The Ryder Cup golf tournament between 12 top U.S. golfers and 12 top European golfers is being held an hour north of Milwaukee at Whistling Straits, an extraordinary Pete Dye golf course paid for by the Kohler faucet barons on two miles of bluff above Lake Michigan.
The goal was to build Ballybunion, the wild links on the west coast of Ireland in the Midwest. There actually aren’t sand dunes in Wisconsin because the prevailing wind is from the west (inland), so the sand instead piles up in huge dunes on the opposite shore in Michigan.
But that wasn’t going to stop golf architect Dye, who got an unlimited budget from Herb Kohler and famously exceeded it.
I don’t really like the aesthetics. Dye got carried away and built about 500 sand traps, which is a little much. But, if you are hitting the ball well and the wind isn’t howling, it’s a very fun course to play. If you start going left or right, though, it can be a long day, unless you are Jordan Spieth. This shot is on the part 3 17th, which features Dye’s extreme sharp-edged verticality.
I wrote up the golf course when it was new in 1999, which I’ll include below the fold;
In evaluating anything as monumental as Whistling Straits, there are two obvious approaches. The first is simple, natural enthusiasm: “It’s great and you owe it to yourself to play it.” The trendier alternative is Attitude: “An Irish links course that charges \$10 a hole and takes 5.5 hours to play? Get real!” Instead, I’d like to rather dispassionately outline the trade-offs faced by Pete Dye and the choices he made.
Considering how much golfers love to play next to Big Water, the shorelines of America’s Great Lakes have been curiously underexploited for golf courses. This is especially true on the West Coast of the state of Michigan, where the prevailing winds have pushed up a thin but impressive strip of sand dunes running for hundreds of miles. Long ago Alister McKenzie built Crystal Downs in mature, partially forested linksland, but since then, almost nobody else grasped the opportunity … until the late 1990’s when several courses have appeared alongside Lake Michigan. Most notable are the two mega-projects, Arthur Hills’ Bay Harbor in Michigan and Pete Dye’s Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee. Oddly, it’s the Wisconsin course, where there are almost no natural dunes, that is the pure, even over-the-top Irish-style links.
hole_08.jpgAfter the success of their Blackwolf Run courses, bathroom fixture baron Herb Kohler gave Pete Dye 2 miles of Lake Michigan bluff and a huge budget to, in effect, reproduce Ballybunion. (Of equal importance, the Kohlers used their enormous political capital — three Kohlers have been Governors of Wisconsin — to keep environmentalists from derailing the project.)
The site is fairly simple to describe. It’s a strip of exactly two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, almost linear, with just a slight convex curve. There are no Pebble Beach-style inlets, peninsulas or the like that would allow shots to be hit over a corner of the lake. The lake plays solely as a lateral hazard. There is only one natural feature besides the lake, a small stream that carves a deep ravine that runs perpendicular to the shoreline in the center of the property.
Upon this rather blank slate, Dye has imposed a formal, highly symmetrical routing plan. He has converted the lake bluff into two parallel tiers of holes: a lakeside tier about 30 vertical feet above the water, and the more inland tier about 60 feet up. From almost all 14 holes on the two lakeside tiers, you enjoy panoramic views of the Lake. The clubhouse is sited 600 yards inland, in the center. Both nines consist of narrow figure 8 loops, with the front nine south of the clubhouse, and the back nine north. Both nines begin with a hole running from the clubhouse toward the lake, followed by one long hole along the upper lakeside tier. Then you are granted two holes down along the lakeside. Here each nine turns back toward the clubhouse with two holes on the upper tier. Each nine then climaxes with two more holes down by the lake, and then concludes with par 4’s heading back inland to the clubhouse. Since Dye puts all the par 3’s on the lower tier, you get 8 holes right along the lake, 6 holes on the upper vista tier, and 4 holes basically perpendicular to the lake.
There is probably no more perfect routing conceivable (unless they chose to put the clubhouse on the bluff, allowing #18 to finish alongside the lake), which is why Dye used it for both nines. This layout has huge advantages over those found on most linksland courses in the British Isles, where you often can barely see the water at all during your round, much less have greens clinging to precipices over the water.
The problem, though, is that perfection tends to be the enemy of charm. Only on the 4 inland holes running to and from the clubhouse, where the meandering creek comes into play, is there a sense of the architect being forced to confront nature’s idiosyncrasies and devise novel solutions. For example, when they finally get some grass to grow on #18, it will be one of the wildest short par 5’s in the country. (Unfortunately, it’s called a par 4, even though to have a shot at getting home in two requires a 264 yard carry from the black tees.) On almost all the lakeside holes, though, you sense the architect imposing his will upon the property. There are no awkward but unusual terrain features that Dye must overcome. In fact, so many holes consist of the same ideal elements (e.g., greens set at 45 degree angles with the back left or right pin positions hanging out over perdition) that some of the individual holes alongside the lake aren’t really that memorable.
