Whistling Straits: The battle ground for this year's PGA Championship

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You’ll never hear it spoken of course, but it’s a pretty safe bet that there were a few folks at the PGA of America quietly delighted by the players’ harsh comments about the course during this year’s US Open at Chambers Bay. 

The United States Golf Association (USGA), which conducts the US Open Championship, and the Professional Golfers Association, which stages the (US)PGA Championship, have a rocky relationship at times. Of course, the two bodies are too careful and too clever to allow their reservations towards each other spill out into a full-blown media confrontation, but there is definitely an element of one upmanship between them.

In 2013, the USGA made a stand against anchoring long putters, something that the PGA President at the time Ted Bishop was clearly opposed to. Then in August last year, the USGA announced its new TV deal with Fox Sports on the eve of the PGA Championship – a move that Golf Channel reporter John Hawkins described as a ‘serious breach of etiquette’, and a ‘burp at the dinner table among heads of state’. In a tweet, Brandt Snedeker, hardly one of the most vocal and opinionated of players, said the timing seemed ‘petty’. “Couldn’t wait?” he added.

During the late 1990s, part of the antagonism was centred around  Whistling Straits, venue for this year’s PGA Championship, as both organisations were keen to take their blue ribbon event to the Pete Dye-designed course on Lake Michigan, about 60 miles from both Milwaukee to the south and Green Bay to the north. Three PGA Championships in the space of 11 years and a Ryder Cup lined up for 2020 suggest the PGA won that particular tussle.

USPGA

The Kohler effect

Whistling Straits is owned by billionaire Herb Kohler, who made his fortune as head of the family-owned company that makes plumbing fixtures, furniture and generators. Kohler branched out into hospitality in 1981 when he established the American Club in a renovated Tudor-style mansion originally built in 1918 to provide lodging for immigrant laborers who came to work for the Kohler Company – founded by Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1853.

Resort guests eager to play golf would be shuttled off to various courses in the area – a regrettable situation for Kohler, who wanted those staying at his property to remain on-site as much as possible. He therefore decided to build his own course on land adjacent to the Kohler factory. After the original designer was let go because of several differences of opinion, Kohler hired Pete Dye to create Blackwolf Run – named after a 19th Century chief of the Winnebago Indian tribe – and it opened in 1988. 

The course proved so popular, that a second 18 became necessary. The original holes had to be split up and, when added to two new nines, the River and Meadow Valleys courses were born. “I built the hospitality business with zero vision,” Kohler told Joel Zuckerman, author of the excellent Pete Dye Golf Courses; Fifty Years of Visionary Design, in 2008.  “We had one little success built on another little success, and suddenly the combination of those successes and the demand for golf became synergistic.”

The US Women’s Open, a USGA event, was played on the original 18 at Blackwolf Run in 1998. It was a terrific success and, according to Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal golf correspondent Gary D’Amato, it “whetted Kohler’s appetite for a major championship”.

To host a men’s major though, Kohler knew he would need a bigger site. And with his existing golf operation proving extremely popular, the time was right to expand. Kohler found 560 acres on Lake Michigan, about 10 miles north-east of the resort – a mostly flat and dreary plot of land that had served as an anti-aircraft weapons firing range called Camp Haven during WWII. Covered in toxic waste, asbestos, concrete bunkers and fuel storage tanks, it was not the ideal spot
for a golf course – Zuckerman called it an ecological ruin – but 70ft cliffs rose above the lake and, with a man of Dye’s vision and artistry, it clearly had potential. 

Unlike Mike Keiser – the developer of the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon who would call upon the talents of a handful of minimalist, classical-inclined architects including David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak – Kohler felt comfortable sticking with Dye, who had 13,000 truckloads of sand deposited onto the clay soil to transform it into a fast-running links-style layout. Although not a golfer until he got into the business of building courses, Kohler quickly became a fan of British and Irish links. His brief to Dye was simple – “I want this course to look like it’s in Ireland,” he said. And then he bought in a flock of black-faced sheep to authenticate the look.

