One of the most iconic courses in the United States is located near Sheboygan, Wisc. It’s called Whistling Straits. The 7,790-yard monster was designed by the late Pete Dye in 1998 over 560 acres on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The Straits course includes more than 1,000 bunkers (that’s not a typo). As you read on, you will see the word “bunker” pop up repeatedly as these sand pits are in the most random places. For instance, I was playing the back tee on 15 where golfers seldom go and, on my right, yup, there was a bunker.
I was surprised there haven’t been more professional events played on the Straits course. Maybe it’s because even the best players feel like they’re hanging on by their fingernails on every hole. As Dye said, “this course is like popcorn—but sometimes you choke on popcorn.”
Here are the professional events Whistling Straits has hosted:
- PGA Championship 2004 (Vijay Singh)
- U.S. Senior Open 2007 (Brad Bryant)
- PGA Championship 2010 (Martin Kaymer)
- PGA Championship 2015 (Jason Day)
- Ryder Cup 2020 (USA)
At the 2010 PGA Championship, Dustin Johnson needed a par on the 72nd hole but found himself in the sand. Thinking he was in a waste area, not a bunker, he grounded his club. Unfortunately, it was a bunker. The resulting two-stroke penalty left him tied for fifth, two strokes out of the playoff between Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
In the 2020 Ryder Cup, Team USA destroyed the Europeans 19-9. Although it was one the biggest landslides in Ryder Cup history, Jordan Spieth took the individual spotlight on the treacherous 17th. After Justin Thomas barely missed the green left, Jordan was faced with a seemingly impossible shot to try to halve the hole. He hit the ball about 100 feet in the air and it landed 10 feet from the pin. Although the Americans didn’t win the match, Spieth had the shot of the day.
After re-watching the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, I was planning how to play each hole. But when I set foot on the course, my plans changed. You can get defensive because of the tight landing spots that challenge your driving accuracy and, of course, there are like 50 bunkers on each hole.
If I had to pick a few iconic holes, they would be:
- 7th “Shipwreck” – The 221 par-3 has an intimidating name but the reality is far worse. We played the hole with a 10-mph wind pushing the ball towards the lake. The large green is narrow and follows the shoreline, making for a small landing zone. If you just miss to the right, you’re in a deep pot bunker or swimming with the fishes. Your only miss is short-left in hopes of saving par.
- 8th “On The Rocks” – If the tee shot on this 506-yard par-4 didn’t fit your eye, the second shot certain won’t. The tee shot is blind. All you see is sky. You have to favor the left side as everything kicks to the right. Once you’ve tackled that, you will likely have a long to mid iron to a narrow funnel and a large green that slopes front to back. Don’t miss right or long; otherwise, you will be making double—at best.
- 17th “Pinched Nerve” – This hole is brutal from any tee. From the back, it plays 249 yards to the middle with a 20-foot drop-off on the left and a 15-foot mound on the right. The green looks like a postage stamp from the tee. If you bail right, you will likely get a horrible kick left and your ball ends up exactly where Spieth’s was in 2020.
- 18th “Dyeabolical” – The name says it all. From the back tee, this uphill par-4 measures 520 yards. The fairway may look wide on TV but from the tee, all you see is tall grass on the right and about a hundred bunkers on the left. I hit my tee shot where Johnson did in 2010 and was left with 261 yards to the green. Not fun, what with all the trouble left. The only bailout is short and right which is what I did. From there, the 77-yard pitch shot seemed straightforward.
Whistling Straits Bunkers
Throughout this article, you’ve read about the random bunkers dotted around the course. There are more than 1,000 bunkers on the Straits course (no one is exactly sure of the number) and a lot of them are small or long and narrow. As a result, many times your ball will roll up against a lip or you will have an awkward stance. Even if you find a flat spot, you’re likely to have a six-foot wall to get over to advance the ball.
The sand is another interesting aspect of these bunkers. It’s very heavy but fluffy. You don’t seem to be able to generate a lot of spin and so are forced to play the chunk-and-run nine times out of 10. Even if you are playing well, you’ll find at least five bunkers. I’ll stake my mortgage on it.
Pros have it easier playing from the tips
For those who don’t know me, I’m Harry and I am a professional golfer who plays on some mini-tours. I’m not trying to make it to the PGA TOUR. I just have a competitive side hustle. My drives are around 300 yards and my 7-iron goes 190. I’m telling you this to give you a quick insight to my distances before I discuss Whistling Straits.
I played from about 7,200 which is a healthy yardage with the wind conditions that day. I found myself driving into the narrowest parts of the fairway. My landing zone was filled with bunkers, tall grass and uneven stances. But as I was teeing off, I was thinking that playing the course from 7,700 yards would honestly be easier for me. From the tips, my drives would be rolling up to the narrowest zones instead of flying straight into them.
Playing from the 7,700-yard tips, you are adding an average of 20 yards on each par-3, which sucks. Add the ever-present wind and you should add an extra 10 yards to your shot for good measure. All the par-3s run along Lake Michigan and it seems your ball wants to gravitate towards it. If you don’t end up in the water, you likely will be in a pot bunker which almost as bad. Bottom line: You just can’t miss. The par-3s average 205 yards and when you factor in a 15-mph wind blowing towards the water, I don’t see an advantage playing from the tips in this case
I think the pros have it easier playing the par-4s from the tips. Don’t get me wrong. They would be hitting a longer club into the greens but it would only be a mid iron at most.
The outcome is the same from whatever tee you play on the par-5s, so being 40 yards back for me wouldn’t make too much difference. I say this because the greens are so well protected with water, pot bunkers or 20-foot drop-offs. Only the second hole is gettable after a good tee shot but you have to favor the right side of the green and let gravity do its thing. For the rest, you have to rely on your short game to get the birdies flowing.
What I shot at Whistling Straits
The answer to the question everyone wants to know: What did you shoot?
For my first time playing Whistling Straits, I shot a 76, four over par. Honestly, I was happy with the score after not knowing where to hit the ball.
Looking back, I would have done a lot of things differently, like not playing from the same 7,200 yardage. Not hitting driver on holes 4 or 6 would have been one of them. The wind I played in was completely opposite compared to most of the 2020 Ryder Cup. For instance, I would have hit a 2-iron on the fourth for position, accepting that I would be hitting a longer iron into the green. I would have hit another 2-iron on the sixth because the wind was into me. There was no need to try and thread it into a 25-yard gap with driver.
Many people asked me if I tried the Bryson DeChambeau line on the fifth hole. I did and made it over despite a 15-mph wind in my face. No, I didn’t play from his tee. I played from a tee that was 10 yards up from that tee and with a different wind but I made it over. After hitting my shot, I walked back to Bryson’s tee and the line he took was unreal. You can’t see anything and have to commit to the line. With his length, if he pulled it slightly, he would have ended up in the water as the fairway is only 20 yards wide on his angle.
If you gave me five more rounds on the Straits, I feel like one of them would be level par. Maybe. Don’t get me wrong. The course is gettable but these professionals shooting -9 over four rounds is seriously impressive. I say this because any mishit, wrong club selection or a gust of wind can lead to disaster.
You must experience Whistling Straits!
When trying to sum up the overall experience of the Straits course, it’s simple: You need to put it on your bucket list. The greens were rolling at 11 on the Stimpmeter, you get treated like royalty from the moment you enter the property and the views are spectacular.
If you’re unlucky enough to play on a wet and windy day, you might not have enough balls to finish the round. It will feel like you’re playing an 8,500- yard course and that’s no exaggeration.
Overall, I would gladly, without hesitation, play this beautiful design again and again and again. And again …
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