Numerous sand traps haunt players at Whistling Straits


2010 PGA Championship

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The muted green sign among the native grasses invites golfers into Whistling Straits. Just ahead the raised bunkers that dot the hill to the clubhouse look less hospitable.

While the most prominent feature that’ll be displayed this week at the 2010 PGA Championship will be the wind-swept views with Lake Michigan glistening in the background, all the sand will likely torment the pros.

“As soon as you drive through the gates, there’s bunkers there staring you in the face. So, I don’t see a golf course anywhere near there,” Hunter Mahan said. “They’re everywhere, really. I mean, I feel bad for the fans because it seems like you could be walking and all of sudden you’re falling in a hole of sand and don’t even know it.”

The number of bunkers at architect Pete Dye’s 1998 creation isn’t known. A recent Golf Digest article concluded there were 967.

“There’s so many of them. In a four-day tournament, you’re bound to be in some,” Zach Johnson said.

Course maintenance manager Michael Lee says the number of bunkers isn’t a secret.

So how many are there?

“It’s truly a fluid number because the property is so vast. What is along the lake? What is on the golf course? What’s on the (neighboring) Irish Course? Are the entry road bunkers part of the Straits course? Probably not. So, do you count those?” Lee said.

Nature also plays a role in reshaping the course every winter when the snow comes and goes.

“The winds blow here and it just blows the snow and sand right off the golf course,” Lee said. “You have bunkers that are created and some that are lost.”

In truth, there are less than 100 sand traps in play when the pros tee it up, but it’s no easy business getting it ready. Every day, Lee’s crew of 32 hand rakes every bunker inside the ropes for more than two hours beginning at 5 a.m.

“It’s a work in progress, you’re never finished taking care of a golf course,” Lee said. “It’s a matter of setting priorities. For resort play, we hand rake all the ones in play: those are the ones along the fairway, the greenside ones every day. Today, you’ll see a little bit wider version of that, everything inside the ropes.”

There’s so much sand, players start to admire the traps. One bunker getting the most attention is at the sixth, where a giant 6-foot trap cuts through the green, dividing it.

Phil Mickelson said he likes the hole layout that will punish a wayward wedge shot.

“It’s a really cool bunker and a really cool hole,” Mickelson said. “It is a huge penalty if you mishit your wedge and go in that bunker.”

Lee, who has been part of the golf course since its inception, said Dye’s vision has made the course firm, but fair and contends pros who finds themselves in the deep bunker should be able to play out.

“It is very difficult for any human being to visually sort out the sand here that comes into play. I think as the players go through the week, they will get accustomed to looking at all that sand and really get to know the Straits better and be able to tune some of that out,” Lee said.

For the moment, players are still trying to wrap their minds around just how many traps dot the course.

“There are some very small bunkers out there. To get a 1,000 of them out there, you have to have some pretty small ones,” Justin Rose said. “You just have to accept sometimes that when we’re in a bunker, we expect to get it up and down. That might not be the case this week.”

And being off line could mean a long day.

“If you get out of position on this golf course,” Graeme McDowell said. “You’re in a world of pain, no doubt about it.”

And trying to count all the sand traps proves pointless – even on a fact sheet handed out by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. It lists the details of the types of grass, water sources, green sizes and soil mix.

As for bunkers? “Numerous.”

A giant understatement.