O'Reilly, who began working for Kohler golf when he was a freshman in college in 1996 and became an assistant pro on the Straits in 2000.
"Championship caliber courses, it's common to do course changes as they grow. Maybe you move a bunker here, put a bunker there, put a new tee box here. Certainly, some of that has been done over the years to the golf course.
"And, with the way this golf course was designed, a lot of dirt was moved and a lot of bunkers were added. So, with moving that amount of dirt and piling it up, some of the ground has settled. So we've had to build it up again, or rebuild a bunker because it washed out. We figured things out. Maybe we wanted a bunker here, but with the way the land has changed over the years we can't put it there. It's more that the golf course has settled in, I guess."
Since Martin Kaymer won the 2010 PGA in a playoff with Bubba Watson, some vistas have been improved for dramatic effect on all players, and some modifications have been made for tour-caliber players. Such modifications include the addition of a mound in front of the championship tees on the par 5 fifth hole that will force players to hit into the fairway, as opposed to bombing it over a pond for an easy eagle opportunity. A deep bunker was added within the horseshoe of the sixth green to catch any wayward approach on the short par 4.
The course, though very difficult, is incredibly playable – even for the high handicapper. Tee suggestions are provided on the scorecard and the mandatory caddies gently enforce the walking-only course's pace of play policy. I encourage you to play the right tees. Your game is put to the test, especially around the greens, but it increases your enjoyment level. You will likely be faced with awkward stances if you miss a fairway, forcing you to take your medicine with a wedge back to the fairway – but that strategy, coupled with experienced caddies helping you read the greens, can allow for par saves.
Those associated with championship venues the ilk of The Straits may not like the idea of classifying "signature holes," but the average player will find one – especially when nine of them border Lake Michigan, including all four par 3s which range in length from 99 yards (No. 12, white tee) to 249 (No. 17, black tee). They are tremendous tee shots and certainly intimidating, especially if the wind is blowing hard in any direction.
That wind, and those championships, will help guarantee that while the Straits is settling in, it will never settle.
"Things change," O'Reilly said. "That will be the case forever, really. If you talk about any river bed or any lake shore, things change, it's erosion, it's life. It's certainly something we'll always be aware of."
Where will a scratch player struggle to make par? Hole number 4. Yup. Well, the length, number one (494 yards from the black tees). It's a long par 4 with a difficult tee shot. The landing area is about 270, 275 yards out, the narrow narrows to about 20 yards. Beyond that, if you can carry it that far, it starts to widen, but most can't. The fairway is very narrow and if you miss to the right a little bit you're in a series of bunkers that makes it virtually impossible to make par. You're going to punch it out from those bunkers and then you have to get up and down from 150 yards. Then if you miss it left, again there are some bunkers and thick rough. Even if you do hit the fairway in that landing area, you still have between 185 and 210 yards in. It's just a tough hole, a tough hole all around.
Where can a double-digit handicapper make a par? I think 13 – it's a shorter par 4 (364 yards from the green tees), downhill tee shot and second shot. You don't really need to hit a driver. You can hit a 3-wood off the tee and leave yourself a short to mid-iron that overlooks the lake, but it's straight downhill. You can usually take one club less – it could be 9-iron distance and you take your pitching wedge, and if you leave it short it'll run on to the green. The length of the hole, the fairway is generous and the downhill nature of the second shot a lot of time favors the 12 to 15 handicapper.
What is your favorite shot on the golf course? The tee shot on 17, the par 3. It's a stunning golf hole. Every time I get on the hole, it's not as intimidating because I've played it multiple times, but it's intimidating for most players. What I really like about the hole is there is a big pot bunker on the right hand side and kind of protects the right hand side of the green and makes it look like there's no room over there. But if you carry that pot bunker, just by a little bit, you're going to land and roll out and you're going to be fine on the green. But it doesn't look like that on the tee. It forces you to want to play left of that, and you've got the lake and the huge drop off left of the green. It's a lot of fun to play. It's a really cool shot. We usually play the blues, it's a 200-yard shot, so it's no pitching wedge in there. It's a demanding, demanding golf shot. But, it's a little easier than it looks like if you can get over that bunker on the right hand side.
What is a bit of local knowledge that might be helpful? There was a guy that came out here and counted all the bunkers and we've changed the golf course a little bit since then, so his number isn't accurate, but let's call it 1,000 bunkers on the golf course. A lot of those bunkers, a majority of those bunkers, are not in play. You look on the first tee and there's bunkers that are 90, 100 yards left of the fairway. And the same thing on the right hands side of the fairway. But they're there to visually intimidate the player. So, get on to the first tee, take a look around, understand that you're visually intimidated, and get over it and understand that it's a fair golf course.
Along the same kind of line, is the fairways are generous, but it's important you hit the fairway. I's the most important shot on the golf course. If you can keep the ball in the fairway off the tee, you're going to be just fine. If you don't, you're going to have a long day. You'll find the ball – It's not like some golf courses where if you can't find the fairway it's in 3-foot long grass that you can't see your ball or if you miss the fairway it's in a river – you'll find your ball, but you won't like the lie. It'll be a tough bunker shot. Or it'll be a tough shot with a sidehill lie. Something like that. You've got to keep the ball in the fairway. If you hit the fairway, you're going to be just fine.
This course has hosted multiple majors, and will host many more. A lot has been written about it. What is something people think they know, but maybe they don't really? The wind. In the spring and fall, it's almost always windy in April, May, June – when the seasons are changing. Then you get into the fall, late September, October, when the seasons change again, it starts to get windy again. It's a common misconception here that it's windy here every day. During the summer months, when the air temperature is warm and the water temperature is warm there's not as much wind. We can certainly get windy days, some breezes off the lake, some storms that generate wind, but generally in the July and August months the wind is a little bit lighter.
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