KOHLER – Herbert V. Kohler Jr. admittedly knew next to nothing about golf when he set out to build a course for guests of The American Club in the mid-1980s.
Rebuffed in his attempt to buy private Pine Hills Country Club, he convinced the Kohler Co.’s board of directors to approve the construction of a “championship course” – whatever that meant – on pristine company-owned land in the Sheboygan River valley.
Colleagues warned that green fees north of $50 wouldn’t fly in Wisconsin but Kohler’s intuition told him otherwise. His instinct about course designer Pete Dye was right, too. They were, on the surface, an odd couple – the billionaire CEO and the eccentric mover of dirt – and they squabbled plenty in the early going, but the synergy somehow worked.
I thought about all those things when I played the original championship course at Blackwolf Run earlier this week. A single with foursomes stacked ahead of and behind me, I played two balls and had plenty of time to enjoy the course, which remains as wondrous as the day it opened 30 years ago.
Simply put, Blackwolf Run is the most important course built in our state in golf’s modern age, and perhaps ever.
It proved that destination golf and Wisconsin were not mutually exclusive. If you built it, Kohler reasoned, they would come. Come they did, in numbers so great that Kohler and Dye split the original course in half – a gamble decried by the experts (once again proven wrong) – and added nine holes to each half, thus creating the equally heralded River and Meadow Valleys courses.
The success of Blackwolf Run set in motion a golf course building boom along Interstate 43 north of Milwaukee that gave us Country Club of Wisconsin (now Fire Ridge) in Grafton in 1994, The Bog in Saukville in 1995 and The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls in 2002.
Bob Lang, founder of Erin Hills, has praised Kohler for his vision and it’s doubtful the 2017 U.S. Open venue would exist had Blackwolf Run not been built. Perhaps Mike Keiser would have built his sprawling Sand Valley Resort in central Wisconsin, anyway, but it had to be easier to pull the trigger knowing that golfers from far and wide had been flocking to Kohler for years.
Herb Kohler wasn’t finished, of course. He and Dye teamed to add spectacular Whistling Straits on bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan in 1998 and the companion Irish Course in 2000, giving the Kohler Co. four world-class venues (with a fifth in the permitting stages in the town of Wilson). And he expanded to the home of golf, buying and renovating the iconic Old Course Hotel and the Duke’s Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
But it wasn’t enough to have superior facilities. Kohler knew nothing marketed golf properties like major championships, and he cultivated relationships with the United States Golf Association and the PGA of America.
The 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run demonstrated Wisconsin’s pent-up demand for championship golf, with traffic backing up on I-43 and huge crowds setting revenue records for the week.
Se Ri Pak’s playoff victory over amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn launched a South Korean golf boom that has given us 17 of the top 50 players in the current Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
Whistling Straits played host to the PGA Championship in 2004, 2010 and 2015 and to the U.S. Senior Open in 2007. The biggest prize in golf, the Ryder Cup, is coming in 2020. It's been an amazing run.
Dye is 92 now and suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Ron Whitten’s profile of the great architect in the latest issue of Golf Digest will move you to tears. Kohler is 79 and in 2015 stepped down as Kohler Co. CEO, relinquishing the title to his son, David.
I have enjoyed a great working relationship with Mr. Kohler through the years and I’m thankful for the help he has given me on many stories, on and off the record. I last saw in him in April, at a dinner the night before the Masters. We chatted for 30 minutes, his booming laugh filling the room.
I thought about all those things as I negotiated Dye’s masterpiece in quiet solitude the other day.
Time marches on. We grow older and move up a tee or two.
Blackwolf Run, though, has stood the test. It’s as magnificent as the day it opened 30 years ago ... and hopefully will be for decades to come.