MyGolfSpy Experiences believes there’s one fundamental truth in the cosmos: the best bucket list golf trip is the next one.
And even though it may not be first on your list, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better “next one” than Destination Kohler.
If you want a great state for golf, don’t sleep on Wisconsin. From Hudson to Milwaukee and from Green Bay to La Crosse, the Badger State is home to some outstanding public courses. And you won’t have to wear a wedge of cheese on your head to play them.
Unless, of course, you want to.
Destination Kohler and its crown jewel, Whistling Straits, are on the bucket list for many. In this edition of MyGolfSpy Experiences, we’ll share our thoughts on where to stay, where to dine and, of course, the golf itself.
Spoiler alert: the golf itself is, for the most part, spectacular.
MyGolfSpy Experiences: Destination Kohler
Technically, Destination Kohler is the hospitality and real estate division of the Kohler Company. If you’ve ever visited a bathroom, you’ve most likely heard of Kohler. The company is a plumbing fixture giant, founded in 1873 by Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler. Originally, the company made farming equipment. But in 1883, John Michael applied an enamel coating to a cast-iron horse trough to create the company’s first bathtub.
John Michael’s grandson Herb took over Kohler in 1972 at the age of 33. At the time, there was a dilapidated old workers’ dormitory across the street from the factory. Herb decided to renovate it in the late ‘70s, turning it into the American Club, a high-end resort hotel. Unfortunately, unless you were a visiting plumbing fixture dignitary, there was no real draw.
But golf and business go together like cake and ice cream so Herb decided to turn Kohler-Sheboygan into Destination Kohler. Kohler hired Pete Dye to get the ball rolling. In 1988, the first 18 holes at Blackwolf Run opened and by 1990 it featured two championship courses, the River and the Meadow Valleys.
A few years later, Kohler bought some abandoned land on Lake Michigan just north of Sheboygan. Dye turned that into Whistling Straits. The Straits course opened in 1999 and the Irish opened a year later.
It’s hard to say how far up the bucket list destination depth chart Kohler really is for most golfers. The “I gotta play these before I die” list begins and probably ends with St Andrews and Pebble Beach. Kohler ranks with Pinehurst on the next tier down. After that, you have Streamsong, Bandon and a few others.
Not that any of these is a bad choice.
Kohler may very well be the most accessible bucket list destination going. It’s either an hour north of Milwaukee or an hour south of Green Bay. Additionally, you can add gems such as Erin Hills, SentryWorld, Lawsonia or Sand Valley to your agenda, all within a 2 1/2-hour drive.
The two Kohler complexes are a 20-minute drive from one another. Whistling Straits is due north of Sheboygan while Blackwolf Run is southwest, in the village of Kohler. The two complexes couldn’t be more different. Blackwolf Run is inland and both courses are most definitely parkland style. The Straits, on the other hand, would be right at home in Scotland or Ireland. The Irish is a pleasing mixture of both.
And for sheer fun, the 10-hole par-3 course called The Baths is, as they say in Wisconsin, a hoot.
As mentioned, the Kohler courses are all Pete Dye creations. Normally, Pete Dye courses treat me the way a baby treats a diaper. They can turn this genteel, sophisticated sexagenarian into a club-throwing, expletive-spewing crazy old man in a matter of three, maybe four, holes. Surprisingly, you’ll find the Irish, Straits and Meadow Valleys courses remarkably fun and playable while still offering plenty of challenge. They are, as the Scots might say, a fair test of golf.
The River? We’ll discuss that one in a bit.
The Irish: A Fine How-Do-You-Do
Our agenda had us playing the Irish first, then the Straits the following day. Our last full day was spent at Blackwolf Run playing the River in the morning and Meadow Valley in the afternoon. I’d say that’s the perfect rotation. The Irish is an excellent how-do-you-do for Destination Kohler. It may not get the same fanfare as the Straits, but it’s no doorknob, either. My companion Harry Nodwell nailed it when calling the Irish an enjoyable string of double bogeys. It’s challenging but not punishing.
Dye eases you into the Irish with a benign-looking par-4. The first fairway is wide and generous but the approach shot prepares you for what’s to come. Miss the green and you pay. Hit the green, but in the wrong place, and you still pay.
The fifth hole, a modest par-5, is called the Devil’s Elbow. After my second double of the round, I’d say the hole represents another part of Satan’s anatomy. There’s a devil’s buttload of sand on the hole but it was a three-jack from 15 feet that led to the double.
Don’t be in the wrong spot.
And don’t miss the free brats at the turn. Thank you, Wisconsin!
