Whistling Straits Review: Is the Straits Course the Best of Kohler Golf?
I was nervous during my 20 minute drive to Whistling Straits.
It was easily my most heavily anticipated round of golf, on my very first big golf trip – not to mention the most expensive of my life.
“What if it rains? Or if I make a fool of myself in front of my caddie? What if we can’t play due to bad weather? Or worse, what happens if we can play and the round is miserable?”
When you’re paying $360 greens fees ($410 now in 2021), plus $65 caddie fee, plus $50 gratuity, it’s hard not to feel like there’s a lot riding on the round – this doesn’t even factor in the sky high expectations for the course.
On my drive over it was foggy and raining – not off to a good start.
I pulled up and soaked it all in on the quarter-mile drive up to the big stone clubhouse.
Everything about it felt like I was pulling up to a course in Ireland…right down to the bad weather.
But nope, here we are at one of the world’s best golf resorts just outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
I met my caddie Keith and headed to the range to hit some balls. There are few courses that have the mystique of Whistling Straits. Pebble Beach is one. Augusta National another. But essentially Whistling Straits is a bucket list destination. It’s something you have to do at least once if you truly consider yourself a golfer.
Opening in 1998 and designed by Pete Dye (like all of the other Kohler Courses), nearly 7,000 truckloads of dirt were brought in to recreate the feel of a traditional Irish Links style course. Previous to being a golf course, the land was an abandoned airfield and completely flat – which is absolutely astonishing once you’ve seen how the place looks now.
The course hosted the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championships and is set to host it again in 2015 – along with the Ryder Cup this year in 2021. So already the course has some history to it, despite only being around for just a couple decades.
My rounds at The Bull, Meadow Valleys and the River course during the previous two days were absolutely gorgeous – but that didn’t fit my expectations for what Whistling Straits should be.
I felt like there should be fog and mist – and that’s exactly what I got for the first 4 holes.
We arrived at the first tee and you couldn’t see 100 feet in front of you. This is where I started to get nervous. I paid all of this money and have been wanting to photograph the course for years, and now I might not be able to get a single decent shot?
A golf vacation nightmare – but one that had a happy ending.
Just the Facts About Whistling Straits
- Designer: Pete Dye
- Built in: 1998
- #3: Golf Digest Top 100 Public
- #23: Golf Digest Top 100 in America
- #11: Golf Magazine Top 100 You Can Play
- #49: Golf Magazine Top 100 in America
- #69: Golf Magazine Top 100 in the World
- #27: Breaking Eighty Top 100
- Location: Kohler, Wisconsin. Part of American Club Resort
- Greens fees: $410
- Caddie Fee: $65 plus $50 suggested gratuity
- Website: http://www.americanclubresort.com/golf/ws/ws_index.html
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/americanclub
Whistling Straits: Hole by Hole
Hole 1 (Par 4, 355 yards)
At this point we can’t see anything and are solely relying on advice from our caddies. I let one rip and as far as I could tell it went straight – something that would be vital if I was going to have any success on this course – it’s called the “Straits” course for a reason.
Hole 2 (Par 5, 518 Yards)
A mid-length par 5 at this point I was just taking my caddie’s advice and doing my best to hit it where he told me to. This was the first hole where we started to get a sense of some of the scary (and unique) bunkers that were on the course. Guarding the green is a deep and very narrow sand trap that looks practically impossible to get out of. Don’t miss left on the approach – I’m pretty sure there was a lake over there.
Hole 3 (Par 3, 163 yards)
Ah, there’s the lake! The fog thinned out for just a couple of minutes allowing us to see a bit of Lake Michigan and the green in front of us.
Hole 4 (Par 4, 416 yards)
Keith told me “You won’t lose many balls at Whistling Straits, but when you do find it, you probably won’t like it.”
This held true on the #1 handicap hole on the course, the long par 4 4th.
I hit a solid drive, but then ended up off in the fescue to the right. An ugly lie gave way to a few more ugly shots and I was beginning to understand part of what makes the Straits Course so menacing.
Hole 5 (Par 5, 526 yards)
Ah! A clearing! As soon a we turned the corner we could actually see the course for the first time. During the 2010 PGA Championships Golf Digest said “There are 17 great holes at Whistling Straits – and then this one.”
Pete Dye famously added a mound to the right of the back tees to cut future players from bombing it over the lake and hitting sand wedge into the green.
It’s been called gimmicky, but frankly I really enjoyed this hole. Your 2nd shot forces you to decide how much of the hole you want to bite off or if you should try and clear the lake and go for it.
Related: Is Whistling Straits the best public course in America?
Hole 6 (Par 4, 344 yards)
I was thinking the bunker on the 2nd hole was pretty scary. Nothing could prepare me for the deep and narrow bunker that broke the 2nd green in half. It was easily one of the most intimidating approach shots I hit on the course. I don’t care where you hit it, just don’t hit it in there.
Hole 7 (Par 3, 176 yards)
Due to the fog early on, this was the first hole where I truly sat back and said “wow, now this is a golf hole.”
About as close to the banks of Lake Michigan as it gets, this is one aspect that sets Whistling Straits apart from say Arcadia Bluffs or Pacific Dunes. While those courses have amazing clifftop vistas, none of them get right down on the water like some of the par 3s on the Straits Course do.
Hole 8 (Par 4, 413 yards)
Looking at this tee shot from the back tees is utterly terrifying. You cant see the fairway, but you can see dozens of bunkers – and to even get the ball in play, you’ve gotta clear a lot of bunkers.
