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My Whistling Straits keepsake: A $3,000 jacket

Golf's elite are settling in this week to battle for the PGA Championship across the wild dunes of Whistling Straits, described in its website as "a throwback to the raw freshness of Ireland sculpted into the Wisconsin coastline."

When I was first there, it was a throwback to the dull sameness of a Wisconsin farm. Flat as a parking lot and about as enchanting.

I was an army draftee and our anti-aircraft unit was dispatched there to practice for two weeks beside Lake Michigan. As I recall, we didn't distinguish ourselves with our accuracy. Shortly after that, it was strongly rumored that we would be moved to Rapid City in South Dakota to protect an airfield. From what? Glaciers? Luckily, I got sent to Korea instead.

A few years ago, I returned to Whistling Straits, this time as a civilian with a golf bag slung over my shoulder instead of a rifle.

Where several years earlier I had spent those two weeks on that stretch of ground that was so flat it had at one time been an air base, there were huge dunes pocked with hundreds of sand bunkers. Herb Kohler, who owned the place and half of the world's money, had brought in Pete Dye and asked him to build a course that looked like Ireland's famed Ballybunion.

Dye set equipment to work digging 60 to 70 feet into the earth and pushing it up into huge mounds. He laced fairways over and through them and stuck so many bunkers in there that the grounds crew gave up trying to count them and estimated the number at 1,200. They're everywhere. Some of them are so far out of play, even I might not hit into them.

Dramatic doesn't quite describe Whistling Straits. It is breathtakingly beautiful, throwing in a herd of sheep roaming the place, but its demands on your game are intense, its penalties cruel.

My return to Whistling Straits was with a group of newspaper people, all but a couple of them big shot editors or publishers or retirees with deep pockets. I played three days and when I got home, I figured it up and realized I had spent $3,000, including transportation, lodging, golf, food and the occasional cocktail.

I told my wife, "I could've flown to Scotland, played for a week and flown home for three grand."

She nodded and said with a wicked little smile, "But you have your jacket."

It was a jacket each member of the group got on their first trip. My first trip was my last. A thousand dollars a day was a bit above my budget.

Now, on chilly days when I pull my jacket on, I refer to it as my $3,000 jacket. I'm going to wear that sonofagun until it's threadbare.

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