By David Vecsey, Special to PGA.com
The 50-head herd of Scottish Blackface sheep will be persona non grata as Whistling Straits Golf Club plays host to the 86th PGA Championship this week. The full-time residents and part-time greenskeepers are being boarded for the weekend while the PGA of America makes its first visit to Pete Dye's links-style course in Kohler, Wisc.
Even without the sheep, there's still plenty of Scotland in this course. Maybe too much Scotland, if you ask some of these apprehensive and skeptical golfers.
Nestled along a two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan, Dye has successfully recreated all the things they love to hate about links golf -- massive rolling greens, deep pot bunkers and grass-topped dunes. Not to mention winds that make the gales off the Firth of Clyde feel like summer breezes. And at 7,514 yards, it will become the longest course ever to play host to a major.
Defending champ Shaun Micheel was recently quoted as joking that double-digit over par could win the tournament. Or was he joking?
Darren Clarke said he's never seen so many par-6s on one course.
And Bob Estes estimated that if they played from the back tees, the tournament might need to be extended until Tuesday.
As they prepare to play Whistling Straits for the first time in competition, could it be that the men of the PGA Tour -- not to mention the 25 PGA of America club professionals in the field -- have been overcome with anticipation, curiosity and a wee bit o' anxiety?
They're a little bit afraid, I think, laughed Whistling Straits PGA Head Golf Professional Dirk Willis. "But that's a good thing, I think.
"The big thing about it being the first time here for a lot of these guys is that the first time you play the course, it's extremely intimidating visually. On the tee shots you're very unsure of yourself, if you're even hitting it in the right direction. You're unsure of carry distances. But once you've played it a couple times, you start to feel comfortable and I don't think they'll have any major problems."
Whistling Straits Golf Course
|Signature Hole:||No. 17, 223-yard, par-3|
|Tournament Record:||267, Steve Elkington and Colin Montgomerie, 1995, Riviera CC|
|Course Record:||First PGA competition|
Some golfers are just now recovering from a brutal trip to Royal Troon for the British Open only to find themselves knee-deep in sand again. And the PGA Championship has traditionally been known as the friendliest of the majors, usually played at courses accessible to any number of contenders. This year, however, the PGA Championship could be the toughest of the four majors.
Willis expects we'll see one of golf's big-timers -– a Singh or a Woods or a Mickelson –- to claim this event. It will be as mentally demanding as it will be physically demanding.
"Some of them probably needed a little bit of relief from links style after the British and all of a sudden they're thrown right back," Willis says. "It's a more difficult course than Troon and it's a new venue. That makes it doubly difficult.
"I think it's the combination of distance and accuracy required that makes it the most demanding course that they may have seen. From tee to green, there's no let-up on any holes. I've heard the comment a couple times already that when you play 18 holes here, it feels like you've played 54."
No wonder with three par-4s longer than 500 yards and four par-5s checking in at 569, 593, 598 and a whopping 618 yards.
Willis' favorite hole, however, is the 221-yard, par-3 No. 7, "Shipwreck," which he says will be regarded as one of the most beautiful holes in the world because of the way it is framed by the lake. It's also a strong strategic hole, pushing a 200-yard high fade toward the water.
That's followed by one of the long par-4s, the 507-yard No. 8 with a tee shot that plays slightly uphill and partially blind. "One of the most visually intimidating holes you'll ever see," Willis says. "It's like trying to land on the surface of the moon, there's nothing but craters in front of you as you tee off. But once you're up in the fairway, it's relatively flat. So off the tee, it throws your mind for a loop and then it has a beautiful approach shot to the green which is backdropped by nothing but lake. It looks as if you're trying to drop your approach right onto the surface of the water."
On the back nine, Willis expects the closing stretch to provide much of the tournament's drama, starting at No. 15. At 518 yards, it's the longest par-4 in major championship history. It's generally downhill with an elevated tee shot that requires tremendous precision toward a 22-yard wide landing area. But you have to hit the driver off the tee if you want to reach the green in two.
That's followed by the No. 16, the shortest par-5 on the course though it still measures 569 yards. Most of that is downwind and Willis says this could be a pivotal eagle hole.
The aptly named "Pinched Nerve" at No. 17 is the most difficult par-3 on course, 223 yards with huge sand dunes and the lake on the left. The tee shot is straight downhill into 25-foot deep bunkers to the right and the lake to the left leaving no bailout to either side.
And the round concludes at 18 named for Dye himself, the 500-yard, par-4 "Dyeabolical," a long downhill play with a creek intersecting the front of the massive four-leaf-clover-shaped green. They should have no trouble hitting the green ... but they might still be chipping just to get near the pin.
"This course is going to definitely favor someone with a little distance in their bag," Willis concludes. "Plus, you have to temper the distance with accuracy. You can't just hit it a mile and expect to score, you have to hit into the fairways.
"It's going to take stamina, not just physically, but mentally, to get around the course every day."
In the end, the sheep will be glad they were given the weekend off. The players will be jealous.
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