43rd Ryder Cup golf course preview: Whistling Straits
When is a golf course not just a golf course?
One answer: when it’s also a stadium.
Pete Dye introduced the world to the concept of stadium golf in the 1980s, with mold-breaking courses on the American coasts. Both host PGA Tour events every year. In Florida it’s TPC Sawgrass; in the California desert, it’s PGA West.
Even though it is not named as such, Whistling Straits is also a stadium course, purpose-built for high-attendance championship golf…like, for example, the Ryder Cup.
This week, fans will overflow the impressive metal bleachers and drape over the hills lining the Straits’ corridors like blankets made from the wool of the course’s resident sheep.
Spectators even several rows back from the ropes on the manmade terraces will nevertheless get to see action unfold below them. For the two dozen competitors from the U.S. and European Teams, the feeling of thousands of eyes scrutinizing them will add even more heat to the moment that encompasses each shot, especially late in matches.
Below the dirt and metal bleachers sits a golf course designed to serve as a stage for drama on as Shakespearean a level as golf can attain. There will be comedy, in the form of generous fairways, close-clipped rough and immaculate greens that, while undulating, should see several putts, birdies, eagles made throughout the matches.
But there will also be tragedy, especially if the wind blows. Few courses in the world put errant shots in such awkward spots as Whistling Straits, with fairways and greens dangling above sheer drop-offs, irregularly tufty long grass and 22,000-square-mile Lake Michigan. This elasticity of possible outcomes from one hole – heck, one shot – to the next should make this Ryder Cup one of the most engrossing in history.
Whistling Straits: What you need to know about the Ryder Cup host golf course
Whistling Straits is the cure for your average parkland venue, which fades into the background as a pleasant but unobtrusive platform for players’ talents. This golf course demands to be noticed. It will be an active participant in the matches like no Ryder Cup host since Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in 1991, the last Pete Dye design to welcome the matches.
The inimitable Indianan, who passed away in early 2020, knew how to test, frustrate and reward golfers of the highest caliber. Though Whistling Straits and The Ocean Course feature back tees that can be added up to produce scary lengths, they exist as options to make holes play differently one day to the next, rather than as a singular overwhelming monster. That’s the case this year, too: the course’s official Ryder Cup yardage of 7,390 is a full 400 yards shorter than its maximum scorecard length.
As at Dye’s very best courses, the Straits is all about angles. Fairways are offset in ways that constantly force players to choose a very specific line and commit to it before swinging away. Dye sunk several back tees as low as possible, knowing that pros despise semi-blind shots.
The doctrine of perplexing angles extends to the course’s approach shots. Even though the Straits’ fairways are not exceedingly wide, there are many times where two tee shots separated by 10 or 20 yards – either horizontally or downrange – will yield different enough looks at a flag that it will be important for players to game-plan ahead of time.
Dye introduces this dynamic immediately. At the 364-yard first hole, an aggressive tee shot will give a golfer a view straight down the green, while a more conservative layup will yield an approach that must confront the angle of the putting surface. Here, players may be able to use some adrenaline from the first-tee frenzy to their advantage, if they can hold their nerve.
The visual drama and expressiveness of the design will make every hole exciting, but the real core of the golf course is its par 3s and long par 4s. The one-shotters come at Nos. 3, 7, 12 and 17, meaning both teams will want their best iron players teeing off on the odd-numbered holes in the Foursomes sessions. They exhibit the variety that is essential to compelling golf: two run south and two run north, and they go middle-long-short-long by length, respectively.
The back-nine short holes are superb. The 143-yard 12th wags a finger of back-right green that seems almost too small to be fair, especially in any kind of wind. Hole 17 is well-named as “Pinched Nerve.” There, a typically cheeky Pete Dye “volcano” of sand erupts out of the manufactured landscape to obscure the front third of the green, making the putting surface appear much smaller than it already does from 220-plus yards away.
The long two-shotters at Whistling Straits are Nos. 4, 8, 15 and 18, with the 11th trimmed down from a 600-yard par 5 to a 519-yard par 4. The two front-nine par 4s will be key holes in every match, each requiring players to judge both a hanging lie and an elevation change (uphill at 4, downhill at 8) in order to find the greens in regulation. Being first to hit here will grant the opportunity to put extra pressure on an opponent.
The 15th and 18th bookend one of golf’s most demanding four-hole finishes. Both can play more than 500 yards, and while focusing in on the narrow fairway and green amid sweeping views will be the challenge on the former, for matches that go the distance, the closing hole will be a cauldron of pressure, with the angled cross-shaped green couched into a broad amphitheater more than 200 yards away, over meandering Sevenmile Creek and plenty of sand, from where even the best tee shots are likely to finish. If the Ryder Cup were to come down to a final match on 18, the moments surrounding approach shots would be among the most dramatic in golf history, with all credit going to Pete Dye for setting the stage.
Best eagle opportunity
All three par 5s should be gettable, but No. 5, with its zigzag fairway, has the greatest potential for fireworks. The longest hitters among the field can cut off as much as 100 yards by aiming seemingly impossibly far right off the tee, like Bubba Watson did during the 2015 PGA Championship. After the heroic carry, Watson had just a wedge into the pondside green.
Biggest disaster potential
A wayward tee shot on any hole at Whistling Straits can prompt a pick-up, but the par-3 7th stands out because of some historical histrionics. In 2015, John Daly pumped three shots into Lake Michigan, then winged a club in beside them for good measure.
Best match-flip hole
The par-4 13th hole should be pivotal in several matches. It’s shortish and fiddly, with a green sitting well below the landing area and a sheer drop into oblivion at its right edge. It feels inevitable that someone will be cruising to this point, only to make a critical error that lets their opponent back into a match.
Most underrated hole
Resort guests likely discount it as it’s the first hole to turn away from Lake Michigan, but No. 9 is a solid mid-length par 4 with a small green. If the hole is cut on the small, domed front section, it will look like it’s sitting on the roof of a Mini Cooper. It will also be players’ first glimpse of the huge bowl that encompasses the final greens on each nine, causing them to ponder the potential scene if they make it to 18.
“The Sand Box”
Any pit with such a name deserves special recognition. Even though it shouldn’t come into play with the 11th being shortened to a par 4, every approach shot will be hit with players staring this 12-foot deep, 65-yard long giant’s coffin, ringed by railroad ties. It is Pete Dye unchained.