Behind the Curtain at Whistling Straits

By M. James Ward, Epoch Times Contributor
August 13, 2015 Updated: August 18, 2015

Sheboygan, WI—The 97th PGA Championship marks the final golf major of the ’15 season and this year’s venue will clearly make an impact in determining what player will hoist the famed Wannamaker Trophy over their head as champion.

The Straits Course is one of two-18-hole layouts at Whistling Straits. The layouts were designed by the renowned Pete Dye and this will mark the third PGA Championship to be contested here since ’04. In 2020, the Ryder Cup Matches will be contested here as well.

To better understand the nature of the design I reached out five (5) distinguished golf architects. What better way to more fully comprehend the golf course elements than to get the candid feedback from those who work in the field.

The Participants…

RICHARD MANDELL

rsz_rich_in_cart_at_bacon_park

Has worked on more than sixty golf courses since 1992 in 13 states and China. Restoration of Ellis Maples’ Orangeburg Country Club recently voted Renovation of the Decade by the Sourth Carolina Golf Raters Panel this past month. Acclaimed work at the storied Keller Golf Course in St. Paul, Minnesota named Golf Magazine Municipal Renovation of the Year 2014. In 2011, named one of the 15 Most Influential Architects by GolfInc. Magazine. www.golf-architecture.com.

KELLY BLAKE MORAN

rsz_kbm1428788494

Has designed golf courses for over 30 years collaborating with other professionals to produce 23 new golf courses, and renovate 15 existing courses in 5 countries. Based in the United States and can be contacted at kbmgca@verizon.net.

PHILIP SPOGARD

rsz_philip_spogárd

From European based Spogárd & VanderVaart Golf Course Architects, has been one of the most award winning golf course architects in the World over the past 6 years. Have worked on the renovation and design of several courses ranking among the European Top 100 as well as courses hosting the European Tour.

STEVE SMYERS

steve-smyers (1)

Has been designing courses worldwide—on 6 continents—for over 30 years. Served on the USGA Executive Committee and is the current President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He has competed in six decades of USGA competition and anumber of his courses have hosted world class professional golf tournaments. Based in Lakeland, FL.

JEFFREY D. BRAUER

rsz_100_1262

A golf course architect for 37 years. Formed his firm Jeffrey D. Brauer/GolfScapes in the Dallas area in 1984.  Since then, has designed over 50 new courses, and renovated many more.  President of ASGCA for its 50th anniversary year in 1995-6.  Among his better known works are Cowboys Golf Club, (first NFL themed course) The Quarry and Legend at Giant’s Ridge and Wilderness at Fortune Bay in Minnesota, and Firekeeper, Colbert Hills and Sand Creek Station in Kansas.

On with the Q & A …

The Straits Course at Whistling Straits is the handiwork of architect Pete Dye. What will be Dye’s legacy when all is said and done with his career?

Philip Spogard: He will be considered one of the great pioneers in golf course design. Never afraid to go his own way and challenge the norm

Steve Smyers: Pete’s legacy will be that he created many unique and dynamic designs. He has not been afraid to push the envelope with design and always adapted his designs to the ever changing game.

Richard Mandell: His legacy is that he truly pushed the envelope in golf course design that worked in multiple categories from strategy to aesthetics. Dye showed one can look at replicating nature differently than most would consider. He also made it work challenging the best golfers.

Jeff Brauer: One of the few architects in history who really changed the course of architecture—and the architecture of courses. His style was a true paradigm change, which still influences us today.

Kelly Blake Moran: He manufactured and contrived land forms for the very best players.

A view from behind the green on the 163 yards par 3, 12th hole 'Pop Up' on the Whistling Straits 'Straits' Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
A view from behind the green on the 163 yards par 3, 12th hole ‘Pop Up’ on the Whistling Straits ‘Straits’ Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

If you have ever played a Dye course, which one would you select as the best in showing his style?

JB: I see his career as two distinct phases, with his early work having more charm and quirk, best exhibited at The Golf Club in Ohio, and Harbour Town.  After TPC, his style changed to more dramatic shaping as he tried to outdo himself for each new client.  Strategically, he reproduced most of his best concepts, like the Cape Hole on 18.  In both cases, probably because that is what clients wanted from him.

SS: I have played several Dye courses. The one I would select as the best in showing his style would be Crooked Stick in Carmel, Indiana.

PS: The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Both in terms of strategy and shaping.

RM: My favorite Dye course is TPC Sawgrass as it was very playable from the right set of tees and it clearly displays his Machiavellian design philosophy, challenging the strong side and leaving the weak side a bit more open.  His iconic elements (mounds, island greens, nature as sharp contrast opposed to soft erosion) are prevalent there and are replicated throughout the next decades of his work.

KM: You would have to play most if not all his designs to select the best. I can’t answer with any authority on this matter.

