Drive along the lakeshore on the way to Whistling Straits and you feel like you’re on Hwy. 1 in California. As you turn into the golf course, the dunes envelope you like a tunnel all the way to the parking lot, and when you emerge you would swear you’re in Ireland.
By the time you’ve walked to the edge of the pristine greens nestled between grass-tufted sand dunes and pot bunkers overlooking the blue expanse of Lake Michigan at this, one of the world’s greatest golf courses, you truly do feel as if you’re in another world. Transporting, that’s what the Straits are.
So it is a wonderful treat to spend an entire day at Kohler’s premier golf course just north of Sheboygan, where the likes of Tiger Woods have played, and walk the 18 links with a group of four respectable golfers. Jerry Murphy, executive director of New North, Inc., joins John Rogers, business development director at the Sheboygan Chamber of Commerce; Mark Rhyan, executive vice president and chief operations officer at Sargento Foods in Plymouth; and Jim Gallimore, president of U.S. Bank in Sheboygan, for a perfect mid-summer day.
Outside the European style stone clubhouse, golfers in khakis and caddies dressed head to toe in white scurry about the practice courses as they await their morning tee times.
Jerry wears a golf cap that says, “Dye Fore.” Amusing, for those who know that the course – which hosted the PGA Championship in 2004 and will host them again in 2010 and 2015 – was designed by renowned golf architect Pete Dye and his wife Alice. Jerry picked it up when he played on a course designed by Dye on a vacation in the Dominican Republic last year. This is his first time at Kohler and only his second time golfing this year (a small sailboat has filled his free time lately).
John, who is in his element, introducing businesspeople and enjoying a favorite pastime he typically enjoys at Pine Hills Golf Course in Sheboygan, golfed here once, the year after Whistling Straits opened in 1998. Jim also often entertains his banking clients at Pine Hills and has enjoyed the Irish Course at Kohler many times, but he has also golfed the Straits just once before. Mark, admittedly nuts about the game, has entertained Sargento clients and others here and on the Irish course “many times.” He declares himself the score-keeper and gets a lively competition going, teams of two changing partners every six holes.
Golf carts (called cars at Kohler) are not allowed at Whistling Straits, a rugged, classic links course with meandering paths up and down the dunes and greens that appear to drop off into the lake. It becomes evident early in the game that our two caddies, Craig and Rob, are valuable allies along this 7,514-yard course, which follows a narrow 2-mile strip along the lake. They not only lug 30 to 60 pounds of clubs on each shoulder but also keep an eye on the balls, helping to find them in the grass as well as offering tips for hitting out of bunkers and putting on tricky greens.
Rob watches a ball fly into the air and land splat into a sand trap. He shouts advice: “Left of the flag!” Then adds under his breath as he hikes up the path in a dune: “Welcome to Whistling Straits … It will whoop you on your tukus.”
You can hear a voice mutter from below the green in a bunker: “This is brutal!”
At Hole 5, “Snake,” where geese swim in a pretty pond between the tee and the hole, Mark stretches his arms, spins around and announces, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” But then Jerry tees off, his ball zings high into the air … and lands with a SPLOOSH! into the water.
For the most part, these guys are good, especially on long drives.
Blame the breeze off the lake, blame the wickedly sculpted greens or blame the camera clicking – the putts are off for everyone all day. “You do know there are sheep on this course,” Rob says to me, referring to the flock of Scottish Blackface sheep that munch on the grasses. Where? “Well, they chase people with cameras!” he replies.
At Hole 13, “Cliff Hanger,” Mark says to himself, “Come on Mark, you haven’t made a putt all day. … Stupid, stupid, stupid game!” he mutters. “This course is maddening!”
Jerry’s up. The gulls scream. He misses his putt. But John walks away from the Hole 13 green with a big grin on his face: He scores a 3.
On Hole 17, “Pinched Nerve,” the foursome regroups to assess the terrain. The Kohler course description calls it “one of Pete Dye’s most intimidating par 3 holes – anywhere.”
The green is guarded left by monstrous sand dunes that fall twenty feet below green level. If the bunker doesn’t capture the tee shot, Lake Michigan certainly will. A large elevated sand dune 40 yards short of the green will invite players left of the green-risky because of the drop-off. Right over the bunker is usually the safest.
Jerry whacks his ball straight out over the bunker. Everyone pauses and watches as it lands within about a foot of the hole. “Did you see that?” Mark exclaims. “Jerry got a birdie!” Jim gives Jerry a fist-bump.
After five hours on the links, the foursome wraps up with Hole 18, “Dyeabolical,” and meets just outside the clubhouse before enjoying lunch on the patio. They tip their hardworking caddies and add up the scores, which range from 84 to 103. How do they compare to other golfers at the Straits?
“Better than 50 percent of everyone I see,” says Craig.
Not bad for a world-class course, on a perfect summer day.