Perched on a sandhill of native grasses, Herb Kohler watched last week as Corey Pavin and Paul Azinger got prematurely flushed out of the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf. It looked like somebody had just kicked the Toilet Bowl King in the gut. Kohler is the big cheese of Wisconsin golf, the man who financed and built Blackwolf Run, which last week hosted the U.S. championships in the $3.65 million match-play tournament. And it was no secret that a Pavin-Azinger final would have provided plenty of promotion for his facility.
Not to worry, Herb. Blackwolf Run appears perfectly capable of standing on its own. The 36-hole, Pete Dye-designed layout, located about 55 miles north of Milwaukee in—where else?—Kohler, Wis., got the attention of four PGA Tour players last week, and it already has the U.S. Golf Association's eye. A composite of the Meadow Valleys and River courses will host the 1998 U.S. Women's Open. And players are booking tee times on the $100-a-round River course up to two years in advance. That's a remarkable ascension for a facility that only opened in 1988.
But then the 56-year-old Kohler is no stranger to success. He runs one of the oldest and largest privately held companies in the United States. The making of the Kohler fortune started in 1873 when John Michael Kohler enameled a horse trough, put legs on it and sold it to a local farmer for one cow and 14 chickens. Today Kohler's corporate arms extend from bathroom fixtures to furniture to resorts.
So Herb Kohler has deep pockets and a desire to become a player in the golf world. In 1986 he met Dye at one of his design projects, Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond, Okla., and convinced him to make Blackwolf Run his next venture.
"The only reason I started to get into golf was the American Club," Kohler said of the 233-room hotel that he opened in 1981. "Most of the guests wanted to play. The hotel was already at capacity, so we didn't have to build a golf course to get more guests. But we had to lug the guests off the property to play golf, so it became a real pain in the neck. Finally, after a couple of false starts, we came up with Pete."
At first, Dye was skeptical. He had no idea where Kohler was located, or what the land was like. "I know I've never had ground quite this equal in the United States," Dye said. "You either get a swamp or a landfill or a flood plain."
The latest Dye-Kohler project is Whistling Straits, a 36-hole facility under construction on 560 acres along the banks of Lake Michigan. Located on an abandoned military base about eight miles from Blackwolf Run, Whistling Straits is scheduled to open its first 18 holes in the summer of '97. The property is so spectacular that the 69-year-old Dye was jumping in the dirt when he made the first visit. It will feature 14 holes along two miles of lakefront property. "It's going to be the purest links course in the United States," said Kohler, who would like to host a U.S. Amateur or Walker Cup on one of his properties. "It will be dunes, fescue fairways, a pure walking course."