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Looking for a hot destination this summer? Wisconsin weather is about as pleasant as it gets and there’s no shortage of golf retreats. If you’ve followed developments in the Badger State over the last couple of years, you know the media focus has been on Erin Hills, which hosted the 2017 U.S. Open (Brooks Koepka’s first major win), and Sand Valley, Mike Keiser’s latest golf mecca that is situated on a landscape reminiscent of the North Carolina Sandhills. How odd is it that the original standard bearer for both traveling golfers and championship competition in Wisconsin, Destination Kohler, has somehow been overlooked? Even the 100th anniversary of the American Club, Kohler’s flagship hotel, flew under the radar.
Ah, but no longer. Destination Kohler is about to see its profile skyrocket to the stratosphere. Kohler’s top-rated eighteen, the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, will host the 43rd Ryder Cup matches September 25-27, 2020. The Straits has already hosted three PGA Championships (2004, 2010, and 2015) and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, while a hybrid of the River and Meadow Valleys courses at Blackwolf Run has hosted the 1998 and 2012 U.S. Women’s Opens. That gives Herb Kohler’s Wisconsin retreat, which also boasts a fabulous spa, a private sporting club on a 500-acre wildlife preserve, an extensive health and racquet club, and outstanding dining, major-championship pedigree on three of its four Pete Dye-designed golf courses.
Not bad for a retreat that Pete and Alice Dye nearly dismissed because it was in “snow country” in the “wilds of southern Wisconsin.” That was back in 1984, when Herb Kohler, the president of the Kohler Company, first approached Dye about designing a golf course for the American Club, the Midwest’s only five-star, five Diamond resort hotel. The three-story, Tudor-style American Club had opened in 1918 as a dormitory to house Kohler’s immigrant factory workers. In 1978, Herb Kohler closed the American Club for three years in order to transform it into a luxury hotel.
After the American Club hotel opened in 1981, it took Herb Kohler a few years to realize golf could be the resort’s big draw. The bl site is full of natural beauty from dramatic landforms such as kettles and moraines and the winding, salmon- and trout-filled waters of the Sheboygan River. There had even been a small, four-hole golf course for Kohler employees on a portion of the property. Play debuted at Blackwolf Run (named for a chieftain of the Winnebago tribe that had inhabited the region) in the fall of 1988. Meanwhile, Kohler commissioned Dye to build a second eighteen. Since the most suitable land was on both sides of the original course, Dye designed eighteen more holes and integrated them with the old ones, creating the River and Meadow Valleys courses.
The success of the two Blackwolf Run courses led Herb Kohler to enlist Pete Dye to design two more courses at a site on Lake Michigan, about 10 miles from the Village of Kohler. Here Dye realized Kohler’s vision of reworking the flat landscape that had been a military training facility and creating “Irish links” with huge dunes along the coastline. The marquee eighteen is the walking-only Straits Course at Whistling Straits, which features no fewer than eight holes on the shoreline as it conjures visions of Ballybunion. Whistling Straits’ second eighteen, the Irish Course, abuts the Straits but percolates inland with more soaring dunes, four twisting streams, and stands of trees. It’s a fitting cap to Dye’s Destination Kohler efforts—as fine a foursome of Pete Dye designs as you can play.
Back in the Village of Kohler, the American Club is spruced up and ready for its second hundred years. Though we spent three nights at this atmospheric luxury retreat last fall, other Kohler options may better fit your taste and budget. Spa lovers often gravitate to the guestrooms of the Carriage House, which conveniently houses the recently expanded, showplace Kohler Waters Spa. For the ultimate pampered Kohler experience, you may be able to stay one-time at Riverbend, the private side of Kohler. Riverbend’s grand historic mansion houses 31 guestrooms. Those looking for an affordable option will do well at the Inn on Woodlake. Located by the Shops at Woodlake, the Inn may not have all the luxury appointments and service bells and whistles of Kohler’s other accommodations, but it is comfortable and affordable. The recent addition of a number of two- and four-bedroom suites make it ideal for families and buddy or girlfriend groups.
Golf season in southern Wisconsin typically starts around mid-April and runs through the later stages of October. We arrived for the final weekdays of the 2018 season. Though the weather was fine during our rounds, snow had fallen in Kohler the previous weekend. The best time for a visit is June through Labor Day, though you can score some dramatic savings at the beginning and end of the season. Kohler makes a concerted effort to entice groups of eight or more during these shoulder times. Bear in mind that fall brings spectacular colors. If you are planning to visit this year or next, make your plans quickly, because Kohler is expecting very high demand due to the excitement being generated by the upcoming Ryder Cup.
