- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — Maybe Pete Dye and Herb Kohler should have considered dubbing the site of this week’s 86th PGA Championship “Dire Straits.”

At nearly 7,514 yards from the tips, Whistling Straits dwarfs Grand Slam golf’s leader in the clubhouse for length. Dye’s contrived linksland gem on the banks of Lake Michigan is lined by hip-high fescue, dotted with a quasi-comical 1,400 bunkers and features greens more easily measured in acres than cubic feet. Throw in the omnipresent wind that gusts off Lake Michigan and this aesthetic stunner isn’t likely to produce many pretty scorecards.

“I didn’t realize there could be that many par-6s on one golf course,” Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke said after his first tour of the par-72 brute 70 miles north of Milwaukee. “If the breeze is up, I’d say par is closer to 77 than 72. It’s that difficult. … You usually have one or two holes every week where you could take lots of high numbers, but I think there’s about 10 this week.”

Clarke’s closest chum, England’s Lee Westwood, was similarly awed by his initial inspection.

“There’s really nothing like it in terms of potential disaster,” Westwood said. “If you’re in form, it’s a monster, but it’s fair and manageable. If you’re not, well, forget it. … I was told before I got here that there were 10 really difficult holes and eight impossible ones. I’m just trying to work out which the 10 difficult holes were. It’s a very, very difficult golf course, almost a little too difficult, really. It almost seems a bit too long.”

How long is too long?

Well, three of the layout’s par-4s measure 500 yards or more. The 518-yard 15th has a full two clubs on the two holes that caused short-knockers to caterwaul at Bethpage (Nos.10 and 12) two years ago. The four par-5s average 594.5 yards, so there won’t be any eagles via the flatstick. And the 223-yard 17th is every bit as nasty as Dye’s infamous island green 17th at TPC at Sawgrass.

“That’s a scalded 2-iron into the prevailing wind to the front right edge,” Westwood said of the 17th, which is guarded by pot bunkers on the right and a waste area and Lake Michigan on the left. “I don’t know what it would be to that back left pin … other than insane. Anybody who takes that line has lost his mind.”

At first blush, the entire Whistling Straits project seems to be the creation of an unstable mind. The surrounding farmland is as flat and unforgettable as can be expected from a chunk of Midwest real estate that once was leased by the military as an ordinance range and nearly wound up as a nuclear power plant.

But Kohler, the kitchen and bath fixture magnate, had other ideas. Seven years ago, Kohler decided he needed a spectacular links course to complement Blackwolf Run, then the signature course for his posh nearby resort, the American Club. It didn’t matter that the 560 acres Kohler purchased on Lake Michigan lacked the dramatic topography for a traditional links course. Kohler, who was signing autographs after making an appearance in the media tent yesterday, has an ego to match his bank account.

This was the man who famously told regular golfing buddy Kevin Costner he wanted a role in Costner’s film “Open Range” but only if the actor/director would let him “ride a horse and shoot somebody.” So when a handful of other architects told Kohler designing a links course in Wisconsin was both impractical and impossible, he fired them, eventually finding a kindred rebel in Dye.

“Mr. Kohler told me he wanted it to look like Ireland,” Dye said yesterday. “When I didn’t start laughing, he pulled out his checkbook and summoned the bulldozers and dump trucks.”

A year later, Dye had moved more than a million cubic tons of earth and dumped 170,000 truckloads of quarried sand on the property, literally sculpting a tumbling, linksland seascape from scratch. Kohler had his links course, complete with three dozen imported Scottish Blackface Sheep. And this week, he finally gets his major.

“It was always around the corner, but now here we are,” a glowing Kohler said yesterday. “It’s great stuff. It really is.”

Aside from the strikingly unique layout, the primary early subplot for this week’s final major of the season is the event’s Ryder Cup implications. The PGA Championship marks the final chance for U.S. players to earn points toward automatically qualifying for the team. The top 10 in the points standings after this week will earn roster spots, and U.S. captain Hal Sutton will round out the squad Monday when he makes his two wild-card choices.

Takoma Park native Fred Funk stands eighth in the standings and hopes to cement his spot on Uncle Sam’s squad at Whistling Straits.

“That’s all I’ve been thinking about all year,” Funk said yesterday of making his first Ryder Cup team at age 48. “It’s my last chance because in June of 2006 I’m flipping over to the Champions Tour.”

Funk endured a storm of criticism for skipping last month’s British Open. And lately he’s been fighting a pulled rib muscle he sustained the Monday before the Buick Open (July26). But Funk’s decision to forgo the British Open proved prudent when he collected valuable Ryder Cup points against a jet-lagged field at the U.S. Bank Championship. And with his strength back to an estimated 90 percent, the popular Terp is all but a mathematical lock to make the Ryder Cup team.

“Three guys would have to bump me this week, but anything’s possible,” said Funk, who called his experience at last year’s Presidents Cup the highlight of his career. “I had no idea what that would be like, to represent your country and be part of a team atmosphere. It was phenomenal, and I really want to experience that again. I just want to go out there this week and get enough points so that I know that no matter what anybody else does, they can’t pass me.”

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