Review: Irish Course at Whistling Straits

Course Name: Irish Course at Whistling Straits

Designer: Pete Dye/Alice Dye (2000)

Location: Haven, Wisconsin

History: The final Destination Kohler course built, the Irish Course at Whistling Straits opened in August 2000. It is also the only course to have never hosted a Major Championship, with its only national tournament being the 2005 Palmer Cup. Although often overshadowed by its sister course, the Irish Course has won numerous awards including:

  • #45 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #192 Second Top 100 Courses in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #6 Best Course in Wisconsin – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #4 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #79 Best Public Course in America – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #7 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – Golfweek (2017-2018)

Conditions: 9/10, The conditions at the Irish Course are fantastic and on par with the next-door Straits course. From the greens to teeboxes, this course held up well in very soggy conditions. It’s worth noting that the Irish Course features traditional bentgrass fairways, while the Straits Course uses a blend of fescues.

Value: 5/10, At about half the price of the Straits Course, the Irish will set you back about $230. Caddies are available upon request and will cost about $100 more.

Scorecard:

Tee                           Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Black                       72            7201               75.6              146

Blue                         72           6750                73.5              141

Green                      72           6366                72.0              137

White                      72           5992                70.3              133

White/Red              72           5613               68.6               129

Red                          72           5109               70.0               126

Best Score: 88 (Green Tees), 6/28/2017 with Will S.

Front 9 Best: 43 (Green Tees), 6/28/2017 with Will S.

Back 9 Best: 45 (Green Tees), 6/28/2017 with Will S.

Hole Descriptions: Coming to Wisconsin, the Irish Course was the course that most intrigued me. I sort of knew what to expect from the heavily televised Straits Course, and had played many traditional tight courses like Blackwolf Run. To add to the mystique, it was difficult to find comprehensives reviews of the Irish Course online, especially compared to its sister courses. Moreover, I had never played a true links course and looked forward to the opportunity here. However, playing 63 grueling holes over the previous 24 hours and an absolutely dreadful forecast dampened my excitement. In fact, the forecast looked so poor that we were fully content to drink Spotted Cows all night and forget golfing the next day.

We woke up around 8 for a 10:10 teetime and immediately checked the weather. It looked like the heavy stuff would hold off until noon so we decided to try to play at least 9 and wait out the weather. I don’t know if we were relieved or concerned when the proshop alerted us they would only halt play for lightning and not rain. We thought, “What better way to play the Irish Course than in Irish weather?

The course was more or less empty walking up to the 1st tee. At 369 yards, this uphill dogleg left seems straight out of the Straits Course. Mounds of wispy fescue line the fairway and many deep bunkers guard short left of this green.

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The stunning view from the par 4 1st
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Uphill approach on the 1st – note how undulating these fairways are

On the second tee, the skies opened up and I thought to myself, “Well, at least we played one hole.” This 347 yard par 4 plays as a slight dogleg left with water lining the entire left side. The fairway is pretty generous to the right, but players must avoid running through the fairway to avoid fescue and a bunker 275 yards out. This green is wide, but incredibly shallow, with bunkers in front and behind. I regret not taking a picture of this hole, but my phone would have literally died in the downpour. Shockingly, the rain ceased almost as soon as we stepped off the 2nd green, and we anxiously trekked on to the short par 3 3rd. At only 128 yards, this hole presents a good birdie opportunity if you’re able to avoid the giant water hazard and bunker that line the left side of this green.

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The short par 3 3rd. Look at how soaked the course is!

After relatively benign opening three holes, the course ramps up the difficulty on the number 2 handicap 4th hole. At 432 yards, this strong dogleg left presents the golfer a wide fairway guarded by a giant waste bunker short. The further left you decide to go off the tee, the more bunker you have to carry, with the deepest point being 250 yards. The approach to this green runs uphill with a giant waste bunker short right of this green. Par is a fantastic score here.

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The risk/reward teeshot on the long par 4 4th

We were told by caddies that the most difficult par fives were found on the Irish Course, but I have to give that claim to The River Course. However, all par fives here are doglegs that require a carry over a creek. The 5th hole is the first on the Irish as a dogleg right at 501 yards. A giant waste bunker occupies the right side of the fairway and requires a carry of at least 210 yards to cut the corner. If you go straight off the tee, you’re left with a longer lay-up over a creek. If you run through the fairway, you will almost certainly find a narrow bunker that lines the left fairway. A creek bisects this fairway about 125 yards before this green. Beware on your approach to miss a giant waste bunker left of the green.

