How Herb Kohler helped feed the present-day golf travel frenzy

Golf course news and notes: September, 2022
Herb Kohler poses in front of his Old Course Hotel during the third round of the 134th Open Championship at Old Course, St Andrews Golf Links, July 16, 2005 in St Andrews, Scotland.

In the 19th century, some academics touted the so-called "great man theory" when analyzing particular periods of world history, in essence reading them through the lens of influential individuals. Napoleon's exploits at the turn of that century no doubt contributed to the theory's development.

In the extreme relative niche of golf resort development history, the great man (and woman) theory applies, too. Before contemporary visionaries like Mike Keiser and Johnny Morris put their stamp on some of the world's most sought-after golf destinations, Herb Kohler, who passed away on September 3, 2022 at the age of 83, was in many ways the father of the modern golf resort.

Having brought his big personality and savvy to the family business - plumbing fixtures - Kohler helped the company his grandfather built transcend its initial purpose while remaining committed to quality- and art-forward engineering. To most, a bathroom faucet is a forgettable and mundane item. Kohler raised it and myriad other appliances to objects of art, elevating the experience of millions of households. The decades-strong company slogan, "The Bold Look of Kohler," encourages the consumer to actually look at something like a sink not just as a functional object, but a beautiful one.

In similar fashion, Kohler would play a crucial role in elevating the golf vacation, too. Destination Kohler, which envelops the eponymous company town an hour north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was molded by its namesake's vision and penchant for deep involvement in even the smallest aspects of the experience. Anyone who has noticed the unusually minimal lighting in spaces like the American Club Hotel or the Whistling Straits clubhouse can be assured that those details, even the quirky ones, are the way they are because that's the way Mr. Kohler wanted them.

Is it any wonder that Kohler found a kindred spirit in Pete Dye, who designed all four of the resort's courses, including two-time U.S. Women's Open host Blackwolf Run (a composite of the site's River and Meadow Valleys layouts) and Whistling Straits, which Kohler would see host the 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships, plus the 2021 Ryder Cup? Dye's own eccentricity, commitment to his craft and flair for the dramatic made him ideal choice to execute Kohler's vision. After Dye passed away in early 2020, Kohler even lent assistance to architect Chris Lutzke in the creation of the Baths of Blackwolf Run, the resort's 10-hole par-3 course that opened in 2021, a testament to the boldness of both men.

A bathtub stands proudly at the Baths of Blackwolf Run par-3 golf course in Kohler, Wisc., a testament to resort developer Herb Kohler's contributions to American life.

From Blackwolf Run's 1988 opening forward, Destination Kohler put Wisconsin on the map as a viable American golf destination, despite its remove from a major population center. Latter-day in-state properties like Sand Valley Golf Resort, Erin Hills and Lac La Belle draw strength from the precedent Herb Kohler set, and other out-of-the-way resorts like Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Big Cedar Lodge in southern Missouri, each with their own boldly-executed visions thanks to singular guiding figures, have roots in Kohler's own maverick approach.

Kohler's influence on golf travel extends across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2004, he bought what is now the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa in St. Andrews, Scotland. Several renovation projects in the last 18-plus years have brought it up to the standards of the incredible piece of real estate on which it sits.

In a rare apparent act of magnanimity from the golf gods, Kohler made the lone hole-in-one of his life in 2007, on the 11th hole at The Old Course.

Two years later, after the global recession left it in disrepair, Kohler bought the building now known as Hamilton Grand, a former University of St. Andrews dormitory-cum-luxury apartment complex that dates to the 1890s, saving it from ruin or redevelopment that might have forever marred the historic backdrop to The Old Course's iconic finish.

If future scholars of golf course and resort history come to subscribe to the great man theory, then they will regard Herb Kohler as one of the greatest, not just for what he did, but what he helped inspire.

More golf course news and notes

The Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, N.Y. is looking spiffy after its recent renovation.

FRESH TUXEDO - The Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., about 40 miles northwest of New York City, recently reopened its Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed golf course after a year-long renovation effort. The club kept things in the family, hiring Rees Jones and associate Bryce Swanson to complete the work, which includes updated bunkering, short-grass collection areas around some greens and a revamped 9th hole.

YOUNGEST GOLF COURSE OWNER IN AMERICA? - What were you doing when you were 23 years old? Probably not buying a golf course, like Wisconsin's Tyler Luedtke has done. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student and friend Jared Kraftzenk recently took over the par-65, former Sir Lanserlot Golf Course, renaming it Crystal Lake Golf Course. Luedtke was able to afford to buy the course based on the success of another real estate investment of his, a 200-acre farm. Oh, and he's also a volunteer local high school sports photographer. Kids these days... [LINK: SpectrumNews 1]

LOS ANGELES CC LANDS SECOND US OPEN? - The U.S.G.A. hasn't made it official, but L.A. Times reporter Sam Farmer reported that 2023 U.S. Open host Los Angeles Country Club (North) is also slated to host the 2032 U.S. Women's Open and the 2039 U.S. Open. It is an impressive vote of confidence for the George Thomas masterpiece (restored by Gil Hanse) to be awarded a second U.S. Open before hosting its first. [LINK: Twitter]

PINEHURST NO. 8 REOPENS - With ten golf courses (nine big courses plus The Cradle), Pinehurst Resort is constantly updating and refreshing something. One of the latest projects to come off their plate: a "remastering" of its Tom Fazio-designed No. 8. This was an agronomic move, rather than an architectural one, with No. 8 getting new TifEagle Bermuda greens (restored to original dimensions), renovated bunkers and some aggressive de-thatching practices done to fairways and tees to help make them play firmer and faster. No. 8 remains a modern counterpoint to the more classic Pinehurst Resort favorites like No. 2 and No. 4.

GOLF-ADJACENT - Put together a town called Soap Lake with the name "Lava Links" and you have none other than "the world's worst golf course." [LINK: KING 5 News]

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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How Herb Kohler helped feed the present-day golf travel frenzy