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A close look at Whistling Straits

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SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The PGA Championship switched to medal play in 1957 and in the 54 times it has been contested since, the highest final round score by the champion is 76, shot by Vijay Singh in 2004 at Whistling Straits. Now, for the second time in six years, the last major on the calendar returns to the course on the scenic bluff overlooking Lake Michigan that caused so much controversy and carnage.
 
It was the longest course in major championship history when we last visited Whistling Straits and there were some nervous voices that thought it could embarrass the best players in the world the same way that Carnoustie had in 1999. The PGA Championship committee, however, is far too savvy to let that happen and despite Singh’s lackluster Sunday round the course was well received by both players and fans. With very few changes from 2004, the course remains essentially the same, but if you’re anything like me, you don’t remember much about the holes because of all the visual distractions that steal the show.
Having just spent a few days there with the course all to myself I can tell you that there is enough ebb and flow to the layout to provide some salve to the brutality that deep rough, deep bunkers, fast greens and strong winds will inevitably cause. The first three holes – a short par 4, a relatively easy par 5 and beautiful but somewhat soft par 3 – allow the players to ease into the round before they are hit by everything that Pete Dye, Herb Kohler and Mother Nature can throw at them on the 489 yard par 4, fourth hole.

With the prevailing summer breeze in the players' face, a sloping fairway that weaves its way through bunkers and fescue and green that is long but narrow and is perched on a cliff, No. 4 could easily prove to be the hardest hole of the week. The par 5, fifth hole is a double dog leg that will produce some heroic moments with a lake that is shallow enough in front of the green to lure players into bold plays and exploding from its banks should they come up short. The sixth hole is a drivable par 4 that may be one of the more interesting holes I have seen. Disaster awaits should a player miss the fairway left and for the last 100 yards into the green the fairway slopes downhill so shots will feed into the green. The most prominent feature of the hole, though, is a new bunker that essentially divides the green and is about 7 feet deep and leaves a sliver of green on the right that will probably see at least two hole placements.
 
No. 7 is a par 3 that will take the breath away of players and fans but for different reasons. Sitting on the lake’s edge it is a photographer’s dream and at 221 yards, with a green that is 43 steps deep and about 15 steps wide, surrounded by harrowing lies, it is a player’s nightmare. The eighth is a par 4 over 500 yards, with a blind tee shot to one of the widest fairways on the course but if a player misses that fairway, he will do well to make bogey. The ninth, a mid-length par 4, will most likely give the players a crosswind to deal with and 7 mile creek to the right of the green will catch a few balls, especially in a south wind.
 
Another potentially drivable par 4 starts the back nine, which was the site of one of the most memorable shots from the 2004 PGA. Singh took driver out and with one swing set up a birdie that would lead to his victory. The eleventh is a long par 5 that is reachable in a south wind but by no means a birdie otherwise. The 12th is a short 3, but pure genius in its design, with one of the most unique greens I’ve seen. If the pin is back right the drama is not to be missed. Thirteen and fourteen are short par 4s that give a little breathing room before the final four holes that rivals the toughest finish in golf.
 
Fifteen is yet another par 4 of well over 500 yards that like Nos. 4 and 8 has a fairway that sits at an awkward angle from 150 yards out so if a player misses it, the layup or the run-up to the green is extraordinarily difficult.  The par 5, 16th is along the shore of Lake Michigan and is going to give us a mix of highlights and disasters as it is reachable by everyone. It also has some of the thickest rough on the course, framing a fairway that weaves through a graveyard of bunkers and cliffs. The par 3, 17th is 223 yards and can play as long as 240 yards and, like all the other par 3s at Whistling Straits, sits on the water’s edge and intimidates all who stand on its tee. The finishing hole is a 500 yard par 4 that is as complicated as it is demanding because of a sloping fairway that makes one play away from a straight line to the hole, a creek that cuts across the hole at about 320 yards from the tee and runs up to the green making a missed tee shot a problem of enormous proportions. The green is both large and busy and will give players fits as they try to read its many obvious and equally many, not so obvious, subtle breaks.
 
This is not a course that allows for recovery or allows for anyone looking to build as the week goes on, as it will severely punish miscues and give us a wide dispersion of scores both good and bad. It will separate the field quickly and without bias to the world ranks. Only those in control of their tee shots have a chance here. Period. After that, you can separate with the normal prejudices to nerves and short game but if a player is missing fairways here he can pack his bags Friday night.
 
Because of the course’s unforgiving nature it’s likely we will get a surprising winner. Course set ups, in the last decade, have acquiesced to the best players visiting the rough often but that leniency is not subscribed to by the PGA or Whistling Straits.