HAVEN, Wisc. - Over the last 30 years, Ryder Cup host venues on both sides of the Atlantic have had a certain overall look and feel. They've been large, mostly parkland golf courses chosen primarily for their ability to accommodate tens of thousands of fans, significant merchandise and hospitality operations and overall prestige.
That's not to say the inherent interest of the course has been unimportant, but it has been subordinate to other commercial concerns. As a result, European countries like Ireland, Wales and Scotland have all hosted recent Ryder Cups at inland, American-style courses like the K Club (2006), Celtic Manor (2010) and Gleneagles' Centenary Course (2014), rather than the links layouts that would have delighted architecture buffs.
Stateside, the venues since the early 1990s have been similar. Hazeltine (2016), Medinah (2012) and Valhalla (2008) are all big ballparks with major championship pedigree and known track records of accommodating the enormous crowds that help make Ryder Cups so memorable. Especially the last two venues, tree-lined and stately, have faded into the background in order to let the players take center stage.
Whistling Straits is a different animal altogether. For the first time since 1991, the venue will share billing with the players. Pete Dye's maximalist masterpiece has the recent history to place it with other American Ryder Cup venues, but it brings a visual splendor to the event not seen since Kiawah Island 30 years ago. As a result, this Ryder Cup is comprehensive appointment viewing not just for the play, but for the course as well.
The Straits will be a compelling test for both 12-man teams this week. Even under ideal circumstances, this 1998 Dye vision of Ireland-on-the-Moon can toy with, frustrate and even straight-up injure you. The walking-only nature of the course, so jaggedly hilly that not even the American and European Ryder Cup assistant captains will be granted carts, means that every round comprises not just a battle to execute golf shots, but a physical struggle that exacts a mental toll. Narrow walking paths connect tees with fairways and rustic stone steps that lead from greens to tees can twist an ankle of a careless golfer.
The ever-presence of Lake Michigan, two miles' worth of smoothly arcing shoreline, ensures that the experience is a labor of love. The golfer is never more than 500 yards away from it, as all but four holes - the opening and closing ones on each nine - run due north or south. With current forecasts calling for winds from 10 to 15 miles per hour out of the west-southwest on Friday and Sunday and out of the west-northwest on Saturday, players can expect to battle crosswinds throughout every match.
A normal Straits scorecard reports a total back tee yardage of 7,790 yards, but the official Ryder Cup yardage is a full 400 yards less. Why are the pros playing closer to the Blue tee yardage than the tips? Flexibility, excitement and infrastructure. Like 2021 PGA Championship host The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, Whistling Straits is not meant to be completely tipped out on any single day, not even for the best players in the world. Rather, the way-way back tees on several holes serve to provide flexibility in the setup, which is crucial to making the course interesting and, frankly, fair when the wind picks up.
Whistling Straits, hole by hole: par 71, 7,390 yards
Hole 1: par 4, 364 yards
Welcome to the cauldron. Even though this hole typically has a 493-yard tee at the edge of the putting green, Ryder Cup first-tee stadium seating necessitates playing from the usual middle tee, turning a long and winding opener into a birdie hole that should be drivable on Saturday, playing straight downwind. The terrain slopes gently downhill and from right to left here, meaning a hard-hit draw can bound down to the putting surface. Shorter hitters should still be able to get a wood and a wedge to close range on a gently contoured green. Many sides will draw first blood here in their matches with a birdie.
Hole 2: par 5, 593 yards
The three three-shot holes at Whistling Straits represent real opportunity for birdies and even the odd eagle. This hole is a classic example of Dye's propensity to make the landing area appear smaller than it really is. A juniper-topped mound above and right of the fairway is a misdirection; carrying it will only bring trouble. Instead, it and a counterpart left of the fairway act as goalposts. Still, players will want to hug the right side with their tee shots to fight the cant of the fairway and have a chance to reach the green, which pitches hard towards the lake. Fairway-grass chipping areas right of this green have been replaced by short rough recently, providing some extra cushion under the ball for players who bail out. Good thing - the green runs treacherously away, so they'll need the extra height on greenside pitches that the friendly turf will allow.
