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Whistling Straits gearing up for PGA Championship

Shinnecock Hills, a spectacular wind-swept golf course on Long Island, will play host to the U.S. Open this year. Ancient Royal Troon in Scotland gets the British Open for the eighth time since 1923. And, of course, regal Augusta National plays host to the 68th Masters Tournament.

All great venues, Tiger Woods said recently, but the newcomer to the major championship rotation is the one that has piqued his interest.

"The one that is really intriguing is Whistling Straits," he said. "From what I heard, with that course playing at 7,600 yards, it's going to be pretty exciting. I'm looking forward to it."

No one knows quite what to expect when the 86th PGA Championship is contested at Whistling Straits, Aug. 9-15. The links course, built on a 2-mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline north of Sheboygan, Wis., is only 6 years old and is radically different from the typical major championship venue in the U.S.

One thing, however, is certain: The PGA will be the biggest, grandest, most highly anticipated golf tournament ever held in Wisconsin.

"I'm not sure everyone understands the magnitude of it," said Steve Friedlander, the general manager and director of golf for the Kohler Co., which owns Whistling Straits.

"It's going to have an enormous impact on golf in Wisconsin, on tourism in Wisconsin and even in terms of companies relocating to this area."

The Greater Milwaukee Open has been a regular stop on the PGA Tour since 1968, but major championships are in a class of their own.

The PGA Championship, conducted by the PGA of America, will attract the world's best players, more than 250,000 spectators from all 50 states, 3,600 volunteers and dozens of corporations that will pay hundreds of thousands to wine and dine clients in a 40-acre hospitality village.

The tournament will be televised in more than 160 countries and CBS Sports will air 27 hours of live coverage.

"It will elevate the attention paid to golf and to professional golf in Wisconsin," said Dan Croak, the GMO's tournament director. "It will elevate the status of golf in our state and be beneficial to everybody."

There is no precedent for an event this big in state golf history. The only other men's major held in Wisconsin was the 1933 PGA, won by the late Gene Sarazen at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club.

To put things in perspective, that was one year before the inaugural Masters was held and seven years before Jack Nicklaus was born. The atmosphere in '33 was decidedly more low-key than it is today. Sarazen even found time to write a first-person account of his matches for the Milwaukee Sentinel.

The 1998 U.S. Women's Open was held at Blackwolf Run, another Kohler-owned property. The championship was a huge success and attracted record galleries, but a men's major is much bigger in scope.

"You can take the Women's Open and multiply everything by 10," said Barry Deach, the 2004 PGA tournament director.

Hotels and motels in Sheboygan County have been booked solid for months and spectators will stay as far away as Milwaukee (60 miles), Oshkosh and Green Bay. The economic impact is projected to be $75 million to $80 million.

"We think it's actually going to exceed that," Friedlander said.

And then there's the course itself. Whistling Straits was designed by Pete Dye, who also designed the Blackwolf Run complex for Herbert V. Kohler Jr., president and CEO of the Kohler Co.

The Straits is a faithful reproduction of an Irish seaside course, from the nearly treeless terrain and spectacular views of Lake Michigan to the treacherous pot bunkers, heaving sand dunes and fescue fairways.

Fescue is a wiry, thin-bladed strain of grass common to the British Isles but used on only a handful of courses in the U.S. Most of the major-worthy American courses are seeded with either bentgrass or Bermuda strains.

The fairways at Whistling Straits will play firm and fast in August, allowing for plenty of roll. That will make the course -- at 7,590 yards the longest venue in major championship history -- play shorter than advertised. Then again, slightly errant tee shots will bounce through the fairway and into confounding lies in waste bunkers.

"It's just so different from everything else you see (in the U.S.)," said Kerry Haigh, senior director of tournaments for the PGA of America and a native of England. "It will certainly be different than what the players are used to playing on, day in and day out.

"I think in all honesty the thing it's most similar to are the links courses in Great Britain and Ireland. Pete Dye and Mr. Kohler have done a magnificent job in creating their vision to be just that.

"It's intimidating. It's beautiful. It's certainly a dramatic setting for a major championship."

CBS Sports did its helicopter shots of Whistling Straits in October and Lance Barrow, the coordinating producer of golf, came away impressed.

"If you didn't know you were in Wisconsin, you'd have thought you were on Maui," Barrow said. "It was just gorgeous."

The PGA Championship also will be a test run for the Kohler Co., which is close to finalizing an agreement with the United States Golf Association to play host to the 2007 U.S. Senior Open.

"Destination Kohler is expecting benefits for years to come," Friedlander said. "And of course we know this won't be our only championship."

But it will be the first major for Whistling Straits, and the first for Wisconsin in more than seven decades.

"Only 215 days to go," Deach said.

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