The par-3 13th is called Blind Man’s Bluff. From the upper tee box, it’s a downhill shot over a hill to a 14,000-square-foot green that you can’t see. From the lower tee box, it’s a blind flat shot to the left of the hill to a 14,000-square-foot green that you can barely see. Harry called it a hit ‘n hope shot, with three putts almost guaranteed.
The Straits: A Major Venue
Very few places live up to the hype but the Straits course delivers the goods. We expected spectacular vistas and got them but what surprised me was how playable the course is. It’s a tough layout to be sure but it’s not punishing. Hit the ball solidly and stay in play off the tee and you can actually have some fun. The land was originally as flat as the farmland that surrounds it but Dye brought in more than 13,000 truckloads of sand and fill to create the dunes and the many, many bunkers.
Dye has been quoted as saying the Straits may be like popcorn—but people choke on popcorn. The first green bears that out. You can go flag hunting if the pin is on the right. If it’s on the left, the shot will test your testicular fortitude.
While it’s not the most famous hole on the course, the par-4 sixth tells the Straits story in a nutshell. It’s short but demands you play to the left center of the fairway to get a view of the green. That’s when the fun starts. A front left pin is fairly benign. Back right, however, will have you crying for your mama. Miss short right and you’ll find yourself in one of—no lie—at least 12 small, deep pot bunkers.
The Straits features eight holes along a two-mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline. It’s similar in feel to Kingsbarns in Scotland or Ballybunion in Ireland, only with more cliffs. The finishing stretch of holes is just plain tough, particularly the 18th. Sure, it looks easy on TV but not if you play it from the pot bunkers in the left rough.
Destination Kohler Sleeps and Eats
Destination Kohler offers two hotel options: The American Club and the Inn at Woodlake. The American Club is the higher end of the two. The former factory workers’ dorm is now pretty swanky with rich woodwork in the lobby and a beautiful courtyard garden. Each room is unique and features the Kohler Showering Experience—a multiple-head shower to get you clean everywhere. Our room also featured a deep, high-powered Kohler jetted tub with an internal heater to keep the water hot for a nice, long post-round soak.
The Inn at Woodlake is a tad more modest. You still get the Kohler Showering Experience (trust me, you’ll like it) but it’s more along the line of a Courtyard or Hilton Garden Inn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Dining at Destination Kohler was a mixed bag. Big props to the Taverne on Woodlake and its crispy Korean cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with a gorgonzola balsamic reduction. Heaven. The Taverne has a pub-style menu. The burgers were excellent (even the Beyond Burger) and the sandwiches, chops and thin-crust pizzas all looked great.
The Blackwolf Run restaurant has an old-style hunting lodge feel to it but the food itself was meh, at best. My roasted cauliflower steak was just OK (seriously, how good can a cauliflower steak really be?). Harry was equally lukewarm about his chicken schnitzel.
We had much better luck at the Whistling Straits restaurant. The potato leek soup, jumbo pretzel board and Wisconsin mac ‘n’cheese are highly recommended. Another dining option is the Kohler Swing Studio—a casual dining pub with golf simulators, in case you didn’t get enough swings in during the day.
The River at Blackwolf Run
The River is all about Pete Dye doing Pete Dye things to make golfers miserable. While the Irish, Straits and Meadow Valley are 54 holes of undeniable joy, the River is an 18-hole barium enema.
To be fair, the River will reward your A-game, if you have one. It will, however, kick the ever-loving snot out of your A-minus or B-plus game. It tolerates zero mistakes.
The Sheboygan River is in play on 12 of the 18 holes as it snakes through the course and by the second hole you learn: Pete wants you in the fairway. I wouldn’t say the course is overly tight but errant shots will punish you. And the greens are first-wife-level forgiving.
There are some breathtaking shots like the downhill tee shots on the fifth (called Made in Heaven) and the eighth (called, appropriately, Hell’s Gate). Holes nine through 13 will test your resolve and it’s where your B-plus (or worse) game goes to die. There’s a half-moon par-5 winding around the Sheboygan River that gives you a 15-foot-wide landing strip for your second shot. And then there’s the par-3 13th with huge trees blocking the green on the left and the river taunting you on the right. If you have a sweeping high draw in your bag, this would be the time to use it.
The 14th hole gives you a dash of hope but 15 through 18 quickly turn into the Wisconsin version of the Bataan Death March. Dye cleverly calls 18 “DyeHard” but it could also be called “DyeHard with a Vengeance,” with Pete giving you the same treatment John McClane gave Hans and Simon Gruber.
