PGA Championship 2015: A tour of Whistling StraitsAugust, 2015
Head pro Michael O’Reilly gives Mark Townsend a tour of Herb Kohler’s masterpiece
It wasn’t so long ago that the PGA Championship was seen as the poor relation among the four Majors. A championship that began life as a matchplay event quickly moved from one ordinary venue to another and struggled to produce any repeat champions. From 1950 to 1970, even after the strokeplay format was introduced, there were 21 different winners.
Jack Nicklaus’ four wins helped, John Daly’s shock 1991 triumph added another dramatic chapter while Tiger Woods’ quartet of wins in the Major that now boasts the deepest field have also provided plenty of sparkle.
As have the courses. Now we have Baltusrol, Medinah and Oak Hill on the rota and this year we are back at Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.
In 2004 it entered the Major arena for the first time. It had only been built in 1998, and disappointed no-one.
But this is more akin to a rugged Irish links with fairways bordered by wispy fescue and shades of another part of Britain in the form of the 29 Scottish blackface sheep that spend the day on the course. Then there are the bunkers.
“There are roughly 1,000,” explains head professional Michael O’Reilly. “It’s not officially a world record but I can’t think of anywhere else with any more.”
Only 100 will be raked before each day of the championship and, most likely, only half will come into play. Some are in front of the 17th tee while a more recent addition sits in the middle of the 6th green.
A 10-handicapper off the back tees would struggle to break 100 “We have had two significant changes since 2004. The green on the 6th has seen a large pot punker added into the middle of it so there are two distinct parts to the green.
“At the 18th an additional fairway was added a few years ago so it is a real risk-and-reward hole.
“If you can carry it 290 yards it will run down a hill to leave a short iron whereas the safer option is a three wood up the right-hand side but that will leave a much longer approach.”
To date, Whistling Straits has held the 2004 and 2010 PGAs and the 2007 US Senior Open, while the Ryder Cup will visit in 2020. The owner, Herb Kohler, now has his heart set on bringing the US Open to this corner of Wisconsin in the future.
“I can’t control things from the grave but I can assure you it will happen in the 2020s or 30s,” the 71-year-old claimed.
PGA Championship 2015: How Jim Barnes won the very first PGA
Whistling Straits is the work of Kohler and designer Pete Dye and the course actually carries a Kohler postcode, after the village was created by the company almost a century ago. Dye, also known for his layouts at Sawgrass and Kiawah Island, was first hired by Kohler to design the nearby Blackwolf Run in 1988 and his trademark challenge was more than apparent at the 2004 PGA. What he could not control, though, was the wind.
At the start of the week Darren Clarke described it as “the toughest and fairest course” he had played, including Carnoustie in 1999.
On the Thursday the Northern Irishman was round in 65, which included nine birdies and was not bettered.
“Three of the four days the wind didn’t blow and the wind has a huge impact on the scores,” says O’Reilly.
“It can make the course one of the toughest in the world (it was ranked 8th on America’s Toughest Courses) but, if it doesn’t, players of that calibre can certainly make some birdies.”
By the Sunday the wind did pick up and only one player, Paul McGinley, broke 70.
“Depending on what the wind is doing, and where the pins are, the tees can be moved up and back on every hole. There is a lot of long fescue grass and plenty of trouble out there but there is space and it’s not a double bogey if you miss a fairway or green.
“A lot of the tour players have heard so much about the place and they think it’s going to be a tricked-up course but it’s very fair, you need to know where you can’t go and job number one for the caddies and players will be to know where to miss it.”
According to O’Reilly, the best chance of prospering here is to start the back nine quickly and the statistics from 2004 certainly back that up. The 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th all played under par while three of the last four, 15, 17 and 18, all played well over.
The 15th, a par 4 of 518 yards, was the hardest hole over the course of the week, playing at an average of 4.35.
And if you were wondering how you and I might get on at Whistling Straits then consider this.
“A 10-handicapper off the back tees would struggle to break 100, there are carries around the 250-yard range so most people will struggle to reach the fairway.”