The company owns about twenty-five percent of the plumbing-products business in America (toilets, sinks, bathtubs, etcetera). It's an old family enterprise, as these things go in the U.S., dating back 125 years. What little stock exists outside the family is quietly being brought back into the fold. Forbes magazine pegs the Kohler-family value at $700 million. The family has produced two Wisconsin governors in this century. The company has two Lear jets and a Cessna Citation 2, as well as a Canadair Challenger that seats ten and is used to fly executives to Europe. More to our point here, this family business, in the last fifteen years, has become synonymous with world-class golf as played in Wisconsin.
Walking the length of the Straits course, you'd never guess this two-mile stretch of nearly treeless land on the shores of Lake Michigan had been, at one time or another, an industrial-waste dump, a U.S. Army base for antiaircraft gunnery practice (Camp Haven) and the designated site for a nuclear power plant. The area was frying pan flat until Pete Dye and thirteen thousand truckloads of sand reshaped the land and the shore, transplanting from the bottom up a piece of the Irish coast--dunes and sheep and muttered prayers and all.
"I never thought for a minute that anyone'd put up with it--you know, a walking course out here. No way," says Pete Dye, now seventy-three, standing high on a towering ridge of grass-covered sand. "But it has been booked up from the day it opened. I guess that means I've been successful."
Dye is dressed for the field: Old Navy cords, running shoes, windbreaker, golf hat, perpetual squint. He's looking at two foursomes moving past each other, playing opposing holes. They are separated by rolling dunes and are completely unaware of each other. It's a designed sense of isolation, of aloneness, at which Pete Dye is a master.
"What you don't see," Dye says, "is the drainage. It rained ten inches in an hour this summer. Flooded everywhere. Terrible floods. We had to shut down Blackwolf Run for two days to get a handle on the damage. But out here?As soon as the rain stopped, it was dry and playable. There's drainage here that's never been attempted before. Drainage like you can't imagine. That was the big trick, you see, keeping all this sand from sliding off the clay."
As he speaks, Scottish Blackface sheep with coats the color of old teeth graze the side of a dune just below him. Behind Pete Dye on the back side of the dunes, what will become the Irish course takes shape. But it won't be a links-style, walking-only course, "and the trick here," Dye says, "the trick here is how to get these dunes I made to just, you know, fade into this other landscape over here, which is more like a farming landscape. I went over to Scotland for a few days to look at the dunes and the farmland. And that's what they do, they just fade into the land. Just peter on out." Bulldozers and earthmovers reshape the land according to the way Pete Dye waves his arms or points with his chin. There are no stakes in the ground, no drawings, no colored ribbons flapping in the wind, just Pete Dye wandering around with his dog, Sixty, and communicating with gestures what he has in mind. His crew understands him after all these years.