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Pete Dye on Whistling Straits

By: Jay Flemma


He may be half 168 years old, but he's still a lion in summer when it comes to golf architecture. The "dean" of modern golf course architects, Pete Dye blends cunning design strategies that beguile pros with artistic flair that bewitches amateurs. His popularity across the globe is unquenchable, despite a reputation for building courses that play hard and look impossible.

Jay Flemma & Pete Dye at 2009 PGA Championship

But just like solving a good Sunday Times crossword puzzle, patience and observance can help a player outsmart his opponents, even those who are longer hitters or more talented. You have to know how to read a great golf course, especially one by Pete Dye, and Whistling Straits may be his masterpiece in that regard. So here are some intricacies of the Straits course to look for during this year's PGA Championship, August 12-15, as told by Pete himself:

JF: Tell us a little about the process in designing and building the Straits Course.

PD: Well, originally the area was just a big ol' flat army base. It was flat and it was about 70 feet above the lake. They had barracks and base roads, and they had an airport that went along the edge of the lake. Now they would take planes and load them up with balloons and they would drag the balloons behind the planes. Then the big guns and the rifles would shoot at what the airplane would drag behind it. The planes might drag targets or balloons or whatever they'd want shot, and the guns would shoot at whatever it was they were carrying.

Well, I went out there with Mr. Kohler and that's what there was: this flat plateau, and its 70 feet above the lake. And Mr. Kohler said, "The next time I see this land, I want it to look like Ballybunion." And I was about to say "Are you crazy?" But I knew him pretty well, and I had enough sense not to say anything. Besides, I had already built the two courses at Blackwolf Run for him, so we started to get permits, and started talking to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now here's the important thing to remember: People think I brought in a lot of land to build that course, but I didn't. When we started, we were 70 feet above the lake. What I did was I took that land closest to the water, and cut it down as close to the lake as I could get. Sometimes 10-15 feet, sometimes a little more, but I took it way down so that when you play you feel like you're right on the lake. I used bulldozers and earthmoving machines, and cleared all that earth, and moved it away from the lake and built nine holes along the lake.

Now visualize it: It was 70 feet up and now it's 20 feet up, and I have a bank against the edge on the side away from the water that's 50 feet high. I took that dirt, and went and built the other nine holes are no the top of the bank I created. I didn't bring in the dirt from somewhere else, I just moved what I found there.

JF: So it's a terracing effect. The lakeside nine holes are set below the other nine holes, on a completely different level of land.

PD: That's right, it's terraced. Now people look and think they are natural sand dunes, but they are all created and manufactured. I just tried to make it look natural. But people still say I brought in millions of yards of earth, when I didn't. I just moved it.

Now the only inland holes that also play toward the inland - that is, the top-level holes that play away from the lake - are one and 18, because the clubhouse is set west of the lake, not on the lake. I wanted as many holes on the lake as I could get. I didn't want to put parking, the clubhouse, the caddies, the buses, and all the rest of that mess on the lake. (Laughter…)

So recently I've been back there and added a few bunkers here and there.

JF: Where?

PD: Third hole…which is the second hole that plays along the lake.

JF: Three is the Redan, right? The par-3?

Third Hole at Whistling Straits

PD: Yes, it's similar to a Redan. The one at Berwick has contours on the green where the back is lower than the front and there's a big roll in it. Now when I bunkered the one at Whistling I wanted to make it look like that part of the green is hanging into the lake.

JF: So you wanted to create a Cape-like element - where the green feels like it's out on a peninsula - but to also set-up and play like a Redan?

PD: Yes, that's right. Seth Raynor used to do Redans everywhere he did a golf course. He built similar things at courses everywhere he went, and he built Redans everywhere in particular. I think Redan means fortress…anyway, we have the same contours. First, you have to make it big, because you have to put the big roll in it where the back is lower than the front. The green is also a little right to left. Now even though the back is lower than the front, you can still see the back left corner. Ours does the same thing as the one at Berwick and the ones Raynor built. And I also wanted to give the illusion the back was sitting in the water.

The next hole we did was No. 6, a short par-4. Now I built the Straits Course for a lot of resort play, but I had a bunker greenside.

JF: Do you mean the center-line pot bunker cut into the front of the green?

