A Look at the History of Whistling Straits

This unique golf course has helped elevate Wisconsin’s golf game.

The scenic Whistling Straits golf property in rural Sheboygan County has done wonders in elevating Wisconsin’s status as a golf destination, with the Ryder Cup being the icing on the cake.

A creation of legendary golf course architect Pete Dye, Whistling Straits is a links-style course situated along a two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline that features open, rugged and windswept terrain. The Whistling Straits development is comprised of two, 18-hole championship golf courses -The Straits and The Irish.

The Ryder Cup will be contested from Sept. 24-26 on The Straits course, which also hosted the PGA Championship in 2004, 2010 and 2015. The course, which opened in 1999, also was the site of the 2007 U.S. Senior Open.

Photo by Gary Kellner, PGA of America

Whistling Straits is a public, daily-fee golf course that is part of Destination Kohler, the hospitality and real estate arm of Kohler Co., a manufacturer primarily known for making sinks, toilets, bathtubs, faucets and other plumbing fixtures.

The Straits is the first public course in a generation to host the Ryder Cup.

PGA of America President Jim Richerson, who spent more than a decade as general manager of golf at Kohler Co., believes Whistling Straits is magnificently designed for match play.

 

 

The Ryder Cup is a match-play competition, which features a series of head-to-head competitions between golfers from the United States and Europe, as compared with standard stroke play, where golfers compete against all competitors in the field by comparing total scores.

“I say that because of the genius of Pete Dye in designing a golf course for the wind conditions and how they can change and swirl at Whistling Straits,” Richerson said. “Pete built multiple tee boxes and the ability to have multiple pin locations on different holes. Couple that with Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer of PGA of America, the best setup guy in the business, and you can make almost every par five drivable in two shots or stretch them to where you might not be able to reach any of them. You can set up tees and some of the pin positions on the par threes to where you may actually have a hole in one.”

The course can be set up to play differently each day, Richerson said.

Photo by Gary Kellner, PGA of America

“There are some things that we have done that will hopefully tip it in our favor, but I’m not going to tell you what we did,” U.S. Ryder Cup captain and Wisconsin native Steve Stricker said during a recent press conference at Whistling Straits.

Stricker said he’s hoping for mild conditions when the Ryder Cup championship tees off, knowing that late September weather in Wisconsin can be unpredictable.

“For me, the weather is going to play a role,” Stricker said. “I hate the wind. My guys love the wind, though. We’ve got some great wind players. We want some nice Wisconsin fall weather, 70 degrees. Have people come out and enjoy the day and enjoy the event.”

The scenic beauty of Whistling Straits will be breathtaking not only for fans who attend the Ryder Cup in person but also those viewing the action on television worldwide, Richerson said.

Photo by Gary Kellner, PGA of America

“It’s going to look great on camera,” he said. “You’ve got Lake Michigan, the natural heather and all the bunkers out on the course. It always looks so great on TV. I think the players are going to love it and the spectators are going to have an unbelievable time, including the millions of fans watching around the world.”

The one-year postponement of the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic has also added to the anticipation of the event.

“I know myself and others are overly excited to get to the event,” Richerson said.

The match-play setup creates a bit of dilemma for fans when it comes to staking out spots to take in the action.

“For stroke play, everybody plays all 18 holes every day but because this is match play some of the matches might end on the 15th or 16th hole,” Richerson said. “As a spectator, you want to find the location where you can see a lot of golf in a short distance. You might have the greatest seats on the 18th hole but some of the matches might not make it that far.”

Photo by Gary Kellner, PGA of America

The course design, however, benefits on-site spectators, Richerson said.

“With a loop on the front nine and a loop on the back nine, there are areas where there are tees and greens within a very short distance of each other,” he explained.

For the Ryder Cup, a “mini-stadium” has been set up around the first tee, creating a one-of-a-kind golf experience, Richerson said.

Bill Graham, Wisconsin PGA Section past president and head golf professional at Chenequa Country Club in Hartland, used words such as “fantastic” and “amazing” to describe the Whistling Straits course.

Photo by Gary Kellner, PGA of America

“The views, wow,” he said. “If someone is watching this from Europe, they would never ever assume that this course is in Wisconsin. I think The Straits just gives you this unbelievable visual. I like that, selfishly, because I want Wisconsin golf to be front and center. And with all the championships Whistling Straits has hosted over the years, they’ve just got it down. They are so good at what they do. I can’t wait to see it.”

Graham also believes The Straits course will be an ideal setting for the Ryder Cup.

“The course is arguably a perfect course for the Ryder Cup,” Graham said. “It is set up to create dramatic outcomes on individual holes more than any other major championship. The players out here make a lot of birdies, but they also make a lot of bogeys. It’s the type of course that creates drama and excitement. It’s risk-reward. Pull a shot off and you are going to be rewarded. If you don’t, a bigger number is coming. And that’s the kind of course that you want for a Ryder Cup.”

Photo by Gary Kellner, PGA of America

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.