#TBT to Whistling Straits

With the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits this week, it reminded me of my time there in May 2003.  This was the year before they hosted their first PGA Championship in 2004 – which was won by Vijay Singh.

whistling straits

I have great memories of that trip.  At the time, I was fortunate enough to be working for IBM.  Back then, they hosted quarterly Software Executive Summit briefings for key software clients and potential clients.  The locations always included high-end and somewhat unique venues.  The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY comes to mind as another great event, but that’s another story for another time.

While it may sound like a no-brainer to get a client to join you at such a unique experience, it was always difficult.  There were executives who would have loved to attend, but their company would not allow it.  And there were others who wanted to attend, but just couldn’t find the time to travel.  Much like me, when you travel a lot for business, it makes it harder to travel for “fun”.

With challenges like those, IBM knew it needed to create special, destination events – ones that would be hard to replicate on your own.  If they were going to be successful in pulling in executives to listen to our vision for the software industry, they knew they needed to raise the bar.

Whistling Straits was opened only 5 years earlier, to much fanfare.  Every golfer knew about it.  Especially after it was quickly awarded a PGA Championship – something usually reserved for the classic, proven, old-school layouts.  The links-style course, hugging the cliffs and shoreline of Lake Michigan, resembles an Irish or Scottish layout more than the Midwestern classics like Hazeltine, Medinah and Valhalla, all of which had hosted the PGA prior.

Another draw for this event was that the accommodations would be at the American Club – listed as the Midwest’s only AAA 5-Star Resort Hotel.  There’s an awesome story behind The Club.  It was originally built to house the workers for the world-renowned toilet-maker, Kohler, and sits about 20 minutes south of Whistling Straits, in the town named for the founders of the aforementioned comfort station.


Kohler has a population of just over 2,000 people, with its neighbor to the east, Sheboygan, serving as the big boy of the area with just about 50,000 people.  Talk about a boom to this area, that’s located about an hour drive north of Milwaukee.

With the combination of Whistling Straits and the American Club serving as the main attraction, it didn’t take long to convince a client to join me on the trip.  He’d have to book his own airfare, but everything else would be covered by IBM – room, meals, drinks and golf.

The agenda for these events typically includes arrival reception the night before including heavy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, followed by a morning business session with key senior level executives from IBM.  But let’s not kid ourselves, it was all about the main attraction – golf.  After golf, it’s back to hotel, clean up and have a sit down dinner and awards presentation.  It was a pretty tight and well-run agenda.

They always left room for additional unsponsored activities the next morning.  Some would play another round while others enjoyed the famed Kohler Water Spa.

At the course, Whistling Straits offers two 18-hole layouts and we were able to play the Straits Course, where the Championship is played.

Whistling Straits Card

The Irish Course is more inland and not nearly as scenic.  It also seems that the natural lawnmowers, in the form of imported sheep, spend more time on the Irish Course.  Check out this video I found on youtube.

As we made our way up to the course on the buses, they shared the plan for the day and told us that we’d have caddies.  This was another first for me, so I was really looking forward to it.

At this point, I know what you’re thinking – “So, what did you shoot?”

Which leads me to the one thing that I didn’t enjoy about the round. If I have to complain, it’s that we played a “shamble”.  I don’t know about you, but this was the first time I had ever heard of this format.  As you can imagine, an event like this attracts all levels of players.  So, in an effort to keep the pace of play up, all players tee off, then you take the best tee shot, and play your own ball from there.  When I’m playing on a course like this, I’d really like to be able to play my own ball, so I could share my score – or not – depending on how I played.

Kohler Golf 009
#17 Pinched Nerve
Kohler Golf 001
#3 O’Man
Kohler Golf 002
#12 Pop Up
Kohler Golf 010
#18 Dyeabolical

I could see their point.  With this being a Pete Dye course, wind whipping as it came off the ocean lake, almost 1,000 bunkers and tall fescue everywhere, this wasn’t a bad idea.

Golf isn’t a fair game, so why build a course fair? – Pete Dye

I am proud to say, however, that I did happen to hit every one of the par 3s – and even won a closest to the pin.   Of course, I won’t mention the drives that are probably lodged in the small intestines of one of their herd of sheep.

Back to the caddies.  I must say that this was also a pretty big disappointment.  All of the caddies were late teens or early twenties.  And our guy had to be one of the worst.  He really didn’t seem to have any course knowledge.  He couldn’t read putts.  He couldn’t spot my errant tee shots.  I really couldn’t believe that he said he was finishing out at the Straits later that month and was hoping to pick up a gig at Augusta National.  Good luck with that.

Before we left, we were able to squeeze in an additional round at nearby Blackwolf Run – and equally impressive track that had opened ten years prior and had already had US Women’s Open under its belt.


Kohler Golf 015 Kohler Golf 016

In spite of the caddy and the shamble, it was an incredible trip.  I was able to spend a ton of time with a client, with whom I really enjoyed hanging around.  And we were able to experience two of the country’s most challenging courses.

During this week’s tournament, I’ll watch and think back to that round a dozen years ago.


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