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.
For the first time since 1916, the year the PGA Championship joined the major championship rotation, the season’s final three majors will be played on public access venues. From Pebble Beach to St. Andrews’ Old Course and Whistling Straits, the public, with advanced notice and plenty of cash, can enjoy the same Grand Slam ground as the pros.
GolfChannel.com dispatched three correspondents to make the major rounds. Check the progress of each course and the people that make the Grand Slam pilgrimage.
Public Access features:
Hoggard: The 2010 Majors
Mell: Pebble Beach Golf Links
Baggs: Old Course at St. Andrews
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.
Public Access features:
Rex Hoggard: The 2010 Majors
Randall Mell: Pebble Beach Golf Links
Mercer Baggs: Old Course at St. Andrews