In many ways, the PGA of America's decision to award the 2004 PGA Championship to Whistling Straits was a departure from the status quo. The major championships tend to get routed to classic courses with majestic clubhouses, stately trees and traditions that date to plus-4s and hickory-shafted drivers.
Kohler-based Whistling Straits, located just east of the tiny town of Haven, Wis., opened in 1998. It was carved not from some pristine forest, but rather was built – manufactured, really – on an abandoned military base that had become a repository for trash and tires and whatever else it is that people dump illegally.
What the site had going for it, however, were million-dollar views of Lake Michigan and two miles of uninterrupted shoreline. Course architect Pete Dye, backed by the resources of the Kohler Co., turned his bulldozers loose and created a masterpiece.
"I may live to be as old as Methuselah," Dye said, "and never get another chance like this one."
Whistling Straits is perhaps the most faithful reproduction of an Irish seaside links course in America, from its soaring sand dunes and penal pot bunkers to its wiry fescue fairways and the grazing Irish Blackface sheep.
Just call the destination resort course Ballybunion West. Or call it, as PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen did, one of the five best golf courses in the world. "It's spectacular," says Kerry Haigh, the senior director of tournaments for The PGA of America. "That is obviously the word that comes to mind. It's just so different from anything else you see in America. It's intimidating. It's beautiful." The Straits has played host to just one tournament of note, The 1999 PGA Club Professional Championship, but was built with major championships in mind. What can the best players in the world expect when they travel to this remote outpost of golfing Nirvana for the 86th PGA Championship, scheduled for Aug. 12–15, 2004? A course that can be stretched to 7,600 yards, if need be, and one on which wind is almost always a factor because of the lake effect and the treeless terrain.
The golfers can expect the course to play firm and fast in August. They can expect to see good shots rewarded and poor ones punished. They can expect to encounter all the challenges for which Dye is famous, from the nuances in his green complexes to the dune-and-gloom waste areas that inflict damage on scorecards.
"I think most of the players will play this golf course fairly conservatively, because it's that kind of course," says Steve Friedlander, the general manager and director of golf for the Kohler Co. "They'll play it like they play the courses over in Scotland and Ireland – very conservatively, because the elements are so in-your-face.
"I don't see anybody going really deep (under par). If the wind doesn't blow for four days, someone might get to double digits under par. Then again, I certainly wouldn't anticipate four days without wind. It's got to blow at least one day." The PGA competitors also can expect an enthusiastic and appreciative gallery. The last men's major championship contested in Wisconsin was the 1933 PGA Championship, won by Gene Sarazen at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club in Milwaukee. The state ranks No. 2 in the nation in golfers per capita, and it's worth noting that the Greater Milwaukee Open has thrived in one of the PGA Tour's smaller markets.
In 1998, the U.S. Women's Open was held at nearby Blackwolf Run, another Kohler-owned property, and set attendance records that still stand. Dye purposely and brilliantly routed the four par-3 holes at Whistling Straits along the bluffs overlooking the lake. Two run north-to-south and two run south-to-north, so they either play alternately into the wind and downwind or with opposite crosswinds.
No. 17, the signature hole, is a 230- yard par 3 with absolutely no margin for error. The green is partially hidden by mounds on the right, and on the left -- well, let's just say a shot from the beach to a green perched on a shelf 30 feet above the water is not what the leader will want on Sunday.
"It's a very difficult, spectacular, fearsome-looking par 3," Haigh says. There may be no more visually dramatic or intimidating finishing hole than No. 18, a 490-yard par 4. The drive calls for brute strength, particularly into the prevailing wind, and the whiteknuckle approach must carry a sprawling waste area. The enormous green, shaped like a four-leaf clover, will present some interesting pin placements.
"It's just a phenomenal hole," Friedlander says. "I wouldn't want to be standing on the 18th tee with less than a two-shot cushion, because it's a hard tee shot, it's a hard second shot and it's not an easy green to putt."
The ninth and 18th greens are situated in a huge bowl that will be ringed with grandstands, with the Irish stone clubhouse looming overhead. "Those two greens will literally be surrounded by spectators," Friedlander says. "It's going to be extremely loud and pretty spectacular for the player. It's going to be just fabulous."
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