By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Sep 10, 2014 at 1:03 PM

Herb Kohler and architect Pete Dye have a championship legacy with the Blackwolf Run and Straits courses having hosted multiple majors. There is yet another course, woven alongside the Straits that offers up an unexpectedly different layout than the other two.

The Irish Course at Whistling Straits may not have the tournament pedigree as its siblings – and you may be able to see holes on the Straits over the mounding – but it has its own unique identity.

At worst, I thought the Irish might just be the Straits’ little brother – similar mounds, thousands of waste bunkers, fast greens, but no lakefront view.

If you can underestimate a Kohler golf property, I’d have to say I did.

But my thoughts began to turn when a friend of mine, a strong single-digit handicapper, said he felt the Irish presented a greater challenge than the Straits.

He must have noticed my eyebrows raised, because he said on the Straits, you have a chance to hit your next shot – the lie may be bad, and it may have to go sideways, but at least you can find it and hit it.

The Irish, he said, offered no such relief.

I had to see for myself.

A proper start

I would imagine I’m unlike most in their early 30s in that I’ve had both knees rebuilt (one twice), have two partially torn rotator cuffs, and an ankle damaged enough that when rehabbing for one of my knees, my physical therapist asked what I did to that foot. I ask for no sympathy, but only set the stage for the process it takes to enjoy the game the way I’d like to – pain free.

It requires staying in decent enough shape, stretching, knowing my limits, etc.
That’s fine enough, but since I was headed to Kohler properties, I decided to make full use of the day. So, before golf, I headed over to the Kohler Waters Spa next to The American Club for a "golfer’s massage."

It’s a 50-minute service ($188) which seeks to activate your muscles, loosen any tightness and get your mind and body in the right space. This sounds ridiculous on a certain level – but there’s a reason why athletes who are paid millions of dollars to play sports for a living use these services as well.

As someone with some pretty serious pre-existing joint issues, I was nervous heading in.

But, you let your masseuse know about it, and then before you know it the hour flies by and you’re in the hot tub.

I’ll say this – I have never felt physically better on the golf course than after that massage. I felt I had energy throughout the day, I had no tightness (especially in my hamstrings, for which my masseuse Kate should receive a medal for accomplishing). My shoulders and back felt great, as did my knees. I also had really sharp focus, which is another issue I face on the course. If you can, I definitely recommend this before your tee time.

The Irish Course

My friend’s assessment of the course piqued my interest, and I immediately saw why on the second hole when Dye forces a tee shot over a large pond to a narrow fairway protected by bunkering.

The more you wanted to cut off of the water, the more accurate you had to be in landing it and the approach included a sightline you won’t get on the Straits: a tree line around the back of the green.

The trees aren’t mature and massive like at Blackwolf Run, but they’re hearty and a beautiful contrast to the fescue and bunkering.

The water was also a surprise, and that particularly nasty hazard is in play on eight holes, either with a pond or creek.

Considering that I am not a single-digit player, I teed it up from the green tees, which measure at 6,366 yards. (The blue tees might seem reasonable to most, but the additional 384 yards tacked on – especially on the par 3s – would make a huge difference when the wind blows.)

Due to the tree lines and the high mounding that separates you from players on the Straits, I always felt like I was playing in something of a half-cocoon: free to see all there was to see, but always warmly tucked away as well.

The Irish isn’t as intimidating as the Straits, and while Dye’s signature visual tricks do come in to play on a handful of holes, the Irish is out in front of you.

They’re not ashamed to tell you it’s "target golf at its finest" up at Whistling Straits, and the Irish is no exception. It requires pristine tee shots and very accurate approaches to greens that have false fronts and undulations you can’t quite pick up from over a hundred yards away.

Dye allows you to play the course – if you want to be aggressive with your target lines, you will be rewarded – but in order to do so you have to be, well, good. There is little room for error.

That said, I’m an average player currently with a handicap index in the mid-teens, and I found myself with ample birdie and par opportunities.

My friend was right, though – you can lose a ball more easily than on the Straits. The fescue off the fairway is thicker, longer, and there are juniper bushes and creek side grasses that can swallow your shot.

A personal favorite was the 322-yard, par 4 ninth hole called "Last Gaspe."

It couldn’t look more different than some of the other holes, with its trees and creek that cut the fairway twice. It required an accurate tee shot both in shape and distance, which allows for a short approach over another hazard to a green protected by bunkers.

Then you go to the 10th, another par 4 dubbed "Shepherd’s Post." 

It is a visually striking tee shot where the only green are the trees behind you on the tee box, the brown fescue, bunkers and mounding making you feel like you’re only inches high. This is Dye’s deception however: an easy swing can lead to another palatable approach and chance for birdie or par.

Golf can be an intensely personal exercise, yet it’s shared by all – especially at public fee facilities like the Kohler golf properties. It allows you to play favorites.

If you were to ask me which of the three I’d go back to tomorrow, it would be the Irish. I found it very fair, yet challenging, with unique vistas and characteristics sampled above that didn’t make you feel like Dye tried to compensate for the fact that you’re not playing along the lakefront.

And, if you’re looking for place to play late summer and fall golf that will give you a different look than the parkland tracks we’re used to here in Wisconsin, the Irish is a good option (but remember, this is destination course at $190). Fescue can look purple and golden depending on the time of year and the sun, and there is a variety of trees where you can see your traditional fall colors interspersed with the muted greens of pine.

Which is a reason that you should take a caddie on the Irish, even though it allows for carts (unlike the Straits). The carts are restricted to the paths, and I must say you lose a bit of the atmosphere by remaining on the concrete.

The American Club

I did not go solo up to The American Club, as my wife accompanied me on the trip. While I got myself ready for golf – and then hit the course – she went to the Kohler Waters Spa for its signature massage, the new Kohler KUR hydrotherapy treatment and its manicure-pedicure combination service.

While I can’t speak for how she felt going through all this, I do know she loved it, beginning with coffee and some time in roof top hot tub and floating in the indoor pool, to lunch on site and another turn in the climate-controlled waters at the spa.

The KUR treatment isn’t for everyone – please call ahead to find out what it entails, as you essentially are wrapped in ice cold blankets for nearly a half hour to start – but that, coupled with the massage, left my wife relaxed and energized.

The American Club has several food options, but I’m a fan of the kitchen at Blackwolf Run (yes, the golf course). I have a sweet tooth, so I went with the spinach and poached pear salad to start, and the combination of the spiced almond cracker and creamy boursin cheese is almost unfairly good. My entrée was the restaurant’s specialty – the spicy honey-glazed smoked double-thick pork chops, which comes with mashed potatoes and asparagus.

That, combined with an Arnold Palmer while watching players finish out on the 18th green out the window, was a great way to end the day.

There are few better ways to spend an overnight than in a room at The American Club, where its dark woods, muted lighting (and Kohler showers!) almost makes you have to actively try to get out of bed. Breakfast was in the Wisconsin Room, which is just off the lobby, and it was difficult to get down there for French toast and the buffet.

We get spoiled a bit here in Wisconsin, with all of the great golf courses and "stay and play" resort venues. Oftentimes, there’s no reason to actually stay since many are within a reasonable driving distance.

But I will say – if you’re looking for a high-end, all-luxury overnight trip this coming fall where you can get in top-flight golf, mixed in with the ability to experience the spa, along with enjoying the changing of the seasons  either on course or through the activities in the River Wildlife preserve – don’t underestimate what’s essentially in your own backyard.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.