Though Whistling Straits provides an “Irish” golf experience, it is much easier to get to than the Emerald Isle itself or other Irish surrogates in North American such as Bandon Dunes or Cabot Links. Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) is only an hour from the Destination Kohler golf mecca and the Sheboygan County Memorial Airport (SBM), which can serve those who have access to private planes, is but a ten-minute drive. Once you are at the resort, you won’t need a car if you take the complimentary shuttle that serves all of the resort outposts as well as the Village of Kohler.
Whistling Straits Golf Club, home to the Straits Course and the Irish Course, is a slice of Ireland on the shores of Lake Michigan. Debate may rage over whether Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic or the Straits Course is Pete Dye’s most amazing design, but no one disputes that the transformation of the pancake-flat landscape beyond the 70-foot-tall Lake Michigan bluffs into towering, natural-looking sand dunes, the tallest of which rise nearly 80 feet, was a herculean accomplishment and as dramatic as anything Dye ever created.
We played our first rounds on the Straits Course (Rating: A+) the very week it opened in 1998. It remains one of our favorite courses. The routing extends along two miles of shoreline over rugged, windswept terrain. Eight holes hug the bluffs, moving in different directions and presenting players with infinity greens, ever-perplexing angles, and harrowing shots over little coves of the lake. With the lake in view from all 18 tests, new scenes unfold on every hole that make it hard to concentrate on the shot at hand.
The Straits Course is a bucket-list experience. With over 500 bunkers (remember poor Dustin Johnson), huge dunes that make for blind shots, steep falloffs from the fairways, rugged terrain, and thick grass everywhere beyond the groomed turf, the Straits Course is hard. The two keys are playing from the proper set of markers and keeping the ball in the fairway. Both go hand in hand. One of our playing partners imploded by choosing unwisely. Since he was fulfilling a lifelong dream to play the course, he thought he should play it from the 6,663-yard green markers. Overmatched, he wound up losing about 10 balls and must have taken 30 hacking swings from very awkward stances in the tall grass. Even after all that, he still said the experience was worth every penny.
The Straits is a walking course. It’s a pleasant hike when you hit the ball where it is supposed to go. Alas, when you miss the fairway, the terrain turns steep quite quickly and the walking becomes taxing. Caddies are required except for twilight rounds. They can make your day much easier. Chris, a longtime caddie who resides in the area year round, provided excellent service during our round. He was especially helpful reading the Straits’ very large, tiered greens. The caddie fee is $65 per bag plus gratuity (recommended gratuity is $50).
The Irish Course (Rating: A-), Pete Dye’s fourth for Herb Kohler, debuted in 2000. At first glance, it is similar in style to the Straits Course, especially on the front nine. Dye extended his faux dunes and heaving terrain inland on a routing adjacent to the Straits. Mountainous dunes on the sides of tee boxes shield players from wind, but the ball will still be impacted. Though the Irish Course lacks lakeside holes, players get views of Lake Michigan from a few of the higher spots on the course. Unlike the Straits Course, stands of trees factor into play. Four streams and a manmade lake lend scenic appeal and further intimidation. Ten wooden bridges, alternatively made of wooden beams, telephone poles, railroad ties, and pine planks, add to the ambience. Note that carts can be used, though they must always remain on the path. Caddies are not required.
Editor’s Note: A herd of Scottish blackface sheep wander around both playing fields. Their pen is near the tee boxes on the 17th hole of the Irish Course.
The Whistling Straits clubhouse has a large golf shop with a lavish array of merchandise, an upstairs bar and lounge, a fireplace, and very good dining. Ina separate building, the Champions Locker Room is a space groups of 16 or more can rent out. There are two posh locker rooms, a lounge area, televisions, and a small kitchen. For “The Locker Room Experience,” each guest chooses a locker used by a notable pro in previous Majors and gets his or her own locker name plate.
Meanwhile, at Blackwolf Run, Kohler’s two original layouts ramble over some 400 acres. The higher-rated and tougher of the two is the River Course (Rating: A). Many repeat Kohler guests consider it the best course at the resort. It is easily six to eight shots more difficult than Meadow Valleys and many times more dramatic.
The River Course is a shotmaker’s test that puts a premium on approaches from the proper angle. Its two most spellbinding holes, the 5th, Made in Heaven, and the 8th, Hell’s Gate, present amazing tee shots from the back sets of markers. On the 5th, players tee off from a ledge promontory and drive the ball over the river and down to the fairway below. On the 8th, you stand on even higher ground and hit your drive through a narrow chute where “hell” awaits anyone who does not make it through the “gate.” The 9th hole, Cathedral Spires, is a short par four that offers three different approaches to the green. Those are just a few highlights from the front nine. The back nine is even more “Dye-abolical.”
