HAVEN – Instead of packed grandstands and spectators lining gallery ropes five deep, there was only wispy fescue swaying in a light breeze as the sun peeked through clouds and bathed Lake Michigan in early morning light Tuesday.
On what would have been a practice round day for the 43rd Ryder Cup, with Bryson DeChambeau obliterating drives, Rory McIlroy nipping wedges and well-oiled patrons cheering or jeering every shot, a steady stream of retail golfers strode quietly to the first tee at Whistling Straits and proceeded to take a Pete Dye-administered beating.
When the 2020 Ryder Cup was moved back one year by the coronavirus pandemic – the new dates are Sept. 25-27, 2021 – the Straits and companion Irish Course, which would have been closed to the public for 19 and 15 days, respectively, suddenly found themselves with empty tee sheets. But not for long.
“The day that the postponement was announced, we had the tee sheet ready,” said Michael O’Reilly, manager of golf operations for the Kohler Co. “We got a lot of phone calls immediately. The first three or four days, we were getting 400 to 500 calls in reservations daily, compared to what is normally in the 100 to 150 range. So, the first three or four days were bonkers.
“The Straits is just about sold out today, and it’s sold out Wednesday through Sunday. The River Course (at Blackwolf Run) is extremely busy – maybe not 100 percent sold out, but pretty close. The Irish is really busy as well. I bet there’s no tee times on Friday or Saturday at the resort.”
My colleagues at Killarney Golf Media thought it would be a good idea to visit and write about Whistling Straits during what would have been Ryder Cup week. I drew the short straw and was forced to accept the assignment of playing the course. I mean, we all have to make a living, right?
I pulled into the parking lot at 7:40 a.m., 40 minutes before my 8:20 tee time, and was met by my caddie, Oscar, who read greens like his life depended on it. Instead of saying, “It breaks right about six inches,” he would say, “That ridge is going to want to push the ball left initially, but it sweeps right the last three feet. Do you see the old cup? I want your ball to go through the left side of it. Make that left-center. It’s slightly downhill, so hit it about 90 percent of the actual distance.”
If I’d been able to execute, I would have one-putted 18 times.
A cool morning gave way to sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. It was nothing short of glorious. Late-September golf in Wisconsin can be a crapshoot weather-wise, especially along Lake Michigan, but this would have been a near-perfect week for the Ryder Cup. Temperatures are forecast to reach the low 70s every day, with a chance for rain only on Saturday.
Next year, of course, could bring rain suit-and-ski cap weather.
“It could be 75 and sunny or 55 and raining,” O’Reilly said. “Or maybe a little bit of both.”
My playing partners were Matt Wernert of Seattle and brothers Chris and Nick Smithson of Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, respectively. Chris is the chef at Highland Country Club in northern Kentucky and Nick works in food and beverage at Muirfield Village, Jack Nicklaus’ place. None had ever played the Straits.
“Actually, I didn’t even know this was Ryder Cup week,” Chris Smithson said. “It didn’t even dawn on me, because everything’s been postponed. We just planned a little trip to play some courses and this was one of them. We played Erin Hills and we played Blackwolf Run, as well.”
Wernert said he had been approved as a volunteer for the Ryder Cup and decided to drive north and play the Straits after visiting family in Bloomington, Ind.
“First time here,” he said. “It was awesome. I had a great time. The views are fantastic, and we got lucky with the weather.”
Told that Whistling Straits was built on flat-as-a-pancake land and that the soaring dunes and mounds were manufactured by the late Dye and his fleet of ‘dozers, the Smithson Bros. could scarcely believe it.
“I never would have guessed that,” Nick said. “It looks like it’s been like this forever.”
All three of my playing partners mashed their drivers, but their off-line shots occasionally left the 53083 ZIP code. Wernert got up and down for a heroic bogey on No. 18 and shot an 89. I gambled and lost with 3-wood for my second shot on 18, made an unsightly triple and shot 91. The Smithsons could have shot anywhere from 80 to 95. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
“It was everything I hoped it would be,” Chris Smithson said. “It was tough. You definitely have to be able to hit the ball where you want to. I was up in some mountains and down in some valleys.”
The course won’t play much differently, O’Reilly said, for the Ryder Cup next year.
“The fairways would be firmer, the greens would be firmer and greens would be faster,” he said. “We would have taken some steps to make that happen, assuming (U.S.) Captain (Steve) Stricker wanted it that way. He wasn’t quite to the point that he had made all those decisions just yet.
“He was out here a couple times last year and really liked what he saw. He didn’t do a whole lot of stuff to the golf course. A couple small things here and there. He hadn’t been to the point where he said, ‘This is what I want the greens to do.’ ”
Stricker, of Madison, has plenty of time for that.
In fact, he's got 12 more months. Let the one-year countdown begin … again.