PD: Yes, that's the one. Well, I cut that further into the green. I left the left side of the green open, so John Q. Public can play the hole by running it up there or steer away from it, but I made it more severe for the pros, and remember it's a short par-4 and it goes downhill a bit. With pros hitting it 300 yards they can darn near drive the green. Now they have to think a little.

Their little pitch shot is into a smaller landing area on that green. On one side of that pot bunker the green is about 2500 square feet, but the side the members and guests play into is 6000 square feet.

Then we worked on 18. We've changed that about three times, and it's back to almost exactly like what I had put there originally.

JF: Kinda like Sawgrass, huh?

PD: Exactly! Back and forth! But other than that, we haven't done much there since the PGA in '04.

JF: Now one angry player stormed off 18 green and asked you why you designed a cloverleaf green there?

PD: Oh yeah, a lot of them did that. I had a large front, as big as a football field so people have room there to hit in, but the lower right part was all the way out there, and made the hole play 40-50 yards shorter and you didn't have to cross the creek, the creek was to the right. Now you have to cross the creek.

JF: The cool thing about the cloverleaf was you could put the pins there.

PD: That's right, tuck 'em. But Mr. Kohler didn't like the people on television saying "cloverleaf," even though it does look like one, but he didn't like the people on TV saying it. It didn't bother me at all, but it bothered him, so we made the front right part into collar and now you have to carry the water, and it's now 7,000 square feet where it used to be 12,000.

JF: Tell us about some of your favorite parts of the course and how they'll play for the tournament.

PD: As you get closer to 18, you try to make it tougher and more interesting. I like 17. [Another par-3] 17 is about 30 feet above the lake. There's a big bunker left of the green set well below it and if you hit it down there, you're in real trouble. And that catches pros' eyes pretty good, but there's room to bail out right.

JF: But if they bail out that way, they are hitting their next shot back towards the hazard.

PD: Right. The right side also has all kinds of bumps and mounds. Any time you build a bail out, you want to make the pitch from there difficult. So you have the tough lies and you have it playing back toward the water and the sand. The illusion from the tee makes it play much harder.

JF: Tell us more about shots at Whistling that will make the players think and maybe second guess themselves a little.

PD: All the drives, from the tee. Tiger Woods likes to say he likes to "see it all," see everything from the tee. But what I do to a pro is let you see some of the fairway, but not all of the fairway. Now once you've played the course, you know how wide it is and what's out there. But even so, what you can't see creates something in the back of your mind like doubt or fear. The mere fact that you know the fairway is there isn't enough. When you can't see all the landing area, you get scared or nervous or uncertain.

Now at St. Andrews, you go anyplace and you can't see where you're hitting the ball! But if you play it enough you memorize it and you know where the landing area is. But the uncertainty makes it difficult even for the pro player.

Now remember you have to keep in mind that amateurs are going to play the course far more than the pros. You still want the higher handicap player to have fun and not get on all the trouble in the world, even though he probably will. But you try to keep them away from it anyway. So you also have to get around a golf course ladies who hit it 140 and guys who hit it 180. That's why Alice says, "Make the par-3s as hard as you possibly can, and I'll place the tees for the ladies where they can play them."

Sixth Hole at Whistling Straits

Now all the par-3s at Kohler are good, but from the ladies' tees they are only 120 or 130 yards long, because you know they can hit it that far. Now you might push their tee box out some so they have an easier angle coming in. The toughest par-3 in the world in that regard is 17 at Sawgrass. It's surrounded by water. But the ladies have the long side of the green to work with, and they are playing to the part that's uphill as well.

JF: Now what about the fifth hole? Playing between two water hazards, it's a different type of hole than you find on the rest of the Straits Course.

PD: The federal government mandated that the marshland to one side of the fairway was protected wetlands, but still the hole plays okay. On the left, we put sand dunes, but we doubled them up to give them a 3-D look. But you're right; it doesn't fit with the rest of the golf course.

JF: Is there some fade of the tee, draw into the green on that hole?

PD: It's a well-balanced course. I tried to have as much right-to-left off the tee as left-to-right, and then get the opposite effect on the approach, yes. And I had a devil of a time getting it that way.

JF: Why?

PD: Well to do that, I had to build a crossover. ou play 1-2, then cross over and play 3-4 on the lake with the lake on the left, then you play 5-6 and cross over again, and now the lake is on the right.

JF: Well Muirfield twists and turns like that, and it works.

PD: Yes it does, and it works with the wind too. But I just don't like to do that.

JF: If it works with the wind and the shot patterns, why is it bad?

