Whistling Straits proves an unrelenting test for the PGA Championship

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; 12:23 AM


Some courses become the main actor in a golf tournament, and the terrifying Whistling Straits is one of those. Part genius and part folly, it's got as much personality and presence as any player contending in the PGA Championship. You can't take your eyes off it - and don't dare, or you're liable to plunge from one of its sheer bluffs.

It's got forbidding length, at 7,514 yards, and an unending series of mounds, pocked by sand traps that number just under a thousand. "As soon as you drive through the gates, there's bunkers staring you in the face," Hunter Mahan said.

It's also got fog, which delayed the second round by more than four hours Friday, wind and occasional threats of hail, and tormenting mosquitoes, which rise up in such waves from the knee-deep rough. "Swarming, in fact," Mahan says.

All of which has made for spectacular visuals. Guys hit golf balls from the sides of cliffs, and standing in lake water. Balls bound over precipices and disappear into deep moss banks and bogs.

"You've got to really find your spots off the tee to find your lines, because fairways are obviously going to be important, because there are a lot of kind of sharp cliffs where the fairway kind of runs off into deep bunkers and waste areas," Mahan said. "So you've got to pay attention out here and avoid the big number."

Or worse. Keith Ohr made the mistake of taking a step backward on the 11th hole - and found himself in a controlled fall down a 10-foot ledge, fortunately into a sandy waste bunker.

There were blind shots to hidden landing areas, requiring players to aim at vague distant targets and trust their swings. With no cart paths, galleries wandered confusedly following faint tracks through the fescue grass. Traipsing across the jagged ankle-turning burrows and knolls, some of which rise 40 feet overhead, the footing is spectacularly uncertain, with hidden gopher holes that could topple the unwary.

All in all, Whistling Straits is a ludicrous place to hold a major championship, spookily isolated and torturously hard to get to. It exists only due to the vivid, grandiose imagination (and dogged huckstering) of its owner and builder, Herb Kohler. Yes, that Kohler, the one whose name is all over your bathroom, and who has turned his family's kitchen and bath supply business into a diverse empire that includes fine hotels. He commissioned Whistling because the customers at his posh five-diamond American Club hotel down the road were clamoring for a world-class course.

"Yes, indeed, I am a plumber," he says. "I still am a plumber. But now the world also considers me a hotelier, and they have further expected me to be a good golfer, which clearly I am not."

Whistling Straits is so remote that the only hotel nearby is Kohler's, and the unofficial count of grain silos between here and Milwaukee, taken from the bus you have to ride to get here, is 106. They dot a landscape of rolling farm fields.

The real mastermind of Whistling Straits is designer Pete Dye, hired by Kohler to create something out of nothing. The piece of land that Kohler first showed him was just a flat, abandoned airfield, with a dump and an old barracks on it. Kohler directed Dye to turn that remote expanse into something that resembled Ballybunnion, or some other romantic course from Ireland or Scotland. He wanted, he told Dye, a course that would be a world-class golf destination, yet appealing to everyday players.

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