Okay, so this wasn’t EXACTLY the Navy SEALs taking down Osama bin Laden, but it was a covert ops assignment nonetheless. My mission: visit a major golf resort anonymously so we could find out what the experience was like without all the perks that come with representing a major golf magazine. The target: The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, home to two-time PGA Championship host Whistling Straits.
Upon arrival at the redbrick lodge—the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond resort—my biggest concern was blending in with the other guests and not looking like a golf writer. With our doughy physiques and sense of entitlement, we’re easy to spot, too. Fortunately, I was able to get to my room without arousing suspicion, although the free glass of champagne and gracious reception upon check-in made me wonder if they were on to me.
Alas, when I got to my room I knew my cover was still safe. There was no fruit basket or other goodies with a note from the manager wishing me a pleasant stay. Plus the room, a standard king around 300 square feet, was a tad on the small size, especially for $330 a night ($380 on the weekend), and the view of the adjacent neighborhood in the rear wasn’t great (ask for a courtyard view upon arrival). But the rich décor and “Kohler Showering Experience” of four showerheads made me feel like the pampered scribe I am. Another hotel option down the street is the just-renovated Inn on Woodlake, where rooms start at $239. There isn’t any nightlife to speak of, but there are a number of excellent restaurants (I liked the tap-room vibe of the Horse & Plow) and the world-class Kohler Waters Spa.
My only quibble, and it’s a small one, is that you have to drive or take a shuttle to the courses. Blackwolf Run is only a five-minute ride, but Whistling Straits is about 20 minutes, although it’s a pleasant drive down country roads surrounded by cornfields. The topography changes dramatically as you come to the entrance, where giant dunes greet you along with a Celtic wind god logo, which looks suspiciously like resort visionary Herb Kohler.
It’s hard to believe this place was once a flat, toxic waste dump. Architect Pete Dye brought in 13,126 truckloads of quarried sand to create the rugged design, which includes about a thousand bunkers, one now legendary thanks to Dustin Johnson. Dye routed eight holes, including all four par threes, along Lake Michigan, but just about every hole has a fantastic view of the ocean, er, lake. And the flock of Scottish blackface sheep that roam the property is an inspired touch.
There aren’t too many prettier or more challenging walks—or more expensive ones for that matter. Caddies are required on the walking-only course, so the total cost, including tip and tax, came to $470. I absolutely loved the course, which is a lot more playable than it looks because of the wispy fescue rough, but the price is a bit steep. Although there aren’t any holes on the water, Dye’s rolling Irish Course is more reasonable at $180 plus $30 for a cart or $13 for a pullcart.
As good as Straits is, I actually enjoyed Dye’s River Course at Blackwolf Run more (oddly, though, they were going to send me out as a single until I spoke up). The definition, the conditioning, and the shot values are outstanding. With the river meandering throughout most of the course, every hole is like something out of a golf calendar, though it’s definitely not a walking course because of some of the distances between greens and tees so add $30 for a cart to the $240 green fee. The other course, Meadow Valleys ($180 plus cart), another Dye design, is also quite enjoyable. Recently renovated holes from both courses form a composite course that will host next year’s U.S. Women’s Open, just as they did in 1998.
I would definitely return, although next time it would be nice not to have to go incognito. I mean, one can only take so much.