PD: Well it makes it a longer walk. But then again I'm half 168 and I walk it. So If I can walk it the rest of you can walk it. (Laughter)

Now I was scared to death when Mr. Kohler said this course was walking only. I said, "That's great! I'll be the only one playing it," but he was right. A lot of guys like to go up there and walk that golf course.

JF: Well that's what ardent golfers do.

PD: That's right. You also get a really knowledgeable golfer to come up there. When you get that, you can do more things that make it more interesting and more competitive. I don't think it'll be too much harder for the guy who shoots 85-90, but it'll have changes that are tough on the pros.

JF: Where are some of the best internal green contours on the course?

PD: The way the speed is on greens today, to have any real contour, you have to have a big green. I tried to vary the size and contour - make some smaller, medium or large. The 18th has a lot of contour, but it's also 8-9,000 square feet. But 16, the par-5, is much smaller, and has a lot less contour. So I try to diversify contour and size, and offset them going around the golf course so you get some variety.

Now, it's great to see a pro to go for a par-5 in 2, but not with a 7-iron, so par-5s have to be long and set-up according to the club being hit into the green. So hitting a longer club in to try to reach in two, on one par-5 I might try to have a big green with a lot of contour to get the pro on the wrong side of the green a long way from the pin, and that's one defense - 11 is a big par-5 with a big green and a lot of contour - but 16 is small so it has a lot less contour, so the small size is a defense. There are still a lot of little things I'd like to work on at that course.

JF: What are those?

PD: Whistling Straits has been around 10 or 11 years. In the last 10 years, the ball and the equipment have changed everything. The ball is going 10 to 12 yards further and carrying further too, and even on the second shot it's the same. A 400-yard par-4 now has to be 430. So you have to add a few things here and there to bring the course back, and you have to do it with the thought in mind that 51 weeks a year it's a resort course.

So some of the greenside contours and undulations, I can modify them to make it tough for the good player, but also so it doesn't cause havoc to the resort player or 90s shooter.

You see, when a normal guy gets on the side of the green and gets down in three, it's just fine. But if a pro gets greenside and gets down in three, he has a heart attack! So you make the runoffs difficult, but an 80-90-100 shooter still has a lot of options. They can play the ball from Point A to Point B by rolling it, bumping it, chipping it, pitching it, anything. The high handicapper just wants to get it on the green however he can. Here's a place where he can come up with a shot and do as well as a pro, and get darn near the same result with a number of ways to do it. But when the pro has the same options, he gets confused and decelerates and takes three.

Now I like run-offs with contour. So at my courses sometimes the greenside shot moves left to right, or right to left, or maybe double breaks! The higher handicapper just wants to get it on the green. If he gets down in two he's a genius, and if he gets down in three no problem. But the pro has difficulty because he doesn't know what to do.

JF: Which holes should we watch for this in particular?

No 17 at Whistling Straits

PD: 12, the par-3. It's a big green and if you put the pin on the right, and it's a tough shot for the pros. Also the big mound behind the sixth green, that's difficult for a pro. Then the amazing thing about 17 is if they get in the bunker on the left, it's like Pine Valley or Ireland where they don't rake or maintain the sand down there. So they could end up facing the worst shot in golf.

JF: Which is?

PD: They can't get out!

JF: Tell us about how much the wind affects the course.

PD: Well it's pretty breezy. Normally it comes out of the southwest. Now the lake has a different temperature than the land, and when the prevailing wind comes in 8-12 knots, the temperature of the lake will reverse the wind. You can stand on the tee and feel the breeze coming one way, but look at the flag and it's flying in the other direction…dead opposite. You hear about Augusta and how on that little par-3 [12] the wind hits the bank behind the hole and changes direction or swirls or whatever it does at 12 at Augusta. I know you're not writing about Augusta, but the idea's the same. You can't believe the wind is doing just the opposite

Well it's the same here. The temperature of the lake is never over 60-65. Now when the wind comes off the land, its one temperature, but when it hits the lake, I don't know what causes it, but it reverses.

JF: How did you discover that?

PD: Well I was out there every day for two years, and I just felt it and observed it. The temperature at the lake is 7-10 degrees cooler than if you're playing Blackwolf Run. The wind is comin' all the way from Kansas, and it's warmed up pretty good by the time it gets there. Then when it gets there, it switches.