A view from behind the green on the 391 yards par 4, 10th hole 'Voyageur' on the Whistling Straits 'Straits' Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
A view from behind the green on the 391 yards par 4, 10th hole ‘Voyageur’ on the Whistling Straits ‘Straits’ Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

The 2015 season has seen three courses—Chambers Bay, The Old Course at St. Andrews and now The Straits Course—which have all attempted to maximize the ground option as a fundamental element when playing each of them. Does having a ground option matter to world class professionals who have near total control of their shot trajectory?

KM: The best definition of ground option focuses on the approach or recovery shots using the contours of the ground in the approach area to reach the green or to find the pin area. Landing the ball on the green and then using the spin of the ball to follow the contour of the ground to get to the pin is the lowest form of “ground options; I dispute that this even qualifies as “ground options”. When considering the former, using the contours of of the ground in the approach area, the ground option does not matter to the world class professional.

RM: That is based on how hard and fast the course is playing.  If the course is soft, then ground options are irrelevant. If it is hard and fast, then the golfer can’t fire at pins and must consider landing their shot somewhere in front of their ultimate target.  It is at that point that ground options matter.

JB: Those courses showed that it can matter quite a bit.  Ironically, it seemed to matter more at Chambers Bay than at the Old Course. Granted, it rained at the British Open, but the Old Course keeps getting greener and lusher since I first played there in 1981. Chambers Bay consciously strove for brown, fast, firm and scary and captured that type of playability better this year. It wasn’t as windy as expected, and it seemed as if the kick plates and side slopes mattered more than the actual running approach shot.

SS: The Straits Course least maximizes the ground game out of these three. On several of the holes there are drainage basins in front of the green which almost forces the golfers to take the aerial route.

PS: A ground option on certain holes is and should be a must, if you want to get the ball close – that is the same for any world class professional. Look at the skills of a guy like Ballesteros—his ground game and imagination won him some of the biggest tournaments in golf.

A view from behind the green on the 188 yards par 3, 3rd hole 'O'Man' on the Whistling Straits 'Straits' Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
A view from behind the green on the 188 yards par 3, 3rd hole ‘O’Man’ on the Whistling Straits ‘Straits’ Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

If any of the past superstar architects from years ago were alive today—people such as Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Alister MacKenzie, to name just three—what do you think they would say about how golf is played today and how golf courses are created?

PS: I am sure they would be amazed by the machinery and technology available in golf course construction. I think they might find golf as a game more boring, with a general lack of strategy missing on most golf course designs. They would probably be quite happy to see how their golf courses are doing in the Top 100 rankings!

JB: Unlike some others, I read their books as them striving for things like fairness that we have largely achieved today. Ross was excited about the possibility of using bulldozers. At first glance, they would have to be amazed at the length of players, course conditioning, and amount and scale of earthwork now common, but I believe after study, they would realize architecture was a logical progression of the ideas they strove for. At least, we hope!

SS: One of the reasons these gentlemen were considered superstar architects is that they were very forward thinking individuals and their designs were cutting edge for their times. Though McKenzie and Tillinghast didn’t practice much after the introduction of steel shafted clubs, Ross quickly adapted to the changing game and his designs did as well. I think they would embrace today’s game and the designs.

RM: I think Ross would say that is just progress as far as business goes and would embrace how golf courses are created. He may think the way the game is played is atrocious and that golfers in general (high handicappers to pros) are a bunch of whiners.  Mackenzie and Tillinghast would probably agree. 

KM: We can pretend to know these deceased souls as a means to promote our own agendas but to bring them back from the dead as a way to judge the merits of the present is a futile adventure.
 
The 494 yards par 4, 4th hole 'Glory' on the Whistling Straits 'Straits' Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
The 494 yards par 4, 4th hole ‘Glory’ on the Whistling Straits ‘Straits’ Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
 
The man responsible for setting up the PGA Championship is Kerry Haigh. He has been doing this for quite some time and his philosophy is one of allowing the players to play without being overly penal with long rough and overly narrow fairways. Does such playability ultimately produce a better champion and, at the same time, show the merits of a given course in a far better light?

KM: This type of setup produces a better tournament. More importantly it illustrates the best features in the green designs on and around the greens particularly in relationship to the different angles of approach from the fairways. 

SS: Kerry is well versed in golf course architecture and sets the course up according to the architecture of the golf course and the elements that will factor into play. At the PGA Championship at Sahalee, the design and the site dictated narrow fairways and he set it up accordingly. Contrasting to this year’s course the course design, site, and elements dictate wider fairways.

PS: I am not sure it necessarily produces a better champion, but in my opinion it certainly highlights the merits of a course. The great holes to watch—and to play—are the ones where the golfer has to decide between different options available to him. This is the most important aspect I try to put into any golf hole, which I work on.

RM: I think so. Although the PGA has produced as many random champions as the U.S. Open over the years, with a little more leeway with width and depth of rough, golfers get to at least display the potential for shot making and can use their brains to consider strategy.  

JB:  I believe the other three majors crown the champion who can best adapt to conditions.  And many journeymen pros simply avoid the British Open to avoid having to adapt. Architecturally, those PGA conditions probably so show off the qualities of a good course, but the PGA probably has a wider pool of potential players who can win simply by playing their standard games the best that week.

