Driving down the back roads near Kohler, Wisconsin, past grazing Holsteins, glinting grain silos, and fields tall with corn, you are more likely to think American Gothic than American golf. The road running through the center of this tiny town (population 1,800) is lined with maple trees and punctuated by old-fashioned street lamps. You can tell right away that people don't lock their doors at night. It's a comforting country scene: Victorian houses with wraparound porches and not a McMansion (or McDonald's) in sight. But this is no ordinary small town; Kohler is home to what many consider the finest golf resort in the United States.
Just an hour's drive north of Milwaukee, it boasts four championship 18-hole golf courses designed by Pete Dye. Blackwolf Run, which hosted the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, is set in a nature preserve in the southwest corner of town and comprises two tracks: the brutally challenging River Course, which runs along the Sheboygan River, and the wooded Meadow Valleys. Situated nine miles northeast of town is the other half of the Kohler golf empire, Whistling Straits, with the inland Irish Course and the Straits Course, which hugs the edge of Lake Michigan and is consistently ranked one of the top public golf courses in America.
The resort is the brainchild of Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the 62-year-old CEO of Kohler Co., a $3 billion privately owned business known for luxury bathroom fixtures. In the mid-1980s, Kohler noticed that guests at his historic local hotel, The American Club, kept asking for a place to play golf. Kohler knew very little about the game, but he understood service, and if his customers wanted something he intended to give it to them. So he hired Pete Dye and, in 1988, opened Blackwolf Run, named after a Winnebago Indian chief. Its two courses were such a success that, in 1998 and 2000, Kohler added two more at Whistling Straits. While golf courses were a far cry from anything the company--or Kohler himself--had ever been involved with before, they nonetheless reflected the same attention to detail that had made the family business so successful. "Our mission, quite simply, is to achieve the highest quality, whether in a sink fixture or a golf course," Kohler says. "As [19th-century English art critic and historian] John Ruskin once wrote, ŒLife without labor is guilt, and life without art is brutality.' "
While all four courses are superb, the jewel in the Kohler crown is the Straits, a wild and windy links-style course that runs along two miles of rugged Lake Michigan shoreline. Although only three years old, the Straits has already secured the honor of being chosen as the site of the 2004 PGA Championship, making it one of the youngest courses ever to host a major tournament. And for good reason: It boasts the finest collection of par threes ever assembled on a single track. It's beautiful, too, with dramatically sculpted dunes and stands of knee-high fescue waving in the breeze. The rolling landscape and rustic stone clubhouse, with its slate roof and hand-hewn oak timbers, make it hard to remember that you're in Wisconsin, not on the shores of Scotland. There's even a herd of blackface sheep wandering the property.
"People often say the golf here is as good as any they've found in the United Kingdom," says Steve Friedlander, Kohler's general manager and director of golf. "Only they don't have to travel so far to get there."
In true Scottish tradition, the Straits is a walking course, with caddies required for two or more players and no carts allowed. The first hole is a 405-yard par four that doglegs gently to the left, with forbidding stretches of sandy bunkers and fescue bordering the fairway. Walk to your drive, and the first view of Lake Michigan spreads a shimmering blue across the horizon.
The imaginative brutality of Dye's greens begins to reveal itself on the second hole, a stunning par five right along the shore. The green not only hangs precariously over the water on a cliff but, in another signature Dye touch, undulates, just as it does on the par-three third hole, O'Man.
On most courses, the greens are a refuge, and a great sense of relief comes with landing your ball there. But there is nothing relaxing about the greens at the Straits. Because they are huge, often requiring 40- or 50-foot putts, you face the very real possibility of three-putting unless you put your approach shot close to the pin. Worse, most of the putting surfaces rise and fall in a series of humps and flats. Some putts are so twisted you feel like you need a slide rule and protractor just to figure out the best way to get the ball down. The reads are frequently difficult, even with one of the very able caddies helping out, and there are so many elements to take into consideration--the grain of the green, the speed--that it really plays with your mind. It's classic Pete Dye: He likes to make you think.
But the guy knows to offer solace, too. Standing on the bluff at the fourth tee, you feel as though you can see all the way to Canada. In fact, the views from most holes on the Straits make it difficult to concentrate. As you walk to the eighth tee, waves crash against the shore. Below the 13th green, salmon roll in the shallows. From the 16th tee, flocks of birds hold steady in the wind before diving suddenly into the lake.
The fifth and sixth holes are clever as well as tricky. The quirky par-five fifth, called Snake, winds in an S-shape, while a large dune blocks the right side of the sixth hole, forcing you to make a terrifying blind shot to the green.
The trio of holes that end the front nine is magnificent; the green on the 214-yard seventh, another par three, seems about to fall off the edge of the lake. So too the green at the eighth, a long par four with a backdrop of cerulean water. The ninth hole, a tough par four named Down and Dirty, is a strong finish to an inspired front nine.
