MyGolfSpy Experiences: Destination Kohler
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MyGolfSpy Experiences: Destination Kohler

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MyGolfSpy Experiences: Destination Kohler

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

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

Getting There

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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.

Destination Kohler

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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John Barba

John Barba

John Barba

John is an aging, yet avid golfer, writer, 6-point-something handicapper living back home in New England after a 22-year exile in Minnesota. He loves telling stories, writing about golf and golf travel, and enjoys classic golf equipment. “The only thing a golfer needs is more daylight.” - BenHogan

John Barba

John Barba

John Barba

John Barba

John Barba

John Barba





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      Kyle

      2 years ago

      Great article. Please keep the travel destinations coming!

      Reply

      Bob Johnson

      2 years ago

      I had the pleasure (and pain) of playing the Championship course at Blackwolf Run twice at the beginning of the month. That course would have kicked my butt even if I had played my absolute best under perfect conditions. But, not playing great on a pair of cold, windy days was absolutely punishing. I’m not sure how many balls I donated during my two rounds.

      Having said that, I loved it and wouldn’t hesitate to play there again. The course was beautiful and very well maintained. Reasonable rates of $110 (which may be off-season). All in all, a very enjoyable experience.

      Reply

      Jim Farrell

      2 years ago

      Privileged to play these great courses many times and I enjoyed every round. Staying at the American Club is an unbelievable experience.. . Played the Straits the second week after it opened.. and Herb hired a bunch of LPGA caddies who were not going back to Asia right after the US Woman’s Open They had been on the course one week and their advice was spot on. What a treat it was, it was a memorable day. Herb did nothing second class.

      Reply

      Larry

      2 years ago

      My preferred when possible , 1= Canada kananaskis two courses ,
      2= Colorado The Broadmour G/C 3= Scottsdale The Phoenician or Gainey Ranch…

      Reply

      Simon

      2 years ago

      Sounds wonderful pics are teasing.. It goes on my bucket list.. I play links golf in Ireland so two courses Irish and Straits would be a must . Every time I watched pro golf on Straits I say I gotta go play that course. Now off to plan a visit in 2024.

      Reply

      Gerald Lindell

      2 years ago

      I walked it during the PGA (Sunday) when Dustin hit out of sand. You could not walk this course if you’re old. I hesitate to play expensive courses where I could lose a dozen balls.

      Reply

      Dr Tee

      2 years ago

      Well, prices must have gone up since our 3 day buddies trip package at Kohler. because we got a fantastic deal with one round each on Irish, Straits, River, and lodging. Only meals and caddies/tips were extra.. I think our cost was about 2/3 Pebble or Sawgrass and personally, the golf was off the charts great. Lots easier to get to Sheboygan than remote coastal Oregon or Carmel. Next stop–Sand Valley, the Bandon of the Midwest, hopefully the Lido will be open by next summer.

      Reply

      Bill

      2 years ago

      Thank you John for another excellent article. I always enjoy your writing and look forward to your next topic.

      Reply

      Steve S

      2 years ago

      I stopped reading when I read the words “Pete Dye”. I’ve played about 8-10 Pete Dye courses (including The Pete Dye course in West Va) and find them mostly gimmicky. Greens that are intentionally multi-tiered to make sure you can’t make par unless you are lucky or are a pro. Site lines that intentionally convince you to hit into a direction that is trouble, etc.. Can’t play his courses well unless you have a caddy or someone whose played before.. Not what I want for a golf trip. Yeah, I know modern technology allows you to get a feel of the course ahead of time but why should I need that? I understand golf should be a challenge but it should also be fun. Although I’ve scored well at some of them(79 at his W.VA. course) never had a lot of fun especially watching my playing partners struggle. No thanks.

