In Depth: Straits a monster, but fun? No

THE diabolical Whistling Straits course was as much a player in last week's PGA as winner Jason Day says Golf Link's architecture expert.

IT would be impossible to guess from the television coverage but the site of the Whistling Straits course which hosted last week's US PGA was once so flat it was home to an airfield.

In the early 1990’s, Wisconsin businessman Herb Kohler hired legendary architect Pete Dye to create a new 36-hole resort on the property which, apart from stunning views of Lake Michigan, had few redeeming features.

What followed was a feat of earthmoving on a scale few could imagine, the flat plain transformed into a landscape designed to mimic the famous dunes of Ireland and Scotland.

Much of the cliff face was carved out and cut down for the spectacular lakeside holes and close to a million cubic yards of sand and dirt was imported to create the rugged mounds and bunkers that give the course its characteristic look.

The majority of the 1000 or so bunkers scattered through the layout are there for visual effect but they give the course its character and help create the illusion of holes playing through sand dunes.

The small percentage that do come into play, though, can be terrifying. Mostly they are deep, steep sided hazards where even taking a stance can be difficult.

Perhaps, though, the greater hazards are the steep slopes which surround most greens, particularly those holes playing against the lake.

The most obvious example comes at the treacherous par-3 17th, 210 metres long with a 12ft vertical bank guarding the left side of the green.

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A miss here can be fatal, as Matt Jones can attest after wracking up a round destroying double bogey five to lose the lead on Saturday of the tournament.

Whilst it’s often talked of as a links, The Straits course sadly doesn't play like one, certainly not last week for the professionals.

The bent-grass fairways were lush and soft and the greens always favoured an aerial shot as opposed to chasing one along the ground.

The thick border of rough around the greens and fairways is also more reminiscent of a parkland style course and, sadly, makes for less interesting golf.

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Recovery shots off short grass offer so much more in terms of interest and options than the one dimensional hack out of long grass with a wedge. It is always more entertaining to see the pros asked these questions than how well they can judge a chop with a 60-degree sand iron.

Watching from TV is hard to appreciate just how difficult Whistling Straits is. Day’s score of 20 under certainly gives no indication though perhaps it does illustrate how distorted the professional game has become.

Over the four days we saw repeated blows of over 350 yards (320 metres), Bubba Watson driving the 370 metre 13th on the final day and 520 metre par fives played with a driver and a wedge. And yet having walked the course repeatedly throughout the week I can assure you it would be a terrifying test for the average golfer.

In Australia we have nothing that really comes close in either length or difficulty.

The Straits measures around 6850m but on top of that it's windy, reasonably narrow and every fairway is lined with rough, sand, water or cliff and offers no real bail out.

Without question there are some thrilling holes and some interesting decisions to be made but overall I would say the course leans more toward being a penal test than a strategic one.

On most tee shots you’re simply trying to find the short grass rather than choosing one side of the fairway over the other.

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Yet for all these architectural weaknesses Whistling Straits it remains one of the most popular resorts in the country.

Week in week out the Straits course is booked solid, right through the golf season, and at US$385 a throw that’s a pretty impressive achievement.

Without question it’s a stunning course and it seems enough golfers (or golfing masochists) love the challenge of playing a championship course, irrespective of how many balls they lose.

All of this makes for a fascinating contrast to Wisconsin’s newest golf destination taking shape two and a half hours down the road.

In the small town of Nekoosa, American billionaire Mike Keiser and his team are building a new resort, tantalisingly known as Sand Valley.

Keiser has had somewhat of a midas touch when it comes to building world class golf resorts, with Bandon Dunes in Oregon regarded as the number one resort in America (recently overtaking Pebble Beach) and the newer Cabot links resort in Nova Scotia his latest must play facility.

On a wonderful, rolling sand dune site scattered with Pines, the first course has been designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw but two, or even three more, could follow.

Unlike Whistling Straits the perfectly undulating ground at Sand Valley has allowed for a lighter touch, with most holes simply uncovered rather than created.

Like many of Pete Dye’s protégés Bill Coore credits Dye as a huge influence on his career but interestingly Coore's latest couldn’t be more different from his mentor's up the road.

The quality of the land aside, Sand Valley will be more about fun than punishment. Where Whistling Straits is long, narrow and penal, Sand Valley will be shorter – at least by 900 metres (1000 yards) from the tips – as well as being wider, more strategic and, in my mind at least, far more interesting.

Sand Valley will no doubt quickly become one of the top resorts once it opens and even though Whistling Straits is repeatedly used as a championship venue they essentially both compete for the same market – the public golfer.

Hopefully both benefit from the influx of people to the region seeking great golf but, for my money, fun and interest will always win the day – especially for repeat business, which every resort is clambering for.


Mike Cocking

Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website

Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.

After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.

Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship.  Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses. 

His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer.  Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.

Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website. 

Mike can be followed on Twitter: @OCCMGolf and @MikeCocking 

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