But one thing that I’ve come to believe, maybe as a result of now being an independent adult and having the money to do it, is that for something you really want, or maybe even just something that you feel that you should do for completion’s sake, you should spend the money. I’ve become much happier to spend a good amount of money to play a course that I really want to play because it creates a lot of memories. I’m good about remembering details of courses, plus I take comprehensive pictures. So I get a lot that’s lasting out of it. And if you think about it, $350 for a round of golf is only ~$80 and hour, the price of a golf lesson. I’ll remember much more of this.
And actually, Whistling Straits was something of a deal in $/hr…because it took 5 1/2 hours to play. Our group was something of a small army on the first tee; four players, two wives, and two caddies. It was only my second time taking a caddie and…my second time learning why I never take a caddie. They double bag here and if the guy playing from the other bag is terrible, you’re gonna feel by the end of the round that the caddie should tip you for all the running back-and-forth that you’ll have to do. And for some reason, despite the fact that they’re shooting 125, people seem to treat every shot here like they’re a pro, trying to get distances to every one of the 1000+ bunkers, reading each putt from 7 angles. There was no one in front of us, we had six hours of sunlight, yet we barely made it. It was excruciating.
But back to the course itself. As mentioned, I felt pretty familiar with it having seen it so many times on TV. But there were a few surprises, some good, some bad. The first concern I had was that all of them being next to the water, the par 3s would feel too similar. That wasn’t an issue because they vary in elevation change and distance. The other was that the figure-8 routing would create paired holes that felt too similar to each other. Also not really an issue. 8/13 have a somewhat similar feel but 8 is much longer, so they didn’t feel too similar. Actually the par 5s 2/16 felt the most similar, but they aren’t in the same place in the routing.
The one thing that’s really an issue here is how narrow the fairways have become. They narrowed them for the PGA many years ago and I’m pretty sure they’re not extending them back. Some of the corridors of the holes along the coast also felt a bit too narrow and left me feeling that these holes might be impossible in a good wind. Finally, there’s one truly awful hole, no. 5, and a few greens that are completely overdone.
I mentioned that part of the reason that I didn’t have a burning desire to play here was that I had played Michigan’s equivalent, Arcadia Bluffs several times. How do they stack up? Actually, Arcadia Bluffs stacks up pretty well. It’s far less walkable, which is a real weakness, and it doesn’t have as many really good holes. But there’s more variety in the shaping of the holes at Arcadia Bluffs. I also preferred the greens there, which are heavily contoured but aren’t in so many awkward shapes. Arcadia only has a few cliffside holes but many of the inland holes are quite good. It’s a clear win for Whistling Straits, but the difference between them is not as big as the lists suggest…and closer to what I suspected.
Although it was some three weeks after the Ryder Cup, a lot of the stands were still up, including the one walking to the first tee. Walking through that was pretty cool.
The opening tees were up about 40 yards making this a short par 4 of ~360. Bryson may be able to drive the green but the rest of us should be focused on the bunker complex that narrows the fairway on the right at about 230. I went with driver in my first round and skirted the edge, leaving a wedge down the angle of the green. In my second round, I laid back and had an 8-iron. Unless you can get past the bunker, the green is very shallow, too shallow even for an 8-iron. I’d need a few more rounds to say for sure, but I think it’s best to take on the risk from the tee here.
But you do need a long ball and should try to hug the pond because unless you get to the end of the fairway, the landing area for the second is completely blind. This second shot is probably one of the ten or so worst shots I’ve seen on a golf course. The fairway angles to the right and the whole thing is carry over bunkers, but it’s hard to tell how far you need to hit it and where the fairway on the right ends. The pond angles in on the left, but it’s hard to tell where that is too. I was amazed to see pros laying up into the water during the Ryder Cup but having played the hole now, I’m not surprised.
