By Brandon Tucker,
Kohler, Wisconsin doesn't immediately spring to mind when you think of major golf destinations. But with four championship golf courses - including famed Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run - and world-class hotel facilities, this former industrial town is firmly on the golf map.
KOHLER, Wis. - A mysterious, bearded man greets those passing into Kohler, Wisconsin: a historic, industrial village home to the Kohler bathroom fixture empire that has turned into a Midwest golf mecca, home to some of the world's biggest tournaments.
That man, immortalized on the Whistling Straits badge, is Herb Kohler - the family heir responsible for making Kohler a prominent fixture in golf, beginning in the late 1980s.
Originally a factory town home to the Kohler empire, today its a working village and remains home to over 7,000 Kohler employees - the company's largest hub in North America. It's located two miles from the lake-side town of Sheboygan and an hour north of Milwaukee, but there's enough to do in Kohler - golf aside - that you won't miss any of the big city hubbub.
Kohler's golf is world class: Four Pete Dye-designed courses and three of them are nationally ranked by just about every publication. It's a golfer's dream, and throw in the five-star accommodations and newly-renovated Waters Spa and there's no better destination in the Midwest for an upscale golf getaway.
About a fifteen minute drive from Kohler, the Whistling Straits facility is home to the now PGA Tour-famous Straits course and a lesser-known but fantastic Irish course, which is more than a meager "solid second."
The shore side land was dead flat when Herb Kohler got his hands on it, and he commissioned Pete Dye to create a landscape along the lines of Ballybunion in Ireland. To do this, truckloads of dirt were imported - enough to fill a football field five stories high - and massive, rugged dunes were created as well as thousands of bunkers, often placed in front and even behind tee boxes with seemingly little reason to them.
The Straits Course - The Straits was commissioned by Kohler with the intention to stage the world's biggest professional championships and it's succeeded mightily. This is where the PGA Championship was held in 2004 and the Senior U.S. Open will be held in the summer of 2007. The Straits course has already signed on for the 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships as well as the 2020 Ryder Cup Matches.
What this means for the mid-handicapper however is a course that won't do you any favors. It's breathtakingly beautiful, overlooking Lake Michigan, whose views, 60 miles across to Michigan, is expansive enough to pass as any sea in Ireland or ocean view in Monterrey.
But it's a sinister, intimidating round that will make most scorecards ugly. The par-3 7th that sits right next to the lake is one of the more photogenic holes - and the par-3 17th, whose green is perched over the lake and about a 20-foot drop off to bunkers, is certainly the most intimidating of the bunch.
The Irish Course - The Irish course lacks the lake views at every turn (though you will get a handful) but the hole variety and rugged landscape give it its own character. It's a little more player-friendly with wider landing zones, but you'll still get the barrage of bunkering and rolling dunes. The par-3 13th, "Blind Man's Bluff," is also one of the property's most memorable par-3s, featuring a blind shot over dunes to a massive, 14,000 square-foot green.
Sweetening the deal on the Irish is the free replays it offers to those who book a package through Destination Kohler - a $150 value.
Blackwolf Run is Kohler's original golf facility, just a mile down the road from the center of town and the American Club hotel. It has its own championship pedigree, playing host to the LPGA's 1998 U.S. Women's Open, when Se Ri Pak took home the title. The Open course featured nine holes from each of its two championship courses: The Meadow Valleys and the River Course.
The River Course: The River course winds along lowland by the Sheboygan River Bed. The wooded, rolling parkland course is a contrast to the Straits in ambiance but not difficulty. Despite a championship yardage of under 7,000 yards, the River course is a beast.
The two best holes play with the river to the right: the short par-4 9th that begs to be greened from the tee box and demands golfers play between trees and the river to a narrow chute. Then there's the par-3 13th hole - playing through trees and over the river as well. It's one of the most unique par-3s you'll ever play.
Meadow Valleys: The Meadow Valleys is the least revered course in Kohler and considered the easiest of the bunch, but it's tough to call any Dye course a pushover.
Unlike the River course, the Meadow Valleys course plays mostly on higher, wide open terrain. Many greens are perched over hills and ravines with sharp drop-offs. The par-3 17th requires a shot over or around a large maple tree in front of the green. The 18th might be the prettiest hole in all of Kohler, playing along the river and finally over it and a colorful flower bed to a green sitting below the clubhouse - far more memorable than the River's finisher.
The main accommodation facility is the five-star American Club. A beautiful example of Tudor architecture, it was built at the turn of the 20th century to house immigrant factory workers in Kohler. It's since been expanded and upgraded and is now an all-encompassing hotel with conference centers, gardens and several restaurants.
The Kohler Waters Spa has recently received its own rejuvenation and is now one of America's best retreats and features a variety of signature treatments and several relaxation rooms. Both courses at Whistling Straits are walking-only - all the more reason to look into an afternoon here getting a signature "golfer's massage" or just relax in the spa.
Guests of the American Club also receive free access to the Sports Core fitness center, which features a full gym as well as lakeside beach and patio for the leisurely-minded.
July 12, 2007
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.