Wisconsin Love Call

Because I’m a golf nerd, I am prone to weird investments of time, particularly when it comes to watching replays of past tournaments. And with this year’s PGA Championship on tap shortly, I naturally had to queue up a recording of the 2010 event, which was held at Whistling Straits, Pete Dye’s tribute to (or send-up of, depending on one’s mood) links golf on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan and the site for this year’s event.

Much like Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s effort at Chambers Bay, Dye moved over a million tons of earth to create Whistling Straits, a fact easily verifiable by an aerial view of the coast line that surrounds the course. To the immediate north and south, the land is as flat as the cardiograph of the deceased, while the Straits stands out almost Everest-like (“almost” being the operative word here, as I believe the highest elevations on the course to be about 90 feet).

In any event, when the wind blows (as it did on the final round in 2010), Whistling Straits is a bear of a course – in the replay I watched, golfers, caddies, and marshals gave more hand signals to indicate errant drives than a cop directing traffic in a major urban intersection. Many of the holes feature precarious drop offs by the lake’s shore line, and of course, there are the 1000 or so sand areas that for the general public play as “waste areas” (meaning that a player can ground his club at address as they would for most shots); however, during the tournament these areas are treated as normal bunkers, which are considered hazards and do not allow grounding of the club.

This latter piece of news somehow eluded Dustin Johnson back then. Having put on a rally by making birdie on 16 and 17, Johnson leading by one shot going into the final hole of the tournament. He blew his drive well to the right of the fairway, but found his ball sitting in a flat, sandy area. Spectators were standing nearby in the same area (the surrounding grassy area had been trampled by them over the 4 days of the event), and Johnson incorrectly (but maybe understandably) assumed that he could in fact treat the shot as not being in a hazard, and grounded his club at address. He missed the green to the left, pulled off a nifty pitch shot from some rather nasty fescue, but missed a 7-foot putt for par which seemingly dropped him into a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.

Not so fast, CBS’s Jim Nantz informed us. The tournament committee deemed that Johnson was in fact in a hazard off of his drive and tagged him with a two-shot penalty, knocking him out of the playoff and adding another chapter to “DJ’s Guide to Blowing Majors,” a book that is becoming distressingly longer. Kaymer eventually won the playoff, denying Watson his first major.

This year’s majors have been thrilling events, what with Jordan Spieth’s spirited run at the Grand Slam and Zach Johnson’s underappreciated win at St Andrews. As something of a links course enthusiast, I’d love to believe that the venues at which both Open championships were held (Augusta, of course, remains a constant) contributed to the excitement, and hope that Whistling Straits does the same.

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I have a certain fondness for Wisconsin, being an alumnus of Marquette University in Milwaukee, a school that traditionally produces good (and, in my time, great) basketball teams, excellent journalists (including good friend and one-time roommate Charles Pierce), and in one case, a virtuoso finger picking guitarist, Pat Donohue.  We were not particularly known for our prowess in golf, but thanks to some international recruiting, the Warrior (yes, I know, the school’s administration succumbed to what I felt was misguided pressure and changed the nickname to “Golden Eagles,” but it will always be Warriors for me) golfers have begun to make some noise on the national stage, having made it to the NCAA Regionals the past couple of years.

Like its neighboring states Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin’s golf season is rather brief, but its residents’ enthusiasm for the game is strong; moreover, the state’s rolling terrain and glacial lakes is a perfect canvas for course design. While the Kohler/Sheboygan area (home of Herb Kohler’s American Resort, of which Whistling Straits is only one of four championship caliber tracks) garners a lot of attention, there are first rate venues all over the state, including Erin Hills, an inland “prairie-links” replete with waves of golden fescue that invite comparisons to Shinnecock Hills. Erin Hills in fact will host the 2017 US Open. I’ve played it a couple of times, and if you think Chambers Bay raised some eyebrows, wait until the golf world gets a load of this place. It’s about a 9 mile walk with a spectacular set of par-5 holes and green complexes that would make Donald Ross blush. I can already hear the howling.

The 3rd hole at Erin Hills.

The 3rd hole at Erin Hills.

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About 10 years ago, a bunch of my college buddies and spouses/significant others started to get together for what’s become an annual ritual. Most years this has taken place in Milwaukee, although last year we wound up at Forest Creek in Pinehurst, thanks to one of our friends having built a home there. This year, we are headed to Eagle River, WI, a charming town way “up nort” near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Eagle River is surrounded by the Wisconsin River and a seemingly endless chain of lakes, and features a charming course that is carved through the forest. The Golf Nerd Goddess and I look forward to a few days of cool weather, given the current blast furnace conditions that we’re experiencing in Texas.

New Glarus Spotted Cow beer has become the pride of Wisconsin, and I presume one or two of those will be consumed over the course of the weekend, along with a few brats, some cheese, and maybe some walleye as we reminisce over the near and distant past.  Chances are that we will tune in to watch the goings-on at Firestone, the last stop prior to the PGA Championship, and mull over the chances of Spieth, the two Johnsons, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, and others at Whistling Straits.

And hope that there’s no confusion over what constitutes a bunker this time around.

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