One of the truisms in travel is that resort golf is often more evocative of Boca Raton than of Ballybunion-and everyone knows there’s hardly a great course in Boca, and certainly no great hotels in Ballybunion. The American Club in Kohler, Wis., is one of the few resorts where the hotel and golf are both first-class.
The resort’s Whistling Straits club will host a raft of blue-ribbon events in the next 15 years including two PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup. You’ll be seeing more of Pete Dye’s track than any other except Augusta National. So isn’t it about time you met in person?
Whistling Straits (Straits Course)
7,362 yards, par 72;
Greens fee: $325
Ranked No. 28 on GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S., the starkly beautiful Straits Course is perched on the bluffs high above Lake Michigan and ranks among Pete Dye’s best work. This property, located in Haven, about a 10-minute drive from the resort, was once pancake-flat, but Dye brought in an army of bulldozers to create a splash of coastal Ireland in the Midwest. The routing changes direction constantly so the lake wind is a specter over your shoulder (or in your face) all day. You’ll leave the course with two things emblazoned on your mind: the stunning bunkering — there are more than 1,000 of them, from tiny pots to yawning chasms — and the superb collection of par 3s.
All four short holes sit on the lake, though only a truly grotesque shot would bring the water into play on any of them. The bunker-strewn 17 th, “Pinched Nerve,” is surrounded by more nasty-looking protectors (fescue bunkers and water) than Tony Soprano.
The Straits Course is not a place to come seeking a career round. If you’re hitting the ball sideways it’s going to be a very long trudge to the clubhouse. Just be sure to stop and smell the foot-high fescue along the way.
Whistling Straits (Irish Course)
7,201 yards, par 72;
Greens fee: $141
Whistling Straits’ Irish Course is a clear case of split personality. Its character seems to change repeatedly, weaving from a sublime links feel to a pedantic parkland layout. For example, the opening hole is 400 yards, and its ribbon of fairway snakes through the kind of fescue-lined bunkers so prevalent on the Straits Course. But the 372-yard second is target-style golf. That disconnect becomes more pronounced later in the layout.
The Irish Course lacks the quality, shot variety and character of its sister course, a fact reflected in the price. But it still has plenty of appeal, not least in the closing two holes (a short par 4 and a long par 5), which can brutalize your scorecard. Blackwolf Run (River Course)
6,991 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $189; 866-847-4856, destinationkohler.com
The River Course is a more conventional Dye course than the Straits: target landing areas, tricky greens strategic bunkering and water hazards — in short, a punishing test of accuracy. You face watery pitfalls on 14 of the 18 holes, most dauntingly on the 11th, a 560-yard par 5 that swings around water to the right, and at No. 14 a short, 346-yard par 4 with water right and a skinny ribbon of fairway that looks almost impossible to hit.
Like Dye’s best courses, the River is all about deception. The aggressive route is the most obvious from the tee, but you’ll get beat up if you opt for that path and fail to execute the shot.
Blackwolf Run (Meadow Valley)
7,142 yards, par 72; Greens fee: $141; 866-847-4856, destinationkohler.com
The most sedate trot in the Kohler empire, the Meadow Valleys track was used to create a composite layout with the River Course to host the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. There are some beautiful target holes that rival its sibling, but choose the wrong tees and you’ll find too many holes that just don’t pose much of a challenge. Take the 10th, which is a tough, narrow hole from the back tees at 382 yards, but from the white sticks (6,169 yards) it’s just a long iron off the tee and a flip with a sand wedge. From any tee the 18th is a fine finisher; it has two greens (apparently ladies have a choice) and the longer one — 458 yards from the tips — is V-shaped and tucked behind trees.
The Card Wrecker
Whistling Straits (Straits Course), No. 17, 223 yards, par 3
The longest of the short holes at Pete Dye’s Straits Course is also the most unforgiving: 223 yards to a heaving green surrounded by a world of trouble. Lake Michigan sits to the left, separated from the green by a bunker so deep that you can barely see the top of the pin from inside. The right side of the green is partially obscured by a huge mound, and any miss to the right will find perilous, fescuestrewn bunkers. It’s the kind of test that makes you wish a round of golf was 16 holes long. We asked Vijay Singh, who won the 2004 PGA Championship at the Straits Course, how you should play it.
Vijay Singh on how to play it “The 17th is the Card Wrecker, for sure. Given the combination of length and having nowhere to bail out, it is the toughest hole and toughest single shot on the course. If the wind gets up it can be almost impossible. Trust your swing and hit it right at the center of the green.”
Where to eat
- [LIST “The American Club’s Immigrant Dining Room will make you feel right at home (especially if you’re required to wear a jacket at family supper). The showcase restaurant serves up superb but pricey fare-Russian caviar at $74 an ounce! 920-457-8888″] [LIST “For a more down-home experience, settle in at the Horse & Plow, the resort’s basement bar and eatery that was once the tap room for Kohler workers who lived at the American Club. There are more than 80 regional beers available to wash down your grub. 920-457-8888″] [LIST “Cucina is a fine Italian restaurant just down the street from the American Club with views of Wood Lake. It’s about the best dining option you’ll find outside the resort. 920-452-3888″]
Where to Stay
- [LIST “The American Club is a GOLF Magazine Gold Medal resort, and the only AAA Five Diamond resort in the Midwest. The hotel is Kohler-this is, after all, a village named for a company-and every guest room features those famous Kohler whirlpool baths. The resort has numerous packages for golfers. One night-two round deals start at $422 per person. Three-night stay-and-play deals start at $2,340. Call 800-344-2838 (ext. 700) or visit destinationkohler.com.”]
What to do
- [LIST “The Kohler Waters Spa is one of the best in the country. Golfers can take the weight off their feet with the Golfer’s Foot Renewal ($80, 50 minutes) or a Golfer’s Massage ($130 50 minutes). 800-344-2838″] [LIST “If you’ve got a faucet fetish, visit the Kohler Design Center to see the company’s famous fixtures for yourself. More than 140,000 visitors trek here each year, many of them stealing ideas for their own homes. Tours are free but reservations are required. 920-457-3699.”] [LIST “The Kohler Food & Wine Experience is an autumnal highlight. The weekend event features culinary tastings, demonstrations and celebrity chefs. This year’s event runs from Oct. 27-29.”]