With Whistling Straits hosting its third major championship in eleven years many of the players are familiar with the course. As always weather conditions can impact scoring but in August it’s doubtful the winds will blow with the force felt at St. Andrews a few weeks ago. Predominantly any breeze should be from the southwest blowing across the routing. Early forecasts predict temperatures in the mid 70’s to 80 with sunny skies. We’ll see if this holds.
The preferred set up may be along the lines of firm and fast but the Straits isn’t the Old Course or Chambers Bay. Underneath the yards of sand trucked in during construction lies Wisconsin clay. The experiment with an all fescue playing surface has given way to a variety of different grasses. Should a rain shower or two pass by the Lake Michigan shoreline the layout will cater to an aerial game these players execute with precision.
Predicting the winning score is always inviting and for sure the PGA doesn’t care about players shattering par. The same is true for the most part at the Masters and the Open Championship. Only the US Open seems obsessed about controlling winning scores. With what we saw at Chambers Bay this year a future US Open might be contested in a parking lot.
On Thursday’s telecast at the WGC Bridgestone Sir Nick Faldo predicted -14 would be the number to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy. Kaymer posted -11, Singh -8 in the previous two contests. Scoring isn’t much of a concern. I just want to see fair conditions, a good test of golf and an event showcasing the player’s skill. It is certainly possible Jordan Spieth could roll to -18 or if Rory McIlroy decides to test his ankle he could replicate his performance in 2010.
What are the keys to taming the Straits? Let’s take a look at what holes might determine this year’s champion.
First of all I contend the Straits is a terrific 16 hole course. Two holes, one on the front nine and the other as the finisher have been worked on numerous times by Pete Dye. That is an indication the builder knows he’s delivered a sub standard hole.
Number five looks as if you’d be teeing it up in Florida, not Wisconsin. It started with wetlands and grasses along the right side, experienced a few other alterations the DNR turned their head to and ultimately now takes on the look of any par five located within a sixty mile radius of Palm Beach. It’s too bad because it follows perhaps the best hole on the Straits.
The eighteenth has had its putting surface reworked and the landing area altered significantly over the years but no matter how much makeup you apply the inherent features of the hole are subpar. Primarily the blind tee shot playing back into a setting sun during Sunday’s final round doesn’t help. My viewpoint is if you have negotiated 71 holes properly you should be deserving of a good look at the landing area for your final tee shot.
Regardless the other 16 holes are solid challenges. It will be key to get off to a good start as KJ Choi did during his first round in 2004. He birdied his first six holes. Darren Clarke posted 65 and the players were the ones whistling that first day.
Birdies are available on the first three holes, a par four, par five and par three. A well placed drive on number one allows for a short iron to a cantered green running right to left. You’ll never find straight lines on a Dye course. He loves to serpentine fairways, introduce random bunkers and vary the presentations of his putting surfaces. Dye wants the eyes to move and the more they do the ore of his obstacles they pick up. It’s all about getting into the player’s mind.
The Redan third collects tee shots to the back left of the green and allows the ground to come into play a fun view for spectators. With as good as these players are with their short clubs a birdie at number two is in the cards. If you can’t get through the first three at -1, you’re losing ground.
As a stated earlier the fourth may be the best hole at the Straits. A long uphill par four playing back into a right to left breeze this challenge demands two well struck shots to find the green. A birdie here is like stealing.
Holes five, six and seven offer pars of five, four, and three, with the seventh taking players back along the lake shore to a stern one-shotter. The sixth may have its teeing ground altered day-to-day to invite players to take a shot at the green but a deep bunker carved into the front of the green offers no bargain for par. The floor of the sandy hazard lies some twelve feet below the putting surface.
At this point through seven holes a score of -3 is very achievable. Eight (507 yards) and nine (446 yards), two closing par fours running north then west feature a long walk then a shorter downhill stroll back to the clubhouse. The green complex on the ninth is genius as its narrow width demands precision. Take two pars here, mark 33 on your card and head to the back nine.
The uphill tenth hole is typical Dye with a fairway bunker stuck directly in the middle of the route. However players will only use it as an alignment aid, most pounding their drives to within thirty yards of the green. This is an invitation for birdie and those failing to accept will be frowning on the next tee. Eleven is the best of the par fives, a sweeping double dogleg to a contemplative putting surface with a false front. This hole displays some of Pete’s best work.
The next trio of holes, a short par three, followed by two short par fours provide the player three opportunities to pad their scorecard. However the challenge of the first of these holes is solely dependent on its hole location as the green snakes back to the right towards Lake Michigan. In this quadrant, the size of a two-car garage, is where you’ll find the flag on Sunday. There is no bail out, no room to hide here. When the hole is on the left side of this green birdies will be more prevalent. Any player making birdie on Sunday will have an upper hand.
Thirteen is a scenic par four playing downhill towards the lake on the second shot. The tee shot might remind a player of the eighth but fortunately this plays one hundred yards shorter. With a short club in hand expect players to extract their share of birdies here before they turn home.
