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The Straits Course at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin: Pain never felt so good in golf

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor
Whistling Straits - Straits golf course - hole 3
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Keep the pictures, rip up your scorecard at the Straits Course in Kohler, Wisconsin (Brandon Tucker/TravelGolf)

The Straits Course at Whistling Straits, in Kohler, Wisconsin, is one unbelievable test of golf, a Pete Dye beast that has earned its place as a PGA mainstay - and will leave the mid- and high-handicapper bruised, battered ... but thankful for the experience.

KOHLER, Wis. - You're not going low here, let's just get that out of the way right now.

You're not going to shoot your handicap either. In fact, you'll probably have a few "X's" on your card, capped with a little frownie-face as the 18-hole total.

At the Straits course, the mid-to-high handicapper is going home a battered and beaten man (or woman).

Beyond the imminent carnage, the Straits course, which is the better-known half of Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, is still one of the most memorable rounds of golf you'll ever play - even if you're forgetting your final score by the first sip of your 19th hole pint.

The best the Average Joe Golfer can hope for at the Straits are a few improbable shots, maybe an unlikely birdie, and a sunny day so your pictures turn out well. Your camera will be the most used tool in your bag here.

That or your utility club.

Herb Kohler commissioned architect Pete Dye to summon his demons here, giving him essentially an open wallet and free range to create something which has never been seen before - and would be a worthy test for the pro's most heralded tournaments.

To say the finished product is anything short of a triumph is an understatement. It was almost immediately selected to host the 2004 PGA Championship and is also scheduled to host the 2010 and 2015 PGA Championship, as well as the 2020 Ryder Cup.

Galleries watched links legend Tom Watson brought to his knees on Sunday as he lost the lead in the 2007 U.S. Senior Open to Brad Bryant. Whistling Straits, and Kohler, the destination village an hour north of Milwaukee, is going to be on the international radar for a very long time.

The transition from a mostly flat, featureless abandoned airfield to the rugged spectacle the land is today required about 800,000 cubic yards of dirt moved, transforming the land into a two-tiered amphitheatre effect that gives just about every hole a view of Lake Michigan, which is big enough to pass as the Irish sea or any ocean. There is an uncountable number of bunkers and grassy dunes. The shocking result is something in the mold of a Ballybunion on acid.

Even with a caddie and yardage book, the Straits is just too intimidating visually to give your fragile psyche a fighting chance.

For players who have seen the Straits course a few times, it may not be that bad. Dye in fact does have bailout areas on most holes and many greens have open room in front to play a runner - or lucky miss-hit - up onto the green.

Another reason why your morale will be shot by round's end is that the course gets harder and harder if the prevailing winds are up. The 14th through 17th hole all play the same direction, and with the wind in your face, the concept of par is almost laughable to the higher handicap.

The 17th is a culmination of all the treachery of the previous holes. It's named "Pinched Nerve" only because "Full Body Seizure" might not be politically correct. The green is bordered on the left by steep railroad ties that drop about 15-20 feet to a slew of bunkers. Below the first set are more, then the lake. There isn't much bailout room to the right either, and this sliver of safety is guarded by a giant dune.

Needless to say, you'll inevitably find this fortress of doom and your foursome will begin making funeral arrangements as you take countless Herculean hacks with your wedge in hopes of escaping the underworld.

Whatever life is left in you, the epic 18th hole back towards the clubhouse will surely hold it in its clutches by the time you reach the green. The landing zone is small, guarded by (what else?) bunkers on the right and high grasses to the left. The second shot is downhill, over a creek to a multi-sectional green large enough to have its own municipality.

The Straits Course at Whistling Straits: The verdict

The Straits course costs a pretty penny: $300 plus a mandatory caddie ($60), but it's the kind of course anyone must to see with their own eyes to believe. Kohler envisioned the Straits to resemble that of the southwest Irish courses he visited once, but the Straits course is its own genre.

Where to Stay

The main accommodation facility is the five-star American Club. A beautiful example of Tudor architecture, it was built at the turn of the 20th century to house immigrant factory workers in Kohler. It's since been expanded and upgraded and is now an all-encompassing hotel with conference centers, gardens and several restaurants. Guests of the American Club also receive free access to the Sports Core fitness center, which features a full gym, as well as lakeside beach and patio for the leisure-minded.

The Kohler Waters Spa has recently received its own rejuvenation and is now one of America's best retreats and features a variety of signature treatments and several relaxation rooms.

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Whistling Straits - Straits golf course - hole 17

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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