Review: The Straits Course at Whistling Straits

Course Name: The Straits Course at Whistling Straits

Designer: Pete Dye/Alice Dye (1998)

Location: Haven, Wisconsin

History: When you step foot on the property, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the land was completely flat just a few decades earlier. In 1949, the U.S. Military built Camp Haven on this old farmland to test anti-aircraft weaponry. Abandoned since 1959, billionaire Herb Kohler essentially gave world-renowned architect Pete Dye a blank check to design a championship course in the 1990s. When it was all said and done in 1998, Dye had moved an unprecedented 800,000 cubic yards of sand. In 2000, a sister Irish Course was built just inland.

Only six years after opening, The Straits Course hosted its first Major – the 2004 PGA Championship won by Vijay Singh. This event was a resounding success and Kohler was given more national champions including the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, 2010 PGA Championship, and 2015 PGA Championship. Famously, Dustin Johnson grounded his club in a “bunker” on the 18th hole in 2010 and just missed a playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer. In 2020, the Straits Course will host its first Ryder Cup. A unique design and impressive short history make the Straits Course one of the most highly regarded courses in the world. Its accolades include:

  • #51 Best Course in the World – Golf Digest (2016-2017)
  • #22 Best Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #27 Best Course in America – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #6 Best Modern Course in America – Golfweek (2017-2018)
  • #4 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #5 Best Public Course in America – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #1 Course in Wisconsin – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #1 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – Golf.com (2016-2017)
  • #1 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – Golfweek (2017-2018)

Conditions: 9/10, The conditioning at Whistling Straits is incredible and worthy of some discussion. With a unique blend of fescue, bentgrass, rye, and poa annua making up the fairways, this course plays firm and fast tee-to-green. These greens are purely bentgrass, but constant wind from Lake Michigan makes them some of the firmest I have ever played. Case in point, yardage markers are to the front of the greens; if you aim for the pin be prepared to run through. While not as undulating at Blackwolf Run, the greens ran about a 12 on the stimpmeter the day we played, and pin placements made for some very difficult putts.

Perhaps the first thing people think of when they think Whistling Straits is the bunkers. With over 1000 bunkers on the property, raking all of them isn’t required, and many are left entirely to the elements. The same goes for the thick fescue that lines the fairways. It seems almost entirely unkempt, and your lie can range from a flyer to buried.

Value: 2/10, One of the biggest detractors from the Straits Course is the price. At $450 plus required caddies before twilight, a round here will set you back about $550, making it one of the most expensive rounds in the world. For golfers on a budget, I recommend looking into a package, as these are often cheaper.

Scorecard:

Tee                           Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Black                       72           7790               77.2              152

Blue                         72           7142               74.2              145

Green                      72           6663               71.9              141

White                      72           6360               70.4              137

White/Red              72           6037               68.9              133

Red                          72           5564               72.7              129

Best Score: 96 (Green Tees), 6/27/2017 with Will S. and two others we met at course

Front 9 Best: 49 (Green Tees), 6/27/2017 with Will S. and two others we met at course

Back 9 Best: 47 (Green Tees), 6/27/2017 with Will S. and two others we met at course

Hole Descriptions: Make no mistake; the Straits Course was designed specifically to challenge the best players in the world. In fact, I even grew jealous of the pros when I was playing. We played the Green Tees at 6,663 yards, and learned from caddies that the Blues, not the Blacks are primarily the tees the pros play from in tournaments. Furthermore, I can’t emphasize how much easier fans make the course by trampling down fescue. You won’t lose many balls here (I lost one), but be prepared to find a bunker or dense fescue if you stray offline.

From the Greens, I thought the Straits Course was vastly undersloped at 71.9-141. I have never played a course as difficult (including Bethpage Black), and also felt the Straits was a bit unfair. Minor misses on pretty much any hole lead to situations where making anything better than double-bogey is borderline impossible. For example, golfers that find themselves down the cliff on the 16th or 17th may take at least 4-5 shots to extract themselves from narrow, steep bunkers. Coupled with firm and fast conditions, this course is insanely difficult, even without the wind.

