At Whistling Straits, bunkers are in play for fans, too

August 12, 2010

Following Kevin Stadler up the sixth fairway yesterday, I nonchalantly walked through a sand bunker, leaving a trail of size- 13-1/2 footprints behind me. A bit farther on, I stopped in another bunker to exchange pleasantries with a female marshal, who asked how I was enjoying the practice rounds. Entering a greenside bunker on the next hole, I kicked off my shoes, applied sunscreen and stretched out on a beach towel.

Okay, I made up that last one. But honestly, I spent more time in bunkers yesterday than David Duval needed to escape the Road Hole bunker at the 2000 British Open. The sand hazards at Whistling Straits are unlike those at any other major championship. Roped-off spectator paths lead you right into the sand, which is neatly raked on one side of the rope and churned up like a child’s sandbox on the other. And before you challenge that last metaphor, let me say that I saw flesh-and-blood children digging up rocks and building sand castles in bunkers overlooking the eighth green.

Many of these bunkers, I hasten to add, are about as relevant to the outcome of this week’s PGA Championship as a microphone is to an SI swimsuit model’s career. Architect Pete Dye installed about a thousand bunkers when he plowed up the cliffs overlooking Lake Michigan, strewing them along fairways, around greens, up the faces of manufactured dunes and, I’m guessing, over the bodies of napping workmen. “As soon as you drive through the gates, there’s bunkers staring you in the face,” says last-week’s Bridgestone Invitational winner, Hunter Mahan. And no, he’s not exaggerating. The bag drop at Whistling Straits is more heavily bunkered than the greens at Augusta National.

Most of this sand, Dye will be the first to admit, is for effect. His client, Herb Kohler, wanted a course that resembled the wild links of Ireland, where giant dunes and sandy blowouts provide a feast for the eyes. Dye, however, went for the Scottish look, putting down hearthrug-sized bunkers wherever an imaginary sheep might have huddled to escape the wind. One side of the second green is terraced with irregularly-shaped pot bunkers that, if they were dug up and bagged, could be stored in a bedroom closet.

“What’s interesting about Whistling Straits,” Phil Mickelson said yesterday, “is that it’s a Scottish-looking course that plays like an American course. You see the fescues and the sand, the dunes and the pot bunkers and the openings in front, and you think you want to run balls up. But it just doesn’t work. It’s too soft and the ball stops.” Ireland’s Rory McIlroy agreed, saying, “You wouldn’t find a links course in Ireland playing this soft.”

The in-play bunkers are, of course, as fiercely penal as the cavernous traps that Dye built on his TPC Stadium courses in Florida and California. The difference is that a player feels small in a TPC bunker, wondering if he can get the ball up and over a ten-foot wall of grass and onto the green. At Whistling Straits the golfer feels more like Gulliver in Lilliput — too big to even stand in the bunker, leading to contortionist stances at sand’s edge.

And then you have that new bunker on No. 6, which practically cleaves the green in two and is so narrow that even taking a stance is problematic. “I think it’s an exciting, fun golf hole,” Mickelson says, adding, “It is a huge penalty if you mishit your wedge and go in that bunker. You’re going to make a five at best.”

But only Mahan seems to recognize the perils for innocent bystanders like you and me, watching from outside the ropes. “I feel bad for the fans,” he said yesterday, “because it seems like you could be walking and all of a sudden you’re falling in a hole of sand and don’t even know it.”

I, for one, will prepare for that eventuality by carrying a hamper containing charcoal, lighter fluid, hot dogs, buns, marshmallows, and a couple of sharpened sticks.

Photos: (Top) Par-4, 462-yard eighth hole. (Bottom) Young fans playing on one of the many man-made dunes constructed by Pete Dye on the Straits Course.