For several years now, a spring gathering of golf geeks has taken place in Kohler, WI. We drive up, play 36 holes, and drive home. It is a gloriously exhausting day with a great group of guys on courses I enjoy – and I don’t think I’m ever going back.
Here’s why. This year, we played the Straits course in the morning and the River course in the afternoon. Our round at Straits took 5.5 hours. We had two groups. I was in the second group and I stood with my buddies in the group ahead while they hit their tee shots on EVERY hole. Our caddies told us that the average time around the Straits was just over five hours, which seems absurd, and we were below average pace. On the River course, we had the final two tee times of the day, and we all walked and carried. There were at least two holes open ahead of us when we started, and we caught the groups in front of us by the 7th hole. On the 8th tee, we decided to join up and play as a sevensome, and we still waited on EVERY tee. We ran out of daylight on 14.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the pace of play ruined my day. It is a privilege to spend time in beautiful places like that with good friends. I do, however, know now that the experience was an inflection point for me. I found myself wondering what on earth players could be doing to move that slowly. The answer occurred to me when I woke up the next morning – they are sight-seeing. They are taking in the views, they are playing shots from the pro tees, they are getting worked over on an around the greens. They are sight-seeing and getting their money’s worth. That is what happens at places like Whistling Straits, Pebble Beach, Arcadia Bluffs, and others, and that is fine. It is just not my thing.
That being settled, I do want to share what I like about Straits and River. There are fourteen good holes on the Straits course. It has a wonderful set of four-pars, and the greens are great fun. The oft heard complaint about the design from architecture geeks is that it looks man-made. The site is entirely man-made, and the man’s name is Pete Dye. It seems a little silly to me that some people expected the result to be a natural aesthetic. My gripe is the egregious lack of restraint with the bunkering. There are superfluous bunkers everywhere that creates visual clutter that detracts from how good the holes actually are.
Prior to my visit this year, I did a doodling exercise, removing every bunker that was not strategically relevant. It helped me appreciate the holes even more.
The stretch of #5 through #10 on the River course is one of my favorites in modern golf. The land is beautiful and Mr. Dye laid his trademark strategy and devilish quirk on top of it in a far more restrained fashion.
To memorialize my visits and celebrate Kohler’s strengths, photos and commentary follow. For those who have not yet seen the courses, don’t let my conclusions dissuade you from going. I highly recommend playing them once. Go with the right expectations and enjoy seeing the sights.
THE STRAITS COURSE
My visits every year have been in the spring, so I sprinkled in a few photos from Jon Cavalier to illustrate the visual range of color and texture of The Straits. All yardages are from the green tees.
HOLE 1 – Par 4 – 370 yards
The opener is a gentle handshake by Straits standards. It plays down toward the water to a fairway that is angled right to left off the tee. Drives that hug the left side are rewarded with a shorter approach to a green that runs away.
HOLE 2 – Par 5 – 521 yards
Bunkers left of the fairway on the 2nd must be challenged off the tee to gain an angle for the second shot. The fairway gently switches back and rolls up to a perched green. Of the many bunkers on the course, a handful really must be avoided. The nasty gash pictured above short center of the green is most definitely one.
HOLE 3 – Par 3 – 166 yards
Straits’s first one-shotter plays on the lake shore, as do the other three. The tee shot is downhill to an angled green with a false front. Shots can be worked off the high right side to back left pins.
HOLE 4 – Par 4 – 414 yards
The course stiffens with the 4th. Players who clear the large fairway bunker left find a speed slot that shortens the hole significantly. They also find that their shorter approach is blind uphill into the elevated green.
(I realize that I skipped the 5th. If you’ve played it, you know why.)
HOLE 6 – Par 4 – 360 yards
The sixth is a brilliant little two-shotter that plays like two different holes depending on the wind and pin position. With a favorable wind and a left pin, aggressive players can go for the green with the fairway feeding into that front section. A deathly deep bunker and pronounced spine bisect the green making the back right pin an entirely different ballgame.
HOLE 7 – Par 3 – 185 yards
The seventh is longer than the third with the green angled in the opposite direction. Some players lament the lack of variety of Mr. Dye’s lakeside one-shotters. Those complaints miss the brilliance of the angles, especially when the wind is whipping off Lake Michigan.
HOLE 8 – Par 4 – 429 yards
The 8th is a stellar par-4 playing north along the lake. Hug the right side with the drive to get a good look at the green. There is plenty of room to play safe left off the tee, but bunkers left of the green must be navigated on the downhill approach.
HOLE 9 – Par 4 – 384 yards
The final hole on the outward half plays down through a chute between hills. Any club from an iron to driver can be hit off the tee, but the fairway narrows the father up one plays. Missing the fairway means an awkward lie for the approach into a green set below the clubhouse with pot bunkers left and a creek right.
