The Itinerant Golfer

The Itinerant Golfer's Take on Whistling Straits (Straits)

Kohler, Wisconsin | Whistling Straits (Straits)

Architect: Pete Dye
Year: 1998

N8501 County Road LS, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 53083
(800) 618-5535

driving range available
walking only - caddies available
affiliated resort accommodations

PGA Championship - 2004, 2010, 2015
Ryder Cup - 2020

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I headed to Wisconsin to play Whistling Straits. Despite its high ranking on the Top 100 list, I wasn’t overly excited to play it. From what I could tell about the course from my research on the internet and from watching events played there on TV it was probably not going to be my kind of course. I was hoping to be surprised.

After a huge debacle getting from Richmond, VA to Wisconsin I was eventually rerouted to land in Milwaukee instead of Madison. While Milwaukee is closer to Kohler it caused a bit of a logistical problem for my other plans on the trip. Fortunately it was not anything that I was unable to overcome. After a brief nights sleep in my $49 Days Inn in hotel room I woke up bright and early for my hour plus drive north to Kohler.

Once I got outside of Milwaukee I was in rural Wisconsin and was thankful for my trusty GPS unit. I saw signs for the American Club which I know is associated with the course, but even as I was driving up the road showing less than a mile to my destination on the GPS it didn’t feel like I was anywhere near a golf course. Eventually I saw the Whistling Straits sign and turned into the driveway. As I wound my way around I was very pleasantly surprised to see that there was no colossal clubhouse or hotel. Instead it was just a modest little clubhouse built to look like an Irish Cottage. The American Club Hotel was actually a couple of miles away and the Whistling Straits Golf Course was designed to have the feel of an authentic Irish golf club. I’m feeling better about this already. The photo below (which I did not take) shows a great view of the clubhouse.
Whistling Straits
Herb Kohler of Kohler faucet fame built Whistling Straits. Kohler’s corporate HQ are just a driver and pitching wedge away from Whistling Straits. Apparently Herb was not a golfer but wanted to build the American Club and was convinced my his real estate development staff that in order for the American Club to be successful that there would need to be golf. (Editors note: See Scotts comment at the left from 4/26/2010) Its quite a good thing he heeded their advice because the courses he built became one of the premiere golf destinations in America. In addition to serving recreational golfers like me the course has also hosted events for both the PGA and USGA. The first major event to be held at the course was the PGA Championship in 2004, just six years after the course opened. The PGA has also already committed to bringing the event back in 2010 and 2015 as well as the Ryder Cup in 2020. The USGA used the course for the 2007 U.S. Senior Open as well.

I was running pretty late so I quickly dropped my bag, parked the car and went into the pro shop to check in. I did suffer the standard flogging at the cash register that one must suffer in order to play these resort courses. Once I regained my composure from that experience I ran back out to the starter shack and met my caddie Geoff. I then ran over to the range and took a few swings and then ran back over to the starter shack just in time to meet my playing partners and walk to the first tee. Today I was playing with Dave from L.A. and Mark from Madison who were friends and another single name Dave who was from Chicago.

The scorecard conveniently recommended which tees to play from based on your handicap. The recommendation for me was the green tees which play just under 6,500 yards. There were two other tees behind me at 6,943 and the tips at 7,362. That’s a lot of golf course.

The 2nd hole pictured below, a par 5, gives the first real view of what I’d be seeing all day. The 2nd green is pretty indicative of the greens at Whistling Straits. While not as dramatic as some, the green is positioned in a way that clearly penalizes the players who miss on the lake side.
Whistling Straits
The photo below is the 3rd hole which is the first of four very difficult par 3 holes. Again note how the green hangs on the edge of the green. Going to the left you might get “lucky” and have a bunker catch the errant shot. If your not lucky a ball played to the left will result in having to re-tee and an almost certain double bogey.
Whistling Straits
Right around the 3rd or 4th hole is when the wind started to become a factor. Whistling Straits is designed to play like a traditional links style course and the wind coming off of Lake Michigan certainly did not disappoint. The holes along the waterline were sometimes playing as much as a 3 club wind while the holes not right on the lake were a little less, there were still wind calculations to be made in club selection.

