Golf lost a true giant of the game with the death of Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr. on Saturday in the Wisconsin town of 1,800 residents that bore his family name. He was 83 years old.
The third-generation scion of a privately-held company founded in 1873 and best known for its toilets, baths and other plumbing products, Kohler came to golf quite late in life – and quite by accident. It happened when he converted in 1981 a worker’s dormitory into a five-star hotel called the American Club.
Much to most people’s surprise, including many of his top executives who advised against the move, the venture turned out to be a grand success. It also induced Kohler to start building golf courses to accommodate hotel guests who kept asking for places to play.
First came the Pete Dye-designed Blackwolf Run, in 1988, and that track proved to be so popular that Kohler asked Dye to build another 18 holes on that same site, which boasted a pleasing mix of woods and meadows and was bisected in sections by the Sheboygan River. Then in 1998, Dye created Whistling Straits on the site of an old airfield and Army anti-artillery training facility on the shores of Lake Michigan. That layout opened the same day that the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open was decided by a playoff at Blackwolf Run, some 10 miles away. And then the fourth part of the Kohler quartet came online in 2000 with the unveiling of the Irish Course, which took its name from his edict to Dye as they surveyed the property before the first bit of dirt had been moved. “Make it look like Ireland,” Kohler said. And in both cases, Dye obliged.
There were several things that made these developments significant. With the first 18 holes at Blackwolf Run, Kohler joined Dick Youngscap of Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska and Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes on the southern Oregon coast in starting a renaissance in golf course design during which the quality of sites become much more important than a place’s proximity to major population centers. The result was the creation in later years of places such as Pacific Dunes, Cabot Links, Sand Valley, Ballyneal and Whistling Straits. Much to the delight of golfers everywhere, the movement continues to this day.
In building the American Club and then his four courses, Kohler also made a brilliant business move by, in effect, establishing a new division for his company that now produces hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues. That’s a nice addition to the top line, and there is no way to properly measure the worth of the exposure the Kohler Company has received from its involvement in golf through the decades – and how it has benefitted sales in the plumbing, engine, generator and furniture operations, as well as hospitality. But it has to be massive.
At the same time, he made Wisconsin a global golf destination and a must-play for serious players.
Guests at the American Club raved about each Kohler course opened, and top officials at the USGA and the PGA of America began using them as venues for their biggest tournaments. Blackwolf Run, for example, was the site of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and 2012. And the PGA staged its championship at the Straits Course in 2004, 2010 and 2015. Then in 2021, the Straits hosted the Ryder Cup.
The success of Golf Kohler in the States also led Herb and his wife, Natalie Black, a Stanford-educated lawyer who served for years as the company’s general counsel, to St. Andrews. In 2004, he bought and then restored the well-situated but dated and rather dreary Old Course Hotel on the links there. Five years later, he purchased the dilapidated sandstone structure that rose behind the 18th green of the Old Course and began transforming what had opened in 1895 as the Grand Hotel, and later became a St. Andrews University dormitory called Hamilton Hall into a luxury residence with 26 flats. He christened it Hamilton Grand.
Kohler was not much of a golfer when he asked Dye to build him his first golf course. But the man had an innate sense of what worked from a design standpoint and what his guests would like. Kohler also became enthralled with the game and passionate enough about it as a player to take multiple trips to Ireland and Great Britain to play the classic Old World links. For “research,” of course, and also fun. He also loved being a part of the sport as the owner of host venues of major championships and relished the times he spent on course design and construction with Dye, who along with his wife Alice became two of Kohler’s closest friends. In fact, Herb and Natalie often spoke of how their best mates in life turned out to be in many cases people whom they met in golf. And together, they cherished the warm ways in which they were greeted by locals in the Home of Golf and applauded for the ways they restored two of the town’s best-known landmarks.
As big of a presence as Kohler became in golf, the game was only part of a rich and full life – and only one of many things in which he demonstrated what a truly singular talent he was. As a young man, for example, he studied physics and advanced mathematics at the University of Zurich. In German. He later majored in theater at Knox College in Illinois and in industrial administration at Yale. Through the years, he amassed a portfolio of some 200 design and utility patents. The man also traded lines on the silver screen with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall (in the 2003 film “Open Range”) and is credited with putting together one of the finest stables of Morgan horses in the world. And under his leadership, annual revenues at the Kohler Company, where his son David has been serving in recent years as CEO, grew from some $100 million four decades ago to roughly $7 billion.
But as much as he accomplished in other aspects of his life, it was in the royal and ancient game in which Kohler made perhaps his biggest splash. Bearded and burly, with a ready smile and eyes that twinkled, he was an instantly recognizable figure. And he had a way of drawing people to him with his warmth and wit as well as his generosity and very nimble mind. Though he came to the game in middle age, he also possessed the heart and soul of a golfer, and that made his appeal even greater.
The sport was richer for Herb’s deep involvement, and so were those of us who played his courses, stayed in his hotels, dined in his restaurants and watched major championships being contested on his layouts, whether in person or on TV.
But Herb Kohler always believed he got the better end of the deal, being so immersed for so long in the game we all love.
We will miss each other.
Editor’s note: John Steinbreder wrote the book “Golf Kohler: In the New and Old Worlds,” which was commissioned by Herb Kohler and custom-published in 2010.