Golf Course Review: Whistling Straits, Straits Course

Whistling Straits, Straits Course Rankings:

Golf Digest: #4 US public, #22 US top 100, #48 world top 100, #6 US toughest, #1 Wisconsin
GolfWeek: #6 US modern, #4 US resort, #1 Wisconsin public
Golf.com: #28 US top 100, #6 US public, #49 world top 100

Designer: Pete Dye (1997)

Currently rated the number two public golf course in the United States, and number four overall behind just Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes and Friar’s Head, the Straits course at Whistling Straits has amassed a big-time resume in a very short period of time.

As one of the truly elite golfing destinations in the world, the Straits has hosted the 2004 PGA Championship, 2007 US Senior Open, 2010 PGA Championship, next year’s PGA Championship, and the much-anticipated 2020 Ryder Cup.

I remember sitting in the rough off of the 16th fairway with my friends Mike and Jason for the final round of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, thinking to myself, “I have got to play this course sometime,” and “This place looks absolutely impossible.”

It was in that rough that I almost had my head taken off by Chris DiMarco’s errant tee shot on the 16th (I literally heard it whiz by my head). He led the tournament at that time, and the TV cameras and crowds swarmed our area. Being one year out of college, I was hung over on that Sunday, and it was warm and I’m sure I thought it was an inconvenience to move out of the way so the impending doom that was about to occur next to us could take place: DiMarco’s next swing duck-hooked toward Lake Michigan, along with his hopes for a PGA Championship and $6.25 million. Vijay Singh would go on to win the PGA Championship in a playoff against DiMarco and Justin Leonard that year.

The 2010 PGA Championship delivered even more excitement when Martin Kaymer won his first major championship in a three-hole playoff over Bubba Watson. Maybe the most memorable moment of the 2010 tournament, though, involved Dustin Johnson, who missed taking part in that playoff after grounding his club on the 18th hole in one of the 967 bunkers on the Straits course. This “Bunker” was little more than a patch of dirt that had been trampled over for days by tournament attendees. Under a Local Rule that was instituted for the event (and will stay in place for the 2015 PGA Championship), Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty and therefore was disqualified from the playoff.

Of course, big tournaments are nothing new to Whistling Straits or to Kohler golf courses, in general, including:

  • 1995 Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf, US Championship at Blackwolf Run, River course (Winner: Mark McCumber)
  • 1996 Andersen Consulting WCG-US, River (Greg Norman)
  • 1997 Andersen Consulting WCG-US, River (Ernie Els)
  • 1998 US Women’s Open, River (Se Ri Pak)
  • 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Straits course (Vijay Singh)
  • 2007 US Senior Open, Straits (Brad Bryant)
  • 2010 PGA Championship, Straits (Martin Kaymer)
  • 2012 US Women’s Open, River (Na Yeon Choi)
  • 2015 PGA Championship, Straits
  • 2020 Ryder Cup, Straits

The Straits course delivers world-class excitement in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world for a championship golf course: On a two-mile stretch of coast on Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

Designed to have the look and feel of the legendary links courses of Scotland and Ireland, the Straits is a fine fescue facility from tee to green, with great use of elevation and sand and wasteland all around. A stream runs through parts of the course, and several inland ponds make its one inland par five, aptly nicknamed “Snake,” one of the toughest holes on the course.

Over 800,000 cubic yards of local sand and dirt were moved in the construction of the course, transitioning it from what was in the 1950’s “Camp Haven” (an anti-aircraft training facility complete with missile silos and an airfield) in to the present day pinnacle of the Kohler golf mecca.

While tons of dirt were moved to create the terrain, it could not look and feel more natural.

From the tees, fairways look miniscule and impossible to hit. They are typically quite wide, though, and the fine fescue rolls out well. With tips around 7,800 yards, you will hear some people say it plays longer because of the ever-present winds off the lake. Meanwhile, others say it plays shorter because of the roll-outs. It depends on the day and wind conditions, of course, but I actually lean toward it playing slightly shorter.

