The Challenges of Whistling Straits

Players come and go, but golf courses remain. The United States will try to wrest the Ryder Cup back from the Europeans this week, and standing between them will be the golf architect Pete Dye and the course he designed at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

Dye, who died last year, was known for defying conventions.

“Pete Dye changed the direction of architecture around the world twice,” said Bill Coore of Coore & Crenshaw, who is a former Dye associate.

Over his six-decade career, Dye created memorable and difficult courses, including Harbour Town Golf Links in South Carolina and T.P.C. Sawgrass in Florida. Coore said courses like Harbour Town were “based on finesse and shot placement, and then later in his career he went the exact opposite way with T.P.C. Sawgrass,” building big, brawny courses he once eschewed.

The courses are indicative of the ways Dye changed golf design.

“You can pick any course with smaller mounding, pot bunkers and small angled greens that was built after Harbour Town’s acclaim, and you can be certain it was influenced by Pete Dye, if not designed by Pete,” Coore said.

His work for the P.G.A. of America gave Dye, a former insurance salesman who turned to golf design, the opportunity to build courses that challenged the professionals.

“What’s that great line of his,” said Mike Clayton, a designer and former player. “‘Once you get these guys thinking, you’ve got ’em.’ And he was certainly able to do that.”

The 17th island green at T.P.C. Sawgrass is an example of how Dye can get in the head of the world’s best. The short par 3 would often be a birdie if it were on dry land, but, surrounded by water and coming late in the round, it’s a challenge.

Dye’s courses require golfers to hit the proper side of the fairway to score well. An easier shot from the tee may provide the safety of short grass, but will likely block a golfer’s best scoring angle.

A daring shot toward a hazard is often rewarded with an easier scoring chance. As matches conclude this week, notice the options Dye presents players on the par-4 18th hole at Whistling Straits. The split fairway offers a path right to avoid the many bunkers to the left. But an aggressive play over those bunkers, requiring a 300-yard drive, provides a straighter path to the hole and a chance at birdie.

“Pete understood exactly how talented the pros were, and he really did design for them,” Tom Doak, another former associate, said. And yet, Doak said Dye also understood how to build for the average player, which came from his wife, Alice, an excellent player.

“Because of Alice’s influence, Pete’s whole design style was thought out to scale down for those who couldn’t hit the ball so far,” Doak said.

He said Dye accomplished this, in part, by not placing hazards at logical yardages, like a bunker at 280 yards down the right, just because that might force an average player into a tough spot. By focusing on angles and sides of the holes for players to score, Dye allowed his designs to flow seamlessly in challenging the professional and the everyday player.

Over his six-decade career, Pete Dye created memorable and difficult courses, including Harbour Town Golf Links in South Carolina and T.P.C. Sawgrass in Florida.Credit…Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto, via Getty Images

Herb Kohler, executive chairman of the Kohler Company, said he was so taken with Dye’s designs that he had him build four courses at Whistling Straits.

“Pete’s greatest contribution to growing the game of golf was that he considered golfers of all age and skill levels,” Kohler said.

Steve Stricker, who lives in Wisconsin and is captain of the U.S. team, said Kohler put Wisconsin on the golf map.

“Whistling Straits is a tremendous test, a beautiful piece of property,” he said. “It’s just one of those iconic places here in our state thanks to Herb and his family. It started right here for Wisconsin golf, to be quite honest.”

The Ryder Cup is, of course, about challenging the pros. Jason Mengel, director of the Ryder Cup, which ends on Sunday, said he believed that the course was “One of the finest tests of golf anywhere on the planet.”

There will also be the raucous crowd on the first tee, where Mengel said they had put hospitality tents in high visibility areas to help set the atmosphere. Coming down the stretch, Mengel said the par-3 17th hole, named Pinch Nerve, “could play a critical role” in determining the winner.

Pinched Nerve continues a Dye tradition of testing the mettle of a golfer late in the round. Cut into a hillside, the green is flanked by bunkers left and right with a severe falloff on the left of the long, somewhat narrow green. Past those bunkers is Lake Michigan. Should golfers err toward the right and push the shot onto the hill, they will have virtually no chance to stop the ball from racing off the green from the elevated perch.

Looking at the course’s two finishing holes, it’s hard to believe that it lies on land that was once an airstrip. Dye cut into the bluffs that overlook the lake to create a ragged appearance, as if the course had always been there waiting to be discovered. Doak said the dirt he excavated from those bluffs then allowed Dye to create the dunes and mounding found throughout the course.

Dye’s courses continue to test the best players. He had a singular vision, which was not that each course must possess a set of qualities, but that a golf course should push golfers to play their best by thinking their way around the course. The pressure of the Ryder Cup will compound that thinking.

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