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Plumbing Kohler

With the completion of the Irish course (due to open in 2000), the Kohler Company will be host to about a hundred thousand rounds of golf a year. And all of this has been built up out of a town so small--the Village of Kohler, population, nineteen hundred--that the Times Atlas of the World can't find a spot for it on its map of Wisconsin. Herbert Kohler didn't play golf when he first met and hired Pete Dye. Hunt, yes. Fish, yes. But no golf much beyond whacking the occasional ball with his father's old hickory-shafted sticks. In the mid-seventies Kohler had built a private club for the outdoors-minded, River Wildlife, smack in the center of eight hundred acres of unspoiled river bottomland, a landscape in which James Fenimore Cooper would have felt right at home. River Wildlife is thirty miles of woodland trails and seven miles of Sheboygan River. It's a place to dine, to ride horses, to hunt pheasant and Hungarian partridge, to run bird dogs, to stalk deer, to cross-country ski in winter, to canoe, to fish: everything that whispered enticements in Herbert Kohler's ear before Pete Dye introduced him to golf.

"I knew the only way I could truly preserve that land after I'm gone," Kohler says, "was to build so successful a club that no one would dare touch it." River Wildlife's popularity led Kohler to believe in the idea of transforming the Kohler Company's onetime residence hall for bachelor immigrant workers into a luxury resort hotel. The American Club exceeded even his own projections, but then the resort fairly cried out for its own golf course. "We had been shuttling guests to nearby public and private golf courses," Kohler says, "but it just wasn't in keeping with the character of the hotel and the reputation we were building. I asked Pete Dye if he could put a golf course through a nature preserve and not screw it up. Pete seemed to take that as a challenge." And so the idea for Blackwolf Run was born.

Nothing about the Village of Kohler openly declares itself a resort. There are no citizens wandering around in ethnic dress, encouraging tourists to engage in folk dancing. There are no shop fronts with Alpine-village façades, no miniature souvenir toilets that play "Lara's Theme" with each flush. Kohler's just a place where people happen to live and work in incredibly neat and uncluttered surroundings with tasteful plantings everywhere--and where people come to play golf, jog on village trails, casually ride bikes and live for a time in understated midwestern luxury.

Standing in front of the American Club and looking across the street, a visitor has a hard time imagining there's a factory over there where four thousand employees toil daily in massive buildings that cover 190 acres. The pottery alone--where all the toilets are cast, glazed and fired--is housed in a 630,000-square-foot building. Eleven miles of overhead track snake through the pottery, carrying toilets from their birth by casting to their baptism by shipping seven days later. The daily tour takes three hours to complete and is a two-and-a-half-mile walk. And yet, standing in front of the American Club, holding a golf bag while the shuttle to Blackwolf Run pulls up, a guest would never know it's there.

The drive to Blackwolf Run is brief and first passes through a slice of residential Kohler, a town that testifies to the value of good design. Herbert Kohler's grandfather did not want a shanty town around his factory. He hired the Olmstead brothers to develop a village plan that would map out the next fifty years, which gives the Village of Kohler the singularly sinuous, landscape-loving look that is the Olmstead hallmark. A second fifty-year plan was drawn up in the 1970s, this time by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Elements include the upscale shops at Woodlake Kohler (a diminutive mall) and the Inn on Woodlake, a smaller, reasonably priced hotel built on the shores of a man-made lake. The Sports Core, a full-service health and racquet club, makes tennis, swimming and spa treatments available to guests.

As the shuttle van nears Blackwolf Run, the driver complains about the narrowness of the road. High mounds planted with native prairie grasses and wildflowers mask a broader view. Relief from this enforced compression comes with the last turn, with the clubhouse, a log structure so big it cries out ski lodge. Yet it fits the landscape. There's nothing prissy about it.

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