By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KOHLER, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The stage is set for Thursday's opening round at the 97th PGA Championship being held this week for a third time at Whistling Straits, which is viewed by the players both as a 'Beauty' and a 'Beast'.
Measuring 7,514 yards off the back tees, the links-style layout is lush, green, beautifully manicured and stunningly located on the shores of Lake Michigan where eight of the holes are adjacent to the water.
Yet with its soaring sand dunes and more than a thousand bunkers dotted around the course, the par-72 Straits Course will provide a daunting challenge for the game's best players over the next four days.
"It's major championship ready, the greens are as healthy as I've seen in a long time and they putt extremely well," Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth told reporters on Wednesday. "I think we're all very, very excited.
"The bunkers are hazards out here, and there's a lot of them. You almost have to approach it like an Open Championship (British Open), where ... the ball can squirt out in different directions based on the type of sand.
"You have to approach them as hazards and definitely stay away from them."
For Australian world number five Jason Day, who tied for 10th in the 2010 PGA Championship played at Whistling Straits, length off the tee will be a huge advantage.
"It's definitely helping if you're a bomber of the golf ball," he said.
"You have to drive the ball well here, because there's some spots on the golf course where I might try to hit it 30 yards off line rather than a yard off line because then you're chipping out (because) the rough is so thick.
"From there, placement on the greens is huge, making sure that you're on the right quadrant and you are giving yourself a chance at birdie."
Though recent rain has softened the ultra-long layout, gusting winds of up to 25 mph (40.2 kph) have been forecast for Thursday's opening round, which will give the Straits Course extra bite.
"If the wind is up again, that will be the teeth of the course," said Spieth. "If the wind's down, there's certainly plenty of scorable holes and lower scores will be shot."
Designed by veteran architect Pete Dye, Whistling Straits is a triumph of imagination and modern golf course construction.
The terrain, once flat, windswept and featureless, accommodated a military base before being targeted as a possible site for a nuclear power plant.
It has since been transformed through Dye's vision, the finance of Herbert V. Kohler Jr. and 170,000 dump-truck loads of quarried sand.
Three of the par-four holes at Whistling Straits are in excess of 500 yards, and the undulating course is one of the longest in major championship history.
"You get on a Pete Dye golf course, especially Whistling Straits, and it visually assaults you as soon as you get on the first tee," said former world number one David Duval, working this week as an analyst with Golf Channel. "It is intimidating."
From a relative distance, it is the beauty and near-perfect presentation of Whistling Straits that catches the eye.
"The golf course is in beautiful shape," said American world number three Bubba Watson, who was beaten in a playoff for the 2010 PGA Championship by Germany's Martin Kaymer.
"The rough is thick and healthy, and fairways are in perfect shape. I haven't seen greens run this good in a long time."
(Editing by Larry Fine)