The ~360 yard par 4 sixth also created a lot of drama in the Ryder Cup, with many pros trying to drive the green. But this was another hole that I didn’t like. The main problem is the hourglass-shaped green. If the pin is on the right, it’s simply too small for anyone but the pros to hit with anything more than a sand wedge. There’s no bailout area where you can be pretty sure that you won’t go back-and-forth across the green. And unless you drive it 250+ or way left (in the rough), you can’t really see this part of the green. So it’s a short par 4 that demands a long drive and has nowhere to play safe if you don’t pull that off.
I think that I would like the hole much more with the pin on the left (both times I played it was on the right), which makes it much easier. But I don’t see the problem with that as we just played two very hard holes and have several more to come.
But then there’s also that little ‘tongue’ in the back-right. When they put the pin there, even the pros were hitting it in the bushes. You also can’t putt to that section from the rest of the green. So it’s an awful hole if the pin is there. Otherwise it’s a good one, especially if they put the pin in the back-right of the main portion of the green, behind the bunker. That’s a proper (i.e. not absurd) tough pin.
Or you can do like I did and drive it in the left fairway bunker.
Even setting the views aside, it’s a great hole. There’s obviously a high intimidating factor with the wall on the left side of the green, Lake Michigan beyond, and the volcano bunker cutting into the green on the other side. But there’s more effective room to play to than you can see; if you can carry the bunker, the ball will kick left into the middle of the green. Hell, even if you miss the bunker right the ball will probably kick back onto the green.
But the drive is also contentious here. The fairway runs out at about 300 yards from the standard back tees although both days we were up a block and it was only about 265 to the end of the fairway. The problem with this is that the closest that you can realistically get to the green is about 180 yards. Now the right side of the green is reasonably receptive to a shot of such length and there is bailout room short left. You could also try to hit a draw to get your drive to catch the downslope in the left side of the fairway, which would cut off about 20 yards.
Overall, I liked the hole more than I thought I would. In principle, I dislike long par 4s that force you to have a long approach but it’s possible—if not likely—to shorten the approach with a perfect drive and while exacting, there’s room to play safe on the approach. Maybe making a 50 ft. birdie putt in my first round softened my view…
If you’re a serious golfer and trying to shoot a score, there are definitely some drawbacks. The fifth hole is awful and frustrating. So is the sixth if they put the pin on the right. But there’s a lot of flexibility in the course and I get the sense that they try to maintain balance in the setup. Both days that I played, the pin was right on six but on the fat left part of the green on twelve. Several of the tees were up although as I mentioned, that creates another problem in that you can run out of fairway on several holes.
So overall it’s an excellent course, clearly the best that I played in 2021. But I don’t like it so much more than its counterpart Arcadia Bluffs on the other coast of Lake Michigan. I feel that Arcadia has a bit more variety in its holes. The bunker schemes differ more from hole-to-hole. Some holes are wide, some narrow. The greens are big and undulating, but in differing ways. Pete Dye’s courses are always very strategic but the scheme with the angles—hug this waste bunker/pond for the better angle—is repetitive. And it’s not my favorite of Wisconsin’s superior collection of public courses—I’d have both Sand Valley and Lawsonia’s Links Course ahead of it.
I guess my issues boil down to this: the course feels a bit over-designed. And I don’t even mean that in the sense that there’s too much visual clutter with the bunkers and mounds. There is, but even setting that aside, there are too many odd green shapes that make sense in theory but don’t work unless you’re about a +1 or better. Fairways seem to narrow in the theoretically right spot on every hole (250 from the green tees, 100 yards from the green on a par 5). The logic on every hole is very clear in plan and I guess it would be nice if once in awhile, that weren’t the case. I feel a bit the same way about the much-lauded Arcadia Bluffs South Course--everything feels a bit too calculated. I guess that when everything is the result of the hand of man, it’s tough not to make everything seem like it’s the hand of man.
But I can’t deny that the hand of man created several great holes and some impressive works of landscape architecture here. It can’t be the easiest thing to get the shaping just right to make the green seem like it’s floating above Lake Michigan, like on the thirteenth hole. And seventeen is every bit the marvel that it seems on TV, plus a hole with interesting, if not obvious options to boot. All this drama made it a perfect course for the Ryder Cup and one that every serious golfer should go play.