Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Haven, WI. Game changer. The two words are often bandied about with little regard to accuracy, or meaningful application.
However, they clearly apply to Herbert Vollrath Kohler, Jr. This is the story of a man who, through relentless tenacity and force of will forever changed the face of Wisconsin golf and planted his considerable fingerprints culminating with the playing of the 43rd Ryder Cup Matches at Whistling Straits this week.
How deep are the pockets of Kohler? Next time you head to a bathroom check out the name on the toilet or the sink. Even money says you'll see the name "Kohler." Talk about a recession proof industry.
Herb Kohler has been Executive Chairman since 2015 after having served as Chairman and Chief Executive of Kohler Co. since 1972. While diverse in its products and services, the Company focuses on living environments; in the kitchen and bathroom with its plumbing products; tile, mirrored cabinetry and lighting; engines and power systems; Try over $6 billion in revenues and 30,000 associates.
What many don't realize is that the springboard for the golf took a backseat to Kohler's bold step in resurrecting The American Club. The building was an out-of-use European immigrant workers' dormitory located across from the company's factories. Kohler's plan was to carry forward with a major renovation of the 1918 structure. Experts cautioned such a move was beyond risky and likely a sinkhole for wasted dollars. His own board vetoed the plan no less than two times before providing the green light. Just three years later in 1981 -- the former dormitory was a luxury inn. Today, the facility is the only one located in the Midwest with five-star status.
The 82-year-old came to golf later in his life but his indefatigable energy level and desire to push onward resulted in securing the involvement of renowned architect Pete Dye. It was this pivotal intersection that was responsible in bringing to life an engrossing golf canvass in the Badger State. Kohler engaged Dye to create the first two golf courses -- Blackwolf Run and Meadows Valley in 1998. Dye's estimation of the man was succinct -- "Herb is very competitive, very intense. "He knows what he wants and goes after it."
Soon thereafter the U.S. Women's Open came to the Sheboygan vicinity and the win by South Korean Se Ri Pak was galvanizing for women's golf globally and in showcasing the Badger State front and center.
That event opened up the floodgates. The 2004 PGA Championship came next. Three years later the U.S. Senior Open came calling. Three years after that the PGA Championship returned. You get the picture. In Herb's world there is no rest -- just refuel and push the pedal down to the floor.
The genesis of Whistling Straits is even more glaring in its overall boldness. Even with 36 successful golf holes operating, Kohler saw an opportunity he believed would elevate his property's stature to an even higher level. He found 560-acres of land roughly ten miles northeast of the resort itself. The site was a former army airfield that had operated as an anti-aircraft firing range during World War II. The plan called for two additional layouts to join the roster.
The two-mile stretch overlooking Lake Michigan sat 70 feet above the water's edge and Dye was given the task of taking literally nothing and making it memorable. Knowing the terrain had little promise, Dye brought in truckloads of sand to the order of over 1,300 truckloads from a nearby farm and reshaped the site. To make things a bit more authentic, Kohler opted to have a flock of blackface sheep roam the property unencumbered.
To further the connection to links golf -- walking only was the edict. Kohler saw the majesty of pure links golf having visited Ireland with Dye and wanted that same connection with the finished product. A number of people thought this would be foolhardy given the revenue loss from not having carts. That did not happen and the golf experience is actually enhanced -- free of the endless paths with carts weaving about in a myriad of directions.
Interestingly, when Kohler and Dye were walking the property one day with heavy sustained breezes blowing off nearby Lake Michigan, in Herb's mind the role of the wind was "whistling" -- hence the name. The eventual course names were kept simple -- the Straits and the Irish.
The finished product is truly a testament to Dye's eye for exemplary golf and Kohler's uncompromising desire to leave an indelible mark on the memory banks for any visitor. It's been said Kohler gave Dye an unlimited budget and he exceeded it. Over 1,000 bunkers are located on the Straits Course. To say there's a marked difference from the "before" and "after" is the understatement of a lifetime.
The laundry list of awards is also indicative of the game changing dimension Kohler brings to golf. In 2016, Herb earned the Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America for his “indelible mark on golf and focus on the importance of environmental stewardship.” In 2018, Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide recognized Mr. Kohler as the recipient of its annual Steward of History and Historic Preservation award for The American Club. In 2019, the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame enshrined him as part of its 69th class for transforming Wisconsin into a worldwide golfing destination and bringing six golf Majors to Wisconsin as well as this week's Ryder Cup event.
Keep in mind that prior to 2004, Wisconsin had been the location for just one major golf event -- the 1933 PGA Championship. Kohler was the impetus in forever changing the golf landscape and elevating the profile of Wisconsin to a global destination. Golfers from around the world now flock to the Badger State to sample the likes of Sand Valley, Erin Hills, Lawsonia Links, SentryWorld, Troy Burne, University Ridge and a host of other daily fee layouts open to the masses. One needs to also point out that Wisconsin has a slew of top tier private clubs that have been in existence for quite some time.
Although never stated publicly -- it must pain Kohler to some degree that when the first U.S. Open was set for Wisconsin -- the venue was Erin Hills in 2015 and not played on one of his golf properties. But given the track record of success that has happened one can never say with certainty that the championship of American golf won't come calling in the years ahead.
Herb would have liked to have had Pete on hand to personally witness the matches this week. The fiery strong beliefs each man possessed found a pathway in synergizing with each other and creating the results one sees today.
There have been discussions on creating a 5th course for Destination Kohler but nothing is resolved at this moment. Check back in a New York minute and one might see a ground breaking photo of Herb sticking a shovel in the ground. Should that come to pass -- it will be very revealing what person Kohler opts to design the first layout without the name Dye connected to it.
The entire global golf community will be transfixed by the happenings that take place alongside Lake Michigan this week. Making things happen -- that's what lies within the core of Kohler. Never settling -- always moving forward. Now it's up to team USA to do something even he can't do. Bringing the Cup back to the States -- and doing so in Wisconsin. That would provide the ultimate satisfaction and smile to Herb's face.
Game changer? No doubt about it.
All pictures courtesy of Kohler Co.