Our in-depth hole-by-hole Ryder Cup course guide with Whistling Straits’ Director of Golf Operations, Mike O’Reilly, reveals the key areas and shots that will bring Ryder Cup glory… or failure.
Today's Golfer's 2021 Ryder Cup coverage is brought to you in association with PING.
Clinging to the shore of Lake Michigan like a Lothian links clings to the Firth of Forth, Whistling Straits is one of the most spectacular golf courses on Earth. It was created by billionaire Herb Kohler, who made his fortune as head of the family plumbing business. When the Kohler Company built a new plant in 1900, the town of Riverside took the family’s name, too.
Kohler saw the potential of golf in the area, and opened his first golf course in 1988, hiring Pete Dye to create Blackwolf Run, which hosted the 1998 US Women’s Open.
RYDER CUP 2020: Live stream of the action from Whistling Straits
To host a men’s Major, though – and ultimately a Ryder Cup – Kohler knew he would need a bigger site. He found 560 acres on Lake Michigan, about 10 miles north-east of Blackwolf – a mostly flat and dreary plot of land that had served as an anti-aircraft weapons firing range during WWII. Covered in toxic waste, asbestos, concrete bunkers and fuel storage tanks, it was not the ideal spot for a golf course – but 70ft cliffs rose above the lake and, with a man of Dye’s vision and artistry, it clearly had potential.
His brief to Dye was simple. “I want this course to look like it’s in Ireland,” he said. He bought in a flock of black-faced sheep to authenticate the look, along with 13,000 truckloads of sand deposited onto the clay soil to transform it into a fast-running links-style layout.
Nobody knows the place better than Director of Golf Operations Mike O’Reilly, who told us: “The difficulty level of the course is how windy it is that particular day and how easy, or difficult, Captain Stricker wants to set it up. It’s a really good test of all parts of your game – short par 4s, long par 4s, really good par 3s, reachable par 5s… and unreachable par 5s.”
Here, O’Reilly takes us on a tour of the Straits and explains where this Ryder Cup will be won – and lost...
The Ryder Cup: Whistling Straits course guide
Par 71, 7,355 yards (can be stretched to 7,790 yards)
Front nine: Par 36 (five par 4s, two par 3s, two par 5s) | 3,759 yards
Back nine: Par 35 (six par 4s, two par 3s, one par 5s) | 3,596 yards
Whistling Straits 1st hole
Par 4 | 364 yards
They’re going to be playing it at a shorter yardage than normal. I imagine they will probably be hitting a 5 metal or a hybrid off the tee and leave themselves with a wedge into the green.
Players should favour the right centre of the green to avoid deep bunkers short, left and long. I’d definitely say the first is a birdie chance, but you’ve got to take into account that the first tee shot of a Ryder Cup is always nerve-racking…
Whistling Straits 2nd hole
Par 5 | 593 yards
Can it be reached in two? Yes, but it’ll take two really good shots – and if it plays it into the wind, you’re definitely not getting there. But these guys can certainly make birdies on it.
A deep pot bunker 35 yards short of the green presents a real obstacle for players going for it in two. But, played as a three-shot hole, the approach is slightly uphill to a narrow green guarded by deep bunkers to the left and a large run-off swale to the right.
Whistling Straits 3rd hole
Par 3 | 181 yards
Three plays a little downhill to an enormous green with two different sections and a huge mound on the right side that feeds the ball left.
This is the first hole that sits on Lake Michigan – it’s right on the shore and if you miss it left, you’ll either catch a bunker or it could trickle down the slope into the lake!
Pin placement is critical on how they’ll play it; if the pin’s at the back, they can land the ball middle, middle-right and it can roll all the way there. It looks a difficult pin but it’s not actually that hard to get close to, whereas there are a couple of spots at the front which look more inviting, but are difficult to get the ball close.
Whistling Straits 4th hole
Par 4 | 489 yards
It’s long and tough with a really tight landing area off the tee – the fairway narrows to about 20 yards – and if you miss the fairway it’s difficult to hit the green in two. A strong, demanding par 4 – par may often be good enough to win the hole.
Ryder Cup Course Guide: The toughest holes
Based on the stroke index, Whistling Straits' four toughest holes are all par 4s – the 4th, 18th, 8th and 15th.
Whistling Straits 5th hole
Par 5 | 603 yards
A double dog-leg with two different ways to play it. You can be aggressive and try to carry the first pond and potentially leave yourself a medium to long iron in. Or you can go left, probably with a 3-wood and then play it as a true three-shotter.
