Hitting It Straits
It seems like the stuff of strange male fantasies: two major-championship venues, a five-diamond resort, a porcelain museum displaying a wall of toilets and the Bentley of bathtubs (fully loaded, it's $12,000, and it comes with colored lights and an underwater sound system). Wait...it gets better: two females -- four hands -- administering an exfoliating water massage. I kid you not, these are just some of the realities that make up the American Club in Kohler, Wis., owned and operated by the plumbing-fixtures titan Herb Kohler. Clearly, golf's governing bodies are convinced "Destination Kohler" is special, and not just for its tricked-up toilets and tubs. They see the courses, an hour north of the Milwaukee airport, along the shore of Lake Michigan, as a perfect place to test the best.
A composite 18 of the two courses at Blackwolf Run is where Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women's Open as a 20-year-old in 1998. The Women's Open will be back in 2012. The Straits course at Whistling Straits was the site of Vijay Singh's 2004 PGA Championship victory and Brad Bryant's U.S. Senior Open title in 2007. The PGA returns in August and in 2015. The Ryder Cup will be played at the Straits in 2020.
Kohler partnered with the PGA of America to bring the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup to his resort, but he still has his heart set on a men's U.S. Open. "I can't control things from the grave, but I can assure you, it'll happen in the 2020s or '30s," says Kohler, 71.
I played five rounds at some of Wisconsin's best public courses last fall: three at the American Club, one at Erin Hills ($160), site of the U.S. Amateur in 2011 and scheduled to reopen in August after renovations. I also had time for a game at the Bog ($95), a Palmer design conveniently located between Kohler and the airport. Buyer beware: The week of the PGA (Aug. 9-15) the Bog will be raising prices ($150-$175) and running two shotgun starts Wednesday through Sunday. My favorite of the five courses was the Straits, but not because it was easy.
"Ready to do battle?" That's what starter Joel Slabe asked as I walked to the first tee. Battle? I dialed back my scoring expectations, moved up to the green tees (6,463 yards) and listened to my caddie.
The topography of the Straits gives the sense that the course has been there since Father Time was a freshman. Its immaculate fairways are bordered by the kind of wispy fescue that you typically see on a Links of Ireland calendar. There are no carts, just gravel footpaths. Its two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline are patrolled by a flock of 29 Scottish blackface sheep that spend the day on the course, eating, drinking and making an occasional mess. So we had that in common.
The Straits, especially in calm conditions and from the appropriate tees, can be considered fun. (Keep that between us, or designer Pete Dye might make it harder.) Dye, with his cantankerous charm and propensity for the impossible, recently added a head-deep pot bunker in the middle of the sixth green. "I compare it to the bunker at the Road Hole of the Old Course," says Kohler. "It makes the easiest hole [355 yards] at the beginning of the round more interesting."
That's one way to describe it. Get on the opposite side of the green from where the hole is cut and you might be forced to chip off the putting surface. I was in the bunker, and it took me three to get out. That was interesting.
How many times have you heard a course claim "four of the best finishing holes in golf"? The Straits is one of the few that delivers. And when you're done, you've earned a stop at the back deck of the stone clubhouse that overlooks the 18th green and out on the lake. It's a perfect spot for lunch and/or a beer after the round.