The mist from Lake Michigan shrouded the course on this early Wednesday morning. After playing the River Course at Blackwolf Run on Monday afternoon, I returned to the American Club to play Whistling Straits. This was the first time on my Top 100 Tour, that I was playing a course that I had previously played. I played Whistling Straits following the 2010 PGA Championship. At the time, I considered it one of most amazing golfing experiences that I’d had. It’s a beautiful course built along the straits of Lake Michigan. The views are breathtaking. You can lose yourself in the moment, but only for a moment. This, because after a single moment, there are many features on the course that bring you to back to the challenge that is Whistling Straits.
As I drove up to the bag drop, the caddies were lined up waiting for the golfers assigned to them to arrive. As the attendants grabbed my golf clubs from the rental car, I identified myself to the caddies. A young kid stepped forward to introduce himself as Joe. Joe was a well-traveled young man. He had grown up in Maryland, but had lived in many places, including Virginia, Arizona, and Michigan. He had caddied for a buddy of his on one of the mini tours. He was in his twenties, but was a very experienced caddie. This was his second run at Whistling Straits. On his previous tour, he was assigned the caddie number, 123. He thought that was very cool since his last name started with C. He said he enjoyed introducing himself as Joe C, number 123. His new number wasn’t as swank.
Joe carried my clubs over to the range for my pre-round warm up. The second golfer in my line up usually shows up on the driving range. I have found that this creates false expectations of an easy round for my caddies. Unfortunately for them, I find it very difficult to take my driving range game to the course. Striking the ball well when nothing is on the line is easy. Striking the ball well when you are staring at water in the direction of your usual ball flight path, and bunkers and fescue everywhere else, is hard!
This misty morning at Whistling Straits was no different. I had a good warm up. Joe and I then headed toward the first tee. While walking in that direction, we were introduced to the twosome that I was to play with. I had traveled over 900 miles from Atlanta to Kohler, Wisconsin, yet, I was by chance paired with two guys from Atlanta, Mark and Ken. They were on the last day of their long weekend excursion to play the courses at the American Club.
As we approached the first tee, the mist seemed to thicken, however, I don’t believe any of us hit our drive beyond our range of visibility. We chose to play from the green tees which measured close to 6700 yards. This is a bit longer than I prefer. When I play from tees over 6500, I tend to over swing. That doesn’t hurt me too much on easy courses because I can usually recover. But this was no easy course. It has a slope from the green tees of 141 with a rating of 71.9.
The first hole played 370 yards. I hit my driver to the right, into the bank of one of the many bunkers that adorned the course. This left me with a very awkward stance; one foot in the bunker, one foot out. I popped the ball up, then followed with a nice 85-yard sand wedge shot to 10 feet past the pin. I missed the putt and settled for an opening hole bogey.
With a near par on the first hole, after an errant drive, I was starting to think that this would be a better day than the day before. This was despite making par on the first hole at Blackwolf Run. That thought dissipated quickly on the second hole. I hit another errant drive, but this time I didn’t recover. My drive was to the fescue to the right of the fairway. My second shot didn’t travel very far as the fescue grabbed my club. My third shot was a shank that went into the hazard, my fifth shot put me back in play. I got on the green with my 6th shot, and two putted for a triple bogey. As Mark, Ken and I walked off the green, we agreed that scores weren’t going to matter on this day. What mattered was that it was turning into a beautiful day and we were playing golf on a spectacular course.
It was with that sentiment that I approached the third hole, a 165 yard Par 3 with a green running diagonally toward a misty Lake Michigan. There was nothing good between the tee box and the green. There was only fescue and bunkers. This was also true of the left side of the green, with Lake Michigan thrown in just for kicks. This par 3, was pure beauty and beast!
With my renewed attitude of just enjoying the blessing of playing golf at Whistling Straits, I took a six iron and swung ever so gracefully, without a care in the world. The ball landed on the green, pin high, about 30 feet from the flag, providing an opportunity for an early birdie to offset that nasty eight on the second hole. Oh, well, I must admit, I’m too competitive to not worry about my score.