The 5th hole is an interesting par 5 called Snake. It is a double dogleg and for me played as a true three shot hole. An interesting thing about this hole is that while it is one of the interior holes not directly on Lake Michigan it was still surrounded by water. The hole is enveloped by two smaller ponds/lakes that can come into play on all three shots. In the photo below you can see what happens to approach shots that don’t quite carry the pond that hugs the side of the green.
Whistling Straits
The 6th hole is another shortish par 4. The photo below is taken from the tee. As you can see one of the the major factors players have to overcome at Whistling Straits are the many visually intimidating tee shots. In reality they are not so bad, but standing on the tee with the wind blowing hard they can certainly make the knees knock a little bit.
Whistling Straits
They have added an interesting new greenside bunker to the hole. The bunker as you can see in the photo below cuts a big chunk out of the green which can make an errant approach shot that lands on the wrong part of the green an impossible two putt. The bunker is also very deep and with steep grass walls so getting out of it could pose a real problem for those unlucky enough to land there.
Whistling Straits
The 8th hole was long par 4 with dogleg right which made the approach shot play dead into the wind coming off Lake Michigan. The photo below was taken from the tournament tees that play 462 yards. This is a blind tee shot to the fairway with a HUGE forced carry. Not an easy hole for the pros.
Whistling Straits
Fortunately the tees I was playing took the blindness out of the shot and most of the forced carry as well. It was still 413 yards, but quite a bit more manageable. After a great drive, I still had to hit a knee knocking 210 yard shot into the green which of course was hanging on the edge of land with disaster for balls going long or right. The photo below was taken from the fairway prior to the dogleg.
Whistling Straits
The 9th hole is a mid length par 4 that plays down hill. A good tee shot can leave under 100 yards into the green. With the clubhouse in the background and the rolling hills this hole certainly achieves the desired Irish effect Herb Kohler was going for.
Whistling Straits
The 10th hole is a great dogleg left par 4. Though the yardage is not terribly long the uphill adds a great deal of length to the hole . . . not to mention the wind. The best line is right over or the the left of the pot bunker in the middle of the photo below. Note the white specs off to the left of the photo sprinkled amongst the bunkers.
Whistling Straits
Here is a close up of those white specs. They are actually sheep. I have no idea if it is true or not, but my caddie said the sheep cost $12,000 a piece. Yes, $12,000!!
Whistling Straits
The 12th hole is a fantastic par 3. It doesn’t play real long to the middle of the green, but the green is very large. The scorecard says 120 to the middle from the tees I played, but I had to hit every bit of my 5 iron which is my 180 yard club. If you look in the photo below the players on the green are at the very back. The front of the green stretches almost to the left edge of the photo. Its a HUGE green. The hole was cut in the back on this day and in that part of the green there is barely enough room for four players and two caddies.
Whistling Straits
The 17th hole pictured below is another tough par 3. All the par 3s at Whistling Straits seem to hang on the edge of the lake. This one is longer but was playing with the wind. The scorecard said 190 from my tees and I hit my 160 yard club and ended up 35 feet past the hole.
Whistling Straits
Here is a view of the 17th green as you walk up to it. Note the bunker on the right. I’m not real sure why Pete Dye put this there. It is completely manufactured and looks a little ridiculous.
Whistling Straits
Here’s the view of the bunker from the green. Seems to me he could have picked better hazard that looked a little more natural to put there.
Whistling Straits
Below is a photo from the 18th tee. I wasn’t real sure of how to play this hole. I had seen it from the club house earlier in the day and it is a split fairway. My caddie was telling me to hit the ball in one spot and I thought he was telling me another. Now that I’ve walked the hole I understand it much better. Fortunately my lack of knowledge didn’t hurt me and I managed a good drive.
Whistling Straits
This zoomed photo shows the hole a little better. The layup shot is a fairway wood or utility club hit towards the guy in the red shirt. The longer hitters can carry the bunkers and aim towards the caddy and player off to the left.
Whistling Straits
The photo below is where I hit my approach shot from. The shot is visually intimidating but it was only 160 yards.
Whistling Straits
Below is a cool bridge that takes to across the creek to the lower fairway on the 18th hole.
Whistling Straits
I had fun playing Whistling Straits, but I’m not in a rush to get back there. I found it to be a novel course and relatively fun to play one time, but the price is exorbitantly high for what I felt was a mediocre course. The vibe of the place is great with the small clubhouse, sheep and wind. It really does feel like an Irish course. When I played it they were coming out of a particularly long winter and the conditioning of the course was a little rough which added even more to the authentic Irish feel. There were some fun holes, but I’m not convinced that the course warrants such a high ranking. I’m also a little surprised that the course hosts a major championship event (PGA 2004, 2010, 2015) as well as other important championships (2007 U.S. Senior Open and 2020 Ryder Cup). It just seems a little too goofy to be a major championship course to me. Now off to Milwaukee Country Club for my afternoon game.

