Plumbing magnate Herbert Kohler Jr. has molded a top-tier golf destination out of the Wisconsin countryside
Herbert V. Kohler Jr. wants to make a point. In a private dining room, over consommé and wild mushrooms, Kohler bends toward his listener and puts his hand on the table. With the pinkie finger of his right hand, he touches the pinkie finger of his listener.
"I let Pete have a pretty free reign, but I want to know everything about what he is doing," says Kohler, sotto voce. "Pete has this earthy artistic aspect to him and he knows a lot about the game of golf, how it is played at a championship level. The combination is just what I wanted. And when you look around at what he's done here, I think you'll agree there is a lot of art in his work. It goes right to the heart of our business. There's a lot of artistic expression in what we do here. There's even some of mine."
With that, Herbert V. Kohler Jr. sits back in his chair. He assumes a posture that is imperious, if unintentionally so. His throaty baritone looses an easy chuckle. He adjusts the lapels of his shiny gray suit (geez, Herb, is that sharkskin?) and takes a swipe at his leonine silver-and-black beard. Herbert V. Kohler Jr. can make any chair seem like a throne. He can make any visitor seem welcome within his empire. It's the laugh, and the pinkie finger, you see. It's the reaching out, the need to connect, the common in the uncommon man.
Given what he has achieved with the company his grandfather founded and his father nurtured, there is nothing to suggest that Herbert V. Kohler Jr. could ever be called a common man. The Kohler Co., in the planned community that Herbert Jr.'s grandfather founded an hour north of Milwaukee, is one of the largest privately held companies in the United States. Think Kohler, think commodes, sinks, showers. But that is not all. There is the furniture side of the business, Baker and McGuire. There is the general plumbing side of the business, Kallista Plumbing. There is the kitchen side of the business, Canac Kitchens. There is the engines, generators and electrical side of the business, Kohler Power Systems. There is a mirrored cabinet business, a stone and tile business, and 16 other companies on four other continents.
And over the last 20 years Herb Kohler has nurtured -- no make that willed -- a hospitality business, called The Kohler Hospitality and Real Estate Group. It includes one of America's finest hotels. It includes four of America's finest golf courses designed by one of the most accomplished and controversial golf architects, Pete Dye Jr. It's all right there in Kohler, Wisconsin, a few metal woods from the commode factory.
Herb Kohler has made his family namesake town a golf destination. He's made it one of the finest golf destinations in the world. It is so good that the United States Golf Association held its Women's Open Golf Championship at Kohler's Blackwolf Run in 1998. It's so good that the Professional Golfers' Association of America will hold its PGA Championship, one of golf's four majors, at Kohler's Whistling Straits in 2004. It's so good that Kohler's four courses -- the River Course and the Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run, and the Straits Course and the recently opened Irish Course at Whistling Straits -- total more than 100,000 rounds a year at greens fees of $148 or more. In Wisconsin, for crying out loud. In a state heretofore known for the Green Bay Packers, beer, cheese and bratwurst. In a state that is known for Kohler.
John Michael Kohler, a native of Austria, bought the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry in 1873. Ten years later, he used a horse trough to make the Kohler Co.'s first bathtub. He founded the planned community of Kohler just west of Sheboygan and as part of it he constructed, in 1918, the American Club, a dormitory to house the immigrant skilled workers and artisans he needed to create an industrial company dedicated to quality and artistic design. Kohler, his son Herbert V. Kohler, and his son Herbert Jr. would have no way of knowing that the American Club would sow the seeds of great golf in the American Midwest. It happened because the grandson didn't want to tear down the American Club. He didn't want to believe three different feasibility studies that said that converting the old dormitory into a destination hotel would be unprofitable. He wanted to hold on to his family's past and make something out of it for the future.
"Everything we have done at the Kohler Company we have done for a business reason," says Kohler. "But pursuit of excellence, of quality in our product, has always been the driving force. We have been very successful in conducting our business this way. When it came to the American Club, I felt that if we continued to commit ourselves to excellence and quality, that it would succeed as sort of a weekend retreat where we would have high-quality rooms, high-quality restaurants and high-quality service."
The old brick dormitory was redone in the Kohler image, fitted with Kohler products and staffed with employees who would fulfill the Kohler concept of high-quality service. That was 20 years ago, and the people keep coming and coming, 90 percent of capacity on a year-round basis. The old dormitory has been expanded, and there are regular customers who come back and change rooms every night just so that they can experience different forms of luxurious Kohler bathroom fixtures. The steady customers got Herb Kohler into golf.