This is the only hole with any water that is not Lake Michigan, so if you carry the first pond and land it in the fairway it could roll through to the second pond, so it’s a fairly risky shot. But if you make it you could be rewarded with the next shot into a long, skinny green really designed to accept a wedge more than a long iron.
Whistling Straits 6th hole
Par 4 | 355 yards
We have three or four holes on the Straits which are perfect for matchplay and this is one of them. Tee and pin locations will make a big difference on what players will choose to do, as will wind direction.
If it’s playing a bit downwind and the pin is on the left of the green, players can hit driver, land it about 60-70-yards short of the green… and drive the green.
If it’s not downwind, and the pin is on the right, you’re going to see players lay back with an iron or hybrid, hit it 230-240 yards, and leave themselves a wedge in. There’s a huge pot bunker right that bisects the green and if you find yourself in there, it’s big trouble.
The risk/reward for trying to drive the green is that you have to keep it left of this bunker because you’ll probably be taking two shots to get out of it. What happens here could have a significant impact on the result.
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Ryder Cup Course Guide: The must-win holes
Six and 13 are both true-risk reward holes and by the time you get to 13 you might be, say, two down. Therefore, with only a few holes left, you might go after it by driving the green to pick up a hole. They’re two key holes and I’d say the same for16 because it’s late in the match and it depends on how you choose to play it… whether you’re hitting driver off the tee or playing it safe to protect your lead, either going in with a wedge or smashing a 3-wood at the green.
And the 18th hole is obviously key. Any 18th hole can have a big impact in the Ryder Cup, but the difficulty of the tee shot, the sightline off the tee and the difficulty of the second shot – and the number of people surrounding the final green – will even make these guys a bit nervous.
Whistling Straits 7th hole
Par 3 | 221 yards
One of the prettiest holes on the course, a long par 3 with an enormous green and Lake Michigan on the right of it. Players are usually going to hit a long iron to try to land it a little left of the pin to let it roll down to the hole.
Whistling Straits 8th hole
Par 4 | 507 yards
I’d say this is the second toughest par 4 on the front nine. The guys will hit driver off the tee and leave a longer iron into the green which appears to hang out over Lake Michigan, but there’s a couple of bunkers and a little rough behind the green to catch any balls that do go over.
When Pete Dye made changes to the hole he really wanted to give it the look that the green was hanging over the lake, so it’s visually intimidating to players.
A solid but tough par 4 and if you see a couple of pars to share the hole, the players have done very well.
Whistling Straits 9th hole
Par 4 | 446 yards
A medium-length par 4 heading back towards the clubhouse and away from Lake Michigan.
There’s a generous fairway and landing area and the guys are probably hitting a driver off the tee to leave themselves with a shorter iron into the smallest green on the course, guarded by a bunker on the right side and a deep pot bunker front left. They’re likely to have a wedge in their hands, so there should be no problem hitting this green.
I’m pretty sure we’ll see some birdies here.
Whistling Straits 10th hole
Par 4 | 361 yards
A short par 4 and possibly driveable, though I don’t see a lot of guys trying it, but it is possible to get up close to the green and leave maybe a 50-yard pitch up to the hole.
It all hinges on the tee and pin placements, but those who do go for it will have to avoid small, deep bunkers short left and carry the steep hillside in front. I think you’re more likely to see players hitting driver and wedging in. Another possible birdie hole.
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Ryder Cup Course Guide: Bring your bunker game
The bunkers are a big defence at Whistling Straits. Somebody counted them at one point and reached 986! We’ve made a few changes since then, but it’s roughly 1,000 bunkers on the course though not all of them are in play – a lot are visual aesthetics. They shape the course on almost every hole. So how good you are getting up and down around the greens and how good your fairway bunker play is will be critical; there are five or six bunkers you need to treat like the pot bunkers at St Andrews – go in them and you’re looking at a bogey.
Whistling Straits 11th hole
Par 4 | 479 yards
Usually played as a par 5, but for the Ryder Cup it’s a long par 4. There’s a wide landing area off the tee and if players catch a little slope coming down it can run down the hill to leave them a shorter shot in.
The shot into the green is uphill, with a huge 100-yard, 16ft deep ‘Sand Box’ bunker short of the green and a smaller bunker short-right, so it’s pretty well protected!
A demanding par 4 and if you walk away with a four, you’ve done well.
