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Golf American Style

Plumbing magnate Herbert Kohler Jr. has molded a top-tier golf destination out of the Wisconsin countryside
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 1)

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.


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