ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – This will be my fifth visit to Whistling Straits in Kohler, WI and I know I will be swimming against the current when I say with each visit my enthusiasm for the Pete Dye design has diminished.
The first time I saw and played, the Straits course was while covering then 1998 US Women’s Open at nearby Blackwolf Run, another Dye design. The course was set to open officially after that week and media were invited to take a test round through the course. Dan O’Neill of the Post Dispatch and I, being media, and hearing free, were quick to oblige the invitation.
Another media member who had played the course earlier in the week suggested we pay attention to the land near the approach to the course to get a sense of what the starting point for Dye was in terms of terrain. The story has been well documented that the property had been a military base with an airstrip and artillery range, a completely flat tract of land.
Our obligatory caddie that day was a college student who had worked construction in the finishing days of the project and colored in some facts. The only inland water on the course was a reed filled small lake on the fifth hole. To detail the amount of precision that went into the construction he pointed out the thousands of reeds filling the water were not native, nor seeded. Each had been planted by hand so as to get the immediate desired looked.
After that first taste on the Straits I was greatly impressed and enthusiastic.
My next view came at the 2004 PGA won by Vijay Singh in a playoff over Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco. If memory serves me correctly what stands out most about that week was Darren Clarke aiming at the wrong TV tower on Saturday and Vijay winning using a conventional putting stroke.
My feeling about the course that week was that it was a magnificent accomplishment of transformation in the design, spectacular in appearance, but I said I didn’t know if was a great course or just a great achievement.
My third stop in Kohler was the June prior to the PGA Championship for media day and another chance to play. My game was substandard, but the course was brutal in its setup in advance of the PGA. Any slight miss was unforgiving. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle told me afterward he hated the round, this coming from a very gifted player.
During that round my caddie cautioned me on a couple of occasions about trying to play from some of the thousand plus bunkers through the course. He said they had more than once had players try to swing from the steep slopes and injure ankles and knees for the effort.
The actual Championship that year was brilliant by comparison to the debut edition. Matt Kuchar was the halfway leader at eight under over Nick Watney, and Watney’s 66 on Saturday gave him his first ever Sunday final group. Lined up behind Watney were Dustin Johnson, a very young Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, eventual winner Martin Kaymer, Jason Dufner, Steve Elkington, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson.
Watney collapsed with an 81. McIlroy squandered two chances in the final three holes, Bubba Watson shot 68 to catch Kaymer and infamously Dustin Johnson missed the playoff after a post round penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72 hole.
That week Dye held court in the media dining and espoused the philosophy that brutally hard golf courses have vast appeal to the golfing public who he contended would travel great distances and pay large fees to be beaten into submission after eighteen holes. Golfers are masochists by nature suggested Dye, and a course like the Straits plays to their fetish.
For this staging of the PGA there will comparisons made to Chambers Bay and the US Open. Both courses are land reclamation projects. Both course use fescue grasses in the fairways. Both courses are intended to be links replicas of those in the UK and Ireland. Both courses possess striking manufactured natural beauty.
In my system of evaluating courses Dye’s work in Wisconsin is light years ahead of Robert Trent Jones Jr’s “overdesign” in Washington. But being the better of two evils is not a recommendation.
As a tournament venue both courses are physically dangerous to a walking public although Dye was intelligent enough to route the course in a way that allows spectators to take in the entire round. Both courses have the potential to stretch to obscene playing distances, although the PGA has twice ducked pushing the envelope. The Straits has actual greens to putt on, and in contrast with Chambers Bay, you have reasonable expectations of where well-played shots may end up.
My biggest argument against the Straits is the amount of excess built into the design. When it wants to be severe, it can be brutally so. If Watney can shoot 81 in the final group what can destination golfers expect from their round at the Straits? And then there are the bunkers.
The number may vary but the neighborhood of one thousand is agreed upon. Why? They are not strategic, because nobody can have that many risk factor variables in a round. They are in most cases cosmetic, in all cases punishing, and in my opinion, unnecessary. If you filled in 700 or more of the bunkers your aerial views would loose some luster, but your ground level experience might be improved.
The story about Whistling Straits is Herb Kohler told Dye he loved playing golf in Ireland and wanted Pete to build him Ireland. Two weeks after playing five courses in Ireland, and an additional two in Scotland in my opinion these faux American creations capture the look but fail to provide the experience.
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