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Longest course ever

By Clifton Brown

New York Times News Service

HAVEN, Wis. -- Whistling Straits, site of the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday, has generated quite a buzz for a five-year-old course that has never played host to a major championship.

It measures a mammoth 7,514 yards, the longest course in major championship history. Three of the par-fours are at least 500 yards. At first look, the world's best players did double-takes.

"I was very impressed by it," Darren Clarke, who played a practice round Sunday, said. "I didn't realize there was that many par-6's on one golf course. You usually have one or two holes every week where you could take lots of high numbers. I think there's about 10 this week where you can take lots of high numbers."

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While it is hardly unusual to hear players predict that a major championship will be difficult, Whistling Straits has punishing potential, particularly if it is windy, which is not uncommon at this links-style golf course nestled alongside Lake Michigan, about 60 miles north of downtown Milwaukee. Shaun Micheel, the defending champion, said with a straight face after a practice round earlier this summer that 10-over par might win the tournament if it is windy.

"If the wind comes up at all, and they play the golf course the way it did when I played, it really felt like double digits over par could win," Micheel said. "And I know how good these guys are. In a way, I kind of hope it plays that way, because people are going to be looking at me like I'm kind of silly."

Most players think Micheel's assessment is overboard, but nobody is expecting an easy week. Not only is Whistling Straits long, it is visually intimidating, with narrow fairways, wispy rough and more than 1,000 bunkers on rolling terrain.

"Very little of what you see is really in play," Fred Funk, who will be battling to secure a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team this week, said. "You've just got to get over the intimidation factor."

Talk of how tough Whistling Straits might play brings a smile to the face of the course designer Pete Dye.

No stranger to controversy, Dye designed the T.P.C. of Sawgrass, site of the Players Championship, which features the world-renowned island green at No. 17, a hole that has tormented players for years. But Dye praised the PGA of America for setting up the course fairly this week, and he asked what all the fuss was about.

"I'm sure somebody will get to this golf course, because it's a fair test," Dye said. "The fairways are out there, all 30 yards wide. The greens are flawless. If a player is playing good, they are going to shoot low scores. Somebody will shoot a 65 or 66. I believe they will shoot under par here. With the weather that's forecasted, 8 or 10-under par."

Asked Monday where Whistling Straits ranked in terms of difficulty among his designs, Dye wryly said:

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"This will be a popcorn. You can interpret that any way you want. Sometimes people choke on popcorn. Wait and see."

Expect to hear complaining from players if scores balloon, but the players who perform the best are the least likely to gripe.

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