A Pleasant Meadow Valleys Finish
As much as I didn’t like the River (and for some perverse reason, I want to give it another shot), both Harry and I loved the Meadow Valleys course. It’s a great way to finish your stay. Meadow Valleys is more of a resort course than the other three but it’s certainly no cupcake. It has great visuals and enough tough holes to test you but it won’t trigger any deep-seated self-loathing.
The people you meet on golf trips are half the fun. Harry and I had the pleasure of being teamed up with Brad and Leslie, young newlyweds from Chicago. They had eloped and chose to spend their honeymoon playing golf at Destination Kohler. Brad said the trip was actually Leslie’s idea.
Well played, Brad. Well played.
The Meadow Valleys front nine is all meadow: wide open with large greens. There’s still enough sand to screw with you and the greens will test you but it’s a welcome change from the high colonic that is the River. The back nine is all valley. The fairways undulate more and you get some elevation changes. The signature hole is 14: a gorgeous downhill par-4 to a peninsula green surrounded by a stream. To get to the green, you have to cross a bridge made from an old rail car.
The par three 15th is called Mercy, which is odd because there is none. It’s all carry over the Weeden Creek Valley with precious little bailout room left, right or long. And, obviously, none short.
A Fantastic Finish
The closing two holes at Meadow Valleys are nothing short of incredible. The par-3 17th is called Maple Syrup and it’s where Leslie showed the men who’s boss. There’s a tree guarding the green. The safe play is to go right and hope to catch the right side of the green. Harry, Brad and I all took that route with varying degrees of failure. Leslie, however, took the bold route to the left of the tree right at the pin. She needed to thread the needle perfectly and she did, leaving herself about 10 feet for birdie.
The 18th is a truly cool finishing hole. The tee shot is downhill to a narrow-ish fairway with the Sheboygan River looming on the right. The hole actually features two greens: one on the same side of the river for players hitting from the red tees and a larger green across the river for everyone else. It’s a daunting shot over the Sheboygan, with crowds watching from the Blackwolf Run restaurant deck. Fortunately, we all holed out with our dignity (and pars) intact.
To cap off a fun trip, do not miss the Baths at Blackwolf Run. It’s 10 holes of pure par three joy. Just pack up your putter and wedges into a complimentary Sunday bag and walk it old-school. The layout is a blast with plenty of water and sand plus challenging greens that wouldn’t be out of place on the Straits or Irish. It’s made for matchplay fun.
Andrew, the starter/bartender/chief cook and bottle washer at The Baths looks like Guy Fieri’s brother from another mother and has zero tolerance for taking the game too seriously. There’s music and plenty of drinks to go along with the pristine layout. And the humungous 18-hole putting green is an absolute blast.
Destination Kohler: Should You Go?
If you’ve ever been to Pebble or St Andrews, you know there’s a certain vibe to each place that’s almost spiritual for any golfer with a soul. Pebble is majestic and is the Holy Grail of American public golf. St Andrews is otherworldly. You walk the Old Course in the footsteps of Old Tom, Young Tom and Bobby Jones. It’s the Home of Golf for good reason.
Destination Kohler, while freaking awesome, circles in a slightly lower orbit. Make no mistake. The golf is incredible (I’ll even give the River a break. High colonics, after all, can be good for you). It’s an awesome buddy trip destination or, if you marry well, a dandy honeymoon spot (you, Brad, are my hero). But if you had to prioritize, Pebble should get the nod because, well, it’s Pebble.
But Kohler is a pretty damned good backup plan.
If, however, the choice is Kohler or, say, Streamsong, don’t hesitate. Grab a cheesehead hat and go directly to Wisconsin.
A Word About Herb Kohler
Not long after our trip, we learned that Herb Kohler passed away at the age of 83. It’s rare that a person has a Hall of Fame career in one endeavor, let alone two, but that’s exactly what Herb Kohler did.
As mentioned, Herb Kohler was named CEO of the family plumbing fixture business in 1972. But he had actually been named a director five years earlier, at the age of 28, following the death of his father. Herb is credited with creating The Bold Look of Kohler in 1967 and helped bring style and color to kitchens and bathrooms.
He was inducted into the National Kitchen and Bath Hall of Fame in 1989 and the U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2006.
Kohler’s golf enterprises don’t end with Destination Kohler. Kohler also owns the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews as well as the Hamilton Grand—that beautiful red building right behind the 18th hole at St Andrews. The company also built The Duke’s, a hillside course right outside of St Andrews. In 2016, Herb earned the Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and in 2019 was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame for turning Wisconsin into a global golf destination.
At the time, the Chicago Tribute wrote, “the likelihood of turning this vast rural farmland (Sheboygan County) into a golf mecca is about the same as making a toilet a work of art. Herbert Kohler can now say he has done both.”
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