It isn’t quite as intimidating from the green tees, but with a ton of bunkers and a stout 413 yards to the green, this was one of the most difficult holes on the course.
The green hanging off the edge of the earth is also one of the coolest on the course, although not quite as dramatic as 13.
Hole 9 (Par 4, 386 yards)
The 9th swings back by the clubhouse and this downhill par 4 gives you a great view of the traditional-looking stone structure hovering above the green.
This was one of the most memorable holes of the round for me as I drained it from about 30 yards out for birdie. Those are the kind of shots you want to have when playing the #2 public course in the country.
Hole 10 (Par 4, 320 yards)
“I didn’t see it come down…how was it?”
“Well that depends, do you like being in the middle of the fairway about 40 yards from the green?”
Easily my best drive of the round, it can be tough to tell exactly where you’re supposed to be hitting it here. If you can stay left center of the fairway, you should find yourself in a really favorable position as this hole seemed to play even shorter than the 320 yards on the card.
Hole 11 (Par 5, 516 yards)
The tee shot on 11 feels a lot like the tee shot on 8 – lots of bunkers to the right. Scarier than those however is the 12 foot deep wasteland of a bunker that’s protecting the green. This is one place you definitely don’t want to be. It took one member of our group about 6 shots to finally get it out, and the first 5 weren’t bad shots by any means – they all hit about 6 inches below the lip and rolled back down to the beach.
Don’t be a hero. Lay up to the left if you’re thinking about going for the green on this one.
Hole 12 (Par 3, 120 yards)
12 features what might be the toughest pin placement on the course. A little annex of the green off to the right hovering above the lake. This is the epitome of a Sunday pin location and essentially cuts the size of the green to about 1/5. I’m sure it would make for a memorable shot, but I’m pretty glad I didn’t have to hit it there 🙂
Hole 13 (Par 4, 343 yards)
My favorite par 4 on the course. A dogleg right with various bunkers and waste areas all along the right. I guess you can’t even call them bunkers. They’re waste areas so you don’t have to rake them. Generally, I found them to be pretty easy to hit out of as long as you can pick it clean.
The way the fairway winds around and down to the right to a green hovering above the lake is truly spectacular. Not my absolute favorite par 4 of the year, but easily top 5.
Hole 14 (Par 4, 341 yards)
I couldn’t even tell you a whole lot about this hole considering I was totally preoccupied by the 20 or so sheep that joined us in roaming the fairway. Pretty cool touch and something that definitely added to the feeling that we weren’t in what was once an abandoned army bombing range.
I do remember it being relatively short, and one of the easier holes on the course, however.
Hole 15 (Par 4, 419 yards)
A pretty straightforward long par 4. Nothing too crazy here.
Hole 16 (Par 5, 500 yards)
Opposite of many of the holes (8, 11, 13) on 16 you don’t want to go left on your tee shot. On top of that you really don’t want to go short on your approach (like I did), you’ll find yourself with a steep, blind approach shot that that’s guaranteed to have a bad lie.
Hole 17 (Par 3, 190 yards)
The final in one spectacular quartet of par 3s that the Straits Course offers.
Here’s the conversation Keith and I had about what happens if I miss the green left:
“You can go find your ball if you hit it down there, but I won’t be joining you.
“No, seriously. I’m not going down there.”
Soak this hole in and hope for a good score, because you’ll need it heading into 18.
Hole 18 (Par 4, 413 yards)
I played well at Whistling Straits. I hit fairways, and because of that really didn’t find it to live up to it’s reputation as one of the most difficult courses in the world.
Or at least that’s how I felt until I got to #18: “Dyeabolical”.
I must have hit every hazard on this hole. It’s a bit of a maze and for much of it you aren’t entirely sure where you should be hitting. All I had to do was double to break 90. Aaaand I ended with a quadruple bogey. Not exactly the spectacular finish I was hoping for.
Also slightly disappointing were all the bulldozers to the right that were preparing for the 2015 PGA Championship. Dustin Johnson’s famous bunker? Tore out to make way for corporate ten ts.
This is where Pacific Dunes is far and away better. It’s about the golf there – not the money.
Final Thoughts on Whistling Straits?
I’ve had a few people ask me if Whistling Straits was worth the money. The answer? Absolutely. Yes, it’s anything but cheap, but it’s a fun course and is one of those rounds that you’ll talk about for the rest of your life?
That said, would I pay it on a regular basis? No. I thought the River Course was just as much fun (although completely different), and while still not cheap, it was a lot less than the Straits Course.
Related: Check out our other picks for the best golf courses in Wisconsin.
All of the courses and facilities at Kohler are first-rate, and you’ll have a fantastic time. The only big complaint I have (price aside) is the fact that it’s crowded. Everything felt a bit like I was herded through – it really is like Disneyland for golfers. At Bandon for instance (which is the most similar resort I’ve played), everything feels more relaxed, and more golf-centric.
Two totally different experiences, both totally worth it.
I have to admit, I thought this was the toughest course I ever played and I’ve played the Black many times. This course was frightening. There is nowhere to miss. I enjoyed the River course far more which isn’t easy of course but much more fun. Also, as spectacular as the par 3 are, they seemed redundant. Its the same hole 4 times, twice with the Lake on the left and twice with it on the right. But you are right about 8. I had no idea where to hit the ball. And then with the dropoff to the green. Geez. I actually hit a good drive but of course it landed in a bunker. There is just no place to hit the ball on this course. It is a course for pros.