My foursome played the course from 7,142 yards, and none of us found the distance to be overwhelming. Our second group played it from the tips at 7,790, and said the same, although only two of them broke 90.

Me, Jeff, Mark, Kyle and Jason on the 7th tee

We had a rather calm day, which is not normal for the Straits. With the wind howling, I can imagine it would play considerably longer.

The Straits course starts off on both one and ten very similarly to the way the Irish starts: Both heading out from the clubhouse on one, with the lake on the horizon. The tenth on each course is sharply uphill toward the lake, with fairways running right to left.

One is a fairly simple par four, with a narrow looking fairway that leans slightly left. The green, like most on the course, is flanked by deep sand traps and mounding that make precise points of entry a must.

Hole 1: Par 4 (493/405/370/361/325)
Hole 1: Par 4 (493/405/370/361/325)

Two is a fantastic par five, measuring 597 from the tips and 533 from the blues. With the lake running parallel to the fairway, it is an intimidating tee shot that actually has much more room for error than it looks from the tees. Keeping the ball left of the largest mound right of the fairway should ensure a clear look at the second shot, which can be laid up well right of the green to stay safe. The infinity look of the green against the lake is beautiful.

Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)
Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)
Hole 2: Par 5 (597/533/521/508/447)

The first par three on the Straits course, the third is named simply “O’ man.” You wouldn’t believe it from seeing the following picture, but this might be the easiest par three on the course – there are probably more spots to miss-hit to than on any others.

Hole 3: Par 3 (188/180/166/154/111)

The second of six par fours measuring over 400 yards from the blue tees, the fourth continues a wonderful trek along Lake Michigan’s shoreline to the southernmost point of the Straits course, ending uphill with wasteland and sand traps seemingly everywhere, and with the lake on the left. The large trap on the hillside beyond the green that looks like the state of Texas is the best aiming point off the tee.

Hole 4: Par 4 (494/451/414/404/354)

The fifth is the only hole on the Straits course that I don’t completely love. Bringing in to play the course’s two ponds, “Snake” is a tough par five with a ton of bite, meandering inland with a double-dogleg around water and finishing on a small point.

The reason I say I don’t love it is that it has a very different feel and character from the rest of the course. To me, it doesn’t fit. It certainly does require players’ attention on each swing to avoid putting up big numbers, though.

Hole 5: Par 5 (603/563/543/527/459)
Hole 5: Par 5 (603/563/543/527/459)

The greatest feature of the sixth hole is the fly zone above the approach. The green is heavily raised, and falls off in all directions but left. The front-left sand trap that my friend Kyle found, especially, can be brutal.

Drive the left side of the fairway and have a good look at the green, but from anywhere else it’s pretty much guesswork with a blind approach.

Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)
Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)
Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)

Kyle posted a similar picture to Facebook with one word of commentary: “#screwed.” Yup.

Hole 6: Par 4 (409/378/360/352/282)

The second par three on the course, and the second longest, the seventh is a wonderful one-shotter nicknamed “Shipwreck.” With the lake enveloping the right side of the hole, the smart play is to the front-left of the green.

Hole 7: Par 3 (221/205/185/172/132)

Robert getting us a distance of 205 on the seventh:

Hole 7: Par 3 (221/205/185/172/132)

The eighth is a tough driving hole, with sand traps lining the left side of the fairway and wasteland and side-ward lies inviting drivers to hit right. Find the fairway, and aim to lay up to the front-left of the green to roll on safely.

Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)

Kyle hitting another bomb in the fairway:

Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)
Hole 8: Par 4 (506/470/429/405/355)

The front nine finishes with a very cool downhill par four, nicknamed “Down and Dirty.” The driving area is not overly difficult to stay within, but the rough is hellish. I just missed the fairway, for example, and was buried deep in the grass. My next shot then pulled the club face closed and fired in to the sand, underneath the back lip. That barely got out in to the deepest fescue I’d ever seen, and from there I was simply lucky to get the ball 10 yards to the right back in to the fairway.

This is pretty common for the Straits course: Keep the ball moving in front of you; when it starts heading off to the sides, chances are that hole will finish with a crooked number.

