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Whistling Straits

On the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, Pete Dye gave life to an American dream— a windswept, championship-quality layout that evokes the purest links courses of overseas

By: Larry Olmsted

Appeared in May/June 2000 LINKS

Something is missing from Pete Dye’s Straits Course at Whistling Straits: cart paths. And carts, for that matter. Along with the Black Course at Bethpage State Park and the Tradition Course at Sylvan Treetops Resort, Whistling Straits is one of a handful of walking-only public courses in the country. This policy, however, has not stopped the course from selling out almost all of its tee times, and golfers who brave the Straits with well-trained caddies discover it to be well worth the exercise.

Whistling Straits is the icing on the cake at the American Club, located in Kohler, Wisc., midway between the golf meccas of Pebble Beach and Pinehurst. Blackwolf Run, the resort’s other golf club, hosted the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open on its two award-winning, Dye-designed courses. In its first year of existence, the Straits Course hosted the 1999 PGA Club Professional Championship, and following its first complete season, was awarded a major, the 2004 PGA Championship. When Dye’s fourth effort in Kohler, the Irish Course, opens at Whistling Straits in August, the American Club will boast one of the strongest quartets of golf courses anywhere. But even then, the Straits Course likely will stand out as the best.

The awarding of the PGA Championship validates the efforts of two men: Herb Kohler, owner of the Kohler Company (the plumbing products manufacturer), and Pete Dye. Under Kohler’s instruction, Dye designed a course to attract and accommodate either a U.S. Open or a PGA, a lofty goal. Just a year ago this sounded like a pipe dream, but the whole town of Kohler has been built on one fulfilled dream after another.

When Walter Kohler moved his plumbing factory here in 1918, he did so to escape the oppressive working and living conditions that were common to industrial towns. He harbored a progressive, almost utopian ideal, which he saw to fruition in his namesake village. The American Club’s main building, which today serves as the resort hotel, was originally a dormitory for workers, intended to help them save their wages toward the purchase of homes in Kohler. The town was a planned community laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose contributions ranged from New York’s Central Park to Pinehurst, N.C. The workers, mostly European immigrants, studied English and history, and the Kohler Company helped them pass citizenship exams and become vested members of the community. That community spirit and pride in home ownership, with lawns manicured better than most golf courses, is still evident to visitors today.

Whistling Straits sits about 10 miles from Kohler, stretching two miles along the banks of Lake Michigan, but it might as well be in Ireland—and even there, it would be one of the very best courses. Nearly constant winds, sandy soil and dunes, and the conspicuous absence of cartpaths make this an ideal links layout. Management has even loosed black-faced sheep on the course.

“Mr. Kohler wanted an all-walking course with fescue fairways, and I was very apprehensive,” says Dye. “There are a handful of courses with fescue in Maine and Long Island, but agronomists will tell you it won’t grow in many places over here.” Fortunately, the banks of Lake Michigan were receptive. Still, Dye was surprised at the acceptance of the foreign grasses by local players. “Cut to an inch-and-an-eighth, it’s a different game,” he says. “Golfers come up here from the half-inch bentgrass fairways of Chicago, which they’re used to, but they don’t complain.”

Nor do they complain about the views. “The course has eight holes that parallel Lake Michigan, and the man upstairs did a pretty good job on Lake Michigan,” says Dye. “It’s a great backdrop, and the other 10 holes all have views. It’s like Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, which has seven holes on the Caribbean. You don’t get backgrounds like that very often. You stand on 16 and 17 at Pebble Beach, it’s the same thing. But here, all 18 holes have that view.” And unlike at Pebble Beach, no homesites mar the views at Whistling Straits.

Ironically, the picture-perfect plot of land Dye now loves wasn’t the first choice for the project. “After building the second course at Blackwolf Run, Mr. Kohler and Pete started talking about a third course,” says resort spokesman Ed Allmann. “From their travels, they came up with the idea of a dunes course. There’s a real sandy stretch of lakefront south of Sheboygan, and they tried for it, but couldn’t put the land acquisition together.”

While golf courses are easy targets for environmentalists and other opponents of development, it’s hard to argue that Whistling Straits isn’t the best alternative for the land Herb Kohler finally found. Formerly called Camp Haven, the site was a military base throughout the 1950s, when drone planes were launched over the water, then shot down for anti-aircraft artillery training. The military left the land covered with concrete bunkers and underground gasoline reserves, and to add insult to injury, the lakefront lot was next acquired by Wisconsin Electric Power Co., as a site for a nuclear power plant.

“Nuclear power fell out of favor,” says Allmann, “but they held the land in case they ever needed another electric plant.” Through a complicated combination of purchase and land swaps, Kohler wrested away the land and built the Straits.

In true links fashion, the course runs along a significant stretch of coastline, and the routing is never more than two holes wide. Following a march from the caddie stand over a beautiful arched stone bridge, the first hole immediately sets the tone for the course with an uphill, left-curving fairway that’s well-lined with bunkers on both sides. Like many of the fairways here, a shaped tee shot is required to take advantage of length, while a shorter but straight ball will still leave a chance at par. By using too much club, long straight hitters can blast through many of the fairways and find themselves in diabolical pot bunkers. The fescue greens are consistent, but slower than many modern courses and intentionally different from the nearby Blackwolf Run layouts.

Every hole on the Straits is solid, a rare trait among even the best golf courses. From the back tees, touring pros will face heroic carries, such as on the 214-yard, par-3 seventh. Aptly named “Shipwreck,” it has a virtual island of a green surrounded by terraced bunkers, with water all the way down the right side. Yet from the white or green tees, average golfers can easily play a round with one ball, especially under the watchful eyes of the mandatory caddies.

“It was built as a resort course, and the guys who shoot 97 or 100 are still getting around and having a good time,” says Dye. Choosing the right tee boxes for your ability is more important here than at most resort layouts, and the Straits has five sets (with slopes ranging from 125 to 151).

Dye has already returned to make one significant change in an effort to foil the many Tour players who will begin visiting to get a feel for the course. The final hole, with a split fairway, has been altered to extend the right-side landing area for high-handicappers by 35 yards, making the hole safer but not easier. At the same time, this change redirects the angle from the back tees, forcing better players to the longer, more dangerous left side approach, from which a ravine guards the green.

The 2004 PGA might well be decided at the 18th. For any golfer, it’s a glorious finish. Both nine and 18 play back to the clubhouse, an imposing stone structure replicating an 18th-century Irish barn. Among several standout holes, nine is the most visually impressive: A downhill tee shot descends into a valley, then there’s a climb back to a well-bunkered green.

A wealth of upscale courses are being opened around the country seemingly every day. But Whistling Straits is different, and you can feel it from the very first tee. From the grass to the pot bunkers to the sheep to the lake breezes, everything comes together perfectly. Dye resisted his tendency to move lots of earth and install railroad-tie bulkheads, and instead allowed the land to dictate the course in true British fashion. Consequently, the Straits is one of the nation’s very best layouts, new or old, and truly comparable to, say, a Spanish Bay or a Pebble Beach. Throw in the AAA Five-Diamond facilities of the American Club, and Whistling Straits truly has it all—even without the cartpaths.

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