Our caddies were quick to point out that unlike Pebble Beach, every hole at the Straits Course provides water views of Lake Michigan. To do this, Pete Dye created an interesting figure-eight design with 14 holes running north-south along the Lake and the 1st, 9th, 10th, and 18th running east-west to and from the clubhouse. Many golf purists criticize Whistling Straits for its overbunkering. With over 1,000 bunkers, I can’t deny this criticism but feel compelled to point out that at least a quarter of these bunkers are never in play. The unfortunate consequence of this bunkering, however, is that many of the holes blend together. Alone, these holes are absolutely splendid, but even the amazing set of par threes fails to differentiate themselves, as all are found on ledges overlooking the Lake.

Walking to the first tee with our caddies, it’s hard to explain the emotions I was experiencing. The day was absolutely perfect: 73 degrees, 0% humidity, and clear blue skies. By far the best course I had played up to that point, my legs trembled on the teebox. Luckily, the opening hole at the Straits is one of the easiest on the course as a slight 370 yard dogleg left. Bunkers and fescue line the entire length of the hole, including a large fairway bunker that juts out on the right from 215 yards to 250 yards. I thought I hit a perfect high draw but wound up on the edge of this bunker. I thought, “Man, am I in for a long day.”

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Your view from the 1st tee – “Outward Bound”
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The approach on the 1st – deep, numerous bunkers guard every green here

The 2nd is the shortest par 5 on the course at 521 yards. Semi-blind off the tee, this hole is fairly straightforward, with a narrow fairway guarded by bunkers and fescue on both sides. The bunker to avoid on this hole is a tiny pot bunker in the fairway about 40 yards short of the green.

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The semi-blind teeshot on the par 5 2nd – “Cross Country”
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The breathtaking approach on the 2nd – beware of the devastating bunker short right

At 166 yards, the par 3 3rd is the first of an amazing set of one-shotters at Whistling Straits. Situated right on the Lake, this gorgeous hole requires a carry the entire way to a giant, undulating green. You definitely want to favor the right side of this green to avoid water and bunkers left.

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The first par 3 3rd hole – “O’Man”

It doesn’t take long for the Straits to ramp up the difficulty, as the 4th hole is the number 1 handicap at 414 yards uphill. The left side of this hole runs along the lake and this teeshot is somewhat blind, making it very intimidating. At about 220 yards off the tee, this fairway opens up on the left, but anything short will find fescue or bunkers. This approach runs straight uphill to a narrow green guarded by a steep hill of bunkers on the left. Par is a very strong score here.

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The intimidating view from the 4th tee

Aptly named “Snake”, the par 5 5th slithers right around two natural bodies of water. To many, this is the weakest hole on the course, and I can’t say I disagree. This hole reeks of target golf and really doesn’t fit the rest of the design. I think it’s also an appropriate time to talk about the irritating gun range that borders this hole. I’m pretty sure people were launching bazookas next door, and for the price, this was unexpected to say the least. Back to the hole, you need to hit a straight drive to avoid water right and fescue left. From the fairway, you have to go right with water on the left and fescue on the right.

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The 543 yard par 5 5th – “Snake”
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The view from the 5th fairway

I’m not sure there’s a more confusing hole on the course than the 360 yard 6th hole. From the tee, you have literally no idea where to aim, as all you can see is bunkers everywhere. To find this tight perched fairway, you need a straight drive of at least 175 yards to carry water and fescue. This green is wide and shallow, and the entire front is guarded by bunkers. Be careful to avoid the deepest bunker on the course right in the middle of this green. I found this hole to be underrated and one of the coolest at Whistling Straits.

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It’s not immediately evident where to aim on the 6th tee
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The approach to the 6th green – this hole is named “Gremlin’s Ear”
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The pin was on the left side of the green, forcing him to chip over this deadly bunker

Arguably the most beautiful hole I’ve ever played, the 185 yard par 3 7th plays directly on Lake Michigan. The Lake is a true hazard on this hole, as there is no bailout option. Making par here with wind whipping left-to-right was one of the highlights of my trip.

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The breathtaking par 3 7th – “Shipwreck”

Playing 429 yards, the long par 4 8th is one of the most challenging holes on the Straits. The landing area is blind, and trouble looms all around this tight fairway. A cluster of bunkers lines the left side from 200 to 280 yards off the tee and the right side drops off hard into the water with thick fescue and a myriad of bunkers. Just how many bunkers are on the 8th hole? 102, making it the most-bunkered at the Straits. The approach runs downhill and to the right to a long, narrow green. Pro tip: Take a look from the Black Tees on this hole to get an idea of how good the pros are.

