Kohler certainly is a unique destination nestled just off the shore of Lake Michigan. The 140-year history of the renowned plumbing company may make it seem like golf has always been a part of the village, but the history of our golf courses is actually quite young.
This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Blackwolf Run and the 15th anniversary of Whistling Straits. Here is a little history lesson of how these championship golf courses came into being.
Construction of Blackwolf Run began in 1985, just four years after The American Club opened. The inspiration to build a golf course in Kohler came from the hotel guests requesting to see golf as an activity when visiting the resort. However, it was not the first time Kohler Co. built a golf course on the land near the Sheboygan River. The company had laid out a crude, five-hole track on the same land decades before and had maintained it for company employees and village residents. However, that little course did not stick around for long.
The legendary golf course designer, Pete Dye, and Mr. Kohler surveyed the land and began to develop the vision for Blackwolf Run. Pete does not produce his own drawings for his golf courses. Instead, he spends time on the land, occasionally operating the bulldozers and tractors; but he spends most of his time walking the property and feeling out the terrain for the best place to lay out the golf holes. Pete used the subtle hills and valleys of the land as well as the river and creeks that ran through it, to create a layout that induced golfers of all abilities.
As was the case with most golf course designers, Pete Dye was not used to creative input from the person who had engaged him. With Mr. Kohler things were different. He would go out to the course while Pete was in town working and challenge many of his decisions and ask probing questions about his work. Mr. Kohler knew what the golfers coming to Kohler would want, and he wanted to make sure that the land remained as natural and rugged as possible.
Things were going well with construction until two 100-year rains hit in 1986. The first struck in September, and it flooded away many of the fairways and greens on the course, which had just been seeded. They thought that they still would be able to stay on track to open the course the following summer until the second 100-year rain hit a week later. The damage was so severe that Pete was going to have to reconstruct some of the fairways and greens and because of this the opening was pushed back to 1988.
The course was opened, and Blackwolf Run was named “the best new public course of 1988” by Golf Digest. In that first year, 17,000 rounds were played on Blackwolf Run. There was much more demand than what Mr. Kohler and Pete Dye could have imagined. Within weeks of the course opening, Mr. Kohler decided that another nine holes needed to be added. The original course was comprised of two nine-hole loops otherwise known as the River and Valleys. The new nine hole track which was placed adjacent to the Valleys became the Meadows and opened in July 1989. The final nine holes debuted in August 1990, and the course playing order was restructured into its current two 18-hole layouts.
All was well at Blackwolf Run except that people were still calling months in advance for tee times . . . 36 holes of golf were seemingly not enough. Mr. Kohler wanted to address this problem, and the only solution he could think of was to build another golf course. He wanted another kind of environment for golfers. He wanted it to be on Lake Michigan, and he wanted it to be true to the origins of golf. Again, Pete Dye and Mr. Kohler set out on a quest to find the perfect location for the new golf course. Finally, they found a large piece of lakefront land near Haven, Wisconsin, which is nine miles northeast of The American Club. After long negotiations, Kohler finally purchased the land in May 1995, and Pete was ready to build another unique and challenging golf course.
This time, Mr. Kohler wanted a seaside links course that looked like something you would find in Ireland. They had two miles of flat land, previously an army base, along Lake Michigan to work with. Over 7,000 truckloads of sand were brought in to create the many dunes and bunkers that can be found all over the course. From barren, flat land they created something very unique and very special.
The finished product, Whistling Straits, opened for play on July 6, 1998, and received rave reviews from the very beginning. However, Mr. Kohler was not done yet. In 1997, on the land that adjoined the Straits to the west, construction began for the final time. This time Mr. Kohler wanted a grasslands and dunes layout, and this is how the Irish was born. These two courses forced players to play two very unique types of layouts. The Irish was the low, on-the-ground running game of Scotland, and the Straits was characteristic of the game of golf in Ireland. At last, the Irish opened in the summer of 2000.
Championships at Kohler
Mr. Kohler’s vision was to host exclusive golf championships on his courses, and he has. Blackwolf Run has hosted the U.S. Women’s Open Championship in both 1998 and 2012, in addition to several other notable tournaments. Whistling Straits has hosted the PGA Championship in 2004 and 2010 and will be hosting again in 2015, as well as having hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 2007. This is just the beginning of our courses history. Who knows what the future may bring?