Kohler applies touch to PGA Championship

Bath fixtures king teams with designer Dye to create Wisconsin jewel


August 08, 2004|By Ed Sherman | Ed Sherman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KOHLER, Wis. - When you live in a town named after your family, you have a tendency to think big.

Still, Herb Kohler seemed like an unlikely candidate to produce a course that is the talk of golf.

He is a burly 65-year-old who sports a white beard and a proud, proper demeanor befitting a Civil War general. Up until the late 1980s, he was a once- or twice-a-year golfer. His game was bathroom fixtures.

"When I first started working for him, he knew nothing about golf," designer Pete Dye says.

Kohler, though, knows how to make money as head of Kohler Co., a $3 billion-a-year empire that produces bathroom furnishings, plus engines and generators, among other items. He understands that excellence always sells, and that goes for golf courses, too.

The man who knew nothing about golf now has a course worthy of the best players in the world. Kohler's crown jewel, 6-year-old Whistling Straits, is set to stage the PGA Championship, which begins with first-round play Thursday.

Never in recent history has there been greater anticipation for a major championship venue in the United States. Located 55 miles north of Milwaukee in tiny Haven, Wis., Whistling Straits is a testament to the power of nature, money and vision.

Kohler's choice of land, Dye's links-inspired design and 8,000 truckloads of sand combined to bring the feel of Scotland and Pebble Beach to the shores of Lake Michigan. In a region known for mostly flat, parkland courses, Whistling Straits, with its mounds and bluffs and virtually every hole hugging the water, is like finding the Taj Mahal in the middle of Fond Du Lac, a recreational area on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin.

"It's phenomenal what they've done," says PGA Tour player Jerry Kelly, who lives in Madison, Wis. "It's a worldwide golfing destination. This is a place where people are going to come over from the other side of the world just to play here."

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle nearly got blown away by Whistling Straits during an extremely windy round in June. Like everyone else, he marvels that a course like this exists in his back yard.

"Herb is a visionary," Doyle says. "It's typical of him. He did not want to create just a golf course. He wanted to make it the best in the world."

Kohler is thrilled the golf world is coming to Wisconsin this week.

"This has been a forgotten area of the world," Kohler says. "We're not in the mainstream of sports, except for the Packers. It's exciting to see the enthusiasm for this place."

Kohler and Dye became fast friends. They went on trips to Ireland and Scotland, and Kohler fell in love with the feel of golf over there.

"He went here, there and everywhere and got all these ideas," Dye says. "He's the type of golfer who would play in any kind of conditions. When he hits in the gorse, he's either going to get it out or die."

Kohler wanted to bring that style of golf to Wisconsin. He loved the rugged, unmanicured look of those courses. After all, as a youth, he used to take vacations in primitive areas of the world.

"My cathedral is a natural environment," Kohler says. "I have a great affinity for a natural landscape. I told Pete, `Let's build a course that hasn't been seen in the U.S.' "

Kohler located his land for Whistling Straits when he happened upon some photographs of Camp Haven, which once was an antiaircraft base. The area had been used as a dumping site, requiring the cleaning up of four toxic dumps and 70 non-toxic dumps.

The area also necessitated cleaning of a different sort. It turns out a stream on the property was a major drug transfer point between Chicago and Green Bay.

"You saw a lot of characters," Kohler says. "Even the owner didn't know what was happening."

Kohler eventually got his parcel after coming to agreements with state agencies over the preservation of wetlands. Then he and Dye went to work.

It's definitely a give-and-take relationship. Both sides give and both sides take plenty.

"He's a very dominating-type person," Dye says. "He delves into everything he gets into."

Kohler says he thrives on that kind of involvement. People who work with him contend that no detail is too small to receive hands-on attention from the head of the company.

"I love the creative aspect of business," Kohler says. "That's what energizes me. We're always trying to stay out on the leading edge. Whether it's making toilets, engines or golf courses, we never try to vary the quality."

Kohler showed that trait to golfers with Whistling Straits. Opening in the summer of 1998, the course immediately attracted the attention of golf's upper brass. Usually, new courses have no shot to land major championships. They have to wait decades.

Not so with Whistling Straits. The PGA of America was so eager to hold this year's tournament on the shores of Lake Michigan, it went back on a previous commitment to hold the 2004 tournament at Valhalla, a course it owns in Louisville.

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