To this day, people who know both men – notoriously strong-minded and resolute Midwesterners – remain surprised Dye and Kohler’s partnership lasted as long as it did, and bore such impressive fruit. D’Amato, who has reported from Whistling Straits several times and knows the characters as well as anyone in the media, says Kohler almost fired Dye a couple times, once after he cut down and burned a stand of American elms to build the 80-yard-long tee on the 17th at Blackwolf Run. “My initial impression was that he was an odd duck,” Kohler told Zuckerman. “But I hired him because I liked him. He made me laugh, then and now. He’s a great liar, a constant storyteller, but there is no-one I respect more.” For his part, Dye described Kohler as very competitive and intense. “He knows what he wants and goes after it,” he added.

USPGA

An offer he couldn’t refuse

A year before the course opened, during the 1997 PGA Championship played at Winged Foot GC in fact, Dye had called Jim Awtrey, CEO of the PGA of America, and asked him to come to Wisconsin to inspect a links-style course he was building for Herb Kohler. “I didn’t usually do that sort of thing,” says Awtrey. “Kerry Haigh, who oversaw the championship, was the man for that. But Pete was very persuasive.” Kohler flew Awtrey to Wisconsin on his private jet and, although the course was far from complete, Awtrey knew almost immediately it was something special. “I’m from Oklahoma, which is land-locked, so it looked like it was right on the ocean,” he remembers. “It was fantastic, so I told Herb and Pete we would definitely monitor the situation.”

Awtrey knew the USGA was similarly interested in Whistling Straits. Crunch time came in early 1999 when Kohler needed to decide if he would hold out for the US Open he wanted, or take the PGA. The USGA was set to make a decision in February about Whistling Straits possibly hosting the 2005 US Open, while the PGA wanted to know by January 1st if Kohler would welcome its prize asset.

Even though the USGA had made positive noises, Whistling Straits was only a short-listed candidate, so Kohler bit the bullet and plumped for the 2004 PGA, having been told that Valhalla – a course the PGA owned a 50 per cent stake in at the time – was being dropped. “Kohler was anxious for a major,” says D’Amato. “This was an offer he just couldn’t refuse.”

The PGA played its club professional championship at Whistling Straits in 1999 and was impressed with the size
of the galleries. It was an encouraging
sign ahead of the PGA Championship. “We were excited about taking the 2004 PGA to Whistling Straits, but it didn’t come without risks,” says Awtrey. “It had never staged an event of this magnitude before. We didn’t know how many people would attend, and we weren’t sure how easy it was going to be to move them around the golf course.”

There were many unanswered questions. But record attendance figures – more than 200,000 said PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua, but nearer 320,000 according to D’Amato – and an exciting end to the tournament, which saw Vijay Singh prevail in a three-hole play-off against Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco, suggest it went even better than Awtrey had hoped for. “It was a great success,” he says. “And we knew quickly we would want to go back there.”

But it was just one championship, one event. The USGA believed it still had a chance to woo the owner, so it proposed taking the 2007 US Women’s Open, 2009 US Senior Open, and the 2011 US Open to Kohler’s course. 

By now, however, Kohler had already hosted his major. And when the PGA countered the USGA’s pitch in January 2005 with the offer of two more PGA Championships (2010, 2015) and the 2020 Ryder Cup, he once again opted to go with the PGA, effectively ruling out future negotiation with the USGA. Although the US Senior Open was played at Whistling Straits in 2007, that was possibly the last time the USGA will contest one of its championships there. Keen to move its most prestigious event around the country, the USGA chose Erin Hills – 70 miles southwest of Whistling Straits – to host the 2017 US Open. 

The Rules incident involving Dustin Johnson on the 72nd hole aside, the 2010 PGA Championship, won by Martin Kaymer in a play-off with Bubba Watson, was another profitable week for the PGA of America. And there’s no reason, says Bevacqua, why 2015 will be any different.