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, its 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)
  • #4 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #1 Course in Wisconsin – Golf Digest (2017-2018)
  • #5 Best Public Course in America – (2016-2017)
  • #1 Best Public Course in Wisconsin – (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 of them 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 its 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.


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 pros 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. 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.”

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

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 bail out to the right either, as a short right pot bunker guards that half of the green. One bad swing and you can make a big numbers here.

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 very 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 hangs over 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.

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.

Your view from the 16th teebox

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 had 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.

The large grass driving range at Whistling Straits
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?

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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