The Straits Course at Whistling Straits

June 21, 2010

By actual count, there are 967 bunkers on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits

, north of Sheboygan, Wis. We know, because we were the first to be crazy enough to count every one.

For the 2010 PGA Championship Aug. 12-15, only a hundred or so bunkers will be raked before play every day, and probably half that many will be of any concern for the caliber of players in the PGA. The rest are merely eye candy, distant targets installed to help transform a once-flat Army air base on the Wisconsin shoreline into a dunes landscape worthy of Ballybunion.

The Straits' bunkers come in all shapes and sizes, from smaller than a hand rake to bigger than a cattle truck. Some sit right in front of the 17th tee boxes. Some are a hundred yards right of the 15th fairway. The newest one takes a bite out of the sixth green, turning it into a horseshoe of bent grass.

"We built this from clay," course designer Pete Dye says on a visit to Whistling Straits last fall. "Had to haul in all the sand. Drained each bunker, too. We've got more money in drainage pipe than we do in sand."

Dye didn't design every bunker. Just waved his arms, told construction crews to build some over here, add a few more over there, make this one long and skinny and that one steep and deep.

That's how Pete Dye has always designed, without detailed blueprints, without a net. He didn't set out to build a course with 967 bunkers. In fact, he didn't know how many it had. You would think all those bunkers and acres of tall native grasses; firm, fast fescue fairways; big, slick greens and strong winds off Lake Michigan would present sufficient challenge for today's top pros. But you're not Pete Dye, who last fall was already noodling ideas to toughen the course for its next PGA (2015) and its first Ryder Cup (2020).


Site visits with Dye are entertaining, with Pete providing commentary in his usual twisted syntax, punctuated by the occasional cuss word. A couple of times he sounds like Yogi Berra, as when he describes the gorse-like juniper bushes planted throughout the course after the 2004 PGA: "They're mostly out of play, unless you hit into them." Later, Dye verbally remodels the 10th green, then talks himself out of it.

"This's got plenty of green for a short shot. I should cut off the back over there... But you can't do that, 'cause it drops off too much... But I could take a little off the back over here. . . . No, I would never do that on this hole--I don't think...The pros have enough trouble with this hole already. They don't know why. I guess it's because it's semi-blind... You don't want every hole to kill 'em."

The walk-through is also enlightening, proof that Pete Dye still has game. He's 84, but Dye's imagination continues to push the game in new directions. In the case of Whistling Straits, he focuses not on the sweeping landforms but the minutiae.

The first item of business is the putting surfaces. Dye shakes his head at how flawless they are. Too perfect.

"When I built these things," he says, "I made sure to keep them big enough and flat enough that they could get them to 11 [on a Stimpmeter] and a ball wouldn't roll off the green. Crazy, isn't it? Now they'll probably want to take them to 12, and the bleepin' things will roll off the green anyway."

His solution, should it come to that, is to raise the lowest portions of a green from one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch, either by repeatedly top-dressing a section with sand and letting the grass grow up through it, or by picking up the sod, spreading sand beneath it, and laying it back down. A quarter-inch! The man who built a 300-yard-long bunker on the fifth hole is now fixed upon adjusting a green contour by one-quarter of an inch.

"When you see these pros play," he explains, "it's the little things that make the difference. The little things."

He looks at the second green and frowns.

"See, this is not good. It's all continuous, just one big, long slope. Tour caddies these days know if a green is at 1 percent slope or 2 percent. They can tell their guy exactly how much it's going to break. That's why most of the greens we build roll in different directions, two or more ways. Tom Watson always complained about that: 'Your greens always have double breaks.' But we didn't do that on this green."

Dye's remedy involves more sod-cutting and sand. "What you do here is pull the grass, dump six inches of sand into a little hump and throw the grass back on top. That'll keep them from just putting it straight at the hole. We've got to work on this green a little."

