Irish on the home straits
Clarke and Co in for taste of sham and the shamrock writes Karl MacGinty
OF the flags that flutter proudly in front of the clubhouse at Whistling Straits, the largest by far is the Irish Tricolour, while signposts pointing out the direction and precise distance to Lahinch, Ballybunion and Royal Co Down are prominent all over the property.
American bathroom fittings magnate Herb Kohler wished to pay homage to the great Irish links when he commissioned Pete Dye, the Salvador Dali of US architects, to create the Straits Course on this two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan's western shore.
Kohler's final instruction to Dye was simple. "Next time I see this land, I want it to look like Ballybunion or Royal Portrush," he said, knowing full well that the maverick designer would come up with a fresh twist on the concept.
"Herb Kohler and Pete Dye never copy anything, period," the golfing philanthropist once retorted when asked if he expected the architect to ape some of the courses they saw on reconnaissance visits to the great links of Ireland.
And, in fairness, Whistling Straits stands as much on its merits as its owner's influence. Since its opening in 1998, the Straits Course has acquired a reputation as one of the most spectacular and confounding courses in North America.
After a six-year gap since it staged the 2004 US PGA, this season's fourth Major championship returns to Kohler's famous lake-shore resort again this week, while the Ryder Cup will be played there in 2020.
It certainly looks like a classic seaside course and Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke rank high among its admirers. The Dubliner even suggested yesterday that it played almost as hard and fast as a genuine links in 2004 ... stress 'almost'.
For, despite its old-world ambience, the Straits Course is betrayed by geography in the same way as the countless 'Irish' pubs that crowd the streets of North America's cities.
They may look, and sometimes even sound, authentic but the plain truth is that porter doesn't travel. In short, the only place you'll get a decent pint of the black stuff, and the spirit that comes with it, is at home.
No doubt, the Straits Course can be as windswept and its fescues as wild and woolly as on any traditional links, while it probably boasts more bunkers than every seaside course on our Atlantic seaboard put together.
And there are plenty of little swales and run-offs around its greens, resulting in lies as unpredictable as any you might find at Lahinch or, for that matter, Royal St George's.
Yet the sum total of all these features, however wonderful, is a grand illusion, a sleight of hand, for the Straits Course can never play like the real thing.
Its fairways don't have that jarring ring underfoot one only gets on that hard-packed ground linking land and sea ... and this week in Wisconsin, no golf balls will go running down the fairway and hop into deep rough like a startled hare.
Don't be fooled by all that camouflage. At Whistling Straits, Pete Dye has created one of the ultimate tests of modern target golf.
While traditional links are created by the hand of God and the whim of nature, the Straits Course is the product of one man's vision, a fleet of bulldozers and 150,000 truckloads of sand.
Most famous in golf for raising the magnificent TPC Sawgrass from a fearsome North Florida swamp, Dye has performed another spectacular feat of engineering in transforming a bland, featureless property on Lake Michigan into a glorious golf course.
It's a geometric masterpiece. Both nines stretch out in near-perfect symmetry to the south and north of the clubhouse, each with precisely four holes on the lake shore, which is as much about applied mathematics as imagination.
Examine how this splendid clockwork toy works. Holes three and four have Lake Michigan lying menacingly on their left -- then the routing switches back on itself so the water comes into play to the right of seven and eight.
You have the mirror image on the back nine. The lake comes into play on the right of holes 12 and 13 and to the left of 16 and 17.
Some of those holes are brilliant in their own right, like the hugely intimidating 223-yard 17th, which Dye rates as the toughest par three he's ever designed -- remember, this is the guy who came up with the 17th at Sawgrass.
Yet, down to the subtle undulations of its bent grass greens, the Straits Course will never be any more than an illusory links.
The bottom line this week, as it was in when Vijay Singh beat Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard in a play-off to register his third Major victory here in 2004, will be precise and assured ball-striking under severe duress.
Dye delights in playing tricks on the golfer, teasing him with half-blind tee shots and filling his eye with intimidating hazards and, in that respect, the Straits rivals Sawgrass as the most challenging course in his portfolio.
So, any player lacking confidence in his swing or who wanders off the straight and narrow during this week's championship will be bounced out of the joint on Friday evening quicker than a rowdy drunk in a 42nd Street 'shebeen'.
Kohler, who fell head over heels for golf after taking it up in middle age, delights in Dye's whimsy.
For example, he's been known to suggest that there's more than 1200 bunkers on the Straits Course.
Yet when fastidious colleagues at 'Golf Digest' actually counted them, the final figure was 967 traps, of which far fewer than 100 will need to be raked this week.
Though he has no Irish family links, Kohler's regard for the spirit of golf on our little island is strong. He cites Royal Co Down as his favourite course and makes no secret of the fact that he tried, and failed, to buy beautiful Carne in Belmullet.
Still, it was interesting to read last Sunday of Kohler's insistence that the Scottish flag would never fly at Whistling Straits.
Might this be a real touch of Blarney from the American billionaire. After all, Kohler is the proud owner of the Old Course hotel at St Andrews; plus the Duke's Course and last winter he added Hamilton Hall, the imposing red-brick building that dominates the 18th hole at the home of golf, to his Scottish portfolio.
Yet sound financial principles lay behind the development of the Straits Course, followed a couple of years later by the Irish Links at Whistling Straits.
The idea was to offer American golfers, particularly Irish-Americans, a flavour of links play in the old country for a green fee of $300 or so, saving them the considerable expense and inconvenience of flying across the Atlantic for the privilege.
No doubt, the five Irish competitors at the US PGA will find Whistling Straits easy on the eye this week, yet US Open hero Graeme McDowell and three-time Major-winner Harrington are the two best equipped to rise to the challenge.
Rory McIlroy strikes the ball well enough but has been a tad too fragile mentally of late to inspire confidence, while only time will tell if Clarke still has it in his gift to contend this week as he did here in 2004.
Shane Lowry, though perfectly suited temperamentally to the challenge, still must start only his second Major championship with the primary intention of playing all 72 holes.
Yet, if McDowell somehow recovers the keen competitive edge he showed at Celtic Manor and Pebble Beach, or Harrington plays as tidily as he did at Firestone on Sunday, either could add real Irish authenticity to proceedings at Whistling Straits this week.