Very few people in the golf world even knew who Herb Kohler was when he built his first course, Blackwolf Run, in 1988. To be sure, many were aware of the exceptional plumbing products that bore his family name – and that were installed in the locker rooms of most of the finest golf clubs and resorts. And a handful had no doubt heard of the elegant inn, dubbed The American Club, that he had improbably opened several years before, in an old workers’ dormitory across the street from his company’s headquarters and one of the world’s largest iron foundries. But they knew little if anything about the man as a golfer, or even as a person associated with the royal and ancient game.
All that changed, of course, when Blackwolf Run quickly became the hot new course in America – and Kohler began constructing other layouts of comparable caliber in and around the small Wisconsin town in which his privately held company has long been based. Recreational golfers flocked to play them, drawn by the design Pete Dye gave each one as well as the service they enjoyed at what came to be known as Destination Kohler. And touring pros could not wait to compete on his layouts, which were as brutal to play under tournament conditions as they were beautiful. Pretty soon, Kohler was hosting major championships. First a U.S. Women’s Open, then a PGA Championship. Then, the company dove into the Scottish market by buying one of the most famous properties in the game – the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews.
Along the way, Herb Kohler became something of a golf impresario. He’s instantly recognizable, thanks to his sturdy build, his hoary beard, his twinkling eyes and his impish smile. He’s universally lauded for the quality of his hotels and layouts, the deep passion with which he pursued his interests in the game and the extraordinarily attentive ways in which he catered to his customers. He rapidly developed a commanding presence in golf, and that only grew with each critically acclaimed course he opened, and each major he hosted.
It would not be a stretch to say that Herb Kohler boasts superstar stature in the game today. Not as a player, of course, but as someone who has touched golf in so many other ways. And at no time has that been more evident than this year, as his Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews served as the host hotel for The Open Championship while his American Club plays that same role for the PGA Championship this week as golfers vie for that title on the Straits Course he built at Whistling Straits.
So, it seemed an especially opportune time for Global Golf Post senior correspondent John Steinbreder to talk to Kohler about his very excellent summer as well as his position in the game on both sides of the Atlantic.
Q: Let’s start by talking about St. Andrews, where your Old Course Hotel is located, and where you recently added to your collection of hospitality properties.
A: You’re referring, of course, to Hamilton Hall, the four-story building right behind the 18th green of the Old Course and next to the R&A clubhouse. It is one of the most recognizable structures in the game but had fallen into disrepair. We purchased it about a year ago and are renovating it, with plans to open in April 2012. Construction starts this fall, and we will have a sample suite available in November 2011. We are calling it Hamilton Grand, and it will have 26 apartments as well as a pub and grill open to the public and business facilities. It is not another hotel, but we will integrate a lot of functions with the Old Course Hotel that we already own, and it will work beautifully. Hamilton Grand will utilize assets already in place, whether the concierge service of the hotel, or the Kohler Waters Spa there. And the people who own the apartments at Hamilton Grand will automatically become members of the Duke’s, which we acquired when we bought the Old Course Hotel in 2004.
Q: This is the second time you have bought a major hospitality property in St. Andrews and undertook a fairly significant renovation. How do you think this one will go?
A: It will be a lot easier. We had to do and then re-do a lot of things with the Old Course Hotel. We dealt with some contractors who were not very strong financially, and others who took a lot of shortcuts. There were also some regulatory issues that drew things out quite a bit as well. But we know our way around those better this time around. And we have a very strong project manager.
Q: What does it mean to you to be so involved in St. Andrews?
A: To be able to do all of this in the home of golf is sort of remarkable. I get a thrill every time I go there, and every time I think of our presence there.
Q: How often do you get to St. Andrews?
A: About five times a year, and for at least two of those, I am there for at least a week. I work 85 percent of the time and play golf 15 percent. But it is not always easy to get in a game, particularly if you want to play the Old and go through the lottery.
Q: Surely, you have other ways of getting on the Old.
A: You’d think that with a rather large investment in the Old Course Hotel and now Hamilton Grand that I would qualify as a citizen of St. Andrews and get the annual ticket that gives residents the ability to play unlimited golf on the links there, for something like $250 a year. But it does not, as you have to be a resident for at least six months a year and vote and pay taxes in the town. So, I have to try to get on like every one else.
Q: But certainly you can find greater access to the Old as a member of the R&A.
A: Actually, I am like Thomas Hamilton, the man who built Hamilton Hall in the late 1800s, as we were both turned down as members of the R&A. Hamilton built that structure, which initially served as a hotel, after the R&A had rejected his application to join. His hope was to draw attention away from the R&A by erecting a larger, more extravagant building next door. Now, when I applied for membership, I thought I had a pretty good chance of getting in. After all, I had the secretary and former secretary of the R&A on the board of the corporation in St. Andrews that owns the Old Course Hotel. And I had Pete Dye and Tim Finchem as two of my sponsors. But that did not do me any good, as I was too old. I was 65, and the club has a rule about admitting members over 60. Of course, I was very sad, and initially I could not believe it. But I can understand the rule now. And it’s okay as long as members of the R&A stay at my hotel when they hold their functions in town.