Hole 3: par 3, 181 yards
The first of a tremendous set of par 3s is of middling length and difficulty, with an elevated tee. The green, terraced above Lake Michigan and set at a front-right-to-back-left angle, contains a series of wavy contours that can both help and hinder a player's effort to snuggle a tee shot close. A false front makes forward hole locations play more dangerous than they look, and right-side pin positions are actually the most dangerous, because any short-side miss becomes a virtually certain bogey or worse.
Hole 4: par 4, 489 yards
As at many of his championship courses, Dye spaced a handful of extremely demanding long par fours to serve as periodic big tests of a golfer's mettle. The first of four such brutes at Whistling Straits runs south along the edge of the lake, almost seeming to be sliding into it. The back tee is set down near the lake, below the level of the landing area, making the hole play even longer. The fairway pinches to just 18 yards wide at the 295-yard mark from the back tee, meaning the longest hitters may end up feeling more comfortable blasting away here. Players can use the right-to-left slope of the fairway to shape their approach shots into a green that tapers away to a tiny back corner.
Hole 5: par 5, 603 yards
Even some of the greatest golf courses have one head-scratcher of a hole. That's the role this awkward three-shotter plays at Whistling Straits. It's tucked away from the lake, turns at a 90-degree angle to the right and weaves between the only two ponds on the course, with the green set hard against the latter. It will give up plenty of birdies, as a solid drive and a mid-iron layup will leave a wedge down the length of the green. With the right wind, Bryson DeChambeau and a couple others might try and make a heroic tee shot carry over the dogleg and cut 100 or more yards off the length of the hole, but it's a low-percentage play that could endanger the crowd. Rumor has it that this hole may be redesigned in the coming years to compensate for its current black-sheep status.
Hole 6: par 4, 355 yards
Part of what makes Pete Dye one of the greatest modern golf architects is his willingness to complicate the playing of a hole with extreme features. On this shortish two-shotter, that comes in the form of a dual-lobed putting surface split by one of the deepest pot bunkers ever dug. Imagine a telephone booth turned upside-down and then plunged into the ground - that's the approximate depth and claustrophobic width of this unique hazard. Nevertheless, the sixth will give up plenty of birdies as pros bash tee shots over a saddle in the fairway and down next to the green when the pin is up front.
Hole 7: par 3, 221 yards
Reversing direction and green angle from the third hole, this hole, whose green is closer to Lake Michigan than any on the course, has graced magazines and computer screens ever since the course was built. Contrasting its perilous perch, its flat fronting fairway and green are among the friendliest on the course. That front apron can act as an on-ramp for shots that need to be flighted beneath the wind. Don't think the hole is a pushover, though - just ask John Daly, who pumped three balls into the lake here during the 2015 PGA before trowing his iron in beside them.
Hole 8: par 4, 507 yards
Another low-slung back tee adds to the challenge on this spectacular long par four. Tee shots of 290 yards or more will reach the highest ground, unveiling a long-iron approach to a partial infinity-edge green with only rippling grey-blue water beyond. The visual effect here can make depth perception tricky into the 40-yard deep putting surface.
Hole 9: par 4, 446 yards
Heading away from the lake and running northwest back toward Whistling Straits’ grey stone clubhouse, this par four heads gently downhill into an amphitheater that envelops both this green and the 18th. The small, turtlebacked target angles from front-right to back-left. The peril to the right is so severe that at least a few players will bail left, leaving no picnic of an up-and-down from either a pot bunker or low-lying chipping areas.
Hole 10: par 4, 361 yards
Playing from an up tee, this will be a birdie hole, especially with winds out of the west-southwest. A centerline bunker scooped out of an upslope looks intimidating, but at only 240 yards to carry, it won't be in play for the pros. The bigger worry is a second pot another 65 yards up the fairway, which many players will need to skirt if they take a rip at the green from the tee in hopes of having a simple up-and-down birdie, like Vijay Singh in the 2004 PGA Championship.
