Whistling Straits, the PGA, and 1000 bunkers


Zach Johnson did a fine job of avoiding, for the most part, the 112 bunkers on the Old Course at St Andrews en route to his play-off win over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in The Open Championship last month. But 112 bunkers doesn’t come close when compared to the number of sand traps at Whistling Straits, venue for this month’s (August 13-16) US PGA Championship – the final Major of the year.

A survey done in 2010 put the number of bunkers at 967, although course designer Pete Dye has reportedly toughened up the links-style course on the shores of Lake Michigan for the PGA and one report suggests there are now over 1000 bunkers.

At first glance it appears Whistling Straits is as much sand as it is grass. There are bunkers everywhere, in staggering numbers. They snake along fairways, adorn the tops of huge mounds, hide in seas of fescue rough and cling to the sides of greens.

The brutal par-4 18th hole, a back-breaking 475 metres off the back markers, alone has 96 bunkers and the hole, rather appropriately, has been named Dye-abolical after its designer. But the 463m par-4 eighth hole tops this with a mind blowing 102 bunkers.

Many of these hazards are unraked, sandy areas which the uninitiated wouldn’t regard as proper bunkers. And, as readers will recall, this was Dustin Johnson’s undoing in 2010 when the PGA Championship was held at Whistling Straits. The long-hitting American failed to correctly read the rules for the week, which stated that all sandy areas should be regarded as bunkers.

He did ground his club in a sandy area, assuming it wasn’t a bunker. That cost him a two-stroke penalty which dropped him out of the share of the lead and a play-off for the title with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, which Kaymer won.

Now, while Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth may have missed out an unprecedented calendar grand slam this year, after coming  tantalisingly close in his bid to win three Majors in a row in The Open, Championship at St Andrews, the young American can still etch his name into the record books by winning the PGA Championship to become only the third player – after Ben Hogan in 1953 and Tiger Woods in 2000 – to win three Majors in a calendar year. Spieth, who tuned 22 a week after The Open, finished just one shot outside the play-off between Johnson, Oosthuizen and Leishman.

“So that’s my next goal as far as the history goes, and my sights are set on the PGA Championship,” Spieth has since said.

“I’ve made a lot of  right decisions down the stretch to close out tournaments, but St Andrews wasn’t one of those. It’s hard to do that every single time. I won’t beat myself up too bad because I do understand that.  I think the way that I played that week and especially in the final round (when he shot 66) would have won the US Open by more than just a shot. I didn’t play as well there. It’s just that the kind of exceptional golf that was played by the field at St Andrews, it took some special golf to win.”

Five shots were dropped by Spieth as a result of three-putting in the second round alone, while two more were squandered in a barely believable four-putt on the eighth hole in the final round on the Monday, prompting Spieth to throw his ball into a gorse bush in disgust.

Will he be throwing his ball into Lake Michigan in disgust after tangling with Whistling Straits’ bunkers remains to be seen, but – as was the case with The Open – another intriguing Major lies in wait.

As of the beginning of this month, six South Africans were in the PGA line-up – Oosthuizen, Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace, George Coetzee and Tim Clark.

And after coming so close at St Andrews, can Oosthuizen go one better and win his second Major after his 2010 Open triumph, also at St Andrews?