Another chance for birdie lies on the next tee and certainly may depend on where the tee blocks are set. Here players reverse direction heading back south for the next four holes. Should the PGA staff set this up as a drivable four, the well bunkered green will demand a precise effort to find its surface. Once again Dye’s “visual sabotage” presents itself as players are likely to only get a partial glimpse of their target. Taking a Zach Johnson route might be the best bet at birdie, relying on one’s wedge prowess.
If you’ve been fortunate to gather a few birdies on holes ten through fourteen hold onto your headcovers because the fifteenth is just downright nasty. At 518 brutal yards back into the prevailing wind this par four takes prisoners. There is always something unnerving when a player walks off the previous green, hikes a couple of hundred yards back to an elevated tee then turns around to view the challenge in front of them. The term that applies is intimidation. Any player making birdie here should be whisked away on the shoulders of the spectators and deposited gently on the sixteenth tee.
Everything is in plain view on fifteen especially the green which appears to float in Lake Michigan. The massive putting surface may allow the player to feel relieved once he’s arrived but the potential for a three putt looms if he isn’t careful. There is no shame giving one back here. The priority is to not record a dreaded “other” on the card.
The final three holes of this walk feature a par five, par three and finishing par four. Sixteen allows a chance to make up for any mishaps at the previous hole and under the right conditions an eagle is a possibility. The drive must find the well bunkered fairway in order to have a go at the green which drops off to the lake on the left.
Players have now arrived at their last two challenges in the shape of a par three and par four. How many other Dye courses conclude in this fashion? TPC Sawgrass, Crooked Stick, The Ocean Course at Kiawah, The Premier Course at Blackwolf Run, Oak Tree, to name a few. One thing all of these layouts have in common is that you’re not going to be able to limp in to the finish. You need your A game.
Perhaps the most photographed hole at Whistling Straits is the seventeenth. Concluding the lakeside holes this gem features a huge green shored up by sleepers on its port side and a raised bunker short and to the right. This bunker conceals a portion of the target again depicting the Dye trait of visual interference. Distance to the flag is vital as the potential of a three putt is very real. You better be sure when you step on this tee the proper club has been selected and the commitment to hit the shot is as plain as day. Otherwise any grip on that big trophy may start to slip away. The adjacent hillside will be packed with patrons hoping to catch a glimpse at the eventual champion. This hole surely could have a say in that decision.
Regardless of the design of the finishing hole, it must be played. The most important consideration for the tee shot is picking the correct sightline to flight the drive. A miss right puts you into Dustin Johnson territory, not a good omen. A quick hook delivers one into a congregation of bunkers dooming a player’s chance at reaching the green. Properly negotiate the tee shot and the stage is set for a heroic second to a flag tucked front left just above the meanderings of Seven mile Creek. It’s not difficult to hit the ample green but once again the premium is placed on the flat stick to avoid making a costly final mistake. If a birdie is required on this par four for victory three exceptional shots must be played. With the huge gallery tucked into bleachers lining the hillside any closing birdies will send a roar across the lake that might be heard in Michigan.
Walking off the eighteenth green a score of 66 is very achievable. There are birdie holes scattered throughout but the key to scoring will be accurate ball striking. If a player gets wayward on this routing an unforgiving number could be posted quickly. Four rounds of 69 would be commendable but might fall short of a first place finish. Rather than predicting a score I will predict a winner — Jason Day gets my nod to capture his first major.
By Sunday evening one player will hoist the Wanamaker Trophy and claim the final major championship of 2015. It will mark Kohler’s last scheduled PGA Championship in the foreseeable future. Yet the golf world will return in 2020 for the Ryder Cup. After that who knows what events will return to Kohler or if a potential fifth course will be built along Lake Michigan south of Sheboygan. But that is all speculation and what matters now is the event at hand.
One thing that cannot be disputed is the setting for this major championship. It is truly fantastic. The Kohler Company is extremely capable of hosting world class events and this third major championship illustrates the quality of the facilities found in Destination Kohler. Sure it’s a bit pricey but there are opportunities spread through the calendar year to enjoy the facilities at reasonable prices. If you haven’t been to Kohler you need to go. It captures Wisconsin at its best.
Whistling Straits is spread out on an ample piece of property capable of accommodating sizable crowds. It’s not an easy walk as the first two PGA’s saw a number of injuries from spectators slipping on mounds and hillsides. If you’re going to the tournament it is advisable to wear your golf shoes. Pick a few of the venues to watch a number of holes. The high ridge line to the right of the tenth fairway is ideal as you can see ten, eighteen, seventeen as well as tee shots on eleven with minimal trekking. If you intend to walk the entire course take some water and be extremely careful of your footing. There will be places where you won’t enjoy great views of the players along the way but you’ll eventually stumble on some good spots.
Enjoy the tournament whether on TV or in person. It’s a great way to wind down the Wisconsin summer. Then take a short break. The Packers will be teeing it up in another few weeks.