Hole 11: par 4, 519 yards
Normally a meandering par five, this hole will play as a long par 4 for the Ryder Cup, adding a fifth two-shotter to a course that already resists scoring gamely. This change in setup will likely turn the imposing, 12-foot deep “Sand Box” short and left of the green from a second-shot concern to an impressively penal-looking bit of eye candy. No matter - there's still plenty to trip players up, namely a green that, since it’s designed to receive short pitches and wedges, should prove elusive to long- and mid-iron approaches, with a significant false front.
Hole 12: par 3, 143 yards
Day-to-day variability is a fundamental trait of great golf holes, and this short Jekyll-and-Hyde par 3 is one of the greatest in America, sharing a 180-yard long contiguous tee area. Cups cut on practically any part of the large main section of this green, 40 yards long and 25 yards wide, can make this a birdie hole. But the real fun begins when Kerry Haigh and the course's other setup overseers institute a hole location on a back-right neck of green less than 10 yards wide and surrounded by misery. Such a pin position makes even a wedge tee shot a white-knuckle affair. If the wind gusts, there will be carnage.
Hole 13: par 4, 404 yards
What this hole lacks in length it makes up for in guile, with another low back tee testing golfers' powers of commitment to a well-visualized tee shot. Even after a good drive, players will confront the drama and danger of playing a semi-blind second shot down a fold in the terrain, straight at the lake. Approaches that miss the putting surface by mere inches will bound into oblivion. By this point in a match, chances are one side will need to hit a brave shot in order to mount - or stave off - a heroic comeback. Don't be surprised if one of the defining moments of the Ryder Cup happens here on Sunday, especially if those setting the course up opt to push the tee forward and make it driveable.
Hole 14: par 4, 396 yards
Pete Dye courses require planning on every shot, even on shorter holes. Though somewhat sheltered because it sits inland from 13, the meat-and-potatoes shot values here are exquisite, as it is a classic Dye "switchback" hole. The fairway is nearly 40 yards wide, but shaping a tee shot right to left and snuggling the ball up close to the left-side fairway bunker will shorten the approach by as much as a club and a half. A safer tee ball still leaves a short iron, but one that is best worked left to right.
Hole 15: par 4, 518 yards
The Straits' penultimate brutish par 4 runs gently downhill at the lake and reverses the pattern of shot shapes needed from the previous hole, though in a subtler way. But there's nothing subtle about the sand scapes a wayward drive or approach might find. This is the beginning of a highly volatile final stretch of golf, where even a 4-up lead on this tee should not be considered safe.
Hole 16: par 5, 552 yards
We're back by the lake, and a majestic tee shot view should inspire players to string two great swings together in order to give themselves a chance for an eagle or easy birdie. It will be their last chance on the way in. A. 60-yard long bunker complex gradually tapers the fairway from 35 yards around the 300-yard mark to just 18 yards, meaning the longer a tee shot is, the straighter it'll need to be to stay on the short grass. For the third time on the par 5s, a draw will be the preferred shape into this green.
Hole 17: par 3, 223 yards
Even though the tees are up 26 yards from the tips, this is still one of the most intimidating par 3s on the planet. Practice rounds will teach players that the green is larger than it appears - especially in the back two thirds - from the tee, but the shot is still terrifying, especially with one of Dye's volcano bunkers obscuring the front and right portions of the putting surface and the wind howling toward Lake Michigan and likely hurting two of the three days.
Hole 18: par 4, 515 yards
Ryder Cup matches that make it here will trade out the natural splendor of the lake for a massive amphitheater full of delirious, partisan American fans. Players will need the adrenaline that that breeds in order to confront one of the hardest par 4s on the planet. Not only does it play slightly uphill, the forecast westerly winds will hurt golfers all weekend, such that if the longest tees are used, you might as well consider this a par 5. Even the longest drives will leave a harrowing approach to the meandering green, fronted by a creek and flanked by a profusion of sand pits. If the Ryder Cup should ride on the final hole of the final match, the scene will be a thrilling moment worthy of an all-time great venue.