Wisconsin Wonders

Whistling Straits is merely one reason golfers are flocking to America’s Dairyland.

By Rob Duca

Pictured above: The River Course at Blackwolf Run

Legendary golf course architect Pete Dye, who has created some of the world’s most memorable golf courses, has said of the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. Anyplace. Period.”

That’s some statement, especially coming from Dye. Is it hyperbole? Marketing? Just a nice little line meant to lure golfers to America’s Dairyland?

I went to Kohler, Wisconsin in June for the answer, where I played the championship Straits, site of the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships and future host of the 2020 Ryder Cup Matches. I also teed it up at The River course at Blackwolf Run, another spectacular Dye design. Here’s what I learned: Dye wasn’t exaggerating.

The 12th hole at the Straits is just one of many that offers panoramic views of Lake Michigan.

Sculpted into the coastline along Lake Michigan, the Straits is a combination of Old Head in Ireland and Kingsbarns in Scotland, featuring lake views on virtually every shot, along with rolling, fescue-framed fairways and deep, Scottish-style bunkers. There are two miles of uninterrupted shoreline, with eight holes hugging Lake Michigan alongside massive bluffs.

And, by the way, there are also more than 500 bunkers, most of which are assuredly in play. If you don’t find a bunker here, you probably didn’t play the course. Famously, Dustin Johnson lost a chance to be in a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship when he was penalized for grounding his club on the 18th hole, unaware that he was in a waste bunker.

The illustration on the tee of the seventh hole, a par 3 ranging from 221 to 172 yards, depending on your choice of markers, provides an accurate and chilling example of what you will face. The entire hole runs alongside Lake Michigan, while the green is surrounded by nearly 20 bunkers. The hole is called “Shipwreck.” You think?

Photo by Barbara Kilroy | Called “Shipwreck,” the seventh hole provides an idea of the hazards imposed by the Straits.

It is just part of a compelling five-mile walk, and walk it you will, for no carts are allowed and caddies are mandatory. Enjoy it. You’ll have more time to savor the views.

The third hole, a downhill par 3 that plays straight to the lake, is similar to the famous par-3 seventh hole at Pebble Beach. The green on the fourth hole also teeters on a bluff overlooking the lake, while the 11th hole is called “Sand Box” for good reason. A series of sand dunes and bunkers stretch along the par-5 hole. Finally, there is the finishing hole, “Dyeabolical,” which requires more than a 200-yard carry to the green over a ravine and a series of deep bunkers.

The second course at Whistling Straits is The Irish, which is inland from the great lake and interspersed by four meandering streams. The grassland-and-dunes aspect of the course provides a deceivingly tranquil landscape that is full of unique challenges.

The River course at Blackwolf Run also boasts a championship pedigree as host of three U.S. Women’s Opens since 1998. Built on rich land once used for fishing and hunting, it features tight landing areas, strategic bunkering, large undulating greens and water or gorges on 14 holes. It is both visually stunning in its natural beauty and more than a little intimidating.

The opening hole, called “The Snake,” sets the tone for the day. The Sheboygan River borders the entire left side of the hole, while a deep green makes club selection difficult. The third hole, a par 3 of 185, is guarded by a lake on the right, while the fifth hole provides the most spectacular view on the course from the elevated tee. The eighth, a par 5, is a simply terrifying tee shot that must be threaded over a river valley and between trees to a fairway that offers only a glimpse of safety. The course finishes in style with a par 4 of 470 yards that has a fairway bunker running down the entire left side.

The Irish at Whistling Straits.

Blackwolf Run also has The Meadow Valleys course, which is subtle and devilish, and features rolling meadows and deep ravines that emphasize the natural features of the Wisconsin terrain.

Whistling Straits is about 15 minutes from Kohler, which serves as the base for a golf trip and is 45 minutes from Milwaukee. One of the first planned communities in the country, Kohler was created 50 years ago by the Olmstead Brothers, designers of New York’s Central Park, to bring together workers from the Kohler Factory. Today, it’s a golfer’s paradise.

The centerpiece is The American Club, a Tudor-style redbrick building that once served as a dormitory for immigrant Kohler employees. It was transformed into a hotel in 1981 and has earned five-star ratings from Forbes and Triple A. I stayed at the nearby Carriage House, which is also home to the Kohler Waters Spa. A word on the spa: check out the “Rain Man” treatment, which includes a custom Vichy shower with hot stones on the back and feet, and a full-body exfoliation. There is also a “Golfer’s Foot Renewal,” which is a pedicure, a self-heating mud masque and a foot massage. It’s perfect after walking the Straits.

The room was what you’d expect from a company that specializes in upscale bathroom fixtures, with a dozen shower heads and a two-person hot tub featuring lighting that can be altered to set the mood.

The American Club, Kohler, Wisconsin.

Another lodging option is the Inn on Woodlake, which is a boutique-style, dog-friendly hotel. You can also rent a private cabin at Sandhill, a secluded nestled on 350 acres and located about 10 minutes from Kohler.

For dining, The American Club is home to two romantic, upscale restaurants, The Immigrant Room and the Wisconsin Club, both serving innovative farm-to-table selections such as bison tenderloin and elk trip loin. It is also home to The Winery Bar, where you can order sushi and more than 40 wines by the glass.

Of course, Wisconsin cheese is on every menu. The Immigrant Restaurant and The Winery Bar each offer nearly 30 different varieties, which can be ordered individually or as part of a cheese flight.

There is also fine dining at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run, while the casual Horse & Plow tavern, located on the lower level of The American Club, is the perfect spot to watch a sports event while enjoying a burger and a brew.

But the golf, as spectacular as you will ever find, is the main reason to head to Middle America. As Dye said, it’s unlike anything you will ever see.

The 18th hole at the Straits.

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