My Whistling Straits Experience

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04 PGA ChampionshipLets make one thing clear. Im proud as heck about what Im going to tell you but it wasnt my idea to make it the subject of this weeks column. I was urged by TGCs website brass to share my experience of playing at Whistling Straits, the site of next weeks PGA Championship in Kohler, Wisconsin.
 
You may not believe what Ill soon share with you, but trust me, I have the ball I pulled out of the 18th cup, the scorecard, and the two living witnesses (a.k.a. playing partners) still with me.
 
It was the year 2000 on a Saturday morning. I had just wrapped up an assignment as the booth host for The Golf Channels early round coverage of the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee and was looking for a wind down if you will with a couple of my TGC colleagues. So I decided to call on a longstanding invitation to tee it up.
 
As I remember it, a 5 a.m. wake-up call in our Milwaukee hotel led to a hustling 1 hour drive, a couple dozen balls on the range, and a meet and greet with our caddies for the day. It was a morning round at the Straits Course followed by lunch and an afternoon round at Blackwolf Run (site of Se Ri Paks triumph at the 1998 U.S. Womens Open.)
 
The Golf Channel had televised the PGA Club Professional Championship at Whistling Straits the year before. I served on our Live Tournament crew that June week in 1999 as both an on-course announcer and 18th hole interviewer. And to this day, I remember that week as one of my finest at The Golf Channel.
 
Jeff Freeman, then a club professional from Palm Desert, Calif., and now a full-time member of the Nationwide Tour, outlasted the field and the conditions at Whistling Straits to win the title with a superb four-round total of 287. Thats right ' 1-under par! Freeman, who is the brother of PGA Tour veteran Robin Freeman, was the only man to finish the week under par. The 287 total is the highest by a winner at the CPC since Bob Boyd won at Pinehurst, NC in 1988 with the same winning mark of 287. Since 99 nothing has come close.
 
I teed off on that Saturday morning with David Kamens, who is a fine player and the producer responsible for Playing Lessons with the Pros ' the hugely popular series on TGC, and also my boss, Tony Tortorici. Tony is the man behind the shows you see on our network. He hires the talent, coordinates the production team, makes the assignments, signs off on the checks and like Kamens, has more than a few rounds in the 70s to his credit.
 
Whistling Straits - Hole 2Wanting nothing to do with winds of 15-20mph and a day from the tips, we took the advice given to players with handicaps hovering from 8-12 and set off from the Blue Tees. The particulars on the card: 6909yards, 74.2/144.
 
When fans visit the Straits Course for the PGA Championship, they will be awestruck. Rolling terrain, mounding to the left and right of fairways, bunkers by the hundreds, greens with undulation and some spectacular views of Lake Michigan. It will be tough to traverse as a spectator, and on-course commentators will have a fatigue test as well.
 
I remember during the CPC walking the fairways to get a yardage for the given player and then having to climb to the top of a mound just off the fairway to make sure our signal had a better shot of finding its way to the receive tower. Point being ' those mounds are big!
 
I remember the wind taking a crushing drive and turning it into one that you and I would play. I remember wind off the lake taking the shortest of sand wedge approach shots and knocking them straight down into one of Pete Dyes mighty bunkers. Clearly, long-hitting Jeff Freeman had a big advantage on the field that week. His long but penetrating ball flight did its best to show Mother Nature who was boss.
 
On that June Saturday in 2000, the wind was a factor. Truth be told, it wasnt overwhelming ' but it was a factor making you think on every shot. And FYI, 3-wood off the tee was NEVER an option. I made par at the first with a good putt as I remember it. And I was off, trying my best to take in the sights, but give The Straits my best.
 
I shot a rather pedestrian 39 on the front. Lots of pars, but making a bunch of putts and as my boss Tortorici put it a few days ago when I told him about this column, not thinking too far ahead.
 
The back nine was unbelievable to say the least. The 10th is a demanding par-4, dogleg to the left, with a forced carry off the tee that must find the proper shelf and also avoid the menacing bunker staring you right in the face from the center of the fairway. I avoided the bunker, but the wind kept me from getting to the proper tier. I was on the upslope with a bit of a blind second and plenty of wind. To this day, that is the shot that I remember most. I hit it perfect found the green and got my back nine started with a deep exhale.
 
Who the hell is this guy? is what Tortorici remembered thinking. And I must confess, I was thinking the same exact thing. After a while, I remember being left alone by my two playing partners, left alone with my caddie for the day and those demon thoughts we all get when things get going in the direction of the zone.
 
I dont remember this shot or that shot, just that he got on a roll and never got off, Tortorici recalled.
 
Hes almost right. I made three birdies on the back, the rest were pars ' except for the 18th. What a hole! Par-4, 435 yards. I hit a very respectable tee shot given the conditions (mental and weather). To this day I remember this decision to make. A big tree harassing my judgment, a meandering creek to carry. But I was pumped up knowing what par or, heaven forbid, birdie would have meant. My caddie said it was an 8 iron. I wanted to hit 9 because I was feeling it. But this caddie, bless his soul, had carried me around Whistling Straits like I knew what I was doing so I went with him. 9 iron back in the bag, 8 iron in hand.
 
You know the rest.
 
I flushed it long behind a back bunker with the green sloping away from me and a really bad lie. Forget the birdie, forget the par, just save yourself, I thought.
 
I hit a shot I that goes down as one of the best Ill remember as long as I play this game. Just getting it on the green was a chore. I just missed the long par putt and settled for bogey.
 
I shot 35 on the back nine at The Straits Course. I left with a bogey, but I also left with a round of 74. To this day, Ive matched it but never bettered it. Maybe the golf gods wont let me. If so, I dont care. I really dont.

Find the flyovers, look at the holes. Its a walking course, meaning its a five mile jaunt for you and me. Natural fescue fairways and bent grass greens make up the 18 holes. The elevation changes some 80 feet at number 15. Eight holes hug the Lake Michigan shoreline.
 
Its Dyes masterpiece among many. Its Herb Kohlers vision. It brings you back to thoughts of the games beginning some 400 years ago ' a challenge in every sense of the word. Exactly what a major championship should be.
 
FYI ' I shot 83 in the afternoon at Blackwolf Run, proof that a single digit handicap (then a 9card currently says 6) guarantees nothing and great moments in this game are only on borrowed time!

And if youre headed to the PGA, pull me aside. It doesnt take much to get me re-living the moment!
 
Email your thoughts to Kraig Kann
 
Related Links:
  • Photo Gallery - Whistling Straits
  • Full Coverage - PGA Championship
  • Course Tour - Whistling Straits