By John Holmes, PGA.com Interactive Producer
When the players tee it up at Whistling Straits on Thursday, they'll be facing a relatively rare situation – playing an American major on a links-style course. Sitting hard on Lake Michigan and populated with tall dunes, wispy fescue rough and deep pot bunkers, Whistling Straits has much more in common with such British Open venues as Carnoustie and Muirfield than it does with parkland-style courses such as Masters home Augusta National or such traditional U.S. Open hosts as Winged Foot and Congressional, or even such familiar PGA Championship venues as Hazeltine and Medinah.
For some who encounter Whistling Straits for the first time, the effect can be downright jarring. "You've got a real parkland course at Firestone [for last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational], then as much of a links as you'll find at Whistling Straits," said Rob Waters, the PGA Tour Manager at Cleveland Golf, whose roster of players includes recent PGA Championship winners David Toms (2001) and Vijay Singh (who won the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits). "The difference is incredible."
That difference looms large in the players' minds not only in terms of how they will plan their attack on the course, but also in how they might alter – or even replace – some of their clubs to best suit the unique situation.
"On a typical links course, players will generally change equipment based on the environmental conditions," said Chris Tuten, the Director of Titleist Tour Promotions. "The firmness of the fairways and greens, and the wind are conditions that are most considered when making changes."
Where to begin? For many players, it's the driver, because teeing off well is requirement at Whistling Straits, which will play to a beefy 7,507 yards this week. "From the tee, it looks like there's no place to drive it," said Cleveland's Waters. "But you get out in the fairways and see there is actually plenty of room."
As a result, "we won't see a large number of players change driver lofts," said Tuten of Titleist. "The drivers today are fit to perform in all kinds of conditions."
Waters is thinking along the same lines. "I don't think we'll be doing much with the drivers," he said. "You could deloft the driver in case there's a lot of wind, but then you start messing with spin."
Some players might be doing just that, however. "Some players are going toward reducing their spin," said Tim Reed, the Vice President of R&D for Adams Golf, whose roster includes Kris Blanks and Chad Campbell, along with recent two-time senior major winner Bernhard Langer and LPGA major winner Yani Tseng. "Whether they're lowering the loft of the club or tipping the shaft [trimming the end of the shaft to increase its stiffness], that takes some of the spin out to help the players curve their shots a little more."
More likely, the most dramatic changes in most players' bags will occur in the hybrids and long irons.
"On a typical links course, players will generally change equipment based on the environmental conditions. The firmness of the fairways and greens, and the wind are conditions that are most considered when making changes," said Tuten of Titleist, whose clubs are played by Steve Stricker and Rory McIlroy, among others. "For example, a player may take out a 5-metal or hybrid and put a 2-iron in the bag to have the ball run a longer distance after hitting the ground."
"I could see some players taking out 3-hybrids and putting 3-irons back in their bags to help get the ball running and chasing," said Cleveland's Waters. "Also maybe even some 2-irons."
Rick Nichols, the Field Manager for Nike Golf, also expects to see more 2-irons and fewer lofted woods this week.
"If some fairways are tight and the course is playing firm and fast, typically we'll see players will take out their most lofted wood (usually a 5-wood) and replace it with a low-lofted iron (like a 2-iron) for tee shots," said Nichols, whose Nike Tour staff includes Paul Casey, Stewart Cink and Anthony Kim, among others.
It's down the fairways and around the greens where Whistling Straits is at its most unique, however. Those huge sandy areas, cavernous pot bunkers, grass-topped dunes and tall, wavy fescue shoots in the rough make approach shots and the short game more important than ever.
"Some players might tweak the bounce on a wedge, opting for less bounce when the turf gets firm," said Tuten of Titleist. And Cleveland's Waters explained that "we also take into account the texture of the bunkers in terms of dealing with bounce – a little less bounce will help a sand wedge get through the dense sand in the bunkers a little easier."
Some players also might switch in a more lofted wedge "if the greens are firm and the rough is high – which it usually is at the PGA Championship," said Nichols of Nike. "In past years, we've had many players move to new wedges with fresh grooves for this event." But, he noted, "having fresh grooves is less of a factor now" because of the U.S. Golf Association's new rules governing grooves.
And while the weather in Wisconsin generally isn't as extreme as it is on the Scottish coast, where the conditions can change minute by minute – as we saw at the British Open last month – the weather still could have a big impact on the PGA Championship – especially those eight holes that run right along Lake Michigan.
"Since there are often such drastic changes in weather conditions on true links-style course from day to day, and even hour to hour, it is difficult to determine exactly how many, if any, players will alter their set compositions," said Tuten. "We will have to just wait and see what the conditions will be at Whistling Straits."
Some players, however, likely will stick with what got them here.
"Neither Luke Donald nor Jeff Overton changed anything for the British Open, and it doesn't look like anything is going to be changed for the PGA Championship," said Mizuno Golf’s Marketing Communication Manager Iver Maple. That's not surprising – Donald, as an Englishman living in Chicago, might be as well-suited to the conditions at Whistling Straits as anyone, while Overton, who's seemingly rocketed from nowhere all the way to fifth on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list in recent months, is as hot as any player on the PGA Tour in recent months.
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. "We won't know for sure until Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday what to expect," said Cleveland's Waters. "We'll be making a lot of on-site calls as to what specifically to do."
At least a little bit of what goes into those calls will concern the weather and the condition in which the players find the course.
"Weather can sometimes play a role in determining which clubs a player may use, primarily the ones used off the tee," Nike's Nichols said. "For example, in extreme cold and wet conditions, a driver with more loft will most likely perform better. In warm, windy, dry conditions, less loft can perform better."
Over at Adams Golf, any changes will be based on what the players see on the ground, not up in the sky. "I've never known a player to make a club change based on a weather prediction," said Reed. "There's just too much room for error." Plus, he explained, "the weather in places like Wisconsin is more stable than Scotland, where it can change every 15 minutes, so we don't expect that to be a big factor in anything to do with club preparation."
That doesn't mean the players and their equipment experts aren't rooting for certain weather and conditions. Most would like to see Whistling Straits warm, dry and not too windy – and, fortunately, that's mostly what the forecast is calling for: Highs in the upper 70s and lower 80s most of the week, with a low chance for showers on Wednesday and Saturday.
"I hope the course plays tough but fair," said Nichols. "And hopefully the weather is consistent during each day, so there is no real advantage of having a morning or afternoon tee time."
As the time winds down, everyone is focusing on learning all they can about what they'll face.
"Most changes, if any, will be made Monday PM or Tuesday AM after most players have played at least one practice round," said Nike's Nichols. But, he stressed, "we are prepared in advance with the necessary parts on our tour van. We have a lot of veterans on our staff and they already have extra long irons, hybrids and wedges that they have experimented with for course conditions like Whistling Straits."
And though few players have seen Whistling Straits since the 2004 PGA Championship – and many are making their first visit – Cleveland's Waters believes only little bit of exposure to the course, even one as unusual as this one, is plenty for the players to get comfortable.
"These guys adapt very quickly," he said. "A few practice rounds and they’ll be ready."