Herb Kohler, the 71-year-old president of the worldwide plumbing products company that bears his family name and is headquartered in the planned community of Kohler, Wisconsin, dotes on the Whistling Straits course on the shores of Lake Michigan as if it were his child.
In fact, asking him for his favourite hole on the 12-year-old 7,362-yard links-style Straits course brings out an impressive level of paternal pride.
“How many children do you have?” Kohler replied with a laugh. “Which one is your favourite? I mean, I can literally talk about every hole on the Straits course and tell you about things that fascinate me. But you take the last four holes coming in on this course, and it’s going to be hard to find four holes that create that kind of interest, that kind of variety, that kind of difficulty. And I think that’s the real test for a national championship.”
Kohler’s theory has stood up to that test twice already. In 2004, Vijay Singh won his third major championship when he defeated Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard in a three-hole play-off for that year’s PGA and three years later Brad Bryant became US Senior Open champion, overtaking third-round leader Tom Watson with a birdie on the 16th.
This week, the golf course imagined by Kohler and brought into reality by design guru Pete Dye goes under the spotlight once again with the PGA of America so enamoured by Whistling Straits it has already committed to return in 2015 for the PGA and in 2020 for the Ryder Cup.
Yet while the PGA is sold, not all players fell in love on their last visit in 2004.
Ernie Els is a fan but at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational he admitted: “It just shows you what a great designer Pete Dye is. People either love it or hate it. A lot of guys don’t like it, they think it’s very gimmicky, but the way they played it last time was very fair. If they make it rock hard, you’ll be there for two weeks, I promise you.
“But they made it where you can keep the ball in the fairway if you hit good shots, and if you hit the correct iron shots, the ball would hold on the greens.
“And if you’re wild, you’re not going to finish even.
“What Pete Dye did there is just out of this world, to build this basically – they had to create everything there. It was in the side of the lake... and to create everything there that they did took a lot of imagination.”
In 2004, Darren Clarke produced one of the more memorable critiques when after a practice round he said: “I don’t think it’s too tough. I just think it’s brutally difficult.”
Asked to compare Whistling Straits to a real links in Britain or Ireland, Clarke replied: “Pretty close. The fairways aren’t as firm and fast and the greens are different because there’s more slope in them. You stand on some of the tees and it looks as if you’re playing in Ireland or Scotland on a links golf course. It is amazing what they have achieved on this bit of land. If you try and remember all of the most difficult holes of all the courses at home, put them all together and I think you’ll have this one here.”
The scene certainly evokes a links course even if it was created on the flat site of a military base along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. A herd of Scottish Blackface sheep roam the natural fescue fairways on which huge sand traps beloved by Dye are liberally sprinkled while the large greens are undulating – eight of them hugging the lake.
But it is not quite a proper links, according to three-time US Open champion Hale Irwin, who carded a hole-in-one in 2004 at the par-three 221-yard seventh and returned for the US Senior Open in 2007.
“The conditions here are a little bit softer,” Irwin said in ‘07, “so you’re not getting that roll like a links would, whereas in ‘04 we had a little bit of that roll. One of the differences here is that the approaches to these greens are soft, so you don’t necessarily play a shot well short and let it bound onto the green. So if you were to land it say 10, 20 yards short expecting that run-up, you’re not going to get it. It’s soft in front.
“Now, if that were links golf, you’d land it there by design and let it bobble onto the green.
“Here it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to fly it to the green to get it up. That alone keeps it from being links.”
Some alterations were made after the 2004 PGA and others have been made since the 2007 US Senior Open, when Irwin’s comments were made.
Dye has reduced the size of the greens at three and the par-four 355-yard sixth, where a six-foot deep bunker has been extended into the front of the putting area, adding more risk for those attempting to drive the green.
The 18th hole, a 500-yard par four named “Dyeabolical” has seen the addition of a 300-yard carry down the left side, over bunkers, and to a narrow landing area at a dogleg, bringing a win or bust risk-reward option that could make for an exciting finale.
While much of America has been asphyxiated by a summer of high heat and humidity, the mid-western lakeside course has escaped that fate.
“This is the best time of year for us to host an event like this,” said Michael Lee, who is the head of golf maintenance for Kohler Golf’s four courses in the area. “We have been very blessed with the weather we’ve had and the course is in great shape. We’ve dried out and firmed up from the spring rains and we’ve been spared from the extreme heat that has affected so many other courses this summer. The winds off the lake give this course its teeth and keep the temperatures cooler.”
Those potentially windy conditions suggest a need for a plan B, C and D, or perhaps, according to Irwin, no plan at all.
“There is no strategy here because the wind is going to dictate what you’re going to do,” he added. “You may play a hole one day and the wind direction the next day can be completely opposite. It’s going to exact from the players the very, very best, and the guys that get through to the end are going to have literally been the best players.”