While the ball was just a little over 30 feet from the hole, this was no 30-foot putt. The line to the hole was wide and sweeping from left to right. The layout for the hole from the tee box to the green, was in the shape of a crescent moon. So was this putt. I hit the putt on the right line, but left it two feet short of the cup. I finished off those two feet for a par.
If the third hole was a crescent moon, the 415-yard par 4, fourth hole was a pipe wrench. The tee boxes and the first part of the fairway, totaling 240 yards, made up the handle. The remaining fairway and the green made up the mouth of the wrench. The areas that were not fairway or green, were bunkers too numerous to count, and deep fescue. I hit my drive left. Somehow, I managed to miss all of those nagging little dream snatching bunkers and land in the fescue. I hit my 5 iron back into the fairway, leaving 95 yards to the pin. A sand wedge to 15 feet and two putts later, I’d scrambled to save bogey.
The Par 5 fifth hole, seems like a fish out of water on this course. It is rare to see water on a links course. There were two ponds on this one hole. Joe C told me that Pete Dye wanted to fill them in, but couldn’t get a permit from the environmental authorities to do so. The first pond comes into play on the tee shot for left to right ball flights. It runs along a long bunker that is between it and the right side of the fairway. That bunker makes a 90 degree turn to the right and so does the fairway as the pond ends about 210 yards from the green. At that point, the sister pond to the left of the fairway takes over and runs the remaining length of the left side of the fairway, until it reaches the green. The left side of the green sticks out into the pond. This makes the golfer think twice about going for the green in two.
I hit one of my best drives of the day on this hole. It flew 260 yards to the right fairway. This would be a perfect position to go for the green if I had a 270-yard shot that I could reliably hit on a straight line. I don’t have that shot, so I decided to lay up with a 3 hybrid. I hit it on a straight line over all the trouble on the right and into the fairway, just 80 yards out from the green.
This was again a perfect position for an 80-yard lob wedge to a front middle pin position. Now this was a shot that I did have in my arsenal, but not today. From 80 yards out, I hit the ball onto a grassy knoll to the right of the green, wasting an excellent birdie opportunity. I pitched on and two putted for bogey.
At 360 yards, the sixth hole is the shortest par 4 on the front 9. But don’t let the length of the hole fool you. To hit the fairway, you must carry the ball 200 yards or it will land in the deep fescue. With a narrow fairway, even the slightest of fades could land in one of the bunkers that dot the landscape between the tee box and green on the right side of the fairway. My tee shot faded. Miraculously, my ball managed to avoid the bunkers and landed in the rough. It was still a well hit drive, leaving only 120 yards to the pin, but with nothing but rough and bunkers between the ball and the green. I hit a pitching wedge that landed on the green, 25 feet past the flag. I also breathed a sigh of relief. I now had my second birdie opportunity on the front nine. I also had avoided what must be one of the most punishing bunkers on any golf course in the world. It is deep with no sloping banks. It almost bisects the middle of the green. I missed my birdie putt, but made an easy par.
The seventh hole is another beauty and beast Par 3. It plays 185 yards. There is nowhere but down for a ball to go if it isn't hit more than 140 from the green tees. A 140-yard shot to the left puts the ball in the short grass at the front of the green. On the right, there is a slither of rough which falls off into a series of bunkers. Right of the bunkers is a steep fall to the shores of Lake Michigan. The safe shot is to the left side of the green. There are hills and rough on the left side of the green, but the ball should be findable and playable.
I tried to hit my tee shot to the left side of the green, but the ball faded. It landed short of the green in the grass on the right. I could now relax my butt cheeks. I chipped on and two putted for a bogey. Sinking more of the putts within 6-8 feet would take about 3-4 strokes off my score per round.