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The 5th hole – “Devil’s Elbow”

One of the reasons I consider the Irish Course to be the easiest of the four in Kohler is because its par threes are by far the easiest. There’s no long par three out here, and three of the four require short-irons or wedges. The 6th is probably the simplest at the Irish Course playing only 135 yards. With an island green surrounded completely by bunkers, poor shots here will still lead to very challenging up-and-downs.

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The short par 3 6th – “Mulligan’s Watch”

Accuracy is the key to the short par 4 7th that plays only 344 yards. With a green tucked behind trees on the right, all you can see on this teebox is a wide fairway guarded by deep bunkers on both sides. One particularly deadly bunker lies 230 yards out on the right. This fairway slopes left-to-right and many balls end up just short of this bunker.

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The approach to the par 4 7th

The 8th hole is my favorite par 5 at the Irish Course. At 501 yards, this reachable hole rewards well-struck balls with eagle putts but severely punishes poor shots. The drive here is easily the tightest on the front side, with trees encroaching on both side of the teebox. Deep bunkers and trees line the right side of the fairway, and a deep ravine bisects the fairway about 180 yards short of this green. Like the par 5 5th, this creek really shouldn’t be in play but the number of balls I saw in it dispute this.

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The intimidating teeshot on the par 5 8th

With the wind whipping in our faces on the 322 yard 9th tee, we were thankful we didn’t play the Black Tees, which play over 160 yards longer. This hole is straight, but anything but straightforward as two creeks cut the hole in thirds. The first fairway stops 135 yards off the tee, and is more in play for the back tees. The second fairway is extremely wide but gives way to a ravine about 240 yards out. The third part of this hole is a narrow green. I made par here, but imagine this short hole can lead to some big numbers.

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The tricky par 4 9th – “Last Gaspe”

It started to drizzle as we stepped on the 10th tee, but not even the rain could distort what a beautiful hole we were about to play. Like the 1st, this breathtaking hole seems like it belongs on the Straits Course as a 378 yard uphill slight dogleg left. Although I know otherwise, the gentle sloping of the fairway lined by mounds of fescue appears 100% natural. More on this hole below.

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The marvelous 10th runs more uphill than you think

The 11th tee offers the best views on the entire course, as directly to the right lie the Straits Course and Lake Michigan. This 177 yard par 3 is pretty special in its own right, as tall mounds and a giant right waste bunker frame this narrow green.

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The phenomenal par 3 11th – “Lamb Chop”
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Looking to your right on the 11th tee

The stretch of holes 10-13 is undeniably the best the Irish has to offer, and was made even more amazing when the famed blackface sheep made an appearance on the 12th tee. An absolutely gorgeous 373 yard par 4, this hole runs straightaway with mounds and deep fescue lining both sides of a generous fairway. This elevated green hangs off a cliff on the left. You’d have to be insane to go for a left pin.

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“Toto, looks like we’re not in Wisconsin anymore”
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My playing partner discovered the hard way a left drive is not ideal

Although the par threes at the Irish Course aren’t long, they are incredibly neat and the 13th is the coolest of the four. This hole plays almost completely blind downhill, with your fortune being completely at the mercy of the wind and caddie club selection. Nearly 50 tiny bunkers surround this giant green.

At 508 yards, the par 14th is the straightest of the par fives and the easiest in my opinion. With OB right and a long waste bunker lining the left side of the fairway, an accurate drive is the key to a good score here. This fairway is split in two by a creek near the green and approach shots from either side are acceptable, although the left one probably gives you a better angle. This green is notable for a giant pot bunker just short left. The Straits Course has one of these on almost every hole, but this is one of the only examples on the more forgiving Irish.

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The approach to the par 5 14th – “Tullamore Dew”

After a disastrous triple-double start soaked in rain, I was actually playing some pretty good golf and was only +3 from holes 3 to 14. Unfortunately, the rain and difficulty started to pick up on the 15th, a monstrous 416 yard par 4. It also didn’t help that I thought the pin was actually the 10th, which is visible about 300 yards straight from the tee. The 15th is a challenging dogleg right with bunkers and fescue lining the entire length of the hole. Take bogey here and don’t look back.

The uphill, semi-blind 425 yard 16th is the 3rd handicap and another veritable challenge. This might be the most difficult drive on the course, as the right drops off hard into the woods and the bunkers and hidden water line the left. This large green features several swales and a deep pot bunker just short. Par is another phenomenal score here.

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The approach on 16. It’s never a good sign when you see raindrops in a photo

Playing as a more difficult version of the 2nd, the 335 yard 17th is a tight dogleg left with water lining the left and fescue lining the right. The water runs all the way to the green and makes your life miserable when the wind is gusting. Despite its length, this is another hole where par will gain you strokes.

