Whistling Straits set up for excitement, with input to come from Mother Nature
In any team sport, homefield advantage can be the difference between winning and losing. Golf is no exception.
In the Ryder Cup, that factor comes down not just to the partisan crowds, but the physical makeup of the field of play itself. Golf is different from other sports in this regard; while a football field or basketball court has standardized and fixed dimensions, a golf course is a constantly-changing and malleable stage.
In this traditionally biennial tussle between a dozen of the United States’ greatest golfers and their European counterparts, the setup of the golf course tends to come under a microscope from fans and media alike. That will be the case in 2021 as well, though a few factors will make this year a bit different from Ryder Cups past.
Golf course setup has been a topic of considerable discussion for decades, but the last two Ryder Cups painted a particularly significant contrast. In 2016, when the United States won 17-11 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., much was made of the wide fairways, short rough and several generous hole locations, dictated in large part by prerogative of home Captain Davis Love III.
Two years later, at Le Golf National outside Paris, Team Europe Captain Thomas Bjørn’s preference was for narrow fairways and penal rough, making birdies far more scarce. On a course they knew well from the regular European Tour schedule, Team Europe dominated, 17.5-10.5.
This year, things will be slightly different. “The home captain used to have a lot more influence the week of the event,” said Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s Chief Championships Officer, who oversees setups for events like the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.
U.S. Team Captain Steve Stricker has still had considerable input over the presentation of Whistling Straits, but this year his influence will taper off sooner than in the past. “Up until the weekend before, the home captain can determine such things as the height of the rough, speed of the greens, the width of the fairways, if he wants to make any architectural changes,” said Haigh.
But once the week of the event arrives, setup details like hole locations fall to a committee of representatives from both the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe, “so that there’s no influence from the home team on those factors,” according to Haigh.
This more collaborative approach should still yield several interesting hole locations, especially on a course like Whistling Straits where certain shots can vary drastically from one day to the next.
A perfect example: the spectacular par-3 12th, with a uniquely shaped green that juxtaposes a large, undulating front-left section with a flatter but intimidatingly tiny back-right finger of putting surface, where even slight misses will be severely punished. “I personally hope it’s there twice because it’s such a great hole like that,” Haigh said.
Should the pros expect a significantly different Whistling Straits to greet them than the one that some of them saw in the 2015 PGA? Yes and no. “The setup of the golf course is pretty similar to what it would be in 2015 and other PGA Championships,” said Chris Zugel, the director of agronomy for Golf Kohler, which includes Whistling Straits. “Greens will be fast. Fairways will be firm.”
“The one difference would potentially be in the rough. We’re not protecting par throughout the rounds,” Zugel said. “The rough that they’ll be playing out of is fairly similar to what you’d find on your local golf course.”
Does this mean fans can expect birdie barrages similar to what transpired in Hazeltine in 2016? “It’ll depend on the wind,” Haigh said. The late-September date means the Ryder Cup will happen during the end of Whistling Straits’ main golf season.
Whistling Straits’ primarily north-south layout will press players to acclimate to runs of several consecutive holes in the same direction and similar wind conditions. There is no overall prevailing wind at Whistling Straits, but breezes can often come out of the southwest and northeast, meaning that holes five through eight and 10 through 13 could play either straight down or into the wind; players who figure out the wind first will have an advantage through the middle stages of matches.
“The weather in September on Lake Michigan is probably the best weather of the year,” said Zugel, who has worked at Whistling Straits for more than a decade. “A little bit drier, it’s not as humid, not as thick. You can get some beautiful sunny days.
“I’m hoping for clear skies during the week of the Ryder Cup, but it would be really nice if it was windy. It’s fun to watch the best players in the world navigate a golf course as hard as this under conditions like that, and I really think it will bring out the champion at the end of the week.”