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Dire Straits Await Players

Times Staff Writer

When he was at Whistling Straits not too long ago, Shaun Micheel played a practice round and then met with Herb Kohler, who had the place built, and learned that there will be 4,400 volunteers for this week’s PGA Championship.

Micheel, who is the defending champion, said he had just shot par in his practice round.

He paused for effect.

“A 77.”

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Then Micheel had something else on his mind.

“I’d like to know the 4,400 volunteers so I can hire them to come and look for my golf balls.”

Chances are that won’t be enough.

When the 86th PGA Championship begins Thursday, there is a very good chance that the world of professional golf will be in for a rude awakening, all because of Whistling Straits -- the least known major championship venue in years and possibly one of the most difficult.

Since it measures 7,514 yards, it’s already going to be the longest course to ever play host to a major, but distance is only part of the story here. Few players have seen it, played it or know much about it. This place should have a curtain around it, to be pulled open right when the pros show up.

There haven’t been many previews, such as Micheel’s. For that reason, it won’t be easy to figure out who has the advantage this week on the layout that was built to mirror an Irish links course with huge sand dunes, pot bunkers and fairways of gnarly fescue.

Tiger Woods said there is a certain buzz surrounding Whistling Straits.

“It’s sort of a mystery, isn’t it, because so few guys have played it,” he said. “It’s not something everybody is familiar with, and for that reason, there’s a little suspense.”

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Also, maybe something like fear.

The course itself is one thing, its history is another. The area on which the course was built was flat and an illegal dumpsite. It was leased to the Army more than 50 years ago and later purchased by Wisconsin Electric Power Co., as a possible site for a nuclear power plant.

As far as pedigrees go, there can’t be much more potentially dangerous stuff than that. The golfers are going to have their own problems with Pete Dye’s design. Hired by Kohler to produce something like either Ballybunion or Royal Portrush, Dye had more than 170,000 dump-truck loads of sand spread around the place, laid out 1,400 bunkers (some of them tiny), set up a bunch of blind tee shots, then waited for the wind to blow and see how hard it could get.

There are some, such as Woods, who figure that the winning score could be well over par, which is 72 for a round, if there is a lot of wind ... or even a little wind.

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“We just don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure nobody really does.”

CBS broadcaster Bobby Clampett, who played Whistling Straits in June, said the only way a player could get any kind of edge would be to play at least 20 practice rounds. Of course, nobody’s going to have more than a couple this week.

“A lot of people are going to show up and realize they should have been playing this golf course all summer long,” Micheel said.

And what a wonderful start there is at Whistling Strait -- a 491-yard par four with bunkers and sand dunes down the left side, deep rough down the right side and a green protected by bunkers.

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At No. 2, a 593-yard par five, you have to keep the ball to the left side of the fairway so you don’t have a blind second shot.

There’s much more fun to come. The 11th is 618 yards long. Watch the second shot because you have to avoid the “sand box,” a bunker on the left that comes out to meet you all the way from the green -- about 100 yards. The green is small and elevated.

“I’ve never seen a course this demanding off the tee because a lot of the holes you are shooting into areas you can’t even see where the ball is going to land,” Clampett said.

The 18th hole -- called “Dyeabolical,” by the way -- is a 500-yard par-four played into the prevailing wind. Here’s the right way to play it: Drive down the left side to carry sand dunes and bunkers about 270 yards out. That leaves you a downhill mid-iron approach to a green that’s tilted like a pinball machine and has more humps than a convention of camels.

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Micheel said five over par or six over par could win, even without wind. The prevailing breeze is from the south or southwest, but it wouldn’t be unusual for some wind to fly off Lake Michigan and change everything.

Eight of the holes are on the Lake Michigan coastline, and all 18 have views of the lake. And for the rest of the week, the golf world may have views of some very troubled players trying to make sense of a very difficult Whistling Straits, perhaps wondering if that lake would be the right place to store their clubs.

*

At a Glance

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Where: Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wis.

* When: Thursday through Sunday.

* Course: Par 72, 7,514 yards.

* 2003 champion: Shaun Micheel.

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* 2003 winning score: 276.

* TV: Thur., TNT, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., TNT, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., TNT, 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m., Channel 2, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun., TNT, 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m., Channel 2, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.


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