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Plumbing Kohler

PLUS: Playing Kohler

At the first tee they introduce themselves as Regular Joe and Ultra Bob, and there are handshakes all around. They've come to Kohler, Wisconsin, from Connecticut to play a course called Whistling Straits, to see what all the buzz on this new links course is about and to get out of town with their wives for the weekend. Coming to Kohler is a country experience, but with all the upscale urban amenities: good food, long wine lists, shopping, spas, luxurious accommodations at the American Club--if you can get in. All that and, if you can get on, Whistling Straits, the newest Kohler Company production, a golf course surpassing even the other two Pete Dye extravaganzas here, the thirty-six-hole river-and-woodland survival experience collectively known as Blackwolf Run.

Regular Joe is somewhere in his fifties. First thing in the morning, the head of his seven-iron snaps off at the practice range. All hitting stops as Joe jogs out fifty yards to retrieve his club head. He's going to miss the club on Whistling Straits's par-three seventh hole, Shipwreck, where Pete Dye teases the player on one side of the approach with a string of bunkers like leftovers from a bombing run. "I was feeling impish," Pete says. On the other side of the green, just offshore, the Sirens of Lake Michigan plead for wayward golf balls. One hundred sixty yards out, Regular Joe feels the wind in his face and reaches for his eight-iron while wishing for his seven. His shot is on target but ten yards short of a green that rises and dips like a bedspread tangled up by love, and he begins to wonder if this isn't the pits, or what?Bye-bye, birdie.

Bob, the one with the Ultra logo on his golf shirt, is older, leaning toward retirement. He's the one who'll get tired first. The Straits course is walking-only golf.

"Those who can afford to play this course regularly," Herbert V. Kohler Jr. points out, "tend not to be the ones who can get around it all that comfortably. Not a lot's level out there. It's a tough five-mile challenge."

Sixty-year-old Herbert Kohler, the chairman and president of the Kohler Company, is a well-tailored, brawny man whose reward for a good life is a belly as round as a smiling Chinese Buddha's. When he hired Pete Dye to design Blackwolf Run in the mid-eighties, Kohler told Dye he didn't want the course to look prissy. He wanted a rough-hewn look that would blend with the surrounding wild landscape. Kohler might just as well have been describing himself.

The Kohler Company manufactures products for the kitchen and bath, among many other things, a fact that becomes evident on a visit to the Kohler Design Center, near the hotel. The giant generators and the small engines used in garden tractors (painted in bright primary colors) that stand guard at the front door are the manufactured offspring of Kohler Power Systems. A whimsy of toilets and bathtubs rises up the back wall--the "Wall of China." There are many-hued toilets and bathtubs on display, kitchen sinks and lavatories (a.k.a. bathroom sinks), space-age shower stalls and whirlpool baths big enough to fit a foursome. The museum downstairs displays indoor-plumbing advances through the century.

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