by Al Arend
It's been billed as "An artistic walk through nature" and Whittaker Woods in the extreme lower corner of southwest Michigan certainly lives up to that description.
But golfers had better be prepared to hit some straight drives when they play the 18-hole gem just south of New Buffalo, whose southern boundaries border the Indiana state line.
Ken Killian, renown golf course architect, has placed a premium on accuracy off the tee at the splendid championship tract carved out of rolling woodlands and wetlands.
I learned that quickly when four errant tees shots helped produce a pair of 45s for this 12-handicapper from the 6,592-yard white tees. My foursome of 10 to 16 handicappers lost a total of 14 balls, mostly on the very tight front side.
But we all enjoyed the beauty and challenge that Whittaker Woods offers from its extremely wide tees and large greens. However, there is not a lot of room for error.
Each hole on the gorgeous par 72 course has four sets of tees that offer a true test for any golfer.
The ladies' tees measure 4,912 yards, and its men's 6,095, 6,692, and 7,001 from the tips.
Seeded in the fall of 1995, and opened to the public on July 4th last summer, the tees, fairways and greens are all in excellent shape.
But I found the mammoth greens, as big or bigger than the Point O'Woods, to be quite slow (as most first-year courses are). However, they held incoming shots nicely.
"We're still a little rough around the edges," admitted Ken Kallberg, assistant grounds superintendent to Tim Peck. "But it's amazing how fast this course is maturing. It's a tough but fair course that rewards good shots."
It didn't take long for my foursome to realize the importance of an accurate tee shot, as you have to hit over wetlands, ponds or small lakes on what seemed like nearly every hole. And, roll on the fairways was minimal.
Architect Killian's courses, such as Kemper Lakes and Forest National Preserve in the Chicagoland area are known to be very challenging, yet fun and playable for golfers of all skill levels. Whittaker Woods certainly fits that description.
It's a championship, premium track, with some beautiful wooden bridges that carry the mandatory carts around and through scenic marshes and wetlands. Its bunkers are strategically placed. It even has English-style mounding on some holes like the 422-yard, par-4, 11th.
But unless you're capable of consistent booming drives carrying 230 yards or more, don't plan on playing Whittaker Woods from its tips. Seven of the 10 par 4s are over 400 yards from the back tees, including three of 450 yards or more.
The par 4, 451-yard, No. 7 hole is a real bear that requires both your tee shot and long second shot to clear wetland areas. It's easily the No. 1 handicap hole on the course.
From the white tees (6,592), the par 5s are very manageable ranging from 489 to 527 yards. The two par 3s on the front side are 160 and 147 yards, but require tee shots over a large marsh and pond. The back nine's two par 3s are a much stiffer test (181 and 195 yards) and again are nearly all carry, one over a wetland, and the other over a small lake. The latter, No. 15, measures 226 yards from the back tees and 195 from the whites.
The top handicap hole on the inward half is the 390/421-yard, par 4, No. 13 hole, which requires an accurate and booming tee shot to clear a large wetland area.
"Golfers who have played it, say they really love it and will be back," stated Peter O'Brien of Chicago, whose family is developing the project. "The key to enjoying this course is not over estimating your golfing ability. You have to play from the tees that best suit your game."
In other words, seniors, if your drives don't carry 200 yards off the tee on the fly anymore, play the blue (6,095) tees. And, don't think of playing the black (7,001) tees, unless you can really rip it with accuracy.
About the only thing missing from Whittaker Woods, besides its unfinished clubhouse, is a par 4 that doglegs right. Yes, all of its doglegs bend left and favor a draw.
The multi-million dollar, 400-acre project will eventually have 278 homes sites and 188 townhouse units.
Whittaker Woods is located off I-94's Exit 1. Take Wilson Road south about a mile and the course is on the left. Cost for 18 holes is $40 on weekdays and $45 on weekends and holidays. That price includes the mandatory cart.
Being less than an hour's drive from Chicago, it is advisable to call for tee time. The pro shop number is (616) 469-3400. v
Al Arend is a sports writer and golf columnist for The Herald-Palladium, St. Joseph-Benton Harbor.
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