I finished off the front nine with two bogeys. I was very happy to bogey the long par 4 eight hole. It has about as generous of a fairway for the first 250 yards from the green tees, as any hole on the course. I hit my ball to the right into the first cut of rough. I think this was a part of the fairway when I played the course in 2010. The problem with where my drive landed is that I’d have to carry a gully to get to the green, which was 180 yardsout. This was, however, much better than being just a little farther right and in the myriad of tiny bunkers and the deep fescue between the right side of the fairway and Lake Michigan. I landed my approach shot just short of the green, pitched on and two-putted.
On the 385-yard ninth hole, my drive landed in the left rough, just short of the deep fescue. I then hit a routine 5 iron to short of the green, pitched on, and two-putted for a bogey. After the disastrous Par 5 second hole, I had managed to string together nothing but pars and bogeys for a front nine score of 45.
The back nine starts with a short uphill par 4. The tee shot is almost perpendicular to the fairway. The ball must carry a gully filled with trees. To prevent the golfer from shortening the hole too much by carrying more of the gully, Mr. Dye placed a deep bunker in an uphill slope, in the middle of the fairway. I followed the advice Joe gave me and hit my 3 wood on a line that would leave me 100 to 120 yards from the green. The ball rolled through the fairway, into the first cut of rough. That extra yard or so, cost me dearly as I tried to hit a sand wedge 110 yards, uphill to the green.
There was just enough grass between the ball and the club face to take about 10 yards off the shot. The ball hit in the grass on the left side of the green and kicked into the bunker. Now, instead of a birdie putt, I was looking at a shot out of a deep bunker. I hit a nice sand shot to 8 feet, but missed the par putt.
The 11th hole, at 545 yards, is the longest of the par 5’s. Its biggest challenge, however is the narrow fairway. I think it would take all day to count the bunkers that adorn the left and right side of that narrow fairway. There is rough, but very little of it between the fairway and the bunker laden fescue. I hit my drive into the fescue on the right. I advanced the ball on my next two shots, but both remained in the fescue. My third shot from the rough, fourth overall shot, put me in the fairway. It came to rest 85 yards from the pin. I hit a sand wedge to just right of the green and two-putted from there for a double bogey. This was my first worse than bogey hole since the second hole.
The 12th hole is a very short par 3. The pin was positioned on the front of the green, 110 yards from the tee. I hit a sand wedge right on line directly toward the flag. The shot looked good all the way, but from the elevated tee, once it started to descend, it come straight down and landed short of the green, in the rough. I chipped on to six feet, but left my par putt just short of the cup.
On the 13th and 14th I missed the fairway and failed to recover. I made double bogeys on both holes. On the 15th hole, I put my drive in the fairway, but miss hit my second shot so badly, it cost me a couple of strokes. I also double bogeyed that hole. At this point, the stokes were added up. I needed to savage my round, so I stopped taking notes and started to focus on my game. I wanted to finish strong. This had become a regular pattern. Somewhere in the round, I would lose a little focus and start to rush my shots. This resulted in a string of bad holes.
The 16th hole is about the most straightforward par 5 on the course. I hit a drive to the left rough, but had a good lie. This allowed me to advance the ball 200 yards and back into the fairway, positioning myself with a good angle in on my approach shot. My approach shot landed short of the green, I pitched on and two putted for a welcomed bogey.
It had turned into a truly beautiful day on Lake Michigan. The course looked even more breathtaking. Although I was struggling with my game, I was still happy to be in such a nice setting. I said to Ken and Mark, that golf just doesn’t get any better than this. While the golf gods may not have been treating us very well on this amazing day in Michigan, life certainly was.
As we approached the end of the round and the last two holes, I mulled over whether I should do a replay that afternoon. After thinking hard about it, I decided against it. My body was starting to feel the effects of all the golf and the travel. I must confess however, that after returning to the hotel just north of Milwaukee, I took an hour nap and headed to the Brown Deer Park Golf Course for a twilight round of golf. This municipal course was once the home of a PGA Tour Tournament, the Greater Milwaukee Open. This was the tournament where Tiger Woods made his PGA debut. He tied for 60th and won about as much money as I paid to play the four courses on my schedule for the week.