Q: That membership situation notwithstanding, how do you feel you’ve been received in St. Andrews?
A: Honestly, I could not have been treated better. I cannot say the townspeople have welcomed us with open arms, because no Scot in the world welcomes an American with open arms. But they have been as welcoming as we could have hoped for. I have wonderful relationships with Peter Dawson and Sir Michael Bonallack, and there have been lots of people in and out of the R&A who have been just excellent. I find most Scots very interesting, intelligent, thoughtful and, yes, welcoming. But it can take a while to develop their trust, which is just fine.
Q: Do you feel you have the town’s trust now?
A: Yes, I do, which was particularly helpful as we looked to our work with Hamilton Grand. I do not think we would have been able to pull all this off as smoothly if we did not have the town’s trust. We would not have been able to get through the public consultation.
Q: Do you like coming to St. Andrews?
A: I love it. I love the haunts of the town, like the Jigger Inn, and standing on the balcony of a room in the Old Course Hotel and watching players come up the 17th fairway of the Old, so close you can talk to them. I love the ancient history of St. Andrews, going back to the 1400s, the ruins, the buildings of the University. They all give the town such a wonderful feel you don’t find anywhere else. I so enjoy the people, and they seem to have a great feel for their heritage. And I can tell you that every time I tee off on the first hole of the Old and look down that fairway, I get goose bumps. How can you not?
Q: Where do you play in town?
A: The Old, when I can get on. Also the Duke’s, which we own, and Kingsbarns. Those are the ones I play 90 percent of the time, and I will tee it up occasionally on the New and some of the other great courses in the area.
Q: Has coming to St. Andrews been a good business move for Kohler Co.?
A: Yes, it has. The Old Course Hotel is a wonderful showcase for a number of our products, whether Kohler plumbing or Baker furniture or Ann Sacks tiles. Also, there is a great connection with regards to the hospitality business between our operations in Wisconsin with the American Club, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, and St. Andrews. Fundamentally, we are catering to the same clientele, so we get a fair amount of cross-traffic. And I think that will grow even more as we go on.
Q: Let’s talk a little PGA Championship with that about to take place at Whistling Straits. What has it been like operating as the host venue in such difficult economic times?
A: Well, it has not been as easy to sell chalets to corporations this time around. Things have generally been going well, but sales were certainly a little slower. Part of that is that we are no longer new as a major venue, having held the PGA here in 2004. But it is also a result of the sluggish economy.
Q: Have you made any changes of significance to the golf course this time around?
A: Only two of note. One is the addition of a greenside pot bunker on No. 6, the short par 4. It almost divides the green in two. And the other is the second fairway on the 18th. With the original fairway, a pro could not use driver if there was any wind at his back, and there was a fair amount of comment about that after the PGA in ’04 and the Senior Open we held there three years later. So, we decided to build a second fairway, which means players have to clear 285 yards of hazard to reach it. If they hit a very straight drive, avoid the trouble that exists on both sides of the hole and land in the fairway, they can throw a dart at the pin with a wedge. But it has to be an awfully straight drive.
Q: Did Pete Dye make those changes?
A: Pete is the only one allowed to touch that golf course, and would you believe he still wants to make changes on the Straits once the tournament is over? He is still quite rambunctious and wants to keep tinkering.
Q: We talked a bit about corporate sales for the 2010 PGA. But what about the general corporate downturn, and the way the business world’s use of golf as a marketing tool has been vilified and subsequently curtailed? What has been the impact of that?
A: The corporate golf business has been hurt a lot, by political attacks made against it and by the recession. Those two things just combined to kill that sector. But slowly and quietly, things are coming back, with little fanfare – at least at the better resorts and courses in this country. And that is good, because it is impossible to accurately measure just how important the ability to entertain at golf venues and at golf championships is to the corporate world. It means an awful lot.
Q: This year, you have the PGA at Whistling Straits. Three years ago, you hosted the U.S. Senior Open. What are your relations like with the golf associations that run those events, the PGA and the USGA, and is there any sort of rivalry?
A: We have had good relationships, or alliances really, with both organizations, and happily those continue. As you know, Whistling Straits will once again be the venue for the PGA in 2015, and then the Ryder Cup in 2020, and we have the U.S. Women’s Open coming back to Blackwolf Run in 2012. We also look in the longer term to talking with the USGA about having a U.S. Open.
Q: Are you looking forward to this year’s PGA, and to having other major championships?
A: Heavens yes. It is a great honor, and a very important responsibility. We have to provide a haven for tournament officials and players, so they can come and go with ease. We have to do so much in terms of security and service and course set-up and conditioning to bring it off without a hitch. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it, especially when you see the professionals competing hard and hear the crowds of 20,000 and 30,000 people cheering and enjoying every minute they are there.
Q: Golf has helped to make you and your company very well known and elevated both of your profiles in a way your other businesses never would have. Has that been a good thing?
A: Obviously, there has been quite a spotlight on the goods and services Kohler Co. provides and on me as its longtime CEO and the one who got the company into golf. And if you are able to navigate comfortably in that spotlight, it’s all for the better. Well, I think we have navigated it all pretty well, and I can tell you that it’s been one hell of an experience.