KOHLER, Wisconsin I It’s Day Three of my latest trek here, and I think I’ve finally figured it out. Not my golf swing, mind you, which is as indecipherable as a teenager, and as helpless as one without a cell phone. Rather, I have come to understand why I like playing golf at this retreat so much.
I am walking onto the elevated tee on the 12th hole of the Irish Course when the revelation comes. It appears after I gaze down the right side of the par 4 dubbed Highland Trek and see stretches of rugged dunes covered with brown-yellow grasses shimmering in the wind. Beyond is Lake Michigan, its cerulean waters so vast it feels as big as the North Sea. There is also a cluster of gnarly bunkers by the fairway and a small flock of black-faced sheep grazing nearby. When I turn to my left, however, I get a completely different visual, with brawny barns and glinting silos rising above fertile fields of corn and alfalfa.
Such dramatic contrast and outrageous melding of new and old golfing worlds might put some players off. But I realize a definite delight in having both types of settings in one place. American farmland and Irish linksland. The Midwest and the Emerald Isle. Two of my favorite places in the world, and two of my favorite types of terrain. Here in Kohler, you get them both – on one golf course, as is the case with the Irish. And at one resort, with the links-style Straits track that sits hard by Lake Michigan, and also River and Meadow Valleys, courses at Blackwolf Run that wind through woods and across meadows, by farms and along the Sheboygan River.
Herb Kohler did not intend to create such disparities when he began constructing courses here in the late 1980s. And his first two tracks, at Blackwolf Run, had very similar feels. But when he built the Straits, he decided to present his golfers with a very different option, a links-like layout that evoked the great seaside courses of Ireland. Suddenly, players who came to Kohler had a choice of golf styles and feels – and the opportunity to experience both in one day. And with the opening of the Irish Course, not on the Lake Michigan but within view of it, Kohler provided those possibilities on the same 18-hole course.
I like having these options, I say to myself as I contemplate my tee shot on the 12th. I like the range of feels, the different settings and senses. And I understand for the first time how those provide an enticing variety and completeness to the golf experience here that sets it above most others. This is my seventh trip to Kohler, and for a moment I am not sure why it has taken me so long to sort these things out. Then I remember I have never before played all four components of what I call the Kohler Quartet in one trip.
To be fair, I am not playing them all this time, for Kohler closed down parts of both River and Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run this summer so golfers could tee it up on the original championship course on which the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open was held. That delightful composite includes holes from both Blackwolf Run courses, though, and still manages to give a very good sense of that they both have to offer. And I have arranged tee times on the Straits and Irish.
The championship course at Blackwolf Run is as good a nature walk as it is a round of golf. I have a hard time not thinking of Winnebagos tapping sugar maples and Chippewas hunting whitetail deer on the property centuries ago as I play my first few holes. Nor can I help marveling at the swathes of purple, yellow and white wildflowers growing in the deep rough off some fairways. Or delighting in the devilish design of the par-3 sixth, with its wildly undulating green rising like a helipad from a creek valley. The best line for tee shot on a couple of holes demands that I aim at nearby silos, and an old dairy barn serves as a comfort station in the middle of the layout.
There is no doubt that I am in Wisconsin when I am at Blackwolf Run. And the drive to Whistling Straits afterwards feels like a modern day hay ride through the Badger State as it takes me past pastures of Holstein cattle and fields tall with corn. But when I step onto the first tee of the Straits courses, it seems as if I have been transported to Ireland. The first hole plays down to Lake Michigan, and the next three to the south along bluffs that rise 40 feet high. The wind kicks up some whitecaps, yet I can still see some salmon rolling in the waves near the shore. Walking off the fourth tee, after drawing a nice drive into the breeze, I wonder if there is a better start in golf. I know that I have never found four par 3s on any one course that I enjoy as much as these here, and I cannot quite believe how disappointed I am when the round is over. Sadly, there isn’t even time for an emergency nine.
I go to the Irish the following day. It is the site of my last round on this trip, and the place where I see the light as it relates to golf in Kohler. I fairly float in after that happens on No. 12, feeling downright Gaelic on the 13th, which reminds me of the Dell hole at Lahinch, and the 14th, where the green is guarded by more than a dozen pot bunkers, and decidedly Midwestern as I finish up the round with other dairy barns and grain silos coming in and out of view.
Revelations, I determine over a pint afterwards, are often very good things.