The steep terrain on the River Course and the long distances from green to tee should convince even the most ardent walker to use a cart. Many who choose to walk are exhausted by the 9th hole. Because of the scale of the course, rounds frequently take 4.5 to 5 hours.
Meadow Valleys (Rating: A-) receives slightly less play than the Irish Course, but it is hardly a slouch to round out Kohler’s foursome of Dye gems. The course plays host to most of Destination Kohler’s junior golf events.
Meadow Valleys is the most forgiving Kohler layout. The front nine is open and exposed. From the 1st hole vantage point, players can gaze out on no fewer than six holes. For the first few tests of the round you can spray your ball without retribution.
The most unique hole on the course is the 10th, as players leave the wide-open front nine and arrive at a very tight, tree-lined hole. The short par-4 13th, the dogleg-right par-4 14th, and the gorgeous par-3 15th with its green perched on the edge of a precipice, make for as fine a three-hole stretch as you’ll find at Blackwolf Run. The round finishes on a double green shared with the 18th of the River Course.
Like the other courses, Meadow Valleys lists six sets of tee boxes on the scorecard. Each hole features five tee boxes. The sixth designation on the card is a hybrid of the red and white markers.
Blackwolf Run features an impressive alpine log clubhouse. The golf shop has a cabin feel, while the restaurant is popular with locals for lunch and dinner. Breakfast is also offered in golf season.
Editor’s Note: Destination Kohler provides a number of ways to save during your trip. Golfers on packages get complimentary replays. After your first round, you need only pay a cart fee for any additional play that day. Otherwise, if you are playing à la carte, same-day replay rounds are 45 percent off. Twilight rounds, which commence up to 4.5 hours before the official sunset, are discounted 30 percent. Super-twilight rates of 45 percent off kick in 2.5 hours before sunset.
On this visit, we stayed at the American Club (Rating: A+), the centerpiece of Destination Kohler. After being greeted by valets decked out elegantly in bowler hats, we entered the historic building and checked in at the registration counter. A glass of spiced pear Bellini set a festive tone to the start of our getaway. (In spring, the welcome drink is a Mimosa.) The level of service—we were always greeted by name—instantly made us feel genuinely appreciated and welcome.
The American Club presents an enchanting mix of history and luxury. The hotel has been smartly updated to preserve its luster and aura. History is celebrated throughout the building. Photos depicting the early days of The American Club and the village of Kohler adorn the oak-paneled hallways. Those halls are like a maze, so don’t’ be surprised if at some point you make a wrong turn.
The chambers themselves are plush but much darker in tone than you may be accustomed to. Each room in the American Club is named after a famous celebrity or dignitary from yesteryear. We were in the “Liberace” room. The plush bedding, soft lighting, bedside iPad, and Google Chromecast made for cozy comfort. Of course, the bathrooms are the star attractions. They are a showcase of Kohler fixtures and entice many a guest to install them in their own homes.
Destination Kohler presents other lodging options. If you’re interested in a spa getaway, the 55-room Carriage House shares space with the Kohler Waters Spa in a building that dates back to the early 1900se. This is the quietest hotel at Destination Kohler, as all guests must be 16 years of age or older.
The guestrooms resemble those of the American Club. Here each chamber is named after a different carriage style and comes with a bio sheet outlining its history. All rooms feature a bath-shower combination with a walk-in rainfall shower. Carriage House guests enjoy complimentary access to the spa whenever it is open (other resort guests must pay a day fee unless they have a scheduled treatment). Other perks include a complimentary continental breakfast in the Spa Café, afternoon tea, and evening drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
Kohler’s more budget-minded hotel is the Inn on Woodlake. Golfers, especially golfing groups, tend to congregate here. The rooms are not posh—Kohler reservationists describe them as three-star rooms—but they are spacious and far brighter than the rooms at the American Club. The bathroom feature Kohler Shower Experience showers. Note that six of the Inn’s rooms are dog-friendly.
Until the past year, golf groups could not stay together anywhere at Destination Kohler. Now they can, thanks to the Inn on Woodlake’s popular new two- and four-bedroom suites. The four bedroom units sleep up to eight. Another unique feature is that two of the bedrooms are located upstairs and have a separate entrance.
The guest experience at the Inn on Woodlake, which is located by the Shops at Woodlake, about a mile from the American Club, does not include valet parking, room service, or evening turndown service. While the Inn lacks a restaurant, a hot continental breakfast is offered between 6 and 10 a.m. each morning and fruit is set out throughout the day. You can also walk to Cucina and other outlets in the plaza. The Inn has a small bar downstairs that is open nightly from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. Guests also congregate on the patio overlooking the lake, and there’s even a small sandy beach and a walking path that makes a circuit of the lake. Golfers and non-golfers alike can use the Inn’s putting green.
