Whistling Straits makes for ideal match play setting
KOHLER, Wis. – Take one spin around Whistling Straits, with its winding fairways, cresting dunes and undulating greens, and you’ll by struck by the natural beauty of its rugged terrain. You’ll also leave with an unmistakable conclusion: there are tons of places here where things can go wrong.
Cavernous bunkers that seemingly contain a golf ball magnet. Thatches of rough eager to turn a club face sideways. And, uh, Lake Michigan.
This is not a place where an 8-handicap wants to try to set a new personal best – and that was never Pete Dye’s intent. It’s a demanding layout where great shots can be rewarded but errant ones are almost always punished.
In other words – a perfect match play setting.
“Should be a really exciting match play course because you can get into trouble, but you can also birdie just about every single hole with the right shot,” Jordan Spieth said. “It’s tough and fair. And then if we see it in some colder, windier conditions, it could be a unique test as well.”
With the prospect of double bogey (or worse) popping up if things go awry in stroke play, Whistling Straits might otherwise require a somewhat muted strategy. But this week, for the 43rd Ryder Cup, it’s foot on the gas from the opening tee shot. There won’t be much if any room for conservative play, nor should there be in a format where the worst possible prospect is a loss of hole.
Often times the reload double bogey counts the same as the tap-in par, which provides extra incentive for players to lean into a more aggressive approach in an effort to keep up with the competition. That’s music to the ears of Bryson DeChambeau, who likely won’t hold back off the tee as he continues to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with driver in hand.
“I think there are numerous amounts of holes that are super beneficial to me hitting driver,” DeChambeau said. “I think (No.) 5 is a great example, if it’s the right wind. I could pretty much go right at the flag, which is cool. It was here in the practice session and I had like 120 yards into that green. Guys are going to be hitting it over the left maybe and having 3-wood or hybrid in.”
Of course, part of that delicate balance between risk and reward traces back to course setup. This is a rare instance in golf where one side can have an overt impact on how the course plays: it’s called home course advantage, after all. In 2016 at Hazeltine, the rough was thinned and the American length prevailed. Three years ago in Paris, the targets were more narrow and the accuracy of the Europeans won the day.
Where on that spectrum Whistling Straits will land remains to be seen, but European Captain Padraig Harrington is ready to adjust his strategy to any number of options.
“Clearly the home captain gets a choice in how the golf course is set up, and he’s going to do everything he can in that setup to get it to favor his players,” Harrington said. “You can set a golf course up to be tough or you can set a golf course up to be loads of birdies, as in any week on Tour. But the home captain gets to make that decision, and I think it has a big influence.”
With three days until the first tee shot is struck, Harrington’s counterpart isn’t revealing any secrets. U.S. Captain Steve Stricker expects to calibrate his pairings based on a variety of factors, including who will be best-suited for the version of Whistling Straits the world will see come Friday morning.
“Each guy is a little bit different. Some guys like to attack; some guys are pretty strategic and lay back, kind of whatever they feel comfortable,” Stricker said. “For one guy, he may be comfortable with one thing and the other guy may be a little uncomfortable with the same shot. To each his own kind of thing. So they’re developing that as they’re going around.”
Each pass across the Straits Course will help to fine-tune those strategic specifics, with more and more time spent on how to maximize any advantage as opposed to worrying about what trouble may lurk if a plan goes sideways. Yes, some holes will be won with clutch par saves and knee-knocking putts. But the Ryder Cup favors the bold: the timely approaches and long-range birdies are remembered far more than the holes that would’ve become an “other” in a stroke-play setting.
So yes, approaches can be adjusted as practice continues in earnest. But by the time Friday rolls around, the best-laid plans will likely feature a heavy emphasis on an aggressive pursuit of birdies. And Whistling Straits, fraught with peril but retaining the promise of rewarding a well-placed shot, is ready and waiting as an ideal canvas for just such a display.