      Reply

      John Barba

      2 years ago

      Hi Steve – had the same concerns heading into this trip – and everything you wrote is exactly why The River course was no fun at all for me. The Straits and Irish, however, I found to be very playable and quite a bit of fun – shot 87 at the Irish and 85 at the Straits (I’m an 8.5 hcp), but still had a blast. Meadow Rivers is very playable as well. It’s a report course, but it’s no cupcake.

      Reply

      Mike

      15 seconds ago

      I disagree on 1 count. Wintonbury is a great Dye course a half hour northwest of Hartford CT.

      Reply

      Matthew Bacon

      2 years ago

      Wondering if you have a relative cost associated with the trip

      Reply

      Patrick Butler

      2 years ago

      I’m sure that Kohler is as spectacular as the pictures in the article show it to be. It would be extremely useful if you could provide estimated cost range to take a 5 day trip there. If it’s $7k or more, then no thanks. A group of 8 of us go to Ireland every year. Previous years have been to the Southwest (Lahinch, Ballybunion, Tralee, Doonbeg, etc), more recently we have gone to East/North East (Portmarnock, RCD, etc.) We typically stay in nice VRBOs, have a driver with a coach and exclusive of airfare spend about $4500/man for a week. This is almost always way cheaper than domestic resorts like Streamsong, Kohler, Pebble, Pinehurst, etc. and the golf can’t be beat.

      Reply

      Josh

      2 years ago

      They do package deals. Our covered our room for 3 nights, breakfast each morning, greens/caddy fees, and a round at Irish, Straits, River, and Baths (all but MV). I think the cost was $1800/pp plus taxes and tips for caddies ($100ish for walking caddies and $75 for forecaddies). The flight from PA with one connection cost us about $375.

      When all was said and done, minus merch, food & drink I think we were around the $3,000 mark. We booked about 8 months out and played in early September. It was a perfect time of year.

      Reply

      Mike

      2 years ago

      John, appreciate the article, it really covered a lot. For me though, that kind of spend for 3 rounds of golf & all that travel involved, especially at 1 course that just punishes you, ain’t my bag.

      One note, I played a Pete Dye public course in Connecticut called Wintonbury. Maybe Pete wasn’t his usual self when he designed the course because it’s actually fun. Not necessarily easy & they do have 5 or 6 different sets of teae. But when I played the appropriate tees, I had a great time. Beautiful views & fair holes. Great facility also.

      Tom Gass

      2 years ago

      45 minutes north of kohler is the Par 5 national links course. The resort is under new ownership with major upgrades underway. But all the courses were in fabulous shape for the 2022 season. Very affordable!!

      Reply

      Sandy

      2 years ago

      I’m from Savannah Georgia and I wouldn’t travel to Kohler to play golf. I live on Skidaway Island at The Landings. We’ve got six championship courses in our gated community. I can drive one hour if I want, and play any number of great golf courses on Hilton head or Bluffton SC. Then, of course, there is Augusta National about 2-2 1/2 hours away and I occasionally get invited to play there. So , I’m happy where I am.

      Reply

      Bob Johnson

      2 years ago

      Wow, what an insightful and constructive addition to the conversation. Who cares??

      Reply

      Hopp

      2 years ago

      Brag “cough” brag some more at the gated community.

      Reply

      Chris

      2 years ago

      I have played all the Kohler courses and they are great. But Bandon is the best golf destination in the US. Period.

      Reply

      Dr Tee

      2 years ago

      Bandon may well be the best golf, but a full day travel each way from almost everywhere except the west coast is a nonstarter !

      Reply

      Scott

      2 years ago

      One thing missing from this review (touched upon in the St. Andrews article) is cost. Granted, world class golf courses aren’t cheap, but most Americans would be shocked at the cost of a golf trip to coastal…Wisconsin?

      Reply

      Carolyn

      2 years ago

      This must fall under if you need to do how much it is not for you article. Always have to consider the four levels of golf, the muni, public course player, The Country Clubber, the High end (Company pays the fee) golfer and the Pro, plays free but it is a job.

      Reply

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    First Look
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