Study the moonscape that is whistling straits and you’d swear the jagged sand dunes that tumble down to the Lake Michigan shoreline were caused by the heaving and bucking of the earth since time immemorial.
In reality, the fescue-crowned hillocks and pot bunkers, the jumble of sandy knobs and grassy swales -– the entirety of the tilt-a-whirl terrain -– sprang from the fertile imagination of golf course architect Pete Dye and was manufactured by a fleet of dump trucks and bulldozers less than a decade ago.
Whistling Straits is one great, grand mirage.
The magic of the Kohler Co.-owned property is that it transports you to another place and time. Drive through its gates and you leave behind bucolic Wisconsin, with its dairy farms and cornfields, and enter coastal Ireland. A little fog, a few drops of rain or a wee bit of wind to sting the cheek completes the illusion.
“There isn’t anything like this in the U.S.,” says Herbert V. Kohler Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Kohler Co. “The only alternative is to spend the airfare and a week or so in the British Isles.”
The transformation of the land, once flat and featureless and strewn with toxic waste and illegal dumpsites, surely ranks as one of the great accomplishments in modern golf course construction. It took Kohler’s vision, the resources of his company, 170,000 dump-truck loads of quarried sand and Dye’s considerable skills to pull it off.
“Mr. Kohler showed me the piece of property and said, ‘I want to strive for something like Royal Portrush and Ballybunion. Make it as close to that as you can,’” says Dye, the 2004 PGA Distinguished Service Award recipient, who was scheduled to be honored this week at The Milwaukee Theatre. “We just kept plugging away at it.”
Kohler’s 36-hole Blackwolf Run complex already had earned a reputation as one of the top golf destinations in America when he started thinking about an encore. He had fallen in love with the classic Irish links courses during numerous excursions to the Emerald Isle with Dye, who had designed both courses at Blackwolf Run.
Kohler, an 18-handicapper who plays with great gusto, loved the rugged land, the Spartan conditions, the salt spray in his face and the pint in the warmth of the clubhouse after a go-round with the elements.
But how could he duplicate that in Wisconsin?
The site obviously would be the key. Kohler targeted a desolate two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline just north of Sheboygan. The land once was the site of Camp Haven, leased to the Army in 1949 and used as an anti-aircraft firing center for 10 years. Later, it was purchased by the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, which targeted it as a possible site for a nuclear power plant.
In 1995, the Kohler Co. completed a complicated land acquisition agreement with the power company to obtain the 560 acres of prime lakefront property.
Kohler Co. agreed to work closely with Town of Mosel officials, as well as other government agencies, to restore the native ecosystem to the property. High on the list of priorities were cleaning up the waste left behind by the U.S. military, and stabilizing and restoring the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Kohler had played most of the so-called “links” courses in America and found them to be imperfect imitations of the great Irish/Scottish courses. His mandate to Dye for Whistling Straits was to recreate the playing conditions in the British Isles as closely as geography, climate and soil conditions would permit.
“The courses (in Ireland) are not carefully chiseled and they’re not manicured like we manicure them in America,” says Kohler. “They’re roughhewn. The grasses are very natural.”
Kohler and Dye decided to seed the fairways at Whistling Straits with fescue, a wiry, hardy grass common in the British Isles but used on only a handful of courses in the U.S., where the dominant strains are bentgrass in the North and Bermuda in the South.
“It will certainly be different than what the players are used to,” says Kerry Haigh, managing director of tournaments for The PGA of America. “But all the great players play in the British Open, where the grass is similar. So it’s not as though they will have never played on this type of grass.”
Fescue generally requires less water and maintenance than does bentgrass, which means the fairways at Whistling Straits play firm and fast, particularly in the summer months when they bake in the sun. So even though the course will measure 7,597 yards for this week’s 86th PGA Championship, making it the longest venue in major championship history, golfers will benefit from additional roll off the tee.
“The length of the course is going to be a factor,” says Steve Friedlander, the general manager and director of golf for the Kohler Co. “But I don’t think it’s going to be the biggest factor when it comes to scoring.
“If the wind blows and a guy is not on his game, he could definitely shoot a real high number. And it’s so rare that we have a day without wind out here.”
The prevailing wind in August is out of the south or southwest, but a stiff breeze off Lake Michigan isn’t out of the question. The wind often changes direction abruptly and temperatures can drop 20 degrees in five minutes.
“The wind starts shifting and the course will change,” says Dye. “You could play five holes and think it’s the most blissful thing you’ve ever seen and then on the next three holes you’ll think the world’s come to an end.
“Sometimes, it’s so pretty and the sky is so blue and clear. And all of a sudden the wind shifts and the fog comes in and you can’t see 10 feet in front of you.”
During the 1999 PGA Club Professional Championship, played in June, fog rolled in during the final round and play was suspended for nearly six hours, forcing a Monday finish. Fog in August is less likely but always a possibility.
Lake Michigan is visible from all 18 holes at Whistling Straits and Dye ingeniously placed all four par-3 holes along the water’s edge. Two run north-to-south and two south-to-north, so they play either downwind or into the wind or with opposite crosswinds.
The greens are bentgrass and huge, with dramatic contours.
“The putts don’t necessarily break toward the water,” says Friedlander. “It’s a big lake, but Mr. Dye tricks you. He’ll drain the greens away from the lake. You think the ball should break toward the lake, but it won’t.”
In keeping with the Irish theme, Whistling Straits is a walking-only course. Players must use caddies, many of whom were imported from Ireland. There are no golf car paths and the foot trails between greens and tees are narrow ribbons that snake through the mounds, adding to the authentic feel.
There is no real estate development at Whistling Straits, so the only things a player sees are fairways, greens, sand and water. Kohler imported several dozen Scottish Blackface sheep, which roam the course and graze in the rough, the pleasant sound of their tinkling bells riding the breeze.
“In all honesty, the thing Whistling Straits is most similar to are the links courses in Great Britain and Ireland,” says Haigh. “Pete Dye and Mr. Kohler have done a magnificent job in creating their vision to be just that. Some of the links courses in Ireland have this same look. It’s incredible.
“It’s just so different than anything else you see in America. It’s intimidating. It’s beautiful. It’s certainly a dramatic setting for a major championship.”
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