At one point on Blackwolf Run's River Course, which together with the adjacent Meadow Valley Course will host its second U.S. Women's Open July 5-8, players catch a glimpse of the original Kohler fixture factory that made the Pete Dye layout, and everything else in Destination Kohler, possible.
A larger main plant has long since opened just down the road, and it's still this Wisconsin company town's main economic driver, producing stainless steel plumbing parts in shapes and configurations that rival Dye's design conceits in their breadth of utilitarian beauty. Kohler fixtures turn every hotel, restaurant, spa and clubhouse restroom in these parts into its own mini-museum. Washing one's hands or taking a shower rarely approaches such a level of polished perfection.
Consider the showers in the resort’s recently remodeled Inn at Woodlake, for instance. The water comes at you from one to six square “heads,” each with dozens of mini-jets that can be tweaked to hit your body in just the right places, at just the right pressure. Five minutes in their company and you’ll want to rush home, rip out that rusty and one-dimensional shower you’ve lived with all these years, and install these heads instead, thereby transporting your daily hygiene ritual to a place it’s never been — or, at least since the last time you hopped a plane to Milwaukee, made the hour’s drive north along Lake Michigan and found your way to what can only be described as the Monterey of the Midwest.
That’s right. The American Club-Whistling Straits combo rivals a certain world-famous Pacific Coast golf mecca in every way that matters, from course conditioning to four-course meals, and does so in a decided family friendly way. No airs. No attitude. Just straightforward Midwestern quality served with a smile and a distinctive flat accent.
In fact, let's coin a new phrase right here: Kohler-ific. Perhaps a little too cute for CEO Herb Kohler’s taste, but it’s true.
Way up there, just off Interstate 43 on the way to Green Bay, he found a way to blend the place’s working class history and his own passions for golf and travel into a “rustic luxury” destination with few peers in the Northern Hemisphere.
He brought in Dye to build his golf courses beginning with the original Blackwolf Run in 1990, which he later expanded to 36 holes despite a general consensus that he’d never attract enough traffic to keep two courses rolling — even though he had the nearby lodging infrastructure in place, namely the American Club, an ivy-covered edifice of tree-shaded brick that seeps Old World elegance while nurturing its working class roots as home away from home for thousands of primarily Eastern European immigrants. That led to him nailing down the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Se Ri Pak, and opened the floodgates for several high-profile national competitions to come.
He and Dye then turned several hundred acres north of Sheboygan into another two-course juggernaut known as Whistling Straits, perhaps the most-discussed (and most amazing) transformation of flat earth into heaving dunescape in history: The inland Irish, which is planted in bentgrass and has bunkers numbering in the hundreds, and the lakeside, even more bunkered, fescue-festooned Straits Course, which continues to evolve thanks to Dye’s restless creativity and obvious affection for both the site and what he made of it — in short, his Best Work Ever. To date the Straits has hosted two men’s majors with another to come in 2015, as well as its first Ryder Cup in 2020.
He continued to hone and expand Destination Kohler with just the right amenities — a shopping center here, a huge fitness facility there, a spa housed in the “carriage house” next door to the American Club’s main lodge, new and updated restaurants, access to all-season outdoor pursuits from horseback riding to snowmobiling, local dairy-flavored accents from homemade chocolates to an “evolution of cheddar” wine-and-cheese tasting … everything the discerning traveler craves in a getaway.
And along the way he’s attracted a top-flight management staff who tend to stick around once they find their way here. Both head pros — Whistling Straits’ Mike O’Reilly and and David Albrecht at Blackwolf Run — have been there since the beginning, or close to it, while brand new American Club Executive Chef Rick Boyer was just settling in after seven weeks on the job when Fairways + Greens visited in late June, bringing with him an impressive resume that we’ll touch on in a future entry.
But next up, we’ll dive into Kohler’s No. 1 calling card, at least as far as we’re concerned: The golf.
If we ever get out of the shower, that is.