Great golf destinations sometimes must first be great acts of imagination. It took vision for the legendary first shepherd at St. Andrews to start knocking stones around the links with his crook. It took foresight for James W. Tufts to conceive of Pinehurst in a part of North Carolina that had never produced much besides tar, timber and turpentine. But in the vision department, both the Scottish shepherd and Mr. Tufts are two down at the turn to an eighteen-handicapper named Herbert V. Kohler Jr. In the mid-1980s, he took a look at the little Wisconsin company town where his family made faucets and tubs and saw that it could become one of the world's finest golf resorts. Part of Kohler's creation will be on display this summer when his Straits course hosts the PGA Championship. The rest of it is equally worth seeing—and playing.
In the heart of cheese-head country, the village of Kohler sits a few miles outside Sheboygan, about midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay. To get there, fly into Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport and steer your rental car fifty minutes north on I-43—or just drive two hours from Chicago. On the way, you'll see cows. You'll see silos. When you get to Kohler (pop. 1,989), you'll see metal sculptures along the streets, because the Kohler clan is a patron of the arts. You'll see neat brick bungalows. You'll see no litter. You'll understand why, when TV producers do nostalgia sitcoms (Happy Days, That '70s Show), they often use Wisconsin as a setting. This is the America of blessed memory, so wholesome it almost squeaks.
Kohler entrusted the design of his four golf courses to one man, Pete Dye. This, of course, is like entrusting the decor of your entire house to Picasso. There's genius on display, but sometimes genius can go over the top.
You might want to start, as Dye did, with the two courses closest to the village, at the thirty-six-hole Blackwolf Run complex. It's a half mile or so from the gate to the Kohler headquarters (and nine miles from the two courses at Whistling Straits). The Sheboygan River winds through the property, and Dye brings it into play on no fewer than thirteen holes of the layout called, perhaps inevitably, the River course.
Two of the best of those holes are numbers nine and eleven. The ninth plays only 337 yards from the back tee, but it offers three different routes to the green. You can choose the blind tee shot well to the left of a towering pair of cottonwood trees; you can lay up with a precise iron short of a pit bunker and just left of the trees; or, if you're long and daring, you can take the short route that, like the road to Grandmother's house, leads over the river and around the trees. The 560-yard eleventh hugs a bend in the river and also rewards the daring. A good drive will leave you in a position to contemplate going for the green with a shot that must traverse the river's bend, avoid a seventy-foot-tall elm and not even think of fading.
The River course, with a slope of 151 from the back tees, might well be the finest of the four Kohler courses. It's classic. It's demanding. On almost every tee, the angle of the fairway or the bunkering requires thought from a player before he selects a line. All it lacks in comparison with the courses at Whistling Straits is Lake Michigan. Some players may find it a bit too demanding, and for them there is the Meadow Valleys course.
Not that Meadow Valleys is a pushover. When the USGA staged the 1998 U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, it used nine Meadow Valleys holes and nine River course holes to make a composite. Meadow Valleys has slightly more open terrain and a gentler attitude. Its final hole plays along the river, and the second shot is an iron across the water to a big double green shared with the eighteenth hole of the River course. But Dye obligingly built an alternate green on the fairway side of the river for golfers playing from the red tees.
The architect felt no such benevolence when the resort acquired a 560-acre parcel nine miles from Kohler, on the western shore of Lake Michigan, which was dubbed Whistling Straits. In building the Straits course there, Dye hauled in more than 13,000 truckloads of sand, enough to cover a football field with a pile more than twelve stories high. This transformed what had once been farmland into a craggy landscape of bluffs and dunes and more than a thousand bunkers. He had two miles of shoreline to work with, and he took brilliant advantage of it. The lake is a presence on every hole of the Straits course, which opened in 1998 and was awarded the PGA Championship only two years later. When the sun shines, the lake is gleaming and blue. When a fog rolls in, it can be ghostly, almost hidden.
Eight holes are snug against the water, and they rival the ocean holes at Pebble Beach. The par threes, in fact, may well be better than Pebble's seaside short holes. The twelfth features one pin position on an extremity jutting from the right side of the green, offering players a landing area roughly the size of a dining-room table. Miss right and you're in the lake. Bail left and you can't putt there from here. The longer lakeside holes require both muscle and resolve. From the new back tee on the 493-yard eighth, players see nothing but water, bunkers and gnarly dunes and must pick a target and carry the ball 260 yards to find short grass. The greens on all these holes are big. Most of them are subtle and difficult to read.
Dye did not have the Lake Michigan shoreline to work with when he turned to the last of the four Kohler layouts, Whistling Straits' Irish course, which opened in 2000. Instead he relied heavily on sand trucks and bulldozers. On the thirteenth, for instance, he built an enormous dune to hide the green of a par three. It's reminiscent of the "Dell Hole" at Lahinch or the fifteenth at Cruden Bay. Some players may find it different and charming; others may hear a cow mooing on their backswing and decide that, set against a landscape of silos and pastures, the hole is artificial.