The first time PGA of America Executive Director Jim Awtrey was here, he saw only nine holes, and there wasn't grass on any of them. But even then, seven years ago, Awtrey told renowned golf architect Pete Dye the property was a potential major championship venue.
Awtrey's early vision will come into sharp focus starting Thursday, when a PGA Championship field that includes 95 of the world's top 100 players begins play at Whistling Straits, 60 miles north of Milwaukee, in the first men's major held in Wisconsin in 71 years.
"There were a lot of [people] who said, 'How can you go to a brand-new golf course when you're trying to get back on the old traditional courses?' " Awtrey said Wednesday. "But I think this has proven to be one of the unique venues in the United States and, in my opinion, will be hosting golf tournaments for many, many years."
The wind has been blowing in the practice rounds, and on Wednesday, the course and thousands of spectators on the grounds were further chilled by temperatures in the low sixties and occasional spits of driving rain. More of the same has been forecast for Thursday and perhaps into the weekend, conditions that will give the season's final major championship the look and feel of a British Open, if not a late fall Green Bay Packers game.
That was always the intention of Herb Kohler, president and CEO of the 130-year-old family-founded bathroom fixtures company that bears his name. Kohler wanted Dye to build a venue that would test the skills and the patience of the world's finest players, while at the same time could also be set up to provide a pleasurable day for golfers of all handicaps, even if there are 1,400 bunkers and waste areas in and around the dunes.
Asked if the stories were true that he kept telling Dye during the construction phase to make the course harder, Kohler said: "I'm a character who likes to see stresses and strains, especially among those players who are the best in the world. We can watch them week in and week out, and we don't ordinarily see the kind of challenge a major can bring about. We don't have any score in mind necessarily. We just want to see the best players in the world tested so we can see the aspects of their mental makeup, their emotional makeup, and their courage."
Many of those players already have been duly impressed.
Tiger Woods said Tuesday: "If the wind blows like this, I don't think I've played a golf course this difficult. If it doesn't blow, the guys will shoot good scores. There's not one golf hole out here where there's not the possibility of making double bogey with just a marginal shot -- not just a bad shot, but a marginal one -- where you'll get a bad bounce and all of a sudden you're down off one of those cliffs or you get in a rut in a bunker, and you have absolutely no shot."
Added Phil Mickelson: "With wind, it's one of the hardest golf courses tee to green that we'll see. It doesn't give you a chance to hit runners like it does in Europe, so you have to get your approach shots into the air somewhat. Then you get the crosswinds, and it's very difficult to judge it and have the ball stay on the green."
The course plays to a par 72 and measures 7,514 yards, the longest in major championship history. There are three par 4 holes that are 500 yards or longer (another first); par 5 holes that measure 593 yards (No. 2), 598 (No. 5) and 618 (No. 11) and two par 3s listed at 221 yards (No. 7) and 223 yards (No. 17).
"It's beautiful," Davis Love III said Wednesday. "I wish I had Pete Dye and Herb Kohler's vision to build something like this. Not only is it an incredible piece of property, but an incredible job of creating what they were after -- a links-style golf course. There are obviously some very hard golf holes out there, but for the most part, it's just a very, very hard, fair golf course . . . and a creative masterpiece."
In addition to identifying the most skilled golfer this week, Whistling Straits also will present the final opportunity for players to earn points for the American Ryder Cup team. The top 10 on the points list compiled over the last two seasons will be automatic picks, and team captain Hal Sutton will announce his two wild-card choices at a news conference in Milwaukee on Monday.
The top seven spots at this point essentially have locked up a berth, a list that includes Woods, Mickelson, Love, Jim Furyk, Kenny Perry, David Toms and Chad Campbell. But only 29 points separate No. 8 Fred Funk from No. 14 Scott Verplank, and the remaining three automatic spots could change by Sunday evening. Players finishing in the top 10 this week will earn Cup points, a maximum of 300 for a win and a minimum of 20 for 10th place.
Washington area native Funk has said it would be the accomplishment of a lifetime to make his first, and likely last, Ryder Cup team at the age of 47. Steve Flesch is No. 9, and 50-year-old Jay Haas is No. 10. Sutton has given no hint of his captain's choice picks, but if Haas does not stay in the top 10, there has been plenty of speculation that Sutton would put him on the team anyway. Verplank, a captain's choice of Curtis Strange in 2002, also is said to be on Sutton's short list.
"All of us knew it coming down the stretch in any tournament we're facing right now," Funk said. "You know if you don't have a chance to win, you know you have to get top 10. Sometimes that's harder than trying to win the tournament, because there are so many ties, one shot and maybe no points. It will probably be my last time to have a chance to play in it, and I really want it."