Like many siblings born into a golfing family, my brother and I have always had a healthy rivalry with our dad on the golf course. His dominance during our childhood has faded some with our transition to adulthood, but there’s no denying that dad is always the one to beat.
His family record of 67 on our home course and five holes-in-one (to our combined none) are marks that my brother and I will likely never match. And while the three of us have each made our way to some of the great courses in the game individually, from Bay Hill to Firestone to Pebble Beach, we have never taken a true father-sons golf trip.
This year we resolved to change that in a very big way. The three of us were going to take on Whistling Straits — together.
Not only was this our first real father-sons golf trip, but it was our first time flying together as well. As we boarded the plane, I soon realized that despite our shared DNA, the three of us have very different travel personalities. There was dad, the over-packer. My brother, the nervous flyer. And me, the jaded travel writer. It was right about then that I was glad we had chosen to ship our clubs rather than lug them through the airport.
We entrusted Ship Sticks with getting our most prized possessions to Whistling Straits. Ship Sticks is run by golfers, for golfers, and the service was top notch. The round-trip ground fare ran about the same as the checked bag fee on Airtran, and it was nice knowing there was someone besides an airport ticket agent to stand behind the service if something went wrong.
When we began planning this adventure, I maintained that if we were going to do this thing, then we were going to do it right. By that, I wanted us to experience all that Whistling Straits had to offer, even beyond the golf. That meant a stay at the Forbes five-star rated American Club Resort, where the posh, yet comfortable, accommodations had us feeling like kings for the weekend. It also meant a visit to the world-renowned Kohler Waters Spa for massages before our round on The Straits. Visiting an award-winning spa with my dad and brother — definitely another first.
The next morning we boarded the shuttle to Whistling Straits, along with a group of eight guys on an outing of their own. As the minibus made its way through the cornfields of Wisconsin, none of us could believe that the third-ranked public course in America — and host of multiple major championships — was located in what could only be described as the middle of nowhere. But alas, it proved true, when the unassuming sign and narrow path to the clubhouse appeared at the end of the two-lane country road.
After failing miserably in our attempts to patiently wait out the 90 minutes until our tee time, the four months of anticipation for this moment had finally arrived. We were acquainted with our caddies — also a pair of brothers — and our playing partner from Japan who was teeing it up on The Straits for the third time in less than a week. The starter gave a brief introduction to the course, then at long last we began the trek across the ravine that separates the clubhouse from the first tee.
The next five and a half hours — no, that’s not a typo — were spent in various states of awestruck, frustration, wonder and satisfaction, often all at the same time. Things got off to a fairly even-keeled start, but from No. 2 until the finish our group was on a veritable roller coaster of golf.
There were pars and a few birdies — followed up immediately by doubles, triples, and yes, even a few that were higher. Whistling Straits, you see, had a funny way of throwing us a bone when we needed it, but it always snatched it right back. A good lie in the deep rough might be offset by an overlooked pot bunker by the green — one that can only be exited by playing backwards.
What it really came down to at Whistling Straits was a total lack of margin for error. For three guys accustomed to wide-open, resort-style golf in Florida, seeing halfway decent shots punished so severely was dejecting, to say the least. And yet, it was impossible to not appreciate the masochistic beauty of the moment, because with every hack out of the rough or blast out of a fairway bunker came a reminder of the improbable beauty which surrounded us.
About midway through the round, my brother asked how Whistling Straits stacked up against Pebble Beach. Always aware that the latest memory is often deemed the greatest because it is fresh, I thought about it for a hole or two before giving an answer. The thing is, Pebble Beach is, well, Pebble Beach. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, but really for only eight or nine holes; the rest of the golf course is relatively boring. Whistling Straits, on the other hand, was a masterpiece from start to finish — what it lacks is a century’s worth of history to go along with it. No doubt that will come, in due time.
As we trudged down the 18th fairway, stopping for a look at Dustin Johnson’s “bunker” — for the record: it is definitely a bunker — there was a good mixture of defeat and accomplishment in our steps. I was reminded of the former one last time, when my second shot stopped in the lip of a tiny bunker, requiring me to literally putt the ball two feet backwards. And yet, in spite of our many challenges, Whistling Straits had surpassed all of our expectations. Of course, so did our scores, but I don’t think any of us cared. It was one of the best days of each of our lives, in a place of near indescribable beauty, but most importantly, we had spent it together.
There were many firsts during our adventure to Whistling Straits. It was our first flight together. Our first time to Wisconsin. The first taste of cheese curds. A first visit to the spa — with our dad. A first time three 9’s were carded by a single player in a single round. The first time we nearly ran out of golf balls — thank you Blackwolf Run. And just for good measure, the first time anyone in my party has been hailed over the airport PA system — tip: don’t forget your boarding pass at security.
But for all of these moments, the visit to Whistling Straits gave the three of us something far more valuable — a shared adventure on one of the greatest golf courses on the planet. The rough was long, the bunkers were plentiful, the scores were high, but the memories — those are forever.
It was a trip of many firsts, but hopefully it was just the first of many.