Reader’s Trip Report: Whistling Straits

A couple of months ago, Adam Sachs, a reader in Kansas City and a peripatetic occasional contributor to this blog, visited Whistling Straits, a course that’s been on my golf to-do list for a long time. Excerpts from his report:

I won a couples package to play Whistling Straits in a charity raffle fifteen or so years ago, but could never figure out a time to schlep up to Wisconsin to cash in on my luck. I goaded a client into inviting me to the PGA Championship two summers ago, and was awestruck by the beauty and seeming impossibility of the golf course. This summer, after a business meeting in Milwaukee, I finally played it.

Sachs was not predisposed to love the course, which had struck him as excessively artificial, in the classic Pete Dye manner:

To me, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore represent the be-all and end-all of modern golf course design. I love that they had the vision and confidence to move so little dirt when they built Sand Hills, one of the finest golf courses on the planet, and that they considered about a hundred and eighty different possible holes before landing on their favorites. 

Nevertheless, he loved Whistling Straits, and describes his visit there as “one of the most beautiful and pure golf-course experiences of my life.”

The last four holes are magic. The photo below is of the seventeenth, a par three called Pinched Nerve. The bunker with the wispy fescue patch above it in the photo below guards the right front of the green, leaving only a narrow window for running up the ball.

I guess maybe it’s time to start thinking about booking a flight to Milwaukee.

Every Course Should Copy These Awesome Features


On Saturday, Addison, Todd, Hacker (real name), and I took a field trip to Wintonbury Hills, a muny that’s roughly an hour and fifteen minutes from where we live. The course, which opened in 2005, was designed by Pete Dye and Tim Liddy. There are four sets of tees, at 6,700, 6,300, 5,700, and 5,000 yards. As is seldom the case at golf courses of any kind, though, the scorecard at Wintonbury lists ratings and slopes for both men and women from all four sets:

Wintonbury Ratings-001

Furthermore, neither the scorecard nor any of the course signage mentions “women’s tees,” or “senior tees,” or “regular men’s tees,” or “championship tees,” or anything else. There are just four different sets, at four different yardages, and the scorecard contains enough information to enable players of both sexes, at all levels, to calculate handicaps for matches of all kinds, in all conceivable combinations.

Every course should do this.

Addison and Todd played from the black tees, I played from the greens, and Hacker played from the whites, and we were able to adjust our handicaps accordingly. (The USGA actually makes doing this much, much harder than it needs to be—but that’s a semi-complicated issue, which I’ll explore in a couple of future posts.) We played three matches, switching partners every six holes, and everything came out virtually even. (Todd and I each lost a dollar.) And if Michelle Wie and my mother had joined us we would have been able to work them into the game, too.


Another awesome Wintonbury feature—and one that should be copied by public courses everywhere—is generous fairways accompanied by challenging green complexes. This is a feature that Wintonbury shares with Muirfield Village and Augusta National, to name two member-friendly golf courses that great players don’t dismiss as too easy. Wide fairways keep play moving. None of the four of us lost a ball.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Another awesome thing about Wintonbury: the Bag of Beer, available in the grillroom (which is called the Tap Inn):


That’s what the guy in the photo below was picking up. Weirdly, though, he had ordered just two beers—both Budweisers. What was he planning to drink when he got to the third hole?


The only thing I didn’t like about Wintonbury: they charge you extra if you walk. (They don’t think of it as a walking penalty—in their view, they give away carts, since carts are included in the greens fees—but a walking penalty is what it is, since you don’t pay less if you don’t take a cart.) As far as I could see, though, we were the only walkers, so they probably don’t get a lot of complaints.

Still, it’s a terrific course. We’re definitely going back.


What Marathoners and Golfers Have in Common (Unfortunately)


Nat Ehrlich, a reader in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a retired university professor whose main academic interests are human-performance psychology and statistics. In 1974, he spent an interesting year as the director of research at the Michigan Center for Forensic Psychiatry. In 2013, he conducted a research study, for Michigan State University, which demonstrated that “we elect our Presidents more on the basis of how they come across as people—most important, how honest they seem—rather than what ideology they espouse.”

Ehrlich took up golf in 1961, and he was the golf coach at the University of Michigan-Flint in 1971 and 1972. He’s a regular at Radrick Farms, the University of Michigan’s golf course and one of Pete Dye’s earliest designs (photo below). “My goal is to shoot my age,” he told me recently. “My best effort so far is age-plus-six: a 74 when I was sixty-eight, and a 78 last year, when I was seventy-two.”)


Recently, Ehrlich subjected golf and golfers to some penetrating retired-guy statistical analysis, with interesting results. He told me: “I looked up world-record holders in the 100 meters, the mile, and the marathon, by ten-year age groups, and found very similar curves for increase in time to run each event. Then I plotted a similar curve for golf, and came up with age-ranked par figures.” (See the chart below.) What those numbers in the bottom row mean, essentially, is that as we get older we need to adjust our expectations downward (or upward, depending on how you look at it)—probably true in everything we do.

