Whistling Straits (Straits Course) – Kohler, WI (Architect: Pete Dye)
While there are other tracks to play in Kohler, Pete Dye’s Straits Course is the money maker that everyone comes to see at Whistling Straits. The former airfield called Camp Haven was transformed into a championship golf course in 1998 thanks to the vision of Herb Kohl and Pete Dye. The Straits hosted the 2004 PGA Championship, the 2010 PGA Championship, and is scheduled to host the same event in 2015. It also is on the books as the host of the 2020 Ryder Cup. Dye’s design attempts to replicate a seaside links course set in the British Isles. It occupies 2 miles of the west coast of Lake Michigan and sits about 50 to 75 feet above the lake shore. Oddly, Scottish sheep are loose on the grounds at all times, but somehow I missed see them. They are not to be used by golfers on lonely night you sick bastards.
Where is Kohler? Well, let’s just say it is north of Milwaukee and south of Green Bay, or….3 hours from Chicago if you don’t have a lot of traffic fucking that up. Whistling Straits has a 2nd course, the Irish course, and both are part of the resort owned by Kohl called the American Club. If you’re going, you’re likely staying there because there isn’t much else to choose from for lodging options. And for you guys that are into course rankings, you’ll want to know that the course ranks number 2 by Golf Digest and number 4 by Golf Magazine for public tracks you can play. It is also ranked number 16 by Golf Digest and number 28 by Golf Magazine in the top 100 in the country.
If you’ve been to Wisconsin before, or driven through it, you probably have the impression that there isn’t much to see unless you’re a barn or dairy cow aficionado. Hey, who isn’t? That impression should change a bit if you’re near Lake Michigan on any part of your next trip to Badgerland. The area around the Straits doesn’t seem like much until you finally get a view of the lake. The course, the clubhouse, the whole deal together is really quite impressive. As with any resort course experience, your fun begins at the bag drop. You stop your car and are attacked by a group of bros from the caddie shack that will ask your tee time and get you all set up before you even have your shoes on. At that point, they might as well park your car for you, but they don’t.
We started are day with lunch on the patio, which was just about perfect. It was 75 degrees without a cloud in the sky and barely a breath of wind. The course then leads you out away from the facilities to the lake, then winds back and forth along the coastline for 13 of the 18 holes you play. Such routing sounds nice, but it does tend to make several of the holes feel the same. You must walk the course, there are no carts allowed. And the little paved paths they’ve created to help with drainage are only slightly better than going rogue and traversing the long grass and hills that could easily lead to a sprained ankle.
The opening hole should be a bit of a gimmie, but you better know the right line off the tee. This is where the Straits course can play tricks on you. If you haven’t played it, you have to rely on a caddie to tell you what your line should be off the tee. It isn’t ideal and can lead to a few foul balls. At Whistling, that can be very penal as I found out on the first hole by finding a 3 X 4 pot bunker and having no play but to advance my 2nd shot 20 yards. After that first green, you walk to the 2nd tee and see the lake in all its glory. Get used to it, it’ll be there all day.
There are no trees in play on the Straits unless you hit an awful tee shot on the 9th hole, but there’s plenty of other design features to give you trouble. I mentioned the pot bunkers, the greens are psychotic, and some of the fairways look like a tiny ribbon across the horizon. The par 3s here unfortunately all play a bit and look like the same hole, but at different lengths. The par three 12th hole is a bit unique because there is a back right portion of the green that is about 10 X 10 and would make for a very interesting shot if it were ever used. The par four 6th hole’s green is similar in this regard too.
Everything you see on your walk around the Straits is a part of the experience of playing the course. You feel like a tour pro even after you make an 8 because you have a caddie to blame. Walking along the lake shore is a very tranquil experience even if you’re make doubles like Michael Moore eats Twinkies. Where the course loses points in this category is the overall artificial feel that it has.
I can’t quite pinpoint what it is, but much of the course feels fake. Part of it is Dye’s design and the millions of cubic feet of earth that he moved and brought in. As Dustin Johnson knows, there are bunkers on almost every hole that were placed there just to have a bunker, or just to give the course a look. There are about 1000 on the course! What is the point? If you actually hit a ball in them you’re already so far off line you aren’t going to save par. Why punish the average player more? A pro won’t be in them either. I think if they took half of these out and only kept those with purpose the course would have a cleaner and more natural look.
You won’t find the Whistling Straits greens to be overly fast. The staff here can’t get stupid and cut them at a speed of 10.5 or more or they’d be asking for trouble with their pace of play and fairness of the golf course to the amateurs playing it on a daily basis. Still, they aren’t slow and they are in good shape when you consider the amount of play that comes across them. The rest of the course, for as rugged as it looks, is manicured perfectly. The fairways play firm and fast and have natural fescue grass that makes the ball sit up nicely. The sand base under the fescue keeps the ground feeling firm.
The bunkers are all pretty well maintained too because 95% of the time they’re being raked by a caddie. You will find some waste areas that don’t have rakes and may have some foot prints in them. Don’t hit it in those spots and you won’t have to worry about them. The practice facility is up to snuff with the course, but the tee is probably mowed a bit too low and the hackers that can afford to play here chew it up pretty well. Overall, it is tough to complain about the conditioning here, but for $400, you should probably get faster greens and a practice range you can eat off of.