One afternoon as we headed back to the clubhouse for a break, we ran into Kohler himself, a burly man with a barrel chest and a neatly trimmed beard. "How are you hitting 'em?" he asked with an arch smile, knowing that the wicked design can make even the best golfers post inordinately high scores. In fact, I was already six over par, which is not very good for a five-handicap, but I was confident I could make it up on the back nine.
Although the wind had been calm at the beginning of our early-morning round, by the time we started on the back nine it had kicked up off the water. Soon the legs of my pants were flapping like sails. Sometimes it blew so hard that while lining up my putts I could see my ball shake as if the ground underneath were rumbling. The toughest thing was resisting the temptation to swing harder; I invariably wanted to put a little extra juice into an upwind shot to push through the breeze, and to cream any downwind ball in hope of gaining some extra distance. But there's a good reason that one of golf's best-known adages is "Swing easy when it's breezy." A quicker swing invariably leads to a less consistent swing and more scattered shots. And on the Straits, scattered shots are trouble, especially if they end up in one of Dye's devilish 900 or so sand bunkers.
There are two kinds of bunkers on the Straits. The vast, windswept ones that run along the left side of the first hole, for instance, are very natural, with wisps of grasses. The lies are often uneven, and the surfaces unraked. But the real killers are the pot bunkers with layered-sod faces; some are so deep you wish there were stairs to help you get in and out of them. Extracting your ball can be misery; it took me three tries to liberate mine.
On the tenth hole, the tee shot has to carry an imposing ravine--but you must be as accurate as you are long, since the fairway is lined with bunkers that seem to swallow up balls. After all that pressure to make a perfect drive, it's a relief at first to reach the lakeside 12th hole, which requires only a pitching wedge. But if you miss the green, you'd better hope your ball doesn't disappear down the very steep slope behind it. This mini-monster feels something like the famed seventh at Pebble Beach. Thirteen features a thrilling downhill approach shot to another narrow cliff-hanger green.
The lakeside breeze poses the biggest challenge on the par-five 16th, which plays uphill and into the wind. So does number 17, a par three aptly named Pinched Nerve. You have to hit a fairway wood or driver into a stiff breeze to a green protected by a huge pot bunker that falls a harrowing 20 feet below the level of the putting surface.
The only disappointment on the Straits was the oversculpted 18th, which lacks the definition, style, and character of the rest of the course. That Dye and Kohler continue to fiddle with its design confirms the sense that it is still a work in progress.
The Straits Course may be the best Kohler has to offer, but the other three are also well worth a round. The newest is the Irish Course, which lies next to the Straits. Though not a waterfront course, it does offer views of Lake Michigan from five holes and the same sense of playing back in the Old Country. The par-72 track has five sets of tees, playing 7,201 yards from the back tees and 5,109 yards from the front.
Blackwolf Run's two par-72 courses have a completely different feel, winding their way through the forests. With a slope rating of 151 from the back tees, the River is one of the toughest courses in the country, ranging from 6,991 yards at the back tees to 5,115 yards at the front. With water hazards on 14 of the holes, greens and fairways that often tilt perilously toward the river, pot bunkers, and undulating greens, it's easy to see why.
Meadow Valleys--with a distance of 7,142 yards from the back tees and a slope of 143--gets neither the acclaim nor the respect of the other three courses in the Kohler quartet, but it should. I like this track as much as River, mainly for its varied terrain, with both beautiful flat meadows and deep ravines. And if anyone doubts the quality of the layout, keep in mind that the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in 1998 included the back nine holes at Meadow Valleys. If it's good enough for them, it's certainly good enough for me.
Greens fees: $229 for the Straits, $148 for Meadow Valleys; $172 for the Irish Course, $158 for River. Blackwolf Run, 1111 West Riverside Drive, Kohler, WI 53044; 800-618-5535, 920-457-4446; www.blackwolfrun.com.
The American Club
Built in 1918, The American Club's three-story red-brick Tudor has warm wood-paneled rooms with a charming, old-fashioned feel. The comfortable bedrooms have down comforters with white coverlets and chintz accents. Bathrooms are appointed with top-of-the-line Kohler fixtures (of course) and deep whirlpool tubs. Should you exhaust the 14,000-square-foot Kohler Waters Spa, there is hiking and fishing nearby.
The club's Wisconsin Room serves lunches of mostly regional fare, including rainbow trout and duck. The elegant Immigrant Restaurant and Winery has six rooms, each reflecting a different ethnic background of the early Wisconsin settlers. Executive Chef Rhys Lewis offers such dishes as seared foie gras with mission figs and hazelnut-crusted rack of lamb. The wine list is extensive and fairly priced. The clubhouses at both Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits have first-rate restaurants. Rooms: $205-$735. The American Club, 444 Highland Drive, Kohler, WI 53044; 800-344-2838; 920-457-8000; www.kohler.com.