We’re not even going to let the dust settle. Of the 37 different venues to host the Ryder Cup, the Straits course at Whistling Straits proved to be the best layout in the event’s history. Previously, Morning Read assigned every prior Ryder Cup course a rating: Birdie, Par or Bogey. Whistling Straits rates its own category — Eagle.
In assessing each Ryder Cup course, evaluation factors included design merit, character and tournament pedigree. Going in, Whistling Straits had already posted maximum points for its tournament history, as host to three PGA Championships and a U.S. Senior Open. With match play on tap for the Ryder Cup, however, this 1998 Pete Dye creation upped its game even further. Aided by the setup and the weather, the design fostered a degree of consistent risk-reward excitement hitherto unseen in the previous 42 Ryder Cups.
Whistling Straits delivered a greater number of individually memorable holes than any Ryder Cup course ever, starting with eight cliff-top stunners overlooking Lake Michigan. Moreover, the design variety and shot values were superb. Strategies and shot trajectories changed with the winds, which blew one way on Friday afternoon, a different way on Saturday and not much on Friday morning or Sunday afternoon. Muscular par 4s were adroitly complemented by drivable tests, notably the 364-yard 1st hole on Sunday (a drive and a 41-foot putt for Bryson DeChambeau) and the 355-yard 6th hole all week, where 3-woods prevailed when downwind.
All three par 5s produced eagle opportunities every session, yet also witnessed at least a dozen shots hit into water or nasty bunkers — pure risk-reward fun. The 581-yard, par-5 5th hole yielded a signature moment on Friday afternoon when DeChambeau got the favorable wind he encountered during a practice round, picked a driver line over a quagmire of bunkers and water and hammered one 417 yards on a direct line to the green. It left him 72 yards from the hole, on his way to an easy eagle 3. On Saturday, the wind dictated that he play a more conventional tee shot.
As a quartet, the par-3s were second to none in Ryder Cup annals. The 181-yard 3rd and the 221-yard 7th are practically mirror images, if not for different distances and directions, the former with Lake Michigan on the left, the latter with it on the right. The tiny 143-yard 12th, also on the lake, played as short as 124 yards and featured the coolest green configuration, with a tongue extending back and to the right, making for a thrilling hole location. Twelve played shockingly easy — yet was perfectly counterbalanced by the daunting 223-yard 17th, which did not. It brutalized many players, with its huge dune short-right of the green and a steep fall-off to the lake on the left. Different clubs, different trajectories, maximum variety and interest.
For the 2021 Ryder Cup, Whistling Straits was downright friendly, yielding bushels of birdies all three days. That was fine. This wasn’t the U.S. Open. Partly, the birdie binge was due to weather, with little wind for Friday morning’s foursomes and only gentle zephyrs for Sunday’s singles.
More impactful was the course setup. Before the event, tall native fescues that normally bracketed fairways were cleared away, leaving stubby, playable rough to greet slightly wayward tee shots and approaches. The wide fairways were anything but fiery. With cushiony landing areas and little rough, players were encouraged to free-wheel it all around.
What really yanked scoring down and helped escalate the roars were the relatively soft, medium speed, modestly contoured, creeping bentgrass greens. Golf balls struck from 235 yards held, balls from 135 yards spun back. On many greens, broad, gracefully etched slopes would help a thoughtful (or lucky) shot trundle toward the hole.
On Sunday, Collin Morikawa found such a spot with his tee shot into the par-3 17th against Viktor Hovland. His shot caught the right edge of the green and trickled to within gimme range. Almost every green demanded an aerial approach, but with such a warm reception upon landing, there wasn’t much need to run the ball along the ground, even when it got windy. Thus, Whistling Straits didn’t play like a classic Irish links, but that hardly mattered, except to purists.
Was the course a pushover, then? Hardly. With 70-foot-tall sandhills, thorny low-lying shrubs and approximately 1,000 irregularly-shaped sand bunkers, trouble lurked everywhere. Spray the ball and nightmares awaited. Freakishly awkward sand recoveries greeted luckless players on numerous occasions. Sometimes, it was even worse.
Witness Jordan Spieth’s greenside recovery from left of the par-3 17th during Friday morning’s foursomes. His partner, Justin Thomas, left Spieth with an almost comically hard shot in the face of a cliff. From deep rough, Spieth gouged out a towering wedge, which somehow settled to 4 feet. With his follow-though, Spieth stutter-stepped down the embankment, dodging bunkers and broken ground and stopped just short of tumbling into Lake Michigan. It was wild. To even contemplate the shot, let alone execute it successfully was remarkable. Much of the beauty was tied to what Spieth accomplished. Yet, part of the joy was that Whistling Straits presented similarly scary possibilities over and over.
Ultimately, it was the exquisite combination of stunning, lakeside beauty, wild, scruffy terrain and option-laden shot making opportunities that elevated Whistling Straits into singularly exalted status among Ryder Cup courses. Risks and rewards were beautifully presented and realized, hole after hole. Accommodating fairways and greens encouraged aggressive swings and daring gambles. Yet, the penalty for off-line mistakes was so great that when combined with Ryder Cup pressure, it made every shot on every hole compelling and dramatic.