HAVEN, WISCONSIN | “Make it look like Ireland.”
That was Herb Kohler’s response when Pete Dye asked the head of the eponymous company best known for its plumbing products what kind of course he wanted. Then Kohler walked away.
It was the summer of 1995. The two men were standing on a scruffy piece of property nine miles northeast from the village of Kohler. The ground ran two miles along Lake Michigan, rising as high as 50 feet above the water in places. The views were stunning. But the land itself, which had once housed an airfield and an Army anti-artillery training facility, was flat as a flounder.
Dye’s first impulse was to laugh at Kohler’s edict and the prospect of fashioning an Old-World style links on the lackluster site. Then, he began muttering about Kohler’s sanity and whether the man for whom he had already designed and built two courses at nearby Blackwolf Run had taken complete leave of his senses.
Much to Kohler’s delight, Dye had given him just what he was looking for – the Emerald Isle in the American Heartland.
But in time, Dye came to appreciate what his patron wanted. Over the next two years, the designer made Kohler’s dream come true. Initially called Whistling Straits, the course featured massive dunes, undulating fairways and greens and wispy field grass that grew ankle-high in many places. Dye built some 900 bunkers as well, many of which were the sort of deep, riveted pot bunkers that distinguish many of the great Irish layouts. He also put eight of the holes right on the cliffs, including all of the par-3s, and made sure golfers could see the lake from other parts of the layout as well. The wind that frequently buffeted the property gave the new course even more of a linksy feel. So did the ways it enabled golfers to run their approach shots onto the putting surfaces.
Much to Kohler’s delight, Dye had given him just what he was looking for – the Emerald Isle in the American Heartland. The course officially opened on July 6, 1998, and it quickly became regarded as one of Dye’s most inspired creations. Recreational players adored the taste of traditional links-style golf it gave them, to say nothing of the spectacular vistas. And professionals appreciated what a challenging tournament venue it turned out to be.
Over the years, the Straits, as the course is now known, has been the site of three PGA Championships and one U.S. Senior Open. And this week, it plays host to the 2021 Ryder Cup.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the course is what Dye had to do to build it. Designers are often prone to praise God for the great character He endowed the land upon which they fashioned their best layouts. But the Good Lord did not give Dye much of anything in this case. So, he took matters into his own hands, hauling in some 7,000 truckloads of sand from a pit on a farm 10 miles away and then using that material to form three lines of dunes that run along the entire length of the property – and that rise in some places as high as 70 feet.
As for the routing, Dye sketched an early one out on the back of a scorecard from one of the nearby Blackwolf Run courses. The idea was to determine how many holes he would put on the water and how much variety there would be between shots requiring draws and cuts. At the same time, the designer was looking at how best to produce a good balance of golf and the way different holes looked and played while also taking the greatest possible advantage of the conditions the lakeside piece of property gave him.
It became clear after those four major championships that Dye’s design more than held its own when the best golfers in the world competed here. As a result, spectators at this year’s Ryder Cup and those watching on television will see more or less the same Straits course they did during those events.
“The most noticeable change will be on No. 11,” said Kerry Haigh, the chief championship officer for the PGA of America and the one who sets up its courses for competitions. “Normally, the hole plays as a par-5 but it will be a par-4 for the Ryder Cup, at about 479 yards. More than anything else, we made that change to accommodate some corporate hospitality infrastructure and also improve fan movement in that area.”
Pete would have taken particular pleasure in the many ways the Straits will no doubt challenge the best players in the world, because he loved nothing better than making their lives miserable when they competed.
As a result, Haigh adds, the Straits will play as a par 71 and measure 7,355 yards (6,727 meters for those who calculate their distances that way). “Course set-up will be determined largely by the strength and direction of the wind,” Haigh said. “I anticipate that one day, we will move the tee up on the sixth hole, which is a short par-4. And a lot of fun and interesting hole locations will be used.”
The Ryder Cup poses especially strong tests for those staging it due to the match-play format and how that concentrates spectators on only a handful of holes. “That’s our biggest challenge,” said Herb Kohler, now the executive chairman of the Kohler Co. and the one who not only found the site on which the Straits is routed but also worked closely with Dye on its design. “The key is eliminating congestion and making sure that spectators can move easily from hole to hole.”
As far as being able to take in the action, both Kohler and Haigh are confident that members of the gallery will be able to see what is going on, thanks to all the spectator mounding Dye created through the years. He knew from the very beginning that Kohler wanted to stage major golf events on that venue and did all he could during the initial construction and in later years to accommodate them.
“Every hole is almost a mini-stadium,” said Chris Zugel, the director of golf course maintenance for Destination Kohler and the former superintendent at Whistling Straits. “That’s how Pete built it, so there is some intimacy to the holes, and so spectators can see the golf as it happens.”
Another thing that sets the Ryder Cup apart from major golf championships is the involvement in course setup of the host team captain, in this case Wisconsin native Steve Sticker. “We do that jointly,” explained Haigh. “And that includes the height of the rough, the width of the fairways and also the tee and hole locations.”
According to Zugel and Mike O’Reilly, the director of golf operations for Kohler and the past head professional at Whistling Straits, Stricker has made several visits to the property over the past couple of years.
“You could tell that he really likes the golf course,” O’Reilly said. “And he did not make a lot of changes. He appreciates that it favors those who hit the ball long and straight, and he wants the fairways to play firm and fast. He wants the greens to run fast as well. Steve also wants to keep the balls closer to the greens if his players miss on their approaches, so there will likely not be the 15- to 20-foot run-offs that one normally finds on the Straits.”
As is the case for many golf resorts in the age of COVID-19, the Straits has been wildly busy this past summer. “But we shut down public play on the Straits September 11,” said Zugel. “That gives us just under two weeks before the first Ryder Cup matches, which is plenty of time given that average golfers do not hit their drives into the same spots as the tour professionals. And recreational players do not hit many greens.”
The only sadness at Kohler amid all the excitement as the Ryder Cup approaches is that neither Dye nor his wife and design partner, Alice, are around to see it. Pete would have taken particular pleasure in the many ways the Straits will no doubt challenge the best players in the world, because he loved nothing better than making their lives miserable when they competed.
“The course is popcorn,” Dye once said of the Straits. “But sometimes, people choke on popcorn.”
It should be a wonderful few days.
Top: Straits Course, No. 6
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