  • John Major

    Wow; I have to admit I enjoy reading your blog…….check that….looking at the pictures on your blog but you are getting pretty hard to take seriously. Whistling Straits….Expensive, Yes but Mediocore….huh????

    I remind you all that this comes from a guy who thinks Fazio is the best architect out there and Sage Valley is just super duper.
    Anybody who can possibly think that Sage Valley is a better golf course than Whistling Straits has their head entirely engulfed by their own arse. WS as mediocore, just come out and say that the course wasn’t green enough for you to enjoy it. Maybe it was that they didn’t wash your car while you were out on the course…maybe it was that the massage at the end didn’t give you a happy ending?

    FYI-Your opinions kind of lose their value when you say things like the USGA runs the Ryder Cup….the PGA of America runs the Ryder Cup. Also you get your left and rights mixed up a little; the bunker on #17 that you speak of is on the right.

    • Steve Proudman

      Here is some history to add to your shared perceptions of your WS visit. I live near WS and have played it or walked it in all four seasons. I”ve kayaked along the shoreline and done some research on understanding what the land was used for in the past and how it came to be “an overpriced, overrated” golf course in nowheresville, WI.

      I believe that Pete’s wife Alice Dye responsible for putting the bunker on 17 as it is. There are no blueprints to work from on a Pete Dye golf course. He works from the eye. No blueprints once past the electrical and irrigation/drainage plans. Pete did do some sketching of holes. He used language like “Deep Sand Wild” for the left side of 17. What the holes end up looking like are up to Pete and the folks who drive the earth moving equipment. And it should be known that WS is a work in progress. The course has been changed in many ways since it was first opened in 1998. That bunker has always been there. I have a “napkin” drawing of the hole that includes the words “right side of green blind”. Those blind features come from time experiencing the blind shots of Ireland and Scotland. The sheep are a novelty. I host an annual Shivas Irons Society golfing event at Whistling Straits every October. The 13th Seamus MacDuff Fall Finale will happen October 16-17, 2013. We’ve played in rain, hail, snow, fog, heavy winds and dead calm as well as stifling heat. We’ve flown kites and hit featheries with baffon spoons. We love the spirit of the game and the connection to the Earth elements. It is priced high, I totally agree. It becomes that much more of a destination on a checklist for many. The experience is subjective and I believe any round on a golf course is a superb moment to enjoy regardless of the score you shoot. I admire your passion and dedication to the game.

  • Thanks for the comment John and pointing out the inaccuracies in my post. I’ve revised to correct the left/right and PGA/USGA mix ups.

    As for my assessment of Whistling Straits, its all just a matter of opinion and I suppose we don’t see eye to eye. I’m not bothered a bit by less than perfect conditioning. I thought it gave WS a more authentic links experience as courses in the UK are notably less groomed than courses in the US. Contrary to popular belief a course with greens stimped to 13 and cross cut fairways does not automatically make it great. As for the level of service at WS, one of the things I dislike most about modern golf is the over the top level of service that has become common with many golf clubs, especially resort courses. I found it to be a relief that WS did not participate in this practice. My opinion about WS just really comes down to the fact that I’m not a fan of this type of course. Simple as that.

    As I play more courses and see different things my tastes have certainly evolved. I have previously stated that I like Fazio the best of the modern architects but I’m not sure I will stand by that statement in the future. I have yet to play a Tom Doak, or a Coore/Crenshaw design and I’m anxiously looking forward to opportunities to play courses by these architects.

  • John Major

    I was unaware that you have yet to play the aforementioned archie’s courses. Just wait . . .

  • Unfortunately I’m not sure I’ll make it to any Doak or Coore/Crenshaw courses this year. I’ve already booked a trip to Bandon Dunes for June 2010 and also have an invite to Sand Hills but it will probably be 2010 before I can get there as well. If all goes well I might be playing Sebonack this summer. Still waiting to hear on that.

    I’ve been thinking for some time now that I was going to rue the day I wrote that I liked Tom Fazio the best of the modern architects. I’ve even thought about removing that statement, but because I did feel that way at one point I’ve left it for the sake of journalistic integrity. Although my opinion of Fazio has changed the more I have played his courses I did enjoy Sage Valley’s golf course very much and would be excited about a return visit.

    It has been an ongoing education and evolution for me and I suspect that it will continue as I see more of these courses.