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The intimidating par 4 17th – “Irish Mist”

The Irish Course culminates with an exceedingly difficult stretch of holes, none more difficult than the 523 yard par 5 18th. With water lining the left side of the drive and mounds of fescue on the right, your drive needs to be perfect to have even a chance at par. From the fairway, this hole runs straight downhill and to the right, with a creek crossing this fairway about 100 yards short of the green. Even if you carry this creek, your third shot will be straight uphill to a narrow green. The most defining part of the hole is the large bank on the right side of the green that kicks balls down to a popular collection area. From a tight lie, pitching a 50 yard shot to this green is nearly impossible. This hole is far from the clubhouse, so a cart waits by the green to take you to warmth.

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The 18th from the tee, one of the hardest teeshots of the day
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The terrifying approach to the 18th

In summary, the Irish Course features many linksy attributes, but I consider this course a hybrid between the Straits and Blackwolf Run. The bunkering and fescue on certain holes seems straight out of the Straits Course but is not nearly as overwhelming, while trees and water hazards come in play on the more inland holes but aren’t nearly as tight as Blackwolf Run. The resulting course is extremely enjoyable, and much easier than the other Destination Kohler courses.

Best Par 3: 13th Hole, “Blind Man’s Bluff”, 152 yards, 17th handicap. One of the most fun par threes I’ve ever played, I’m pretty sure this hole would be impossible without a caddie. From an elevated teebox, you can barely see the tip of an enlarged flag, as bunkers obscure your view. What lies below this blind teeshot is the largest green on the course and one that lends its way to many three putts. If you misclub, you will find one of 50 or so miniscule bunkers that surround the green. I made my only birdie of the day here and can’t think of a hole I’d rather do it on.

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If you look closely, you can barely see the flag just in front of the front teebox

Best Par 4: 10th Hole, “Shepherd’s Post”, 378 yards, 5th handicap. Easily my favorite par 4 at the Irish Course, this hole reminds me of the 10th at the Straits Course. An uphill dogleg left, this hole is breathtaking off the tee with a pond to the left and penal fescue mounds and bunkers on both sides of this sloping fairway. Your approach runs harder uphill than you think, so take one club extra.

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Pictures don’t do the beautiful 10th justice

Best Par 5: 8th Hole, “Garden Creek”, 501 yards, 10th handicap. A fantastic risk/reward par 5, this dogleg right requires a straight drive through a chute of trees to carry at least 110 yards to the fairway. The right side of the hole drops off steeply, with multiple long bunkers that often save balls from going further right into the woods. At about 300 yards off the tee, this hole turns right and a creek bisects the fairway. This creek shouldn’t come into play on either the drive or lay-up, but adds another visual challenge. Both the lay-up and approach to this green are dangerous, with numerous bunkers surrounding this narrow green and a devastating fairway bunker smack dab in the middle of the fairway about 50 yards from the green. This bunker is further from the green than it appears, and many golfers find it on their lay-up.

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The downhill approach to 8 requires a carry over a creek

General Comments: As one would imagine, the practice facilities at Whistling Straits are world-class with a giant grass range and two full practice greens. The clubhouse is also incredible and easily the nicest one I’ve ever been to at a public course. You are truly treated like a member at all Kohler properties. We played in terrible weather so pace of play was fantastic, but I don’t know if that’s always the case. Unlike its neighbor, carts are available at the Irish Course but limited to the cartpath. We took a caddie, who was absolutely fantastic. I can’t imagine playing here without one (thanks Travis!)

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The driving range at Whistling Straits is fantastic
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The Whistling Straits clubhouse, complete with an Irish flag

It might be a stretch to describe this course a “links,” but I can’t fault them for trying on the amenities. The snack shack/bathrooms rise out of the fescue and are labeled “Lads” and “Lassies.” I also can’t begin to tell you how cool the imported Scottish Blackface Sheep were. These sheep roam Whistling Straits in packs, and you can hear them coming because the older ones wear bells. Our caddie was a sheep-whisperer – he knew the secret to their affection is peanuts.

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One of the coolest snack shacks I’ve seen – this one is located on 8
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Blackface sheep posing for me on 12. One of the neatest things I’ve ever seen on a golf course
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One more picture of the sheep!

Verdict: The Irish Course flies under the radar compared to its world-famous neighbor, but visitors would be remiss to ignore this course. Deservedly ranked among the top public courses in America, this charming course is unique, affordable, and honestly much more playable for average golfers than any of the other Destination Kohler courses.

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