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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 2)

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.

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