Hole 9: Par 4 (442/412/384/371/347)
Hole 9: Par 4 (442/412/384/371/347)

The back nine starts with a tough driving hole: Like on the tenth at the Irish course at Whistling Straits, it is uphill and leaning left. A draw is definitely preferred, if you can play it.

Hole 10 on the Irish course: Par 4

Long hitters are rewarded heavily on this hole, as anything beneath the huge swell in the fairway is mostly blind to the green, while anything above it has a great look.

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

Jeff and Kyle’s tee shots did not make it to the crest of the hill:

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

My tee shot in green light position above the crest:

Hole 10: Par 4 (391/376/334/320/304)

To me, the eleventh might be the hardest overall hole on the Straits. A viciously long par five, the layup areas are fraught with hazards and the green area is uphill and challenging to hold.

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

When it comes to adding charm and character to a golf course, can you imagine any better way than to populate it with the Scottish blackheaded sheep that populate the courses the Straits was built to mirror? Indigenous to Scotland, flocks roam freely on the Straits and Irish courses, and make for a very cool experience when they visit your group.

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Kyle putting with a herd of Scottish blackheaded sheep in the background:

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Greg, Michael, Ross and Dan playing up on eleven:

Hole 11: Par 5 (645/563/544/519/479)

Maybe my favorite par three at the Straits is one very rarely talked about: The twelfth. This green is massive from front-left to back-right, allowing for all kinds of variations on length and pin placements.

Let’s hope for a back-right shore-hugging Sunday pin next year!

Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)
Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)

Michael hitting to the twelfth green from the black tee boxes (on the horizon, taken from near the thirteenth hole tee boxes):

Hole 12: Par 3 (163/138/118/99/89)

Appropriately named “Cliff Hanger,” the thirteenth is a fantastic par four that directly abuts the shoreline. The green is below the fairway, begging players to run their approach shots on.

Hole 13: Par 4 (402/389/364/336/319)
Hole 13: Par 4 (402/389/364/336/319)

The easiest non-par three on the course, fourteen comes back inland with a much simpler yardage of 360 from the blue tees. A dogleg left par four, make sure to make par here before getting to a much longer fifteenth!

Hole 14: Par 4 (396/360/346/332/271)

Hopefully you enjoyed the wedge in on fourteen, because unless it’s your third or fourth shot, that experience will not be repeated on fifteen!

When the PGA Championship was last played on the Straits course, the fifteenth was at the time the longest par four ever played in a major championship. At 503 yards from the black tees, that makes sense.

I hit driver to the left side of the fairway during our round, followed by a flushed three-hybrid that luckily rolled to about five feet from the pin, and made it. Our caddies, Mark and Robert, said it was the first birdie they’ve seen on that hole this season.

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)
Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)

Probably the coolest picture taken of the day: Jason, Robert, Kyle and Jeff approaching the fifteenth green and a crossing group of Scottish blackheaded sheep:

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)
Scottish blackheaded sheep herd passing us on 15

My leave from 237 out is just left of Jeff’s putt – thankfully it went in! #GolfFlow

Hole 15: Par 4 (503/464/429/402/367)

Heading back to the lake, sixteen is a very famous hole on the Straits course. It has always proved to be a pivotal hole in major championships, including for Chris DiMarco when his ball nearly decapitated me in 2004.

As you can see from the spots that my shots found during our round, there are plenty of bad places to be found on the sixteenth (several of my lies are shown), but there are not many ways to lose a ball unless it is in deep fescue.

The sixteenth, known as “Endless Bite,” forges along the Lake Michigan coastline, and takes on a very difficult green complex for professionals going for it in two.

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)
Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

My tee shot:

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

… And the next shot…

Hole 16: Par 5 (568/545/535/513/412)

The legend of the seventeenth goes like this: At every course that Pete Dye designs, he allows his wife, Alice, to design one par three. This was the seventeenth for the Straits course, and she must have been angry with him that day!