Ehrlich par chart

Even though scores rise with age, enjoyment doesn’t have to fall. Slade, who is in his eighties, is one of the oldest members of the Sunday Morning Group, but he still walks and carries his bag:


We screw him and other high-handicappers by limiting to fourteen the number of strokes that anyone can receive—and no strokes on par 3s. But he still shows up, and thank goodness for that. The only S.M.G. guys who use carts are guys who really can’t get around our course on foot anymore—unlike these two, who don’t necessarily look old enough to have drivers’ licenses:


But they don’t play with us.

The Other Island Green at the TPC at Sawgrass

The seventeenth hole at the TPC at Sawgrass is deservedly famous, but the thirteenth, which is also a par-3, can be almost as intimidating, since from the farthest tournament tee it’s more than 180 yards long, and, to a right-handed player who draws the ball, its green might as well be an island.

TPC 13

I had a demoralizing encounter with the thirteenth twenty years ago, during a tournament on the Partners Tour, a short-lived (and almost certainly money-losing) program that the PGA Tour briefly offered to ordinary golfers. For $1,275, I got one practice round (on the Stadium Course), three tournament rounds (one on the Stadium Course, one on the adjacent Valley Course, and one at Jacksonville Country Club), unlimited extra golf on the Stadium and Valley courses, four nights at the Marriott at Sawgrass, three breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners, and a money clip made of goldium. I also got a locker with my name on it. It was next to the locker of Deane Beman, who at the time was the commissioner of the PGA Tour. I didn’t see Beman, but I did get a pretty good look at his shoe trees and a pair of his socks.

During the first round of the tournament, I was briskly confident as I stepped up to the thirteenth tee. We were playing from the blue tees, from which the hole measures about 150 yards. (The same tees were used during the second round of the Players Championship this year.) The day before, during my practice round, I had chipped in from the fringe for a birdie, and I had birdied the following hole as well, and (because golf is an easy game) I had parred the hole after that. Now, waggling my 8-iron and visualizing a soaring draw, I glanced one last time at the flag, and half-shanked my ball into the trees on the right.

No 13

“I’d better hit a provisional,” I said, without feeling particularly concerned. I teed up another ball, and, with a swing grooved through long and patient repetition, half-shanked it into the same stand of trees.

“I see the second ball,” someone shouted. Five minutes of crawling through dense undergrowth failed to turn up the first. I crouched in a bush to survey my prospects. To put my second ball on the green, I calculated, I would need to hit a crisp thirty-yard smother-hooked 4-iron through a window-size gap in the branches, applying enough backspin to keep the ball from skidding into low earth orbit. I declared the ball unplayable and returned to the tee. Taking a deep breath, I swung again. My third ball found the water on the left.

Sawgrass 13th

An eerie hush fell over my playing partners. I felt my consciousness rise slowly out of my body and gaze down, with ineffable pity, at my golf hat. I dropped a fourth ball, at the front of the teeing area, and with my pitching wedge yanked it safely onto the far left corner of the green, perhaps fifty feet from the pin. Three putts later, I had my ten.

From that point forward, my memories of my round are indistinct. I had been playing pretty well before my disaster, but I ended up with a 102, including double- or triple-bogeys on all the remaining holes except the celebrated seventeenth, on which I had a seven. (First ball into the water over the green; second ball into deep rough next to a piling at the rear of the green after bouncing hard and high off a piling at the front; chunky chip; three putts.) As I watched an official inscribe my score on the big board near the clubhouse, I wondered whether I ought not to give up golf altogether, for the good of the game.

Because I had played so poorly in the first round, I was demoted to the old-guy flight for the second round, which we played at the TPC’s Valley Course. The Valley Course, which is right next to the Stadium Course, is very different—it was designed by Pete Dye and Bobby Weed—but it’s still a good, challenging course. (The N.A.I.A. championship had been played there two days earlier.) I was grouped with an old guy from Texas named John, an old guy from South Carolina named Glen, and a regular guy from Florida named Gerry. Like me, Gerry had had a terrible round the day before. (He was a seven-handicap, but had shot 95.) I started out quadruple-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey—a string of trouble that began when I decided to hit a big tee shot in front of Holly, a nice woman from the Tour office who was sitting at a table by the first tee. This triple disaster was doubly annoying, because the evening before I had parred all three holes in a quick nine-hole practice round with a fellow competitor and a photographer from Golf Digest.

Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.

Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.

One thing that makes me nervous on a golf course is wondering when disaster is going to strike. Once disaster has actually struck, I feel a sense of relief: now I know. Finding myself eight over par after three holes, I gave up hope, settled down, and began to make pars. I eased up on my swing, and my shots became longer and straighter. I no longer cared so much about my putts, and they began to drop. I even made a couple of birdies. Part of the credit belongs to my playing partners. John (whose golf shirt had a picture of an oil derrick on it) and Glen made flattering noises every time Gerry or I hit a ball more than 150 yards. Under their benevolent, calming gaze on one hole, I unwound a mighty two-wood—my fraidy-cat driver at that time—and hit what turned out to be the longest drive of the day. My prize was an attaché case with a PGA Tour emblem on it. I was thrilled to receive it—the long-drive winner in a previous tournament had been the mother of the Tour player Robert Gamez—although I later threw it away.