Many are grappling with what to make of Whistling Straits. Shoot, I struggled with my item for Golf World because so much took place to sort out in all of 200 words.
Because my sense is that most people are a bit conflicted about the place, as am I. After all…
Great winner. We got the best champion for the time and course who was clearly the favorite coming in based on recent play and his previous showing at Whistling Straits. As a fan, that’s very rewarding.
The best were still the best. Many of the players who have been on their game (and those almost on their game) continued their (incredible) play of late. The course, warts and all, rewarded those who were playing at the most elite level coming into the event.
Scoring skill rewarded. The winner broke the scoring record to par, became the second player to reach -20 in a major at the very extreme Whistling Straits.
Too much power emphasis? The winner was able to overpower the course and may not have had to make a few of the risk-reward decisions that a major winner should have to play for various reasons (distance, soft conditions).
Golf hates the "birdiefest". The winner broke the scoring record and that always bothers people, even though we are supposed to reward and celebrate the lowest score possible.
Drama, almost. Sunday’s final round lacked a sense that true major championship drama lurked, even though the course did offer many places to trip up (ask Dustin Johnson on the second tee).
How do we resolve what took place and how the course is perceived?
The course was impeccably conditioned. The immaculate condition meant fairways cut as low as possible while still dense and lush. There was none of the fairway height nonsense we’ve seen at Augusta or at Merion to slow down the ball and lessen the roll of grooves. Also, the greens were perfect, as evidenced by some of the eye-opening stats for player putting inside 10 feet. Moral of the story: you give top players such excellent playing surfaces and it doesn’t matter what Pete Dye puts in front of them. They will score.
The softness of the modern ball. I think anyone who has played the recent iterations of Titleists, Project A’s Callaway Chrome Softs, etc… knows that today’s missiles are, as the advertising says, even softer and longer. You give today’s players just a little more control on or around extreme greens, and over 72 holes this cuts a few more shots off their scores.
The setup contained very few tricks. The bunkers might have been a tad fluffier than they are for everyday play, but other than one or two hole locations where I saw players unable to read a putt or balls took a big dive at the hole, the pin placements appeared equitable. After the first three majors, where hole locations are intensely difficult due to green speed (Augusta), just difficult (U.S. Open) or hidden to protect the Old Course (The Open), we saw last week what happens when you don’t trick up a course via extreme cup cutting. Kerry Haigh’s had a few ho-hum setups of late, but he and his team nailed it this year.
The course is not particularly strategic. The test at Whistling Straits is largely physical. Decisions are usually between drivers and three woods. The sixth became drivable because of the wind, the 14th never did because of the wind direction. There is little in the way of ground game options to make players question themselves. Some of this was due to soft ground, most relates to Dye’s penal approach.
The time of year. We forget that players have been going at it all year and they’re in peak physical condition. Their routines are honed, the weather is warm and overall, all systems are firing. This means more distance and a little more mental acuity.
Add it all up and the great scoring should be celebrated as a combination of the time of year, excellent maintenance, gimmick-free setup and talent of today’s top players and their “teams.” If you're a fan of the course, don’t let the scoring lessen your view of Whistling Straits. Not a fan? It's still hard to begrudge a place that produced another compelling championship.