A Round With Herb Kohler

A Cook's tour of one of his superb Whistling Straits courses in Wisconsin

From designer bathrooms to golf courses, Herbert V. Kohler Jr.'s imagination knows no limits. While Kohler's grandfather, J.M., built his first rudimentary tubs by fusing enamel to horse troughs, Kohler has turned the American bathroom into a showcase that can include anything from stock tickers to wind and rain simulations. And when Kohler set out in the late 1990s to build two more golf courses for guests at his American Club resort in Kohler, Wis., the plumbing scion spared no expense to turn the flat farmland bordering Lake Michigan into rolling Irish-style links. Kohler and architect Pete Dye trucked in 8,000 loads of sand, invited Irish college students to serve as caddies, and even cargo-lifted dozens of black-faced sheep from the Old Country to lend the proper touch.

So great was the result that one of his two courses at Whistling Straits will achieve the rare distinction this August of hosting a major -- the PGA Championship -- a mere six years after it opened for play. "I just love the character of this course. The continuity of the landscape is phenomenal," Kohler says in his Orson Welles baritone as we head out from the stone clubhouse to the 10th tee on this crisp morning. Kohler took me there first because he was leaving on a business trip that day and had time to play only five holes. As I would see shortly, it's an easy walk from No. 11 to No. 16.

The Gnarly Ball Gang

Even though he and Dye had already built two respected parkland courses at nearby Blackwolf Run, Kohler says he became obsessed during his periodic golf jaunts to Europe with the challenge of building a links in Wisconsin. "The most exciting courses in the world for the player are links courses. The epitome of great golf is Royal County Down, Portrush, Royal Dornoch." But he bristles when I ask if he tried to replicate any of those courses at Whistling Straits. "Herb Kohler and Pete Dye never copy anything, period," he answers gruffly.

"We knew it was going to be a huge undertaking, and it was," he recalls. "Look out in this direction," he says, pointing out toward the rugged, wind-swept dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. "That was a military airport -- flatter 'n a pancake. There were four or five toxic waste dumps out there, 40 trash dumps. This property was a focal point for major drug transactions between Milwaukee and Green Bay. You wouldn't believe the unseemly characters we came across."

As Kohler steps up to the 10th tee of the Straits course, he leans over and says: "I usually play with guests from the green tees, but I'll treat you as a member of the Gnarly Ball Gang, and we'll play from the [shorter] whites." Of course, now I have to ask about the Gnarly Ball Gang. Kohler laughs and explains that it's a group of eight local guys, including himself, who wage an annual golf competition that begins about Labor Day and stretches around the globe, with the group hopping Kohler's private jet to play as far away as the Dominican Republic or Europe. The tournament concludes just before Christmas with the winner taking possession of the Gnarly Ball trophy, which he describes as a handcrafted piece of driftwood with two rusted cast-iron balls that dangle from a heavy steel chain.

The 10th hole is a tricky par 4 that requires an exacting drive to avoid a steep ravine on the left and a yawning fairway bunker on the right. Kohler threads the fairway perfectly with his tee shot, using a compact half swing that is almost a punch shot. My tee shot, however, sails left and disappears down the steep slope to the left. "Hit another," Kohler barks. "Like Eisenhower, I give lots of mulligans." I decline in hopes of finding my ball, but I soon realize I had been fairly warned. Once in the fairway, after we each hit our approach shots and I start walking to the green, my caddie yells: "Duck!" just as Kohler, without warning, punches a second ball over my head and toward the green. A few steps later, a third ball comes whizzing by.

As we approach the green, Kohler plays his first ball -- and plays it well, chipping to within five feet. But just as he settles in over his par putt, a flock of sheep come trotting by along the edge of the green, bells clanging. "They're the real owners of the course," Kohler mutters as he stands over his ball. He lips out his putt but taps in for a bogey, and we're on to No. 11. The sheep may have cost him a stroke, but Kohler says they serve an important purpose: "They eat enough of this thick fescue grass out of the rough so you can get a clubhead through it."

At the 11th hole, a 504-yard par 5 that Dye nicknamed "the sand box" -- and indeed it looks as if at least half of those 8,000 truckloads were dumped on this one hole -- Kohler lands his tee shot safely in the narrow fairway. With a well-placed second shot, he is just 100 yards below the steeply elevated green. But his approach shot lands in the deep bunker that sits 15 feet below the green. Kohler blasts away with his sand wedge, only to watch his first attempt roll back down the ledge. His second attempt sticks on the green, and with two putts, he salvages a double bogey.

Still Smarting

Coming off the green, Kohler tells me he has played with everyone from former President George H.W. Bush to actor Kevin Costner and singer Amy Grant. Kohler has for years been a regular at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, although he admits he's still smarting from his team being disqualified last year, after his partner, tour pro Ted Purdy, failed to sign his scorecard. "I paid $70,000 for a [hospitality] tent and one slot in the AT&T, and I'm disqualified," he grumbles.

Golf helped Kohler land a part in one of Costner's more recent films. The two met years ago at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and discovered their career paths mirrored each other's: Kohler initially studied drama at Yale University, and Costner majored in business at California State University at Fullerton. They have since played together many times. Then, three years ago, Costner telephoned Kohler out of the blue and asked if he wanted a part in his movie, Open Range. "I told Costner: 'O.K., I'll do it, but on two conditions: I want to ride a horse, and I want to kill someone."' There was a long pause before Costner replied: "Well, I'm not sure about the horse, but I guarantee you can kill someone." Indeed, Kohler, portraying a character described as Café Man in the credits, shoots a man in a pivotal scene.

At the 16th, Kohler makes his first par and then plays No. 17 -- a short par 3 that runs along the lake -- just as flawlessly. With the flag up close, he hits a 7-iron just off the green but chips up close for a gimme. On the par-four 18th, Kohler lands his drive safely in the fairway again, but his approach shot plunks down in one of the deep bunkers fronting the green. Kohler hacks away and emerges with his second try. Two putts later, he closes out with a double bogey. An 18-handicapper, Kohler shoots a respectable mini-round -- five over after five holes -- for such a treacherous course. His best-ever scores on the Straits? "An 83, an 86, and a whole bunch [of rounds] in the 90s," he says.

I have even more respect for his ability after peering inside his bag. His Cobra irons look as if they're at least five years old, and some of his wedges, he admits, were purchased as far back as 1990. "I have friends who play with new clubs every year, but I've never been a big club changer," he says with a shrug. "I know I should switch to newer clubs, but I just feel comfortable with my old irons."

When I speak to him a few months later, he has changed his tune. He says that as he was walking off the 18th green at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, "my friend [CBS (VIA ) 4/28/04 @ 6:18 PM --] golf announcer] David Feherty looked in my bag and said: 'Kohler, those are nothing but rat killers. Let me send you some new clubs.' " A few weeks later a full set of Cobra irons and woods arrived, and Kohler admits he has been smitten with them. "I may be in trouble because Ted Purdy, who I help sponsor on the tour, also said he was sending me a new set of Pings," he says.

It should be no surprise that Kohler had a hard time parting with his old clubs. Given his affection for throwback courses, you would expect him to be out there playing with a niblick and mashie, just as golfers do on the classic courses of Ireland.

By Dean Foust

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