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The intimidating par 4 8th – “On the Rocks”
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The walk up to the 8th green, don’t go right

The 384 yard 9th hole runs back to the clubhouse and usually plays considerably longer into the wind. This hole is dead straight, with mounds of fescue on both sides of this tight fairway. As I learned, a miss to the right is much worse, as tall trees block out shots to this green. A small creek runs along the right side of this green. This hole feels decidedly more like Blackwolf Run, and not surprisingly I lost my only ball of the day here.

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The par 4 9th runs back to the clubhouse – “Down and Dirty”

Playing back out to the Lake, the 334 yard par 4 10th is the shortest par 4 on the course from the Green Tees. Undoubtedly one of the easiest holes on the Straits, this hole runs uphill and features the widest fairway on the course. One caveat, however – there are two bunkers in the middle of this fairway: one large one at 200 yards, and a tiny one at 270 yards on the right side. Because Pete Dye affords the player such a wide landing area, you can imagine that missing this fairway is troublesome. The left side drops off into a valley of fescue and the right side features some of the nastiest mounds of bunkers on the course.

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The par 4 10th plays very similar to the 10th at the Irish Course
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Don’t be short like me on the 10th, for reference, I’m 6’4″

At 544 yards, the par 5 11th is the longest hole at the Straits and my vote for the most difficult three-shotter. This hole is heavily bunkered, especially along the right side. The most notable feature of this hole is a vast waste bunker that stretches for the final 100 yards on the left side near the green. Not only is this bunker long, it’s also deep, as players will have to carry 12 feet tall railroad ties at the end. A false front and heavy back-to-front slope on this green make this par 5 extremely difficult all around. For example, two of my playing partners found the short left waste bunker and never got out.

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The approach into the par 5 11th, look at that bunker on the right!
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It’s not hard to see why the 11th is nicknamed “Sand Box”

I was expecting a break on the 12th hole as the scorecard indicated it only played 118 yards. Much to my dismay, the pin was on the back right portion of the green, making this hole the “shortest par four in the world” according to my caddie. This back portion of the green is about 120 feet from the center of the main green and only about 10 yards in diameter. Missing the green anywhere on this short hole leaves an almost impossible up-and-down.

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The short par 3 12th – “Pop Up”

The 13th was my favorite par 4 on the course playing a modest 364 yards. This hole is fairly straightforward with an angled fairway running downhill and to the right along the Lake. This green is perched right over the Lake, making an approach with short iron or less that much more difficult.

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The 13th is one of the simplest designs on the course, but no doubt one of the most beautiful

The 14th is an interesting hole. Somewhat inland, this short 346 yard dogleg left plays a lot like the Irish Course next door. Mounds of fescue line this fairway that turns sharply left about 250 yards from the tee. If players can find the fairway here, this becomes one of the few birdie holes on the course.

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The view from the 14th teebox – “Widows Watch”
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The approach on the 14th, my only birdie of the day

As the longest par 4 on the course at 429 yards, the 15th begins what many describe as one of the hardest finishing stretches in major championship golf. Like many holes, this fairway is skinny and guarded by mounds of fescue and bunkers on both sides. A bunker also bisects this fairway about 100 yards short of a narrow green.

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The par 4 15th – “Grand Strand”

While long at 535 yards, the par 5 16th is the last real chance for birdie at the Straits. With a wide fairway, this hole tempts longer players to give this green a go in two. The approach here is one of the more challenging on the course, as this green slopes down a steep embankment on the left full of bunkers, thick fescue, and other nasty things.

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One of my favorite shots of the day – my friend in the left rough on 16

Apparently when Alice Dye accompanies Pete Dye, he lets her design one par 3. At Whistling Straits, he gave her the extremely challenging 197 yard 17th hole. With a steep drop-off and Lake Michigan on the left and a high-lipped bunker short right, this is one of the hardest par threes in the world. More on this hole below.

