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Whistling Straits
By John Moody

Did you ever read Michael Murphy's "Golf in the Kingdom," a popular book that came out in the early 1970s? It's mainly a work of fiction, with philosophy, myth, probably some memoir and a bit of whiskey thrown in. Oh yeah, golf, as the title indicates, is prominent as well. The main character is a Scottish pro with an unforgettable name, Shivas Irons.

Shivas is something of a pied piper, a holy and wise man of golf and plenty mysterious, too. The setting is among the hills and wind and sea spray that all contribute to what is golf in Scotland.

I visited a place this summer just up the road from here that brought old Shivas to mind. If for nothing else, I wondered what would happen if he came to life on the bluffs above Lake Michigan, at a place called Whistling Straits, and asked: "Am I home?" Turn your head in any direction and you see what a reasonable assumption that is. Sorry, Shivas, old man, but this isn't Britain; this is Wisconsin.

Whistling Straits actually and rightfully claims an Irish influence, not Scottish. In fact, the circle drive in front of the clubhouse is adorned with three flags waving and flapping in the ceaseless breeze: the American flag; the state flag of Wisconsin; and the tri-color flag of Ireland. For a flatlander from Illinois, it's no stretch to be reminded of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - the whole of the Kingdom - as you take in the surroundings.

Mostly what you first see are moguls rising and falling among the gorse, heather and sand bunkers with the lake, giant and blue, as a backdrop. The lake is always there, your companion every step of the way. Save for a couple of holes, it's technically not in play, really; you'd have to hit it sideways -- and far -- to reach it, but it never leaves your sight, and it is as pretty as any water anywhere.

I'm sure most folks motor right by the place on the little two-lane highway that passes the inconspicuous front gate. There's no clue until you're almost on the property that you're anywhere near a world-class golf facility. No highway signs from the interstate lead you here, no signage in the nearby tiny hamlets. The familiar Whistling Straits Gnome logo is on a sign at the entrance, but it's understated in its sturdy and straightforward posture among the natural vegetation. The clubhouse and the golf course are well hidden from the road.

The whole place just appears, a rising of sorts, like a little planet all its own coming up out of the lake. Golds and browns and blues and greens, colors changing hue from shot to shot, like the ultimate artist probably intended. Sounds like a reference to God, and maybe it is, but as my caddie said, "Around here, Pete Dye is like God."

On a piece of ground seemingly forsaken by God himself, rugged and rolling and ancient, stretching and unfolding itself high above Lake Michigan, Dye, the famed golf course architect, made his stand. He must have braced himself well against the lake gales, well enough to carve out a wonderful links that looks every day of a century old. It is in reality just a dozen seasons old.

The holes each have been tagged with creative names; some need no explaining as in the treacherous par-3 17th known as "Pinched Nerve." Here are some favorites: "O'Man," "Cliff Hanger," "Gremlin's Ear," "Shipwreck" and "Endless Bite." The finishing hole, an homage to the architect, is called "Dyeabolical."

One bright July morning on The Straits course, halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, near the town of Kohler, Wis., I made a stand of my own, albeit much less dramatic than Dye's. I came with sticks in hand and a modest goal or two: I wanted to break 100 on the scorecard and avoid breaking an ankle on the uneven and unforgiving terrain. No joke - just strolling around the place could twist or harm something in a snap.

Destination Kohler is made up of an elegant handful of top-drawer golf courses, hotels and spas. The Straits, site of the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup, is a burly and masculine test, even from less than 6,500 yards as I played it. It sits between the great lake and its sister course, The Irish, an inland links layout that's no more than a hell-bent wedge shot to the west.

There's no riding here; it's walking only. Caddies in white jumpsuits ply their trade, traversing up and down and sideways like the black-faced sheep that roam these same hills. They are a knowledgeable bunch, hailing from far and near, including the American South and the British Isles. My playing partners were a married couple from Palm Beach, a bit uptight, and a fine gentleman from the Chicago suburbs. All three had played golf here before; it was my maiden voyage.

My looper, Brian, was a strapping local fellow. He slogged two bags at once, a double loop, as did his buddy, J.R. They were good company for the day, and they really knew their stuff. I managed a birdie; granted, it came at the No. 18 handicap hole, the 12th, a par 3. I hit a wedge to about 20 feet left of the hole, and Brian made the read. Just prior to my putt, a right-to-lefter, he told me to play more break. I did, and the ball gently tumbled in the middle of the dark hole.