I liked the course. It was in excellent condition. I remarked to the golf pro in the golf shop, that if we had municipal courses in the south that were as nice as this one, there would probably be a lot of country clubs hurting for membership.
Meanwhile, back at the beautiful challenge along the straits of Lake Michigan, Mark, Ken, and I approached the tee box on the longest Par 3 on the course. The 17th hole played 200 yards and had nothing but death along the left from the tee back to the green. The left side fell down toward Lake Michigan with fescue along the slope until about 120 yards out, where a purgatory of bunkers took over and lined the rest of the slope all the way to the left side of the green. On the right, there was nothing but illness, not a terminal illness, just a painful one. There were bunkers and fescue. Off the front right of the green was a hill with a bunker cut into it. This bunker filled hill, hid the right side of the green and all the trouble missing long and right could bring.
I hit a 3 hybrid on a straight line toward the bunker on the front right of the green. The ball carried the bunker, but the hill blocked the view of where the ball landed. Joe C assured me that the ball was safe and that I’d love the shot once I got to the green. He was right, the ball had come to rest almost pin high, about 35 feet from the pin. Joe gave me an excellent read. I hit the birdie putt on line. The speed looked good, I had a long time to think about how nice it would be to put in my blog, that I birdied the longest par 3 on the course. The ball continued to track toward the hole. I watched it intensely, it was starting to slow. Could it make it to the hole? Just as the ball approached the hole it stopped. No birdie, just an easy tap in par.
The 18th hole at Whistling Straits is probably the most difficult hole on the course. At 425 yards, it is slightly shorter than the 430 yard eight and fifteenth holes, but it is not just the length that makes it difficult. It’s the narrow fairway, the bunkers along the left of the fairway and the toughest approach shot on the course. If you can carry a drive 270 yards down the middle of the fairway, the ball will hit a slope and run down to about 130 yards out with a straight approach shot over a creek onto the green. If you work for a living…oh I forgot, I don’t do that anymore. So, let’s try this. If you don’t play golf on national television on Saturdays and Sundays, then you are likely left with shot that must carry a canyon at least 160 to 170 yards to reach the green. It must be a full carry or the ball is likely to fall into the creek. Although a few lucky shots may be saved by the bunker between the front of the green and the creek.
While I don’t play golf on television on the weekend, I did hit a great drive down the right side of the fairway into the first cut of rough, just about 165 yards from the flag. The advantage of being on the right side of the fairway is that the creek that ultimately winds itself pass the front of the green is just a 30-40 yard carry from that position. The creek cut across the fairway, makes a 90 degree turn, splits the fairway into a lower left side and an upper right side, before turning again to cut across what would be the front of the green from almost every other approach angle.
The only trouble that I had to worry about from my approach angle, were the bunkers and the fescue to the right of the green. I hit a six iron on a line toward the flag in its front left position on the green. My ball faded and landed right. I couldn’t tell whether it was in one of the bunkers or just in the fescue. Fortunately for me, Joe found it in the fescue. I chipped on and two-putted, to end my round with a bogey. I manage to keep my back nine score below 50 with a bogey-par-bogey finish. My total for the back nine was a 48. This resulted in a score of 93 for the round. While it was just one stroke better than my round on the River Course at Blackwolf Run, it felt like it was much less of a struggle. I finished with the same ball I put in play after I hit my third shot into the hazard on the second hole. Maybe it didn't feel like a struggle because it was a blessing just to be out on such a beautiful course on such a lovely day. I could have shot over 100 and still loved it.
I think Whistling Straits is a tough course, but a fair one. It is much more fun to play than Blackwolf Run. While there aren’t large bail out areas for missed shots, you can recover from your misses. It is also much more scenic and open. Half the holes on the course run along Lake Michigan. I have played some great courses, but like Augusta National, this one is very special.
I’m off to Erin Hills next.