Jury Still Out on Whistling Straits


2010 PGA ChampionshipSHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Forget everything you might have heard about this week’s PGA Championship being played in the middle of Nowhere. It’s actually 20 or 30 miles outside Nowhere’s northernmost suburb, and as irony would have it, beautifully ensconced in the heart of America’s Dairyland. As you travel the one-lane roads that lead to Whistling Straits, it’s like someone dropped you in the middle of an old John Mellencamp video.

Optically, the golf course is even more stunning on site than it looks on TV, which doesn’t do justice to the elevation changes and jagged terrain. Competitively, Pete Dye’s visual masterpiece hasn’t proven to be nearly the ogre many thought it would be. 'These Guys Are Good,' especially in sticky, motionless summer air, which has rendered the greens soft and vulnerable. The early leaderboard has produced a nice mix of big hitters and control players, and for the most part, tour pros seem to like the place.
Tiger Woods
Whistling Straits is hosting the PGA Championship for the second time. (Getty Images)
This is no small feat in a world where half the population despises everything. While chatting with Jim Furyk during Thursday’s fog delay, he acknowledged that he was a fan of Whistling Straits, even if the venue’s characteristics don’t necessarily favor his style of play. Because most of the fairways are abnormally spacious, those who are deadly accurate with the driver find their greatest asset neutralized. A 15 handicap could lose 10 balls on the front nine alone. If you have some idea where you’re hitting it, however, you will find your ball in a spots that allows for an aggressive approach.

Not that you care, but I’ve played Whistling Straits four times on two separate visits, the first with owner Herb Kohler on an absolutely perfect August day; the second time a few years later in October, when we were greeted by snow flurries on the walk down the first fairway. To say the course is a pussycat in a light breeze would be a stretch, but in a three-club wind and temperatures in the 30s, it becomes a four-letter word for unplayable.

It is easy to understand why the PGA of America has adopted Whistling Straits as its northern version of Valhalla – a course with decent credentials, not stellar, but a frequent host to big events nonetheless. Kohler is a man with an intense passion for the game and considerable influence among its decision makers. Just as significantly, his project was conceived and constructed in the second half of the 1990s, when the PGA and USGA simultaneously began searching for new places to stage their flagship tournaments.

Whistling Straits was on the short list of potential U.S. Open candidates, but the PGA moved swiftly and decisively in luring Kohler, who had to choose one major or the other – that’s how the game works. At the time, there was no telling whether Dye’s lakefront beauty was even suitable for holding a major. The property you see now was a complete and unabashed vision of Dye’s imagination, shaped and bulldozed beyond recognition, and thus, the ground was extremely unsettled in its infancy.

Not that it mattered. In the 1990s, as is the case now, it’s not whether you have a great finishing hole or an architect of widespread critical acclaim, but enough room for parking and a massive merchandise tent. You need ample space for hospitality tents and whatever other revenue sources you can conjure, because pro golf is a business thinly disguised as a sport. That’s not a sin, just a fact.

The funny thing is, Whistling Straits is not a great spectator venue. A number of patrons suffered broken legs while walking in the dry fescue when the PGA Championship debuted here in 2004. The mounding and sheer size of the course eliminate the roar factor so prominent at, say, Augusta National – the folks sitting near the 15th green hear the reaction to an eagle on the 13th as if it were happening 10 feet away. Such factors contribute to an ideal major-championship atmosphere, which makes the experience of attending such an event all the more exhilarating.

Is ambiance a necessity? Of course not, and if Whistling Straits is a lot more sprawling than cozy, golf tournaments in the Midwest generate a positive energy and excitement you just don’t find in other parts of the country. These people love their golf and glow with pride in the national spotlight. Hazeltine, Medinah, Valhalla, Whistling Straits – nine of the last 12 PGAs have been held in the central portion of the United States, including each of the last five. If the U.S. Open overdoses on venues near New York City, Glory’s Last Shot has migrated to the Midwest.

Some venues are better than others, however, which takes us back to the one we’re at now. I’ve talked to several caddies who spend their summers looping at Whistling Straits, all of whom quickly note its spectacular visual appeal but aren’t terribly fond of the design nuances. Dye has never built courses to win popularity contests, but this particular creation, perhaps more than any other, was accorded “spectacular” status long before it proved worthy of such praise.

I’m just saying the jury’s still out. And might be for a while.

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Any serious golfer who walks the grounds at Oakmont or Shinnecock is likely to notice the medley of nuances that add up to a brilliant layout – a sensible, simplistic brilliance that emphasizes strategically sound golf. I’m not sure Whistling Straits has that gear, and from a wide-angle perspective, it leaves me to believe this week’s PGA won’t fully showcase the wide variety of skills characteristic of the world’s best players.

Louis Oosterhuizen won the British Open going away, and though he was a no-name winner, his exceptional play left no doubt as to the identity of the best player that week. St. Andrews is the ultimate competitive canvas – carve 18 holes in a sandlot and see who ends up with the lowest score. Graeme McDowell’s U.S. Open triumph came about partially through the mistakes of others, but he was the best down the stretch, clearly the most fit for the task of handling the elements that define the challenge of completing a successful final round.

As someone lucky enough to be here, on someone else’s dime, no less, who wins doesn’t matter as much as how he does it. From there, I’m not asking for a whole lot. Just a memorable performance full of great shotmaking, a hero emerging from a plot drenched in mesmerizing suspense. You can marvel the incredible landscape. I’m searching for a competitive landmark.