  • TrappedBadger

    I too am a little baffled that you didn’t care for the Straits. I played it last week for the 6th year in a row and plan on going back every year until I die. The reason you play here is to get your butt kicked by the golf course. This is one of the Top 5 most difficult courses in the country and it is fun to get crushed on some of these holes. I got destroyed on the front 9 this year but went birdie-birdie on 10 and 11 and that will carry me through until next year. I’ve played 11 of the courses on your list and none of them hold a candle to Whistling except the Ocean Course. Also, if you didn’t like Whistling you better cancel your trip to Pacific Dunes next year…..brutal from what I hear. I enjoy your website and am a little pissed someone came up with this idea before I did. Sidenote: the bunker on 17 is Alice’s bunker (Pete’s wife). She is more evil that he is. When you go back to play Blackwolf, give the Straits another round. Let me know and I will go with you if we can coordinate it.

  • Birdie, birdie on 10 and 11 is a nice way to start the second nine. I told my caddie on the tee box of 16 that I wanted to par in and close strong. I ended up going birdie, par, par so I was pretty pleased with a strong close on those tough holes. I nearly eagled 16, but nearly and actually are two different things.

    I did have fun on the Straits, and its definitely a difficult course which I don’t mind at all. As you said, we’re there to play a tough course and test our game. I don’t think I would want to play it every day, but for me it was an experience that was enjoyable – just not necessarily something that I would seek out in the immediate future.

    In retrospect, I think that what I didn’t like about the course is some of the over the top features like the new bunker on the 6th hole and the bunker on the 17th hole. Features like that feel out of place to me and make me think of a clowns mouth and windmill. I have no doubt that I will be back there at some point as I still need to play Blackwolf Run. It was closed for renovation work when I was there this summer so I’ll be back at some point and I’ll give it another shot.

    As for Pacific Dunes, I fully expect that course to be difficult and I hear the wind blows like crazy there, but from what I have read Tom Doak’s style and approach is vastly more minimalist and I wouldn’t expect to see any of the over the top features that I found at WS.

  • Jamsout

    Pacific Dunes knocked WS from the top of my favorite courses list. PD has a much more authentic feel to it and if you go in the winter (dirty little secret: the weather can be very reasonable and the prices are a steal) you get much more value than the steep greens fees at WS. I return to Kohler each summer, but I find myself playing the Irish and Meadows Valley courses more. You get all the Pete Dye abuse you can take (i am a PD masochist) for much cheaper.

  • Scott

    I personally like Milwaukee CC more than the Straits, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying the Straits is overrated…also, just to help you out on the history of Kohler, the American Club was not built by Herb Kohler, it was actually used by the Kohler Company to house the immigrant workers at the factory in the early years of the company, it was then renovated and turned into what is now a Five Diamond Resort. Did you not play Blackwolf Run while you were in Wisconsin?

  • Thanks for the correction on The American Club history Scott. Blackwolf Run was closed for renovation when I was there so I was unable to play it.

  • Jeff

    The itinerant golfer is correct about WS.
    Nice course but overpriced and overated….
    Arcadia Bluffs for the money and ambiance is a much better choice to play golf on lake michigan….

  • Frank Mollica

    I just found your site thanks to the Streamsong reviews – my crew is headed there in March – and I couldn’t help but read some of the other reviews. WS does tend to draw strong opinions one way or the other, and I fall into the fan category. One of my favorites, and I’ve played all 4 at Bandon, Pinehurst, The Ocean Course. Loved Arcadia too! If any of the highly rated public courses are overrated, I’m going with Pinehurst #2. I played it after the renovation, and found it pretty boring tee-to-green.

  • Justin

    I’m playing it on Saturday. Do you think the caddie was a must-have? We have the first twilight rate, which doesn’t require a caddie. We’re perfectly fine carrying our own bags, but do you think the experience and course knowledge the caddie provides are essential here and worth the extra $100?

    • Doug

      I’d recommend the caddie. There were many times I would have been in deep trouble using just my eye off the tee, on approach shots, or on the green putting. If you’re really strapped for the $370 greens fee and aren’t concerned with playing that well then skip it. However, I’d bet if you have $370 to play here, you also have an extra $100 for a caddie to help you enjoy the course.

  • Hill Washburne

    Did the course play firm and fast or more of an american style of conditioning?

    • Itinerant Golfer

      When I was there they were just coming out of a long snowy winter. The course was not firm and fast at all which is understandable. Not sure what it plays like in the peak season.