The green on the 645 yards par 5, 11th hole 'Sand Box' on the Whistling Straits 'Straits' Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
The green on the 645 yards par 5, 11th hole ‘Sand Box’ on the Whistling Straits ‘Straits’ Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

As a practicing architect what is the most misunderstood aspect of golf course design for most golfers?

RM: I think it is the idea that long and narrow is what makes a great golf course.  Golfers scoff at wide fairways as making a course too easy and don’t realize the inherent strategy in width. They think penalty should rule. 

JB: Probably how drainage and circulation affect design. In 37 years as an architect, I spend more time and effort in controlling drainage every project. And, on busy courses, I am often forced to first decide where the cart path goes, because it affects hazard placement.  Golfers are going to drive where they want to drive, and it makes little sense to put a bunker or pond in their way!

SS: The most misunderstood aspect for golfers is the strategy of the golf course and how to maneuver themselves around the course.

PS: That many golfers feel a bunker should be ‘fair’ and always present the golfer with a good lie. Bunkers are hazards and should be treated with respect. If you are afraid to go into a bunker, then play around it! 

KM: Par. A golf hole should be played in the manner that best suits the golfers game. For many golfers a  “par 4” hole may best be played in 3 shots to reach the green. In this case rather than the player feeling they failed because they did not reach in 2 shots they should experience a sense of accomplishment that they played along the proper avenue to avoid trouble and penalties to arrive safely in 3 shots.

 

Fans watch the play on the ninth green during a practice round prior to the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on August 11, 2015 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Fans watch the play on the ninth green during a practice round prior to the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on August 11, 2015 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Is it truly possible to have a golf course capable in hosting world class professionals and then also being able to handle everyday players? Is such a linkage more fantasy than reality given the widening berth between the two groups?

KM: It depends on the golf course. The answer is yes for The Old Course at St. Andrews. Based upon what I witnessed at Merion the answer would be no. The everyday player would have been brutalized and left unconscious if they played Merion the day after the U.S. Open.

SS: It is absolutely possible to have a world class golf course that can handle every day players. The greatest challenge for the elite player is a strategic course rather than a penal course. The average player can easily move around and be stimulated by a strategic course.

PS: I don’t think so. I think there are many good examples of golf course which are great tournament courses while at the same time providing fun and memorable golfing experiences for the everyday player. It does require a flexible golf course with numerous teeboxes and offset angles to the landing areas from the back tees, which then often requires a larger piece of land, a more expensive construction budget, etc. which can make it difficult to achieve. As long as the regular golfer and the pro golfer do not play off the same tee, it can be done.

RM: It sure is possible for a golf course to host at the highest level and be playable for everyday golfers. It comes in the ability to narrow the fairways and speed up the greens on the pro side.  For the day to day golfer, providing ample tee boxes, wide fairways and hazards working in conjunction with those wide fairways to challenge and not penalize makes a very playable golf course.

JB: Courses typically try to attract every level player. But, “one size fits all” never caught on in fashion, ethnic restaurants are now more popular than general menus, and retail specialty shops flourish, while department stores close. It’s time golf followed suit, and stop designing every course for everyone and start tailoring most courses to average golfers, or specific audiences, like shorter courses in senior communities, alternate style courses in mixed use developments, introductory courses, etc.  And, they should market that as a plus, and reserve the standard “championship course” label for about 10% of courses. 

 

The 503 yards par 4, 15th hole 'Grand Strand' on the Whistling Straits 'Straits' Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
The 503 yards par 4, 15th hole ‘Grand Strand’ on the Whistling Straits ‘Straits’ Course venue for the 2015 PGA Championship on August 14, 2014 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

When watching the PGA Championship what do you notice as an architect that likely others will not?

JB: I still look at the shaping, especially for a course like Whistling Straits, which turned a dead flat field into a dramatic landscape.  When they play older courses, I look for the more subtle shaping nuances in the greens and around the bunkers.  There is something to learn from any good course.

PS: Well, I am somewhat ‘damaged’ by my line of work, so I look for details in terms of how they have build and maintain bunkers, how they try and create visual contrasts by using roughs, sand, mowing patterns, etc. and how the golf holes are tied into the overall shapes of the landscape. Details which can inspire me in my own work. But I try to watch a bit of the action as well!

RM: I’m looking for elevation change on things and HDTV is great for that. I also think about how the everyday player would deal with certain features.  I may also look at how something is constructed and some of the more boring elements such as access/egress from greens or tees

SS: The main thing I notice is how the golf course is integrated into the surrounding landscape, the variety of hole lengths, and strategy required by the players as it relates to course set up.

KM: I look at the mowing lines in relationship to the bunkers and how the fairway lines enter and/or surround the green. I tend to focus on the proximity of short grass near the green. My other focus is on the characteristics of the terrain within the putting green and the terrain approaching and surrounding the putting green.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.

RECOMMENDED