The 18th hole is one of the most insane finishing holes in golf and one that’s provided plenty of drama in past championships. Golf purists cringe at the heavily-bunkered duel fairway design that played over half a stroke over par at the 2015 PGA. At 424 yards from the Green Tees, and much more from the Tips, this hole runs back to the clubhouse. The primary fairway is wide but runs out at 240 yards off the tee. For longer players who want to hit driver, your only other option is to aim for the left fairway, which requires a carry over numerous bunkers. While the left fairway gives you a better angle in, both fairways require a carry over a creek to a gigantic four-leaf clover-shaped green. I felt great hitting this green with 6-iron only to struggle on this ‘lucky’ green.

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Savor the 18th, it’s your last hole of a dream round
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The devilish approach to the par 4 18th – “Dyeabolical”

Need more proof the course was built for professionals? We were informed in the locker room after the round that we just missed Jason Day and Ben Crenshaw on the course. That’s something you don’t hear everyday.

Best Par 3: 17th Hole, “Pinched Nerve”, 197 yards, 8th handicap. One could argue that the Straits possesses the best collection of par threes in the world. While all four sit dramatically on Lake Michigan, the Alice Dye-designed penultimate hole is the best of the bunch. Playing a strong 197 yards from the Green Tees, this hole stretches to 249 yards from the Blacks, making it the longest par 3 on the course. This large, undulating green is perched on a ledge, with a steep drop-off and Lake Michigan on the left. This drop-off is extremely penal, with tall fescue and narrow bunkers there to collect your ball. There is no bailout to the right either, as a short right pot bunker guards that half of the green. One bad swing and you can make big number here.

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The beautiful, yet challenging par 3 17th – “Pinched Nerve”

Best Par 4: 13th Hole, “Cliff Hanger”, 364 yards, 14th handicap. Shorter and easier than the similar 8th, the appropriately named 13th might be the most fun hole at Whistling Straits. Running downhill and to the right, this medium-length hole is guarded by bunkers and fescue on both sides and Lake Michigan far right. While water shouldn’t be in play from the teebox, it will almost certainly come into play on the approach, as this green overhangs the Lake on the right. A particularly nasty bunker awaits those who go left of the green. With the greens as firm and fast as they were, this was one of the scariest approach shots I’ve ever had.

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Approach to the 13th green – “Cliff Hanger”

Best Par 5: 16th Hole, “Endless Bite”, 535 yards, 10th handicap. Probably the easiest of the three-shotters, this risk/reward par 5 entices longer hitters to go for the green in two. With a fairly generous fairway lined by numerous bunkers and fescue on both sides, this is one of the easier driving holes on the course. The lay-up/approach is more challenging, as this fairway narrows and runs uphill to a perched green. Like the 17th, the left side of this green falls down a steep embankment full of narrow bunkers. I made the mistake of pulling my 2nd shot after a good drive and ended up 30 feet below the green on my 3rd.

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Your view from the 16th teebox – “Endless Bite”

General Comments: The shared facilities at Whistling Straits are second to none, with a large grass driving range, two practice greens, and a gorgeous clubhouse. The proshop has everything you could imagine adorned with a Whistling Straits logo, and the locker room is easily the nicest I’ve ever been to at a public course.

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The large grass driving range at Whistling Straits
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Whistling Straits’ clubhouse – three flags are American, Irish, and Wisconsin

One of the main complaints about the Straits Course is slow pace of play. Our round took over 5 hours, but honestly didn’t feel that long because the course is walking only and very difficult. Besides, I wish I could’ve spent even longer gazing out at the beautiful views of Lake Michigan found on every hole. Caddies are required prior to twilight and I don’t know how I could’ve played this course without one; it’s very hard to choose a line or read a putt without their help…Scottish blackface sheep roam Whistling Straits, but I didn’t spot any the day I played. I had to wait until I played the Irish Course the next day to have that experience…The water stations at Whistling Straits are operated with a pump and it takes about 3-4 minutes to pump a cup of water. A way to entice you to buy drinks on the course?

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We had fantastic caddies that made the experience that much better

Verdict: The Straits Course attempts to pay homage to links-style courses in Scotland and Ireland, but ultimately is unlike any other course in the world with its insane bunkering and breathtaking setting on Lake Michigan. With views of the Lake on every single hole, the Straits Course is arguably the most visually appealing course in America. Despite a high pricetag, every golfer should try their hand at this marvelous course. Just don’t expect a good score – the Straits is easily the hardest course I’ve ever played.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Straits Course at Whistling Straits

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