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Whistling Straits: It Is What It Isn't

A lifetime spent watching and playing golf has yielded some all-time favourite places from which to watch the game: nestled down in the springy grass on the tall dune by the left hand side of the 12th at Royal Birkdale; standing on the balcony outside the office of the chief executive of the R&A with the 1st tee of the Old course below and Old Tom Morris’s green to the left; high on the headland at Pebble Beach with the 6th green in front of you, the 7th tee nearby, the 7th green and 8th tee below; in the shade of the spreading oak tree on the lawn at Augusta National.

To these now must be added some new favourites. Not one but two from Whistling Straits, a man-made creation that looks unmanmade. The first is a point on the outward nine holes just between the 3rd and the 7th holes. In this heavenly spot last Thursday there was a moment when the sky was Cambridge blue and Lake Michigan ebbed and flowed half-heartedly and its colours near the shoreline were vibrant enough to suggest it was the Caribbean. To the right was the drop dead gorgeous 3rd hole, 180 yards or so. To the left the drop dead gorgeous 7th, another par 3, this time of 220 or so yards. 

These glorious holes that hug the shore of Lake Michigan on the front nine would be more than enough for most courses. Most courses do not have one such hole, nor such a view, but at Whistling Straits they are not even the half of it. There is a similar viewing position on the homeward nine that offers as much as the one on the front nine. Get out there! Don’t give up if you turn your foot in a rabbit scrape or slip on the grass. It will be worth it when you arrive. In time and after much huffing and puffing you come to another of these remarkable conjunctions of holes that make this course so distinctive. To your right as you face the water will be the 16th, at 570 yards the shortest of the par 5s and known as Endless Bite while to your left is that most neglected of holes, the orphan child of modern golf course architecture, the short par 3. The 12th , 140 yards or so, is known as Pop Up.

Almost wherever you look at Whistling Straits you see row upon row of towering sand dunes. Many are higher than the one on the 6th at Royal St. George’s, the hole known as The Maiden on the course that is called Royal St. Mark’s in Ian Fleming’s book Goldfinger. Most of the dunes at Whistling Straits make the Himalayas at Prestwick seem like a foothill. In a contest as to which is the more visual, Whistling Straits outplays the old inward nine holes at Nefyn in north Wales, which is saying something. It is more scenic than the Old Head in Ireland, which takes some doing and frankly it knocks Pebble Beach into a cocked hat. Topographically and visually it is stunning.

Yet Whistling Straits is a bastard golf course. Note I did not say of a golf course. That would be pejorative though I dare say Anthony Kim was harbouring dark thoughts after taking a 7 on the 16th in the first round, Robert McClellan an 8 on the 1st on Thursday and Henrik Stenson and Freddie Jacobsen who both had 8s on the second hole, Jacobsen in the second round and Stenson in the first.

It is a bastard in the sense that it is neither one thing nor the other. It is a faux links, one that looks for all the world like a combination of Ballybunion, Pebble Beach, Kingsbarns, Royal St. George’s and Sand Hills yet plays like the heavily irrigated courses of Medinah, Valhalla, Atlanta Athletic Club, Southern Hills and Oak Hill. “What’s interesting about Whistling Straits for me is that it’s a Scottish-looking course that plays like an American course,” Phil Mickelson said. “It takes a little getting used to, the fact that you see the fescues and the sand, the dunes and the pot bunkers and you want to run balls up to the hole. But…it’s too soft. The ball stops and you have to fly balls on to the green.”

Sunday at Whistling Straits was God-given. Clear sky, temperatures in the 80s, low humidity and a westerly wind gusting at up to 25mph wind that set the flags dancing, “a morning when all nature shouted fore” as P.G. Wodehouse might have put it. It was a day that more than made up for the fog and leaden-skies that had hung over the course in the preceding days. This magnificent day served as a reminder that Whistling Straits is the most visually stunning golf course in the northern hemisphere , and one of the most in the world, but a bastard golf course nonetheless.


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