US PGA Championship 2015: Whistling Straits - the course with over a thousand bunkers

No one knows for sure exactly how many there are around this man-made links on the shores of Lake Michigan - not even the course designer

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There are Post-it notes all over Whistling Straits, particularly in the locker room above the urinals. So when Dustin Johnson stands there he can’t be in any doubt: if it’s sand, it’s a bunker.

Johnson endured a pitiful end here in the US PGA Championship five years ago when he grounded his club in what he thought was waste ground on the 18th hole, an area of sandy scrub trampled by punters and full of litter. Johnson held a one-shot lead. A par would have given him the major he still has not won.

To avoid any confusion this time, a letter outlining the rules was handed to the players on registration. It was headed “Notice to Competitors – Bunkers”, and in abridged form read: “All areas filled with sand will be played as bunkers (hazard). This will mean many bunkers outside the ropes will likely include numerous footprints, trash and tire (sic) tracks. Such irregularities of surface are part of the game. No relief will be available from these conditions.”

Johnson paid no attention to the notice in 2010 and thus arrived at his ball not knowing it was technically bunkered. The two-shot penalty incurred changed his closing five to a seven and dropped him not only out of the lead but also out of the play-offs, won by Martin Kaymer.

“I was just playing my shot. Never once did I walk up and think I was in a bunker,” Johnson said. “It is what it is,” the 31-year-old added in that insouciant manner of his that suggests he’s over it without ever convincing anybody that he really is.

No one knows for sure how many bunkers there are around this man-made links on the shores of Lake Michigan, not even course designer Pete Dye. “Oh, there’s about 1,000,” he said. “Most of ’em are out of bounds and never used. They’re just for looks.”

The golf architect editor of Golf Digest, Ron Whitten, attempted a bunker audit in 2010, counting 967, some enormous, others the size of a life belt. On his latest visit, Whitten increased the number to 1,012.

The course, opened in 1998, is a masterpiece of illusion, aping the features of classic links layouts without recourse to the geography that shaped them. The sand filling the bunkers is more of the builders variety, brought in from afar – all 13,000 truckloads of it.

The place has its own authenticity but not that of the coastal belters that adorn the British Isles – and which inspired it. It is hewn from a former military base along a featureless, two-mile stretch of the lake in Sheboygan County.

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It is no Ballybunion or Dornoch. The fairways are not attended by gorse or heather. They are not shaped by wind or rain and do not morph into glazed concrete under a hot sun. They are entirely the product of one man’s imagination, Dye’s, fuelled by the purse of another, Herb Kohler, who made his fortune flogging kitchen and bathroom fittings and has an infatuation with Celtic golfing culture.

The course follows two loops, the front nine to the south of the clubhouse and the back nine to the north, with each one winding its way back to the centre. Visually Dye has created a thing of beauty, with eight of the holes – four out, four in – tracing the shore. It is all the players can do not to down tools and roll out the blanket and hamper.

“There’s some pretty spectacular views out here on the lake,” said American Rickie Fowler. “I’ve got to try and stay focused on my lines off the tees and not get caught up in daydreaming, looking around and enjoying the views too much.”