Riverbend is a private Kohler membership club, but subject to availability, anyone can stay at this lavish Tudor mansion for a one-time visit. Normally, such visitors are prospective members. This exquisitely landscaped, intricately detailed architectural marvel, built in stages from 1921 to 1934, was the personal residence of Walter J. Kohler who served a term as Governor of Wisconsin. Riverbend has 31 guestrooms, a spa, indoor pool, solarium, and innumerable spaces to explore. Impeccable personalized service is a Riverbend hallmark.
Destination Kohler features an impressive array of character-filled restaurants. The Immigrant Room, the American Club’s premier fine-dining restaurant, consists of a series of intimate dining rooms, each named for a different European immigrant group that worked for the Kohler Company and lived at the American Club. The cooking showcases contemporary takes on classic dishes from around the world. Prices aren’t for the faint of heart, but the way to go here is either the five- or seven-course Tasting Menu. Jackets are required for men.
Editor’s Note: The Winery Bar, located just off the hallway leading to the Immigrant Room, has great atmosphere.
The Wisconsin Room is a grand dining hall specializing in Midwestern fare. It is most popular on Friday nights when the lure is a seafood buffet. Sunday brunch is also a favorite.
The Horse & Plow, the American Club’s lively subterranean pub, was the original recreation center and tap room for the Kohler Company workers. Table tops are constructed from the old bowling lanes. This is the place to watch a game while enjoying Wisconsin microbrews, burgers, schnitzel, and other comfort fare. For a light breakfast or lunch and coffee, try The Greenhouse, an antique solarium brought over from England. In summer the ice cream is especially popular.
For a health-conscious lunch, try the new Spa Café at the Carriage House. Cucina, in the Woodlake Center, is an authentic Italian restaurant with a gorgeous chandelier. Highlights include a raw bar and a selection of dishes from the wood fire-grill. Charges here and at any of the Shops at Woodlake businesses can be billed to your room.
We had our best dining experience at River Wildlife Lodge. With six small, rustic dining rooms and a massive fieldstone fireplace, the log cabin lodge is part of a private club, but resort guests can gain access by purchasing a pass. The signature dishes here are the herb-breaded Canadian walleye and the Elk Tenderloin.
Blackwolf Run Restaurant is an American grill specializing in regional cuisine. The Whistling Straits Restaurant, located in the clubhouse, is a favorite of golfers and non-golfers alike. British Isles fare cooked with flair highlights the menu.
One of our favorite places at Destination Kohler, the Kohler Waters Spa, is better than ever following the addition of new treatment rooms, expanded seating in the co-ed lounge by the relaxation pool, and a health-conscious café. The spa specializes in hydrotherapy treatments. We had a great Woodsman Massage which combines massage techniques with stretches.
You may need a spa treatment if you avail yourself of Kohler’s plethora of activities. We saw many fly fishermen in the Sheboygan River. Resort guests can purchase a pass to gain access to River Wildlife, a private woodland preserve and wildlife sanctuary featuring 18 miles of trails through the woods, a trap and sporting clay shooting course, horseback riding, fishing, and canoeing and kayaking. Pheasant and partridge hunting are also available in designated hunt fields.
The Sports Core is Kohler’s outstanding sports and racquet club with indoor and outdoor tennis courts, an indoor pool, all the exercise equipment you could want, and fitness classes. Access to the facility is included in the 16 percent resort fee assessed per night to each room. There’s also a yoga studio in the Woodlake Center.
For a rainy day activity, hit the Kohler Swing Studio at the Shops at Woodlake. Two golf simulators enable you to play all four Kohler courses plus other notable layouts. The Studio also has arcade games, kid’s activities, and a large screen for watching a game or a movie. Beer is available along with light snacks. This can be a neat space for a group event.
History tours are offered in the American Club a couple of days a week and two- to three-hour tours of the Kohler Factory are given Monday-Friday starting at 8:30 a.m. For a full list of activities and the hours of various facilities and dining venues, see “Today,” Kohler’s daily bulletin.
Finally, no visit would be complete without a tour of the Kohler Design Center. Downstairs, you’ll find museum displays depicting the history and development of the Kohler Company and the resort. The rest of the building is devoted to Kohler’s kitchen and bathroom fixtures.
American Club/Carriage House: 241 rooms and suites from $321.
Inn on Woodlake:128 rooms and suites from $201.
Green fee: Straits, $269 to $553, including caddie; Irish, $80 to
$232; River, $158 to $375; Meadow Valleys, $84 to
$269. Carts: $35 per person. Forecaddies (optional):
$35. Caddie/forecaddie gratuities are extra.
Aerifcation: none in season.