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Weather will be big factor at Whistling Straits

Smack in the middle of red barn and silo country, bordered by farmland as flat as a painter's canvas, Pete Dye bulldozed a former army base and toxic waste dump into the closest thing to the Auld Sod that the New World has to offer.

With rolling hills and long fescue and pot bunkers more typical of the British Isles, Dye created Whistling Straits in 1998 and made it a course deserving of a major championship. But what really brought links-style golf to Wisconsin this week was something Dye couldn't truck in: winds whipping off the water, a light rain that makes the grasses slick, air just cold enough to create doubt in their golfers' grips.

"We keep looking to see if we can see Ireland across the water," Davis Love III said Wednesday, a day before the start of the PGA Championship. "You just feel like you're playing in Scotland."

Not quite.

Signposts like the one that says "Turnberry, 3653 miles" remind visitors that they are farther from Cruden Bay (3,711 miles) than Green Bay (59). The waters on Lake Michigan are calm, and are protected by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter stationed about a mile offshore.

Turn from the water and there is America's Dairyland in all its splendor: Cue the cows and tractors. But look at the 17th hole, a 223-yard par 3 running cliffside along the lake, and it is enough to make Darren Clarke homesick for Northern Ireland.

"If you try and remember all of the most difficult holes of all of the courses at home, put them all together," he said, "I think you'll have this one here."

Even on the loveliest of summer days, when a gentle lake breeze blows and the sun keeps the grass dry, Whistling Straits is a difficult course -- perhaps the toughest and definitely the longest ever to host a major on U.S. soil. But temperatures in the low 50s and the potential for crosswinds on a linear layout promise to make this week difficult for golfers and fans alike.

"It's all weather," said Jerry Kelly, a Madison native who is one of the few pros to have played Whistling Straits before this week's tournament. "This place, if it's calm, I think 15-under could win. If it blows, I think even par could do pretty darned well."

It's not just the competitors who have to worry about the hilly, 7,514-yard track. Although fans attending the tournament will have plenty of room to roam and scenic vantage points to watch the competition, they will do so with effort.

A pebbly path strewn with hay weaves through the course, but to get closer to the golfers -- and appreciate the misery they will face -- fans can trudge up and down the hills, through the long wet grass and an occasional bunker that straddles the ropes, amoeba-like.

To walk around the course on Wednesday was to witness several slips and one man, half-intentionally, dropping to his bottom to slide down a hill for a better view of the 18th fairway.

"You've got to be careful," said Jill Stimach, who came up for the day from Waukesha with her husband only to have her umbrella upended by winds of 10 to 20 mph. "It's not for everybody, that's for sure."

How about playing it?

"It would be a little tough for me," she said.

"I think it's going to be a little tough for them, too," her husband, Dale, said with a nod toward the golfers.

Stands selling ice cream and frozen lemonade on Wednesday were doing little business. "Evacuation vehicles" stood by in case of lightning; with the four-mile layout, it's even more important at Whistling Straits to get the players from the farthest reaches of the course quickly.

"We picked the worst weather day," Jill Stimach said.

"You don't know what it's going to be like tomorrow," Dale said.

Compared to tailgating at a Green Bay Packers game in December, though, this day near the beach was a day at the beach.

"We're pretty hearty in Wisconsin," Jill said. "We can handle it."

Dye built Whistling Straits on an assignment from bathroom fixture magnate Herb Kohler with the goal of making it challenging for the pros but still playable for the weekend duffer. The course's success, he said, convinced him that a little piece of Ireland wasn't out of place here at all.

"You don't have to worry about the golfers of Wisconsin," he said. "They have been climbing these hills for five years and they are going to climb all over the place.

"They don't know if it's raining or snowing. They play out here and they keep coming back."

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