Whistling Straits 12th hole
Par 3 | 143 yards
You’re back on Lake Michigan and this is a short par 3 with a unique green with two distinct sections; front-left is the big section with a lot of space and undulations, back-right is where you can put your Sunday pin.
It’s a flat portion of the green and at its largest width is about 15ft – a small postage stamp – and if you put the pin back there (and I believe Captain Stricker certainly will), it can create a bit of drama because if you miss to the right it can easily kick down into a bunker or even down to the lake.
Whistling Straits 13th hole
Par 4 | 404 yards
Depending on wind and tee placement, 13 is driveable if it’s downwind and the tee is up a little.
It’s a downhill, left-to-right but only a slight dog-leg and, provided you’ve hit a good shot, players can catch the downslope and run the ball on or very close to the green.
If played a little safer, hitting either a long iron or hybrid off the tee will leave a wedge into the green. Another hole on the lake and it appears from the fairway that the green kind of hangs out over the water. Definitely a hole the players are going to go after to make some birdies.
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Ryder Cup Course Guide: Putting will be key
Driving will be key, but the Ryder Cup always comes down to making putts. Our course superintendent is amazing and I know the greens are going to be in perfect condition and that the players are going to love the greens. They’re massive but they’re fair, not goofy, with some more severely undulating than others and we can get them going pretty quick! So if you hit the green it doesn’t mean it’s an automatic two-putt. You’ve still got some work left to do.
Whistling Straits 14th hole
Par 4 | 401 yards
A shorter par 4 – it could be as short as 360 yards. It’s a left dog-leg and smart play is required as you can’t see the green from the tee. The smart play is to hit a 3-wood or hybrid off the tee and leave yourself 120-125 yards into the green. If the wind is behind, though, you might take driver right at the green to see if you can carry a series of bunkers, get a lucky bounce and land it on or close to the green.
The 13th and 14th are unique because, depending on wind direction, one will play downwind and one will play into, so you can’t really drive both. If it’s a strong wind from the west, both will be playing crosswind… and I don’t think anybody is driving either of them!
Whistling Straits 15th hole
Par 4 | 518 yards
Along with 18, the toughest hole on the back nine… and they are arguably the two hardest holes on the course.
A narrow landing area off the tee – it kind of pinches in though it’s not quite as narrow as No.4 – but it’s a pretty straight hole with a long, narrow-ish green. Again, depending on the wind, you’re typically hitting a long iron in, possibly a hybrid, with no room left of the green, just a series of bunkers, but it’s a little more forgiving on the right side.
Begins what could arguably be the most difficult finishing stretch in golf and, make no mistake, a par here could easily win the hole.
Whistling Straits 16th hole
Par 5 | 552 yards
The last and shortest of the par 5s has Lake Michigan running down the left. Players will be hitting driver and definitely going for the green in two if the wind is favourable. If it is, many of them will be successful.
However, if it’s played into the wind, they won’t be able to and will have to go in with a wedge. Coming down the stretch in a match, you’re looking to make a birdie and the prospect of getting onto the green in two gives them that chance.
Ryder Cup Course Guide: Do not miss the fairways
The most important shot on the Straits course is the tee shot – if you miss the fairway, the combination of the lies, bunkers, the rough, even though it’s not severe… it’s the uncertainty of what you’re going to get when you miss the fairway. There are certainly some uneven lies and precarious spots awaiting if you miss the fairway, but if you keep it in play, it’s a very playable course.
Whistling Straits 17th hole
Par 3 | 223 yards
A little bit of a downhill par 3 which again sits right on Lake Michigan, a really pretty and strong hole.
There’s a huge drop on the left side of the green and a significant drop-off down to a series of bunkers. If a player misses left, he’s done – some of the best players in the world have a tough time getting it up and down from down there.
The bunkers and rough are so severe and you’re basically looking at a ‘wall’ that’s 20-25ft high, so you’ve got to do everything you can to stay steady up top. Our caddies always say you’ve got the entire city of Wisconsin to the right… so stay there!
Whistling Straits: 18th hole
Par 4 | 515 yards
A really tough par 4 with a couple of different options: most of the time players are going to hit driver down the right side of the fairway and leave themselves with about 210-220 yards in, so they’ve got a 4- or 5-iron in their hands.
It’s a downhill second to an enormous green that’s well protected by bunkers and has a couple of different sections. Seven Mile Creek guards the front of a huge green which will sit in a natural amphitheatre filled with thousands of spectators.
A dramatic finale and par on the last is good. If matches get to the 18th, you’re not going to see a ton of birdies; but a par could win the hole.