Appeared in July/August 2004 LINKS
Just outside the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it settlement of Haven, Wisconsin, County Road FF ends. Here a motorist has two choices: Turn onto a two-lane highway surrounded by board-flat farmland or continue straight ahead through a line of grassy dunes, the opening marked by an inconspicuous stone sign.
To choose the latter option is to be transported into another world—one of tumbling golf holes, ragged sand blowouts, howling winds and a Lake Michigan backdrop seemingly as big as an ocean.
Welcome to Whistling Straits, site of the 2004 PGA Championship and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open. Who would expect to find a world-class golf complex amid such unassuming Midwestern surroundings?
Whistling Straits and its sister facility, Blackwolf Run, have given the resort village of Kohler an unlikely but prominent spot on golf’s world map. Their success reflects the savvy and hard work that have made the Kohler Co. one of the U.S.’s largest privately held businesses, an empire whose products include kitchen and bath fixtures, engines and generators, furniture and accessories, cabinetry and tile.
Hospitality officially became a division of the Kohler Co. in 1981, when the American Club, a former dormitory for workers, was completely restored and re-opened as a luxury hotel overseen by Herb Kohler. Today the red-brick, Tudor-style building houses 237 rooms and suites, each featuring a Kohler whirlpool bath and various other products from the company catalog. Along the hallways, black-and-white photographs chronicle the club’s heritage.
Five dining facilities run the gamut from formal and romantic (the cozy Immigrant Room) to casual and raucous (the Horse & Plow pub, where tabletops are constructed of boards that once made up the dorm’s basement-level bowling alley). Next door is another showcase for Kohler bath products, the luxurious Kohler Waters Spa.
A spa treatment might be in order after the inevitable pains of playing 72 Pete Dye golf holes. The first of those designs, Blackwolf Run (named for a 19th-century Winnebago Indian chief), opened in 1988 on a lush slice of hardwood-lined meadow bisected by the Sheboygan River. Dye added a third nine in 1989 and a fourth in ’90; the courses were then restructured into two 18-hole layouts, River and Meadow Valleys.
Overlooked by a sizeable log-home-style clubhouse, Blackwolf Run is a wildlife refuge masquerading as a golf course. Geese and deer roam the grounds. Salmon and trout flop about in the river. It’s not uncommon to hear shouts of “fore” directed at fly-fisherman standing in waist-deep water alongside fairways.
Blackwolf’s parkland surroundings are a diametric opposite to the raw fury of Whistling Straits, on the lake nine miles to the northeast.
Opened in 1998, the Straits course is a result of Herb Kohler’s jones for links golf, acquired when he toured the U.K.’s great seaside courses. Determined to have his own links, Kohler purchased property that was once a military training facility, Camp Haven, with Lake Michigan marking its eastern boundary. On flat, unremarkable terrain, Dye trucked in some 13,000 loads of sand to fashion a heaving landscape reminiscent of southwest Ireland.
Eight holes play directly adjacent to the shoreline, and every hole is within view of the intensely blue lake. The name Whistling Straits came to Kohler as he walked the site during construction one blustery day—a north-to-south gale was whistling along the bluffs and whitecaps were breaking on the rocky shoreline.
Adjacent to the Straits, the Irish course has a similarly shaggy look to its bunkers and rough, but only five holes within sight of the lake.
Two worthwhile diversions from golf are the Kohler factory, where visitors can see raw material turned into finished product; and the Kohler Design Center, where those products are exhibited for homeowners and builders interested in top-of-the-line kitchen and bath fixtures. On one wall alone is a three-story, floor-to-ceiling display of sinks, tubs and toilets, all reflecting the “bold look of Kohler.”
Come to think of it, that label also sums up the collection of holes that makes this region an emerging golf mecca in the Midwest.