KOHLER, Wisc. – There are a lot of great summer golf destinations in the United States, but it's hard to beat Wisconsin when it comes to weather, quality of courses and natural (and even unnatural) terrain.
These courses, especially the resort courses, are among the best in the country and just keep getting better. Last year, the U.S. Open was conducted at 12-year-old Erin Hills Golf Course in Erin, Wisconsin. And this year, Mammoth Dunes opened at the much-heralded Sand Valley Resort in Nekoosa, Wisc. This David McLay Kidd course, the second 18-hole layout to be built there since the Mike Keiser (of Bandon Dunes fame) resort debuted two years ago, has opened to rave reviews, making this area of Wisconsin one of the best golf destinations in the country.
But lest we not forget the resort that really started it all around these parts – Destination Kohler. It arguably has the greatest collection of Pete Dye courses in the world – four of them to be exact. They have hosted three PGA Championships, the Andersen Consulting World Golf Championships, a U.S. Senior Open and two U.S. Women’s Opens. In 2020, The Straits Course at Whistling Straits will host the Ryder Cup.
It's a resort built on the history of classic U.S. immigration, where more than a century ago, Kohler Co. President Walter J. Kohler brought in foreign workers from countries in Europe and housed them at Kohler Village, which would eventually become incorporated. Decades later, Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the current president of Kohler Co., came up with the idea of turning the former dormitories into an elegant village inn. The American Club is now the Midwest's only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star resort with luxurious accommodations and plenty of activities for the whole family.
But the Kohler Company isn't staying pat. While it welcomes the addition of other new courses in the area, it continues to up its game. A fifth course at Kohler is in the permitting stage, and the resort continues to expand, having recently added luxurious four-bedroom suites to one of its properties. Recently, I got to play most of the courses again (and the Irish Course for the first time), stay at the American Club, tour the property's River Wildlife preserve and enjoyed the excellent dining and other amenities offered at Destination Kohler.
It starts with the Straits Course
While some will tell you they prefer the River Course at Blackwolf Run (which is just a couple miles from the resort) better than Whistling Straits 10 miles north in Sheboygan, the Straits Course will always be the star of this resort destination. This is truly one of Dye's most remarkable achievements. While I won't rehash all the details of how many millions of cubic yards of dirt were moved to create this Irish linksy-looking experience overlooking the shores of Lake Michigan, just know that it remains a bucket list experience for thousands of avid golfers ever year. And while I've heard some criticism of the course from time to time from a handful of reviewers, I have never seen in the clubhouse anyone who just completed their round – especially if it was their first one there – who wasn't impressed by the experience, no matter how they played.
Truth is the Straits Course appears more difficult than it really is, especially if it's not too windy and you play the right set of tees. You really have to hit a wayward shot to lose a ball, and if you don't spray it wildly you can avoid landing in some of nastiest of the 1,000 or so bunkers, most of which really shouldn't come into play.
What I really love about the Straits Course, besides the challenge and strategy of the holes, are the views, of course. The par 3s are particularly strong and scenic. Early on, you get a taste of this from 188-yard third hole, which plays from an elevated tee. On the left is the "ocean," better known as Lake Michigan. This view comes into vogue throughout much of the round, and it never gets old.
But on this trip, this would be the first time I played the Irish Course at Whistling Straits, which is the companion course to the Straits. I found it every bit as challenging. Some of the bunkers on this course are as difficult as the ones on the Straits, and while the lake doesn't come into view much, it's a striking course on its own.
Whistling Straits head professional Michael Aschenbach says he really enjoys playing it and particularly practicing on it, and I can see why. While the fairways are generally pretty generous, it's a great second shot course. And like the Straits, it's very walkable. And although it's not as long – the Straits is almost 7,800 yards – that doesn't really matter. At 7,200 yards, it's all the golf course you want. Heck, at 6,366 yards, the green tees from which I played, it's a pretty good test.
On the horizon at Kohler
While playing the courses at Kohler is anything but cheap, if you commit to a golf trip there, you should definitely try to play all four courses, which also include the River Course as well as Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run.
This is where you'll also find 2,200 acres of River Wildlife, a separate entity at Kohler, where members and special guest members can enjoy fishing, trap shooting and hike and bike trails around the natural beauty of the Sheboygan River.
The courses there also take advantage of this beauty, and they are in stark contrast to Whistling Straits. Certainly more traditional – but very Pete Dye – these courses blend into the natural surroundings with pristine water features, perfect bentgrass greens and plenty of strategy.
Again, Kohler offers a great variety of golf, which looks to be expanding even more in the near future. Although the company hasn't released a lot of details on Dye's newest design at Kohler, we do know that it will be located in the Kohler-Andrae State Park area on land that Kohler has owned for decades. It's still in the permitting stage, waiting approval, as Kohler officials have modified plans to reduce the amount of interdunal wetlands that would be impacted by the golf course (it's currently down to 3.69 acres) In addition, Kohler Co. is offering a wetland mitigation plan to restore and enhance additional ridge and swale wetland in the same watershed as the project.
Another area Kohler Co. continues to enhance is its accommodations. In addition to the Lodge at The American Club and the Carriage House, which is home to the Kohler Waters Spa, there's also the Inn on Woodlake, which is located just a half mile or so from The American Club and is surrounded by restaurants and shops.
The 138-room boutique-style just introduced 10 new suites that can accommodate up to eight guests, perfect for buddy trips. Two-bedroom, Horizon and Patio suites have shared common areas and individual bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. The suites for about $1,500 a night (including a full breakfast), and they have been popular since they opened earlier this year.
Much more than golf at Kohler, including River Wildlife
Besides the aforementioned Kohler Waters Spa, Destination Kohler is a well-rounded premium resort, offering plenty for those who want to augment their golf or for guests who really aren't that interested in playing golf there (Kohler is also a popular winter spot).
Dining at Destination Kohler is certainly an exceptional experience. The clubhouses at both Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run have full menus and are open breakfast through dinner. But one of my favorite places to dine and relax is the Horse & Plow at The American Club.
Once the taproom for the migrant workers, Horse & Plow has a casual atmosphere with plenty of flatscreens for watching sports, plus a casual menu offering such classics as brats, fish and chips, world famous fried cheese curds (a Wisconsin tradition) and a nice selection of microbrews. Tapping into the history of the place, tabletops are made from the original American Club bowling alley that was once there.
Guests also have access to Kohler's Sports Core fitness and racquet club, which in addition to workout facilities has both indoor and outdoor tennis courts.
And perhaps one of the best kept secrets of destination Kohler is River Wildlife, a 200-acre wilderness preserve that also offers its outstanding dining club at its rustic cabin and a recreational retreat. Abe Foerster, who heads up land management for Destination Kohler, leads hunting and fishing expeditions as well as making sure the habitat is in harmony with nature. For outdoor enthusiasts, this is a treasure and another reason to come to Kohler or become a member.
Guests of the American Club or Inn on Woodlake have limited availability to this private club. It opens up opportunities to experience trap shooting, fishing and miles of nature trails. But maybe most importantly, I think the River Wildlife Lodge Restaurant might offer the best food in the entire resort. With an ever-changing menu, you can get everything from steaks and salad to house-made desserts and craft beers. But the best thing on the menu? That would be the herb-crusted baked walleye, which is well worth the temporary and nominal membership fee for guests alone.