KOHLER, WISCONSIN | I find there is much to celebrate whenever I travel to this charming burg north of Milwaukee, for it is as good a golf getaway as there is in this land. The four Pete Dye-designed courses at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits are among my favorites anywhere, especially the links-style Straits, a scenic and strategic gem that hugs the shores of Lake Michigan, and the River, which can make a round of golf feel more like a nature walk, especially when the salmon are running in the waterway that gives the layout its name and the red foxes and white tail deer darting across and alongside its fairways.
And when games are done, there are few things better than relaxing over beers in the clubhouses, whether the stone structure at Whistling Straits overlooking the finishing hole that is aptly named Dyeabolical or the rustic log cabin at Blackwolf Run, which takes its appellation from a fierce Winnebago Indian chief who once lived on the property. After that, it’s back to one’s room at the American Club, a AAA Five Diamond property that for nearly four decades has been regarded as one of the finest hotels in the United States. Or maybe the Inn at Woodlake, which opened for business in 1994 and soon after earned three diamonds from that same association.
But I discovered on my latest journey here that there is even more to revel about at Kohler this summer, as the destination is marking a number of rather significant milestones. Start with 2018 being the centennial of the American Club, a Tudor-style structure that was built to house male immigrant workers who had come to work for the Kohler Co. and help them adapt to American life – and eventually become citizens. The majority of the men traveled from Germany, Austria, Holland and Denmark, and they paid $27.50 a month for their room, board and laundry. They took their meals there, and often times the mess hall manager played patriotic music and marches on a Victrola as they dined. The building also featured a room for study and writing letters, a barbershop and a bowling alley.
Sixty years after its opening, CEO Herb Kohler, who is the grandson of the company founder and the nephew of the man who built the original American Club, began a process that transformed the old dormitory into a luxury hotel. It seemed a surprising step given that Kohler was best known for its plumbing products and power systems – and that the American Club was located across the street from the factory in which many of the company’s goods products were manufactured. In addition, it had never before been in the hospitality business. The project took three years to complete, and during that time Kohler created a 186-room inn that boasted warm, wood-paneled bedrooms and bathrooms appointed with top-of-the-line Kohler fixtures as well as a sense of the historic structure and the role it played the lives of the immigrant workers who once lived there.
The American Club came on line in 1981, and while it was an immediate success, Kohler noticed he was unable to fill one need of his otherwise very satisfied guests. And that was a place to play golf. So he decided to add that amenity, opening in 1988 an 18-hole track on a 400-acre nature preserve in the southwest corner of town. Dubbed Blackwolf Run, it proved to be such a popular addition that Kohler asked Dye to build two more nine-hole tracks on that same piece of land over the next two summers. Thus were born The River and the Meadow Valleys courses, and it didn’t take long before they found their ways onto the most respected lists of the best golf courses in the country. Then in 1998, Blackwolf Run hosted the U.S. Women’s Open on a composite course comprised of holes from both layouts.
As for Whistling Straits, it started welcoming golfers for the first time that same summer. In fact, that track’s official opening day was the Monday after the ’98 Women’s Open was scheduled to have been completed. But Se Ri Pak and Jenny Chuasiriporn were tied after regulation play. So they returned to Blackwolf Run that Monday for a playoff that lasted 20 holes, with Pak finally prevailing. And it was only after that championship was settled that the Straits officially opened, with Kohler and former President George H.W. Bush being a part of the first foursome to tee it there.
So 2018 marks not only the 30th anniversary of the founding of Blackwolf Run but also the 20th of the opening of Whistling Straits as well as the playing of what turned out to be the first of many major championships staged at Kohler.
A couple of months ago, I commemorated those occasions in my own way, with a couple of rounds at Kohler, and they served only to remind me how good a golf destination this place has long been. The River has been a favorite in part because I always appreciate the presence of water on a course. And the Sheboygan frequently comes into play. It runs down the left side of the par-5 first hole, a wonderful starter known as Snake that gently and joyfully eases a player into a round, and then reappears on Nos. 5 and 6, and later the eighth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th and 17th. I sometimes look at the fishermen and kayakers as I play and wish I, too, could be paddling downstream or wetting a line with them. But then I remind myself of the great fun I have with what Dye has created, the holes long and short, the drives and approaches I have to work both left and right and the putts I have to roll over testy mounds to well-placed pins.
With regards to the Straits, it is endowed with as good a stretch of starting holes as any course I know. The opener is a modest 4-par that takes players right out to the water, and Nos. 2 (a par-5 that is playing about 530 yards this day) and 3 (a 3-par that generally requires a mid-iron) run south along bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. The approaches I get to hit into those greens are as spectacular and enjoyable as any shots in golf, and the pleasure of a game here only builds through the round. As I play the 17th, a longish par-3 with a lakeside green partially hidden by a grassy dune and guarded by several gnarly bunkers, I cannot help but think there may not be a better collection of par-3s on one course. I also marvel at how Dye makes such terrific use of the property Kohler gave him, running eight holes run along that massive body of water and ensuring that the lake is visible from most of the others. It may very well be Pete’s best work.
One thing that makes Kohler such a great golf destination is the imperative among the people who run it always to do things better. So as they celebrate the different anniversaries, they continue to move forward by making improvements. Such as the addition this past winter of 10 multi-bedroom suites to the Inn at Woodlake. Each features central common areas with large flat-screen TVs, fireplaces and kitchenettes as well as bedrooms with private bathrooms so that the resort can better accommodate golfers on buddy trips.
I need to find a way to get back here with some friends. And sooner rather than later.