Once a flat and featureless army range, Whistling Straits plays host to this week's US PGA, writes PHILIP REID
IMITATION, FOR sure, is the greatest form of flattery. Whistling Straits – with its signposts pointing eastwards to Lahinch, Ballybunion, Portrush and Portmarnock et al – is an example of how the Irish golf experience proved so intoxicating to Herb Kohler that he summoned Pete Dye, arguably the foremost golf course designer of his generation, to the wilds of Wisconsin and asked him to do something special: to recreate those links courses which Kohler, who’d made his fortune in toilets and bath tubs, had discovered on his frequent golfing trips to Ireland.
Dye had designed the two courses for Kohler at Blackwolf Run – an acclaimed public facility in Wisconsin – but was given the opportunity to design what is considered his masterpiece when he was summoned by Kohler to land which had served as an army base and military range beside the lake.
“I went out there with Mr Kohler and that’s what was there, this flat plateau and it was about 70 feet above the lake. And Mr Kohler said, ‘The next time I see this land, I want it to look like Ballybunion’. And I was about to say, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I knew him pretty well, and I had enough sense not to say anything.”
What Dye did do was to go about getting the required permits to transform the land from a disused military base into a golf complex. The result is quite remarkable, with the two courses – Whistling Straits and the Irish Course – a testimony to what can be achieved with an imaginative mind (Dye) and the financial clout (Kohler) to see the job through.
It is a remarkable place. For 12 months of the year, an Irish tricolour flag flies alongside the American “Stars and Stripes” outside a clubhouse that has been designed to imitate an old Irish manor house from the 19th century.
In fact, even the drains used in the locker rooms are replicas of the 19th century drains that were commonly used in the Ireland of that time. And, when the clubhouse was being built, Kohler instructed the workers to turn the rough, unfinished side of the whitewashed stones outward to give the building a more rugged and more natural appearance.
Kohler, an energetic 71-year-old, is the president and chairman of Kohler Company, a plumbing fixture giant, which owns Whistling Straits – site of this week’s US PGA and already pencilled in to play host to the 2015 US PGA and the 2020 Ryder Cup – and also includes Blackwolf Run, site of the 2012 US Women’s Open, and the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews as part of its golf portfolio.
It took Kohler’s vision, the financial resources of his company, and 170,000 dump-truck loads of quarried sand along with Dye’s imagination to pull off the transformation of the flat plateau into the rolling sand hills with over 1,200 bunkers that exist today and which will provide the final major test of the year for the world’s elite golfers. Once flat and featureless and strewn with toxic water, the transformation of the land rates as one of the great accomplishments of modern day golf construction.
“The courses in Ireland are not carefully chiselled and they’re not manicured like we manicure them in America. They’re rough hewn, the grasses are very natural,” explained Kohler of the philosophy he entrusted to Dye. Indeed, his mandate to the designer was to recreate the playing conditions of those links courses in Ireland and Scotland which had so captivated Kohler as closely as geography, climate and land conditions would allow.
Dye, though, is inclined to make the point that he moved earth rather than imported it. “People look and think they are natural sand dunes. But they are all created and manufactured. I just tried to make them look natural. People still say I brought in millions of yards of earth, when I didn’t. I just moved it (from the lake side).”
On the last occasion the US PGA was played here, Vijay Singh emerged from a three-man play-off that also featured Chris Di Marco and Justin Leonard. Dye is a regular visitor back to the course and, as recently as July, suggested making some changes.
Kohler resisted, but arranged for Dye to revisit the week after the championship so that further changes can be implemented. “We are trying to make this the best course in the world,” explained Kohler.
Kohler, who took up golf late in life, has become one of its biggest players. “I love the game because of the people associated with the game. Some of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life are associated with the game and have devoted their lives to it. And I love the game because of the spotlight it created on what we do. It shines on this company and reflects on its products and services like nothing else I have done.”
In Whistling Straits, Kohler has created a modern course that has all of the characteristics of a links that has been around for a century or more. That alone says all you need to know about the man, and the course which has evolved on the shores of Lake Michigan.
WHISTLING STRAITS FIVE KEY HOLES
Par 4, 489 yards
A long and visually intimidating hole with large mounding down the right side of the fairway, which tends to make the players favour the left side. However, most shots also bounce left towards the bunkers and dunes that drop-off quickly toward Lake Michigan. The green hangs on the edge of Lake Michigan's bluffs and will force players to favour the right centre of the green, making par a good score.
"On the Rocks"
Par 4, 507 yards
A blind landing area off the tee will challenge the tour players to keep their tee shots left in order to avoid the severe drop-off with sand dunes, bunkers and Lake Michigan looming on the right.
A long iron or hybrid will be required to reach a very deep green, guarded on the left by more sand dunes and on the right by deep bunkers, with a fall off to the Great Lake.
Par 4, 518 yards
This hole begins what could arguably be the most difficult four finishing holes in any major. Players must favour the left side of the fairway to avoid sunken sand dunes to the right.
A long approach is played over sand dunes to a large undulating green. Sand bunkers protect the left side of the green which has many subtle breaks that challenge even the best putters in the world.
Par 3, 223 yards
Possibly the best par three – anywhere! The green is guarded on the left by monstrous sand dunes and bunkers that fall 20 feet below the green level as well as the coastline of Lake Michigan.
Tee shots straying right will find more sand dunes and bunkers on a steep hillside protecting the right side of the green. This intimidating par three will be a pivotal part of the Championship.
Par 4, 500 yards
An extremely challenging finishing hole where par will be considered an excellent score. Requiring a precise tee shot, hit it too short and players will be forced to play safe or short of the green. Hit it too far and players will go through the fairway and into Seven Mile Creek. The double fairway and clover shaped green creates intimidating hole locations, making it a true risk-reward option for the players.