Although Ballybunion is probably the primary inspiration, Whistling Straits doesn’t really look that much like Ballybunion, for two related reasons. First, there is an enormous amount of exposed sand at Whistling Straits: I counted 320 waste bunkers on the scorecard hole maps, and that is almost certainly an underestimate. At Ballybunion Old, in contrast, bunkers are almost an afterthought, as seen on great bunkerless holes like #11 and #6. Second, Ballybunion is dominated by a relatively small number of big (even huge) dunes: think of the 50′ high parallel dunes that run for 300 yards on either side of the 16th fairway, or the 80′ foot dune that dominates #17. Most of the excitement of Ballybunion comes from the course having to adapt itself to this rugged landscape. In contrast, Dye has created an infinite number of small to fairly large-size dune shapes (covering almost the entire property, at no doubt prodigious expense), that are conveniently arrayed to serve his ideal holes. Once again, it’s clear that here the land is the servant of the architect, not the other way around. I don’t think it had to be that way. I hear that Mike Strantz at Royal New Kent built fairly large duneshapes that make it look as if he laid the course out over the land rather than constructed the land.
The extraordinary complexity of the holes is less reminiscent of Ballybunion than of St. Andrews or the National Golf Links. Dye has wisely built wide fairways and big greens, which give you the room to try strategies (as opposed to, say, Olympic, where you have to simply thread the needle over and over again). However, the penalties for missing the fairways can be so severe (while you almost never lose your ball, you can often wish you had as you might take 2 or 3 strokes to hack your way out of trouble), that I just aimed for the center of the fairways. Requiring double-bagging caddies for every player other than singles is a big help, but ideally you’d want your own caddy so you could get constant advice. Even more ideally, you’d play the course over and over, under different wind conditions, until you understood it, but the cost and remote location make it likely that for most players it will be a once in a lifetime treat.
Dye’s overwhelming waste-bunkering is, in fact, far more reminiscent of Pine Valley than Ballybunion, but at Pine Valley the aesthetic appeal is the contrast between the horrendous rough and the velvet fairways. At Whistling Straits, however, the fescue fairways are also rather scruffy (at least so far, during this semi-drought summer). While they don’t look that great, they play like true links fairways, hard and fast with plenty of roll. Hopefully, Whistling Straits will introduce more American golfers to the idea that fairways don’t have to be perfect. Further, I hope it helps Americans realize that luck is a fun part of the game. You get lots of bad lies and bad bounces here, but also lots of good bounces. Mr. Kohler hopes to attract a major tournament (although the course would be a great British Open venue, it’s a little hard to imagine it as a US Open course), or the Ryder Cup (where it would continue the trend of America choosing European-style links courses and Europe choosing American-style parkland tracks). Still, I wonder whether pros would put up with the high degree of luck inherent in the course. And, I wonder whether the rough is simply too fragile, like Pine Valley’s, to accommodate huge crowds. Right now, it’s fairly sparse, but it may grow thicker and durable in future years.
From the Black tees, the course measures 7,288 yards, but plays a little shorter due to the excellent roll on the hard turf. Dye has constructed even more extreme tees (adding up to over 7,600 yards) for the pros to play from. Some of these are amusingly placed down the cliff-face near the water, so that the pros would have to play a blind tee shot to fairways above their heads. While there is some talk about this being the hardest course in America, I don’t think it’s particularly overwhelming, unless the wind is blowing hard. (Playing from the blacks, a scratch player in my group had a 4 foot putt on #13 to go 2 under par — but he missed it and ended with a 77 as the wind came up). With mild wind conditions, it’s quite playable. Keep in mind, though, that it’s a very long walk, and that if you start hitting shots that end up on cliffs 50 feet below the fairway, it can be exhausting. The management’s goal is to get you around in 5 hours, but it took my group about 5 hours and 40 minutes. The extra time was largely due to delays on the first few holes, probably caused by golfers being stunned by the course and how much different it plays. By the back nine, the pace picks up as players get into the swing of things. Overall, every one in my group played well above their average — this may have been just luck, or it may be evidence that the course is conducive to getting into a good flow.
While most of the course is ideal, if a little synthetic, there are one and a half really bad holes: #5 and the first half of #6, which look as if Dye had finally exhausted his colossal dunescaping budget. These move farther inland than the other upper tier holes, and run through dead flat land, with only the kind of perfunctory mounding you find on too many pseudo-Scottish style American courses from the 1980’s. Here Dye introduces a novel hazard: tree stumps. From the tee on #6 you are supposed to carry a flat 200 yard wide field full of tree stumps. While Dye has been the most influential architect of the last third of the 20th Century, I can only hope that other architects do not rush to imitate this particular design breakthrough. Number 5 is a Z-shaped double dogleg par 5, as bad as most similar holes, with long, moat-like water hazards on both sides of the fairway (there’s nothing so links-like as totally artificial-looking water hazards).
So, nothing’s perfect, but Whistling Straits comes close, maybe even too close.