Now in Michigan, when it snows, it piles up two-three-four feet on the lake. But at Kohler, the snow just blows off of it, the wind comes out of the west and there are no trees or anything else, so it just blows across it. So its interesting playing golf there in the wind. It feels left to right but you look at the flag and - what the heck?! - it's going the other way around!

JF: Can you recall any players getting crossed up by that? I mean, I know there was little to no wind the first three days…

PD: I remember the last day Justin Leonard hit a great second shot to the 18th green, but the wind was swirling and there's an opening to the left on the 18th green where the wind comes down a little tunnel from the adjacent ninth hole. Well it knocked his ball down into the bunker and that cost him the tournament. In fact, I saw that a lot on 18 and at other holes too. When you have any green where you can't feel wind on the tee, yet there is an opening of a tunnel down near the green, the wind gusting around will make the ball do weird things.

Sometimes, the flag isn't even fluttering or fluttering in the opposite direction! It does it all the time there. When the wind comes down from nine, it's not affecting anything at flag level, but much higher up, right where the guys are hitting the ball. And it's strong enough to really affect the shot. When the wind comes out of the southwest, and due to the way we placed 18, it's much different above the flag than where the flag is or where the player is standing.

JF: Did you have a few different routing plans? Or did it come together fairly early after you formulated the plan of having as many holes on the water and having the wind and shot patterns widely varied?

PD: I got it on the first try. Maybe I moved things a few feet, but I made up my mind right away on the crossover so I could get the lake to come into play on both sides - left and right - on both nines.

JF: What else should we be looking out for at Whistling Straits and what did you enjoy the most about the tournament last time?

PD: Well, people would sit on those mounds and just look out at the lake, check out the ambience of the golf course. There are so many knobs and crags where you can sit down and watch golf, but people like to sit out on 12 and look out onto the lake. Also, when we had the 2004 PGA, people were singing songs back and forth. They also did it at 18, I think maybe it was a football song, but they were singing and swaying back and forth. Lemme ask Allie…

(Calling into the other room…)

Allie? Remember all those people at Whistling singing and swaying? What was all that and the waving back and forth?

Alice Dye: They were doing "The Wave."

PD: Well I'd never seen that. It looked to me like they were having some good clean Midwestern fun…there were just thousands of people all packed in there doing that, it was fantastic. You know, those Wisconsinites have the second largest golfing population per capita of any state in the nation.

JF: Would the first one be Minnesota?

PD: You're right. You see? I didn't even have to tell you! (Laughter)

Well anyway, all those knowledgeable people come out there to watch and to celebrate, and to love golf. It's really something. It's different from Phoenix where every kid in town comes out to drink and yell. So it's great to watch them and, and to meet all the ardent golfers. They were great people that came out to the Straits Course last time, and that really makes the tournament great.

JF: How will the setup this time differ from the 2004 tourney?

PD: These days, if these guys don't shoot under par, you did something wrong. I know there's no way to make a real par-5 anymore, or a short par-4, but if you wanna make them shoot over par and you cut the greens down so no one can putt 'em, that's not golf. And I don't understand the rough being high. I wanna see guys hit shots. I wanna see a guy in the rough have a tough shot, but have a shot. Don't get my greens there over 11, that's fast enough. But when you talk about 14, that's too much. Hogan won at Oakmont at stimps of 6-7. Stimps too high change the game too much. Now they cut it to1/10 of an inch when back in Hogan's time, was just under an inch.

JF: Do you have the ability to tell the PGA that?

PD: Kerry Haigh does a great job setting up a golf course. Sometimes they go to extremes, but the last day at Oakmont for the women, they made it easier for the girls to shoot numbers on the last day. I don't object to that. I hate to see them gimmick it up and make it hard.

JF: I know some of my readers will want to know about your thoughts on National Golf Links of America. Did it have an impact on your design concepts?

Pete Dye: I played National with Tommy Taylor, and he was a character. I love the golf course. It has a lot of blind shots, but that's okay. My only wish is that could have put 18 right on the water. But I've always been a fan of Seth Raynor, and he came along and did that with Macdonald and later banks, and he built all those other courses, and I like a lot of them.

JF: What other Raynors do you like?

PD: There's a great one south of Cincinnati called Camargo. It's one of his best. Then of course there's Shoreacres, which I love and is another one of their best. But Camargo is my favorite.

For a previous interview Jay had with Pete Dye, visit http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com/?cat=53.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.