HOLE 10 – Par 4 – 334 yards
One of my favorite holes on the course, the short, uphill 10th has a large center bunker that can be cleared from the tee, but a smaller pot bunker on the same line lurks behind. This gap between bunkers provides the best angle into the green perched on a ridge.
HOLE 11 – Par 5 – 544 yards
One of the more Dye-ish style holes on the course, the 11th plays over a rolling fairway, up and then down. The green is only reachable in two in the most favorable of winds. The approach plays over a large, deep bunker set with sleepers. The crowned green is surrounded in front and on the sides with short grass leaving ticklish chips for wayward approaches.
HOLE 12 – Par 3 – 118 yards
The short, downhill twelfth is straightforward to the front pin positions. Even with the blowing wind, a knockdown will be rewarded with a makable birdie putt for the player who can properly read the fun internal green contours. The back right pin position is a different story. A nasty bunker back left and the ledge right create a true do or die scenario.
HOLE 13 – Par 4 – 364 yards
The two-shot 13th is another roller coaster playing to a rise in the landing area, and then down to a bluff edge green. The infinity effect of this green when coupled with the elevation change make judging distance a real challenge.
HOLE 14 – Par 4 – 346 yards
The 14th plays shorter than the yardage on the card and is drivable for the bold player with length. A bunkered sandy waste right of the green awaits failed attempts with a true crap shoot of potential lies. Dreams of eagle can turn into painful doubles in a hurry here.
HOLE 15 – Par 4 – 429 yards
The 15th is the only hole on the course with a cross-hazard, which is not visible from the tee. The approach plays back toward the lake to one of the more understated greens on the course, which makes it one of my favorites.
HOLE 16 – Par 5 – 535 yards
The final three-shotter on the Straits plays south along the lake bluff, winding through a minefield of bunkers large and small. The green is set up on a precipice and is fronted by deep bunkers short and left. This is a birdie opportunity for the smart player who plays for position and executes.
HOLE 17 – Par 3 – 197 yards
The 17th anchors the three-pars at the Straits and it does so strongly. The green is large, but it doesn’t look that way, especially when the tees are back and the wind is howling. One of all-time favorite modern par-3s.
HOLE 18 – Par 4 – 424 yards
The closing hole begins with an awkward tee shot – the player has the choice of going as long as they like left to a narrow sliver of fairway that tumbles down a hill, or laying up center or right. The cloverleaf green is fronted by a creek and surrounded on three sides by bunkers. Not my favorite hole tee to green, but it is hard not to love the amphitheater setting of the green below the clubhouse.
THE RIVER COURSE
HOLE 5 – Par 4 – 388 yards
There is a reason why every geek takes a photo from this tee. After a long trek through the woods, emerging onto the elevated tee of the 5th is one of the better reveals in modern golf. The hole winds uphill between large bunkers to a green benched into the hillside. This might be the most beautiful hole at the resort.
HOLE 6 – Par 4 – 333 yards
The sixth bends left to right with a drive to a rolling fairway followed by an approach into an angled green. Well placed tee balls out to the left give the player the option of going high or low to access various pin positions on the undulating green.
HOLE 7 – Par 4 – 374 yards
The drive on the dogleg left 7th is semi-blind with the inside corner guarded by a massive bunker. The approach plays uphill to a green with reverse redan feels.
HOLE 8 – Par 5 – 492 yards
The par-5 8th is a birdie hole, but it helps to have multiple plays. The player can cut off a significant chunk of the corner on the downhill tee shot. Successful drives are followed by a green light to take the high right road into the green. The lower stress layup is to the the lower left fairway, which leaves an uphill pitch at a less-than-ideal angle.
HOLE 9 – Par 4 – 316 yards
A second straight split fairway awaits to player at the 9th, which curls around the river. Those taking the direct route toward the green might be rewarded with a short pitch, or even an eagle putt. However, the trees and river demand precision in order to avoid scorecard disaster.
HOLE 10 – Par 3 – 194 yards
The 10th is a beautiful one-shotter played into the back corner of the property with the Kohler factory on the ridge above. Bunkers guard the front right and left side of the gently sloping green.
BONUS HOLE – #13 – Par 3 – 192 yards
I throw the 13th in not because I think that it is a great hole, but rather because it is an insane hole. Mr. Dye tells the player who wants to play from the back sets of tees, either hit a 200 yard draw, or you’re dead. It is a nutso demand to make of the average resort golfer, and I love knowing that that is exactly why Ol’ Pete built it that way. You want fair? Play someone else’s course.
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Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf