Whistling Straits

The unique beauty of Whistling Straits, as seen from the fourth tee on a calm spring morning.

Are certain architects better suited for certain projects? As much as one should resist stereotyping architects and their styles, there are examples of marriages where it is hard to imagine a better fit. MacKenzie/Cypress Point and Coore & Crenshaw/Sand Hills spring to mind.

At the other end of the spectrum from C&C’s minimalist project in the rolling sand dunes of Nebraska, the property that was to become the Whistling Straits golf course was essentially featureless (in fact, it was a former air field), save for a stream meandering through its middle. The only really good news was that Lake Michigan bordered the expansive property for two miles along a bluff.

To give the dull land drama, wall to wall shaping was required. Who should Herbert Kohler have selected as architect for such a project?

Pete Dye, of course. Firstly, they are good friends who had worked together with great success on the Blackwolf Run courses. Secondly, they share a common vision of not insulting the resort golfer’s intelligence by dumbing down the course for the sake of pushing more rounds through. Thirdly, they have toured the United Kingdom together and studied such links as Cruden Bay and Machrihanish and both were in agreement that a links type course would work at this site along Lake Michigan. Finally, as at The Ocean Course at Kiawah, both the owner and the architect had a vision of the water being in view from the inland holes as well as the holes along the bluff. With Dye having spent more time in a bulldozer than any other architect, he was indeed the right man forsuch a massive undertaking and his first step was to order in 800,000 cubic yards (!) of sand and dirt.

The construction of Whistling Straits was a massive effort. Shown here is the one-shot seventeenth, some fourteen months before the course opened in 1999...

...and the finished hole as photographed in 2003.

Even though the terrain that Dye ultimately created is dramatic, he gives the golfer a realistic chance of hitting plenty of greens as they are large at an average of 9,100 square feet (compared to Blackwolf Run’s greens at 7,400 square feet for instance). In keeping with the courses Kohler and Dye studied overseas, there are a number of grassy hollows around the greens that provide the course with short game interest (though the author wishes that more of the grasses left, right, and over the greens were maintained at fairway height as opposed to rough).

Importantly for such a windy site, the ground game is a distinct option. Dye selected a blend of three types of fescue grasses on the fairways to simulate the run found overseas and left many of the greens (the first, second, fourth, sixth, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, thirteenth, and fifteenth) open in front. Downwind or into the wind, the course remains playable.

Though manufactured, the fairway contours feed beautifully down the hill and into the thirteenth green.

The wind, firmness of turf, and various hole locations on the large greens conspire to make Whistling Straits play drastically different day to day and even hour to hour. However, unlike many links that rely on wind to enhance their challenge, the inherent design quality of the individual holes at Whistling Straits means it remains an engaging test even on a rare calm day.

The long, angled green of the one-shot twelfth is the most obvious example in how the course's set-up can vary from day to day. The right hole location is a good fifty paces from the extreme left one pictured above.

To compare Whistling Straits to the great links courses in the United Kingdom is a disservice to both. The attribute they share is that walking is both mandatory and sacrosanct, as it should be. In its favor, unlike many out and back links that have an inherent unevenness (e.g., Royal Aberdeen, Royal Troon, North Berwick), Whistling Straits figure ‘8’ routing presents a balanced course with an even spread of compelling holes throughout, as we see below.

Holes to Note

First hole, 365 yards; By making a beeline for Lake Michigan, the golfer is immediately transported to the best the property has to offer. Certainly one function that a first hole should fill is that of inspiring the golfer for the task at hand over the next few hours and this hole does that as one itches to get out there and play.

Looking from right to left off the first tee, the golfer sees the fairway, the white flag and Lake Michigan.

Third hole, 155 yards; Not a true Redan, the third green nonetheless possesses several Redan characteristics including a high right bank that feeds balls to the lower back bowl portion of the green.

The third is the first of the four one-shot holes, all of which border Lake Michigan. To add variety, Dye had the two on each nine run in opposite directions.

Fourth hole, 445 yards; A distinct advantage is to be gained by challenging the bunkers left along the shoreline. This is easier said than done as these bunkers are menacingly cut into the steep bank that tumbles forty feet down to the Lake. The further right the golfer steers, the longer and more problematic the approach shot becomes as the fairway is pitched right to left toward the Lake.

As seen from behind the fourth green, the author wishes there was more short grass and thus room to bounce in the approach from the right side.