The seventeenth, quite possibly the signature hole on the Straits course and one of the most beloved par threes in the state of Wisconsin, is a brutally long par three with very few spots to miss. The lake lingers left of the playing area, and huge mounds front the right entrance and entire right side of the putting surface.

The misses here are short and/or long-right, as the mounds right of the green can help carom slightly wayward shots toward the putting surface.

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)
 
Jason’s tee shot on seventeen:
Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)

Kyle’s tee shot on seventeen:

Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)
Jeff’s tee shot on seventeen:
Hole 17: Par 3 (249/223/197/165/131)

The finishing hole on the Straits could very well be one of the toughest holes in the world. Par on this 520/487-yard behemoth, which is set to be four, should be considered a monumental task, but will I’m sure be required on Sunday of the 2015 PGA Championship for whoever hopes to take home the Wanamaker Trophy.

Nicknamed “Dyeabolical,” after Pete Dye, of course, the eighteenth is 520 yards from the black tees, which are located behind and well below the blues, shown here:

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

The tee shot from the blue tees on eighteen:

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

The long approach from anywhere on the upper-right fairway is best targeted right of the clubhouse in the distance. Anything left of that is likely to find the stream or wasteland (better shown in the second and third pictures below):

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)
Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

Michael, Greg (great hat wave!), Ross and Dan following a “Triumphant round” playing the tips:

Hole 18: Par 4 (520/487/424/420/380)

[From my original review of the Straits Course, which I decided to wait out on until I had a chance to play it during better conditions:

The weather was supposed to be amazing last Thursday, May 8. The sun was shining and temperatures reached the low-to-mid 80’s in Menomonee Falls, where I live, and my hope was that it would be similar lake-side by Sheboygan. I checked the extended forecast every day for weeks leading up to our round, and it looked like we were going to luck out.

As my friend, Norm, and I neared the course, we started noticing huge swarms of gnats above the back roads that lead to the Kohler property, making us nervous that even though we got a good day we would be hit hard with another natural impediment: Bugs.

The bugs were almost nonexistent on the course, but the weather was far from perfect. While three out of the four in our group wore shorts, the caddies wore windbreakers, gloves and winter hats. They must have thought we were nuts on this 50-degree day lake-side.]

As a volunteer for next year’s 2015 PGA Championship at the Straits, I did get the opportunity to play this legendary course again, on August 10, 2014 – exactly one year from the opening round of the 2015 PGA Championship.

The Straits was in nothing less than brilliant condition, and certainly provided a far better golfing experience.

I was very impressed with the Straits’ caddy experience during our May round, but felt a little ripped off even though I was paying about half of what it would normally cost to play the course during regular season. Considering the shape the course was in, it almost shouldn’t have even been played on in May. I am very happy we were able to replay it at a reduced rate, as I can see now how tremendous of a golf course Whistling Straits truly is.

If you are curious about volunteering for the 2015 tournament: When you sign up you are also allowed heavily discounted tee times, which include $150 for the Straits course (plus caddy for $60/player and tip), $100 for the River course at Blackwolf Run (including cart), and $80 apiece for the Irish and Meadow Valleys courses (both include cart). All of these are tremendous deals.

It does cost around $200 to register as a volunteer, but includes the week’s access, all the equipment/apparel needed, and access to these discounted greens fees for up to two foursomes during specific time frames leading up to August of next year. Unfortunately, this year’s time frame did end this past weekend (we played the Straits on the last day of the deal, and the other three during previous weekends).

While on-site, I certainly recommend also checking out the Straits’ sister course, the Irish, which runs alongside and inland of the Straits track. If you have not had a chance to check out my review on the Irish yet, please do so here:


Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Haven, WI
Yardage: Black-7790, Blue-7142, Green-6663, White-6360, Red-5564
Slope/Rating: Black-152/77.2, Blue-145/74.2, Green-141/71.9, White-137/70.4, Red-129/66.4
Par: 72
Weekend Rates: $370 (plus $60 for caddy and $40 minimum recommended tip)

9 comments on “Golf Course Review: Whistling Straits, Straits Course

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