I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one. There is no value in playing the Straits course for $400+. Once you tip the caddie, you’re out well over that. And there’s also no price breaks. You can save $100 if you play at twilight, but you likely won’t finish because the pace of play isn’t very good. If you do play at twilight, the good news is you don’t have to take a looper.
That being said, this is a championship course that is worthy of being taken off your bucket list. Playing it once for that price tag is probably worth it if you’re a course chaser. Plus, you can scout the course for a future PGA and Ryder Cup!
Lets start with the positives. The service. From what I can tell the Kohler folks do a pretty nice job of hiring decent looking college age girls to serve you booze and bring you food and drinks on the course. They’re not stripper-like, but they’re not old hags you see at some places. The overall service at the Straits is pretty damn decent too. The caddies are knowledgeable, but likely not worth the $100 you pay them. The shop staff, bag staff, course staff, etc….all of them were top notch. I can’t say enough good things about those people. But that’s what you should be getting when the price tag is this high.
Now the bad, the pace. When we pegged it on the 1st hole the group in front of us was nowhere in sight. By the 2nd fairway we began to wait on them on every shot. It wasn’t their fault, the guys in front of them waited, and the guys in front of them waited, and so on. I hear Pebble Beach is the same way. When tourists get on a difficult golf course, they don’t play ready golf and they don’t know where they’re going. Plus, they take pictures the whole fucking time (I only do it when I have to wait). We played in 5 hours and 15 minutes and were told that was decent. I can’t imagine how bad the pace could be on a rainy day with a full tee sheet. Fuck me.
The American Club has everything. Fine dining, fine wines, a spa, great golf, caddies, great practice facilities, other great golf courses, and on and on and on. What don’t they have? I can’t think of anything. The food is pretty good and the pro shops have everything you could want with the Whistling Straits logo on it. If you go, bring extra money for shopping because you’re going to spend another $300 in the shop on merchandise.
If I was going to deduct a point in this category I’d do it simply because there isn’t much else around the resort to talk about. But then again, why leave the resort? I’m also fairly certain there is no strip club within 60 miles of the joint, but I’ll give them a pass for that. We found one the next night on our trip anyway, well, it found us I guess. And then there’s the granola bars. Oh my. So fucking good there must be crack in them. They’re about $5, but will keep you going all day. The ingredients are as follows:
2 C brown sugar
¾ C light corn syrup
¼ C honey
1 C butter
1 1/8 C peanut butter
1/1/2 T maple syrup
Mix separately and add to above
2 t salt
6 c quick rolled oats
¾ c wheat germ
Rough chop and add to above
1¼ C cranberries
1¼ C raisins
1¼ C apricots
1¼ C sunflower seeds
1¼ C pecans
Grease bottom only of a 9″ x 13″ pan. Bake in 350°F oven for 20-25 minutes. Cool
and cut into 3½” by 2″ bars.
That’s weird, I don’t see crack listed. Try one if you’re in Kohler, just because.
Like almost any Pete Dye course you can think of, the Straits course is overly difficult to play when it doesn’t need to be. The water doesn’t come into play and there’s a good chance you’ll finish your round without a penalty shot, but you’ll be cursing your wedge game to the hilt when you take four shots from 50 yards away from the green because you hit it on the site of a hill in a pot bunker that has no business being there. The course also has some forced carries that don’t leave the shorter hitters many options to bail out from attempting. And there are way too many blind shots to call this place ‘golfer friendly’.
Because the Straits plays firm and moderately fast it doesn’t play extremely long unless you’re playing a set of tees you don’t belong on. Also, I didn’t play on a day with much wind. While I didn’t find the course to be easy, I can only imagine how much harder it would be with a good 20 mph wind beating on you off the lake. And fellas, this isn’t a place you bring your wife to see the sites. She’s not going to enjoy the difficult walk or the challenges of hiking up the hills to play her foul balls. Don’t bring her.
Per usual, this rating isn’t based on a 5 being “way too hard”. I’m rating a course a 5 when I’d say it’s playable and enjoyable, but not easy, for players of all levels. The Straits Course gets knocked because its almost too hard for everyone. Hide the women and children. And if you’re a 3 handicapper playing from over 7100 yards, you’re not breaking 80 your first time around the track. Book it.
Low grades aside, the Straits course almost lives up to the impossible amount of hype it receives. It’s good and it is a true experience that you’ll want to knock off your bucket list. If you’re a value golfer, just get it out of your mind that you’ll ever go there and play. You won’t pay the freight and you won’t want to so you also won’t enjoy it. If you’re looking for a similar experience at half the price, give Arcadia Bluffs a try on the other side of the lake. In my opinion, it is a better golf course and almost identical experience, minus the major championship history.
Score: 3.5 (out of 5)
If you didn’t get enough of the Straits here, check out the review by the Itinerant Golfer on his site. He’s got great pictures that are way better than mine, and he even saw the fucking sheep. Enjoy.