Now Kohler is a golfer himself, a gritty 18-handicapper. He'll grind out every shot in a $2 Nassau against his second wife, Natalie Black. He'll grind out every shot against his friendly foes of the Gnarly Balls Gang, a group of players from within and without the Kohler Co. who compete on a yearly basis for the coveted trophy, a pair of rusted steel balls connected by a rusted old chain to a piece of driftwood. But it was not the fantasy of a rich hacker that drove Kohler to create his golf fief. "Our customers kept asking us disturbing questions: 'Why do we have to go to someone else's facility to play golf, why don't you have a high-class golf course of your own?'" says Kohler, his voice at once thick with authority and rich with sincerity.
Driven by the need to satisfy his customers, Kohler embarked on developing golf courses only a mile from the plant, sumptuous property of meadows and valleys, hills and dales, through which runs the Sheboygan River, a property that would be called Blackwolf Run after a Winnebago Indian chief. To design what would become two courses, he interviewed America's best and most well-known architects, including Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio. In the end, he selected Pete Dye. "Even though he -- quote -- manufactured courses -- unquote -- the end product of his designs were quite natural," says Kohler. "He had a reputation for designing championship courses and he was controversial. I wanted a championship course. Pete's reputation would draw attention right away. Plus, I wanted someone who would be devoting significant time, and Pete was a hands-on guy. I liked the fact that he would climb on a bulldozer and do his own shaping. He had this artistic flair to him. He didn't design on paper, he designed in his head and with his eye."
The artistic nature of Dye, the artistic nature of golf and the artistic nature of Kohler Co. strike a perfectly harmonious note at the golf courses. John Kohler, as inspiration for his employees, borrowed a line from an English arts critic for the company motto: "Life without labor is guilt; life without art is brutality." Plenty of labor, plenty of art went into the making of Black Run and Whistling Straits.
"Call it what you want, but I design courses by the eye," says Dye, whose formal drawing of a golf hole is likely to be little more than a sketch on a cocktail napkin. "I sure enjoy working for Mr. Kohler, but you sure do work. Herb is the hardest-working man around and he has his opinions about things. We've had our disagreements but he has a pretty good eye for things himself and he learns all he can about something."
The first 18 holes of Blackwolf Run were constructed in the mid 1980s, and opened in 1988. While the endeavor was the beginning of what would become a close friendship between Dye and Kohler, it was almost the end. Kohler often made visits to the site in his old Jaguar XJ6, which had become so beat up from traveling over the rough ground that it had holes in the floorboards. Late one day, after a particularly long meeting, Kohler drove the Jag across the site to look at where the 17th hole was going. Then he saw smoke, and then he started to burn.
Dye had wanted Kohler to make a decision on some large trees near the site of the proposed 17th green. "He called me up and said that we needed to make a decision that day on some 70-year-old elms," recalls Kohler. "He was insistent that the decision be made that day. I said I would be there at noon. I couldn't make it. Then I said I would be there by five. I couldn't make it then, either. I left the office at 6:20. When I got there I saw six enormous piles of logs, all burning, and not a human in sight. I went and found a security person on the site and he said that Mr. Dye had left. I called Pete in Indianapolis. I said a lot of people would like to have their names on this course. I said, 'Unless you come back and discuss how we are going to make decisions about it, your name won't be on it.'" Dye flew right back to Sheboygan, an agreement was reached on the decision-making process, and a long, close friendship began.
"Today we are best friends," says Kohler, who takes Dye on the company plane for golf trips around the world. "He's a Renaissance man. He has a remarkable imagination and a sensitivity to the land. I don't think that what he has done here could ever be better. And we've had a ball doing it."
A third nine was added to Blackwolf Run in 1989 and a fourth nine in 1990, at which time the holes were reorganized into the River Course and the Meadow Valleys Course. The Sheboygan River, which winds for seven miles through the River Course, plays a major role in the course's strategy. On many a tee, it's just as tempting to go fishing for the abundant trout and salmon as it is to play golf. A smaller stream, Weeden's Creek, cuts through the Meadow Valleys Course. The courses come together at the end, each sharing an enormous 23,000-square-foot 18th green that sits above the river and in front of the elegant clubhouse constructed of stone and lodge-pole pine logs.
From the beginning Blackwolf Run was a success. Combining high-quality golf with the American Club hotel made Kohler, Wisconsin, one of the most unlikely golf destinations in the United States. Like The Lodge at Pebble Beach, the American Club made golf at Kohler a luxurious package. The Immigrant Restaurant & Winery is the hotel's most ambitious restaurant. The Wisconsin Room, the original dormitory cafeteria, is both opulent and historic, and a great place for breakfast. The Horse & Plow is a casual sports pub restaurant, with tabletops constructed of the boards used in the American Club's original bowling alleys. The package was so successful that Herb Kohler wanted to build another course, one that would reflect the values of seaside links golf. He didn't have the sea nearby, but he did have Lake Michigan.
On his trips to Great Britain to play golf, Kohler fell in love with links golf. "The dunes over there, whether they are natural or even man-made, influence everything," says Kohler. "The dunes are always surprising. The really great courses over there, the land is dominant to the designer. The grass they play from is fescue grass. [Those courses] really are the greatest experiences in golf. I was bound and determined to have a sand-and-fescue golf course."
