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Whistling in the wind
Whistling Straits is a fanciful name for a golf course built on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. It is a fanciful course conceived by Pete Dye who is to golf architecture what Isaac Assimov is to Science Fiction - cerebrally fanciful in plot and at the forefront of his craft. The considerable money for the course was put up by Herb Kohler, who is to the American urinal what Armitage Shanks is to the lavatories of the UK.

Plumbing is an integral part of this course. On those holes where Lake Michigan does not come into play, two massive lakes accommodate. Hundreds of thousands of tons of sand were imported to give the course a links-like appearance and the links theme is continued in deep, and in some cases, railway-sleeper faced bunkers. The playing characteristics of the course remain obstinately Middle American, however, because this is Wisconsin, and it isn't called the dairy state for nothing. The land is fertile - even the cows eat a la carte - and the grass is lush, unlike on a true links where everything is struggling for survival.

Whistling Straits is perhaps aptly named. Wind whistles through nearby Milwaukee and further down the shoreline, Chicago does not bear the Windy City sobriquet without reason. The combination of wind, sea and water are certainly ingredients in links golf but the essential component is time and happenstance. Whistling Straits is an incredible piece of design but it nevertheless comes down to target golf in the end.

This was clearly not a course built with spectators in mind. It is a relatively remote place and the going is not easy for following play. Not surprisingly, there were a few broken limbs on the first day of play. But it was surely built with televiewing in mind. Not only is the setting scenic, but it also has the potential for disaster off every tee. This is where couch potato golf is at its very best. Darren Clarke missed the 17th green by almost 100 yards and the Golf Channel devoted almost two hours to the feat after the close of play. Darren, it has to be said, was hamming it up a bit with probably half an eye on a retirement career as a sitcom star.

Luckily the wind did not blow at its best throughout the week. Had it done so, this 7,000 plus yard course would have made a mockery of the event. The zephyr that did blow posed problems enough on the last day and brought a much wider variety of shots on show. In this respect, this is very much a links course.

Fuelled by the products of Milwaukee and supported by the regulars of the famed Irish pubs of that place, Darren Clarke made this monster of a hybrid course look easy. On the first day of play he went through all of its diabolical length in 65 strokes - not surprisingly creating a course record. He lost his lead as early as the second hole of the second round when he lined up on the wrong TV tower, with disastrous results. Vijay Singh and the refreshed Justin Leonard took over the lead at the end of the second round, with Els and Mickelson in close pursuit. They held their lead to play off last on Sunday but any one of half a dozen players could have taken this title at the start of the last round.

Given that this course is an enigma, a hybrid and in certain respects an anachronism, it is not surprising that, as well as Clarke, McGinley and Harrington also found it to their liking. McGinley's play, finishing in the top-10 at six under par, should have focused Ryder Cup captain Bernhard Langer's mind. That Clarke, Harrington and Brian Davis are playing well should be soothing for his troubled brow. Hopefully, Luke Donald's four-under finish should bring him a settled and peaceful mind. Colin Montgomerie sadly finished at nine-over par. His inconsistency surely takes him out of the Ryder Cup frame and should erase his reckoning from the captain's mind.

The last round of this event proved to be as exciting as they come. Els and Mickelson were joined by Stephen Ames and Chris DiMarco to threaten Singh and Leonard who doggedly remained the only two in double figures under par. Leonard looked the likely winner, protecting his single stroke lead bisecting fairways and holing putts as Singh found the rough and scrambled pars. Leonard held his one stroke advantage to the 18th tee where he found the middle of the fairway. Singh, however, found the middle of the green with his second shot while Leonard's second fell inches short and found a troublesome spot. He failed to make par while ingh did and the two ended eight-under jointly tied with an undoubted surprised Chris DiMarco, and all three entered a three hole play-off.

Singh, who must have thought himself fortunate to be in a play-off after a poor last round, birdied the first extra hole to take a one-stroke lead. While he hit a perfect shot into the par three 17th green, the second extra hole, both DiMarco and Leonard were short right. Both recovered well and all three made par. Singh and Leonard found the green at the 18th, the last play-off hole, while Di Marco playing last did not. Singh won this year's USPGA Championship with a tap-in putt.

Vijay already has his name on the Wannamaker Trophy for he won it in 1998 after a much more decisive performance. He did not overwhelm Whispering Straits but his power, accuracy and experience were the deciding factors that meant he suffered less than most from the ravages of this monster. Given the power of TV in deciding venues it is very likely that we will be seeing a lot more of it - as many would like us to see more of Kingsbarns, a comparable course and equally scenic place on this side of the Atlantic. Certainly we need to see more of links type golf. I suspect, however, that, on this side of the pond at least, we may as well whistle in the wind for the European Tour has invested too heavily in inland rubbish.

©    16 - AUGUST 2004

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