On the third tee, golfers recognize him and ask for his autograph. After posing with the foursome for a photo, he points out his rebunkering around the left side of the green, a wraparound bunker meant to leave the impression that the putting surface is hanging directly over Lake Michigan: "Sure points into the lake now, doesn't it? And we didn't change the green at all.

"You know, I haven't seen that Brandon Dunes [he means Bandon Dunes

] or any of those other golf courses in Oregon, but if any of them is better than this golf course, I want to know why."

After an awkward silence, Dye adds, "I hear the views are great."


That's all I have to do here, and then we've got it made.'

Then it's onward to inspect the surrounds of several greens, the slopes and dips off collars and around bunkers. Again, Dye finds them too precise, too uniform. "I learned this from building my course in French Lick

[Indiana]," he says. "Golf professionals have a harder time with chipping around the greens than they do with bunkers anymore. So we built all these chipping areas down there. But instead of them being smooth, like we did here, we rumped it up, with lots of bumps in the slopes. Now the pros can't just putt it, and they have a harder time getting up and down in less than three. And that just kills them. But the average John Q. Public, he's happy to get down in three, so it doesn't bother him at all."

Dye points out areas around several greens where he wants to excavate rugged roll-offs that he'll sod with bent grass and mow at collar height. He wants to extend the roll-offs up far slopes, so a ball rolling off a green might roll through the bottom of a swale and end up on an upslope, posing a chip shot from a hanging lie to a perched green. "That's what I did at French Lick," Dye says. "They had an Indiana PGA played there; best round was 73. I had every damn pro in the world ready to kill me. That's all I have to do here, and then we've got it made." Near the end of the tour, and before a chat with 2008 PGA champion, Padraig Harrington, who is on-site for an outing, Dye sees Whistling Straits owner Herb Kohler waiting in a golf cart. Kohler, who made a fortune in bathroom fixtures and small engines, first hired Dye to design nearby Blackwolf Run

in 1988. The two, friends for more than 20 years, needle one another like brothers.

"Why, there's the old man himself," Dye laughs (though he's a decade older than Kohler). "How ya doing?"

"Fair to middlin', but rising," Kohler says.

"Tell you what," Dye says, "you chartered that old 310 Cessna to bring me up here? Well, it broke down. So they had to give us a jet for the same price."

"Nooo! What sort of jet?"

"Oh, just an old Citation II. But that's all right. Plenty of room for Sixty and me to roam around in."

Sixty is Dye's German shepherd, his companion on every site visit. The name doesn't commemorate a golf score. Depending on which story Pete tells at the time, it's based on the cost of a veterinarian's bill or the sum of three items: $20 for the dog, $20 for the collar and $20 for the tags. This is the third dog bearing that name that Dye has owned in the past 15 years. He really ought to be called Sixty-two, Pete says.

As if on cue, Sixty jumps into Kohler's lap, and within minutes, Kohler's dark-blue suit is covered in white dog hair. But he doesn't seem to mind, seems to like this Sixty, unlike his predecessor (Sixty-one), who, 10 years ago, chased the sheep that wander the premises and ran one right off a bluff into Lake Michigan.

Sixty hops down. After dusting off, Kohler asks, "You doing any good out there? Or you just messing around?"

"Oh, I've got plans," Dye says. "Plenty of plans. I'm tired of this damn thing being rated just fifth or sixth or seventh in the country." (It's third on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses

and eighth--one place ahead of Pine Valley--on our list of America's 50 Toughest Courses.


He explains his plans for new roly-poly chipping swales and spectator areas he wants to enlarge. "All I've got to do is come back here next fall and do all that. I'm coming back whether you want me here or not."

Then he adds, "I just hope I can get it all done before I go underground."

Kohler undoubtedly will fly Dye back to Whistling Straits after the PGA. To add more bunkers, if nothing else. Herb can't be happy that he has only 967 on the Straits Course. He was certain he had at least 1,100.