Jury Still Out on Whistling Straits

By John HawkinsAugust 14, 2010, 2:26 am
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.

John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.

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.
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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.

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Pavin's season nearly ends after slow-play penalty

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 1:50 pm

Corey Pavin's season on the PGA Tour Champions nearly came to an end because of a slow-play penalty.

Penalties for pace are often discussed or threatened, but rarely doled out on either the PGA Tour or the over-50 circuit. But that changed Sunday during the final round of the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, where Pavin was told by a rules official after completing his round that he would receive a 1-stroke penalty for slow play.

The penalty was on the surface rather harmless, turning an even-par 72 into a 1-over 73 and dropping Pavin into a tie for 15th. But this was the first event of a three-tournament postseason for PGA Tour Champions players, and only the top 54 in points advanced to this week's Invesco QQQ Championship.

Full-field scores from the Dominion Energy Charity Classic

Pavin, who has two top-10 finishes in 20 starts this season, barely held on at 53rd place after the penalty was enforced.

Slow-play discussions came up earlier this season surrounding Bernhard Langer at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, but Golf Channel analyst Lanny Wadkins expressed his surprise on the telecast that it was Pavin who got a shot added to his score.

"Of all the things to happen with all the times I have played - I can't even count the number of rounds - I never thought Corey Pavin was a slow player," Wadkins said. "All the guys we know are slow players have never been penalized out here. Where has this been for the last 15 years?"

The subject of the penalty also raised an eyebrow from Stephen Ames, who finished alongside Pavin in 15th place while Langer finished second behind Woody Austin:

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Azinger 'lobbied' to captain Ryder Cup team a second time

By Rex HoggardOctober 22, 2018, 1:47 pm

In 2008, Paul Azinger became the first U.S. Ryder Cup captain in nearly a decade to lead a team to victory, doing so at Valhalla with his innovative “pod” system and a player-driven approach to leadership.

In the wake of that victory there were many, including the vast majority of his players, who said Azinger deserved a second chance to captain, but at the time the 12-time PGA Tour winner appeared to be undecided and the PGA of America named Corey Pavin the 2010 captain.

On Monday, Azinger was named NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s lead analyst starting next year and among many revelations during an extended interview on “Morning Drive” he explained how much he wanted a second chance to captain.

“I wanted to do it again, I lobbied to do it again after we won in ’08, but I think I waited a little too long and they had already made a decision,” Azinger said. “The excuse I got was that there are more captains than there are Ryder Cups and I thought that was fair, but then they asked [Tom] Watson to do it again shortly afterward and I was like, ‘What, huh?’”

Watson was named captain of the 2014 U.S. team, which lost by five points and led to the creation of the Ryder Cup task force, which adopted many of Azinger’s ideas including his use of four-player pods.

It’s even more curious that Azinger was never given a second chance considering that Davis Love III was also named a captain twice, first in 2012 and again in ’16.

“I didn’t do it again, I didn’t carry the flag to Europe in 2010, which is fine, and now I’m never going to get to do it again,” he said.

As for who may be named the next U.S. captain after another loss to the Europeans last month in France Azinger could only speculate. “Looks like Wisconsin [site of the 2020 matches at Whistling Straits] and Steve Stricker are going to be a perfect match,” he said.