In 1965, his father had given away just such land owned by the company along Lake Michigan to the state of Wisconsin for a park, a gesture that the younger Kohler would later regret. "If I had tried to give away land like that today, I would have been put in chains," says Kohler, rolling his eyes. "We had this incredible strip of land along the lake and we just gave it away. We still have dune land, but it's not big enough to build a golf course on. So we had to find land to do it."
Just north of Kohler was a former military base, Camp Hudson. Its principal attribute was that it had Lake Michigan as its eastern boundary. What it didn't have were sand dunes. What Herb Kohler wanted was sand dunes. What he wanted was a seaside links. He had the cash to manufacture one, he had the architect to create one. "It was Herb's idea to make this a links course," says Dye. "We had to find a way to do it, since this wasn't links-type land. It was by the water, but that was it."
With a substantial budget with which to work, Dye started mining sand nearby. He brought in more than 13,000 truckloads of sand, which he pushed around to create dune land where none had existed. The final creation, and it is a creation, is partly links and partly parkland, but the overwhelming characteristic is Lake Michigan itself, which does its duty as an ocean rather well. The Straits Course at Whistling Straits is well disguised as a seaside links, and the best time to play it is on a gray day with fog streaming off the lake and one of the course's well-schooled caddies by your side. The fog brings the lake and sky together, and if the wind gets up there is every reason to believe that you are playing on the European side of the Atlantic.
What Dye wrought is one of the most exquisite, and excruciating, golf courses in the world. Make no mistake: The Straits is one difficult golf course. From the back tees it measures 7,288 yards with a course rating of 76.7 and a slope rating of 151. The back tees as measured on the card aren't even the true back tees for many of the holes. "We have so many tees that aren't even played that I guess the course could be upwards of 7,800 yards," says general manager and director of golf Steve Friedlander. "We stopped counting when we got to 700 sand traps. Needless to say, when the PGA comes here I think the pros will find the course pretty challenging. It won't be like any of the courses they usually play on here."
Eight of the holes play along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including all four par-3 holes. The wind can howl here (hence the name) and can be counted on as a constant influence. Kohler and his cronies in the Gnarly Balls Gang play here all year long, at least in the absence of snow. "As long as the temperature is at least thirty-two-and-a-half degrees, we're out there," says Kohler. "We play from September through May on the downside of the weather. We have guys with single-digit handicaps and guys like me who are an 18. I've won the thing three times. I love playing in it. It's a test of endurance as much as it is your golf game."
For the average player on the Straits Course, playing the proper tee is critical. When in doubt, always play the course shorter. From the middle tees, it plays around 6,500 yards and can be quite manageable. But as you move farther back, the forced carries get longer and longer, and the approach shots, especially to the ledged greens above Lake Michigan, become more terrorizing. You can easily become overwhelmed, and what should be an overwhelming aesthetic experience can be a traumatic one.
The new Irish Course at Whistling Straits sits next to, and inland from, the Straits Course. It has much more the feel of a heathland course and plays up against classic Wisconsin farmland. Dye has built a classic, if controversial, hole on the Irish Course, one that can be found on links courses but seldom found in America. The hole, No. 13, is a par 3 with a blind tee shot. The green, as big as a standard urban housing plot, is not visible from the tee, and there are some nasty pot bunkers around it. It's the sort of thing that Dye likes to do, like his island green on the 17th hole at the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Verdra Beach, Florida, where the Players Championship is held.
The clubhouse at Whistling Straits is meant to suggest an old Irish clubhouse. Kohler not only influenced the concept of the clubhouse, he influenced its construction with a novel idea. The stones used to build it had a polished side that was meant to be the exterior surface. But Kohler thought the rough side would give the structure the instant appearance of age. He had the workers reverse the stones. It's the sort of thing that Herb Kohler can do, being the owner of all he surveys.
Though golf was a departure from the Kohler Co.'s usual businesses, it fit right in from the beginning. "We have always been about gracious living," says Kohler. "Golf fits in that category. It is the mission of this company to enhance the gracious living of its customers. It is something that we must do, must always do, to be successful. I wanted these golf courses to have the character, the substance, to be a gracious part of the golf experience. This I think we have achieved."
The man pursues everything with a passion. One of America's wealthiest individuals, he is fond of saying that there is little passion in a buck, but a lot of passion in the pursuit of dreams. If he can't find a passion for something, he doesn't do it. He's passionate about his company. He's passionate about his family. He's passionate about raising Morgan horses, and has a whole stable of them in Lexington, Kentucky. He is passionate about golf. Golf in Kohler, Wisconsin, is about passion every bit as much as it is at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews. For Herbert V. Kohler Jr. it couldn't be any other way.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.