That was my high-water moment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, on my approach to the second green, I ended up long in a greenside bunker. It didn't look that bad, especially given that my stance was good and the sand had saved my ball from bounding down the bluff toward the lake. I even said to a playing companion that I had gotten a break. I sure shouldn't have said that.

The bunker was small, appropriately about the size of a coffin. It took me about five shots to get out, that is, to get out and stay out. I'd hit it up on the hill and down it would come back at my feet. I finally shifted my aim laterally to a flat spot directly to my left and was free of it. I had moved enough sand to bury myself.

Brian's day didn't start well. On the third tee, as I tried to wipe the second-hole sand from my person and my memory, a ball came over the hill from an adjoining hole and, like a silent missile, hit him in the back of the neck. He said he saw stars, but somehow he soldiered on the rest of the way. A few holes later, after he had some time to recover, I asked how bad it had hurt when the ball hit. His response was low-key, genuine Up North: "I thought you were going to see the Big Swede go down."

With its setting, the conditions, the professional and warm demeanor of its employees and the quality of the experience, it's no surprise that Golf magazine listed The Straits as No. 3 in its 2008 list of "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" ranking.

The clubhouse itself is worth seeing, even if you're not playing. They chose great colors and natural materials of stone and wood and metals combined with tile and warm, inviting fabrics. Topping it off, up above are massive exposed timbers. Obviously, no expense was spared, but it remains comfortable and relaxing. You hear soft music of Irish fiddles or angelic singing voices piping throughout the building. The ubiquitous and singular Whistling Straits Gnome logo made his funny face in most every room, but it became an instant favorite of mine.

I even forced my family to have a look inside the clubhouse on our way home, and they thought it was great. My 8-year-old boy's reaction was immediate. As we walked inside the foyer, he said with wide eyes, "Daddy, this place is cool." This from a guy who was mad we were stopping the van and interrupting his video.

Don't leave without going upstairs to see the Irish Pub, and ask about the men's locker room. If there's no one using it, the attendant outside the door will know; ask if the women in your group can go in. They might accommodate you if it's possible. It's an enormous locker room (with three fireplaces), graceful and unstuffy. Notice all the Kohler stuff - faucets, shower heads and sinks; they are interesting in their own right. There's a round sink that is green and gold and blue all the way around the bowl; a closer look and you realize it's a likeness of the golf course complete with pins and fairways and the clubhouse. I wonder how many tired golfers have noticed that for the first time as they wash their faces after a round.

Here's how the folks at Whistling Straits describe their own clubhouse: "Elegantly rustic, the clubhouse at Whistling Straits is reminiscent of an old country farmhouse in the Irish countryside. This unique building is full of architectural detail, ambiance and stands as a historic tribute to the game of golf." (www.destinationkohler.com/golf/ws/ws_clubhouse.html)

It's not a cheap day. With a rate of $340 for golf, a caddie fee of $60 (gratuity not included) and a bite to eat in the wonderful restaurant behind the pro shop, you're nearing a $500 day. And, you still haven't bought a souvenir.

Like everything else associated with the Kohler experience, the after-round meal was superb. I chose a couple of signature items marked with a WS on the menu.

I started with a cup of Whistling Straits Potato Leek Soup served with a "whisper" of cream sherry on the side. For a sandwich I chose the Whistling Straits Homemade Corned Beef; that's homemade corned-beef brisket, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and smoked-bacon mayonnaise all piled on dark rye bread. Fabulous.

To wash it down, I went with a local brew from the Madison area, a glass of Wisconsin Amber from Capital Brewery. Everything - the food, the beverage, the service and the view of the links outside my sturdy wooden booth - was just perfect.

It's about a 300-mile jaunt up to the Kohler area. If your tastes tend toward tony, reserve a room at The American Club, the Midwest's only AAA Five Diamond resort; it's very close and part of Destination Kohler. Or you can get something in nearby Sheboygan that might suit your budget more comfortably. Wherever you stay and no matter your golf score, your trip and the memories from your time on the links at Whistling Straits will be worth every mile and every dollar.

My only regrets are there were no sightings of the famous local sheep - my son claimed to have heard their baaing - and I didn't hit the ball a little bit better. But I did get in with a score in the 90s, and I didn't twist any ankles. Shivas would have approved - and he undoubtedly would not have been homesick.

Story published Friday, September 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 5 )

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