Will Whistling Straits put golf's best in dire straits?

Posted: Sunday, August 08, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. Six years ago at menacing Blackwolf Run in neighboring Kohler, Nancy Lopez and her playing partners approached the 18th green at the U.S. Women's Open waving white towels from their putters.

Similar scenes of surrender might very well transpire at the 86th PGA Championship this week at Whistling Straits, another Pete Dye-designed world class creation in Herbert Kohler Jr.'s golfing empire.

A roundabout figure eight spread along two miles of Lake Michigan's rugged shoreline, Whistling Straits is both an Irish illusion and an American original.

Dye built the walking-only, links-style course on the site of an abandoned military base and toxic dump site with the help of more than 10,000 truckloads of lake shore clay and sand.

There are hundreds of sand bunkers, foot-high fescue rough, gnarled fairways and whipping winds that constantly change directions, all of which makes it seem like you're half a world away at Royal County Down in Ireland, not a short drive from Sheboygan.

''We wanted to go back to the roots of golf,'' Kohler explained.

All that's missing is a herd of black-faced sheep with tinkering bells grazing on the steep hills they've been put away for the season already.

It's a visually spectacular course, with a view of the lake on every hole. All four par 3s hug the bluffs with greens perched precariously close to the whipping waves.

''I think the world's going to say, 'Where is that? I've got to get there, I've got to play this golf course,''' said Steve Friedlander, the director of golf for the Kohler Co. ''I think when they see this, they're not going believe that this is in Wisconsin or even the United States because there's nothing like this. Nothing.''

And there's the rub for many golfers, who will find out on the first hole that Kohler succeeded in making his masterpiece a measurement not only of golf but grit.

''It's probably one of the most penal first tee shots that I have seen at a golf tournament,'' said reigning PGA champ Shaun Micheel. ''It's going to be a true test and it just basically starts from hole No. 1 through 18. I think it just lets you know that right at the beginning.''

The PGA of America downsized the course by 83 yards, deciding against using a new tee box on the par-4 first hole that would have made it play 491 yards.

Still, Whistling Straits, which plays to a par-72, will measure 7,514 yards, the longest in major championship history, 78 yards longer than Columbine Country Club in Denver, site of the 1967 PGA.

Friedlander said the fairways, some of which are only 20 feet across at points, won't be widened as many golfers had implored.

The Straits Course features the three longest par 4s in major championship history: the 507-yard eighth, the 518-yard 15th and the 500-yard 18th, where the green is shaped like a four-leaf clover and sits in an amphitheater where the winds swirl unpredictably. Blessedly, the thin-bladed fescue grass fairways have been top-dressed with sand, making them faster and harder, Friedlander said.

''If the winds are calm, this golf course will play short,'' he predicted. ''I mean, let's face it, 7,500 yards is not short by any stretch of the imagination. But if the fairways are rolling hard and fast it doesn't play quite as long.''

And if the winds whip up?

''If the wind blows, 75 is going to be a pretty good score,'' said Loren Roberts, who called Whistling Straits ''probably the hardest golf course I've ever played on.''

August is typically the mildest time of year in Wisconsin, but past champion Rich Beem suggested the course, which he tested in June, will be troublesome even on a calm day.

''I didn't expect to see as many blind shots as I did,'' said Beem. ''And, generally just the width of some of the fairways and the length. I'd heard about it, but I figured there's just no way. But then we played it, it was awful.

''I'm not going to pack a lunch, I'm also going to pack a light snack and a dinner.''

Micheel also played Whistling Straits on a windy June day.

''Along with the massage therapist at the spa, I think we need to have some psychiatrists and a couple of couches, I will pay for it,'' he said.

Micheel said the players who show up Monday, sight unseen, will quickly ''realize they should have played this course all summer long'' as they labor through a six-hour practice round.

Kohler makes no apologies. When the three-year construction began in 1995, he envisioned a golf course that would challenge the world's best, especially with the wind that can help vary the temperature 10 degrees from the inland holes to the mist-sprayed shoreline.

''The golf course challenges your golf skills to the 'nth' degree,'' Friedlander said. ''There is no part of your game that isn't used on this golf course. Short irons, long irons, drivers, fairway woods, putting, chipping, length. If you're a big hitter, it will challenge you because the farther you hit it, the straighter you've got to hit it. The shorter hitters, the better you have to hit it onto the greens because you're a long ways away.''

So, it favors no one?

''Well, I think it favors the guy that deals with the elements better than anybody else, doesn't let the wind get to him,'' Friedlander said.

Micheel said the wind ''affects every single shot out there,'' and suggested the course is so challenging it will alter almost everybody's game.

''Let me say here for those of you that are sick and tired of us hitting irons off the tee and hitting 3-woods off the tee and all that stuff, you want to see the big stick? You guys want to go follow John Daly? Now, you can follow all of us because we're going to hit driver on every shot out there, even some par 3s.''

Spectators might also find the course challenging. After dealing with traffic congestion on the country roads leading to the course, they'll find dazzling vantage points from atop the many mounds if all that climbing doesn't tucker them out.

''This is one of the best places you'll ever see,'' Friedlander said. ''It'll blow people away, not to mention the television shots they're going to have. They're just drooling over those shots.''

Kohler can only hope when it comes time to crown the survivor Sunday that his creation will still be called Whistling Straits and not Dire Straits.

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