Public Access Whistling Straits - COPIED

By Erik PetersonDecember 13, 2010, 8:53 pm
KOHLER, Wis. – If a plumber said he planned to build a golf resort in Wisconsin that would rival Pebble Beach, he’d be laughed out of the room. Fifteen years ago Herb Kohler, the venerable president of Kohler Company, had such a vision and this summer the Straits Course at his beloved Whistling Straits is already hosting its second PGA Championship.

Not bad for a cheesehead.

In addition to bold, the Straits is all things a championship course should be: Scenic and demanding, with a dozen or more holes that make you say, “Wow.”

Despite its glory, however, perhaps its most important characteristic is that it’s open to the public. In fact, this summer, for the first time in history, the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship all take place at venues open to the public.

Whether you’re a PGA Tour star, a middle-aged couple from Toronto, or a quadriplegic who’s a nearby resident, Whistling Straits is your golf course. But before being introduced to the people who enjoy visiting Whistling Straits, you need to know about Pete Dye, the crazy man who built it.

When Kohler approached Dye about designing Whistling Straits he asked him to do what Dye does best:  The impossible. The site, an abandoned 560-acre airfield along Lake Michigan, was a flat wasteland that looked more like the surface of the moon than PGA Championship staples like Southern Hills or Medinah.

That is, until Dye got his hands on it.

'I should say this with some degree of modesty. But in my lifetime I've never seen anything like this. Anyplace. Period,' Dye gushed in 1998 prior to the opening of the Straits Course.

Amazing what an unlimited budget and 13,000 truckloads of sand can do for you.

“Pete Dye has always made the most of the glorious possibilities that the land affords,” Kohler said. “He is nature’s best collaborator and this time, he has truly outdone himself.”

The Straits Course is the crown jewel of the American Club, the only AAA five-diamond resort in the Midwest. But its other three courses – Irish and two at Blackwolf Run – are no slouches either. Each is considered one of America’s 20-best public golf courses and the River Course at Blackwolf Run will host its second U.S. Women’s Open in 2012.

Kohler’s trio rivals Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Spanish Bay. In fact, Bandon Dunes is the only other golfing trio that garners such high praise, but the hotel accommodations there are like college dorms compared with the American Club.

For husband and wife Eric Kay and Gloria MacDonald, the comparison of Whistling Straits to Pebble Beach was something they wanted to judge for themselves. Since marrying in 2004, they’ve been on a mission to experience the best golf courses they can find – including Pebble Beach, which was tops on their list before visiting Kohler.

He, a Toronto attorney, and she, the owner of a Canadian dating website, have the likes of Bandon Dunes, Ireland and Scottsdale on their golf vacationing résumé, but after playing the Straits this spring on a sun-soaked 80-degree afternoon they both admitted Kohler’s three championship golf courses have taken over the top spot.

When asked to compare Pebble Beach with Kohler, their joviality was as evident as the sky was blue that day.

“There’s no comparison,” Gloria beamed from the clubhouse patio that overlooks the ninth and 18th greens at the Straits. “This is 10 times better than Pebble Beach.”

“The Straits Course is in better shape than Pebble and there aren’t any weak holes here,” Eric added.

While they agreed the majestic ocean views of Pebble Beach are unequalled, they were enamored by Pete Dye’s design at the Straits, where mighty Lake Michigan is visible from the tee or green on every hole and an eye-popping 1,200 bunkers litter the rugged landscape. Grassy dunes frame holes like imposing natural walls.

Whistling Straits has the treachery of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and the raw, natural hazards of Kiawah’s Ocean Course.

When the world’s best golfers got their first glimpse of Whistling Straits at the 2004 PGA Championship, benign conditions the first three days gave way to a brutally windy Sunday. Though Vijay Singh ended up winning in a playoff, his first birdie of the final round didn’t come until the playoff. Chris DiMarco was the only player in the final nine groups to break par that day.

Whistling Straits had lived up to its blustery name and the golf world took notice. The following year Whistling Straits was awarded the 2010 PGA Championship, becoming the first public venue to re-host the championship so quickly. In 2015 it will re-break that record by hosting again, and it will also host the 2020 Ryder Cup.

Three majors and a Ryder Cup before its 22nd birthday? Tiger Woods wasn’t that good, that fast.

But you don’t even have to play the golf course to be inspired by Whistling Straits. Twenty-six-year-old Adam Spenner of Jackson, Wis., is a quadriplegic and breathes with the aid of a ventilator, but that hasn’t stopped him from experiencing all that Whistling Straits has to offer.

At age 3, an astrocytoma brain tumor took away Spenner’s ability to stand and speak, but while he and his family became regular attendees of the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee he developed a love for the sport, despite the fact that he’s unable to hold a golf club.

That doesn’t matter to Spenner. He just loves golf.

At the 2004 PGA Championship, Spenner caught national attention when Phil Mickelson stopped to chat with him during one of his rounds. The poignant mid-round gesture, almost unheard of during an event of such magnitude, created quite a stir among surrounding spectators and put the two in the middle of a mob scene that looked more like Phil and Tiger. Instead, it was Phil and Adam.

Since then Spenner has returned to Whistling Straits on a monthly basis to have lunch with his family. In a thank you letter to Kohler, he wrote about his new-found joy.

“I can’t play golf, but it is my life,” he wrote.

In addition to golf he’s taken up art, and a painting of Whistling Straits (above) that he created using his mouth to hold the paint brush adorns a wall in the clubhouse. If you ask any of the staff about Adam, they’ll tell you he's as much a part of Whistling Straits as the wind off Lake Michigan.

“Adam’s involvement with Whistling Straits makes us proud to be a public-access facility,” said head professional Mike O’Reilly. “If we weren’t open for the public to see and play there are so many things that wouldn’t be included in the Whistling Straits story, including Adam Spenner himself.”

Fifteen years ago when the plumber from Wisconsin envisioned a public course on par with Pebble Beach, it seemed unlikely. But like Adam Spenner wielding a paint brush, some people have the vision to turn a blank canvas into a masterpiece.
Getty Images

McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

Getty Images

Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

Getty Images

Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

Getty Images

McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.