Interview With Herb Kohler


Herb Kohler has brought the U.S. Women's Open back to Blackwolf Run for a second time. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)
By David Shefter
July 1, 2012

Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the president and chairman of the Kohler Company, is once again front and center in the golf world this summer with the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open coming to Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. This will be the fifth major championship conducted on one of Kohler’s golf courses and the second Women’s Open contested at Blackwolf Run. Nearby Whistling Straits has hosted two PGA Championships and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, and it will host the 2015 PGA Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup Matches. USGA senior staff writer David Shefter talked with Kohler, 73, at U.S. Women’s Open Media Day on May 22 about his love for golf and his passion for bringing major golf events to his properties. 

You came to the game of golf very late in life. What attracted you to it? 

Kohler: I would play twice a year with my father (Herbert Sr.) with wooden-shafted clubs. That was the extent of my interest. My father had a bag and he had these wooden shafts. And his brother had a bag, and some books on golf courses, interestingly enough. It was about 1983 … that I decided I needed to learn this game. I can’t just build a golf course. I have to know what we’re dealing with. It’s unfortunate because I would have been a much better player had I gotten into it as a young kid.

So it was the reopening of the American Club that turned you on to the game? 

We reopened the American Club in 1981, and within two years our guests were playing a lot of golf. We were taking them to a little private course about 15 minutes away and a public course 25 minutes away. One day a young accountant brought a stack of suggestion slips into my office. He said, ‘I have been collecting these [slips] and this particular stack all has to do with the golf course. These people are saying thank you for enabling golf, but why in the world aren’t you building your own golf course.’ I had never even thought of it. Fortunately, I had a vice president of development who was about a 3 handicap. And after a week of conversations, we decided we might as well try and build a course.

What is it about golf that you love so much? 

Kohler: The set of values associated with the game are what I find very meaningful. A fair number of my best friends now come from the game of golf one way or another. But it’s a strange thing. You wonder why. Why is it all these people have become good friends late in life? Somehow it’s that set of values that underlies; they’re just very high quality people.

You chose Pete Dye to design the original Blackwolf Run layout. What was it about Dye’s philosophy that led you to him? 

Kohler: We went out and found six architects who were somewhat noteworthy. We picked two men who worked as a pair and we had picked out two courses on the PGA Tour. We picked out five holes and had them walk these holes. Then we came back and discussed their philosophy. And we discovered they had a philosophy like no one else. They felt from a tee of a par 3, par 4 and a par 5, you always had to look down on a hole. Our first thought was the reason they felt this [way] was it speeds up resort play. But we … realized if you have a cart you can go from hole to hole fairly quickly, but you are still going to have some long green-to-tee distances. And if you are going to have a championship where they walk, it isn’t going to work. We said thank you very much, but no thank you.

So we went out and looked at another half-dozen architects. And in this second batch, there were some significant names, one of which was this character Pete Dye, and it goes from there.

When you first built Blackwolf Run, did you envision it hosting a major championship? 

Kohler: When we built it, we said we have a goal and that’s majors. But we started with the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship. We started with the U.S. championship and then the international championship. And from there we went to the [U.S.] Women’s Open.

How much did the success and drama of that U.S. Women’s Open affect the future major events your resort landed? 

Kohler: People realized that they could do business with us. First of all, we were a corporation. We weren’t a country club. Not to put down country clubs, we are organized to do business. And we do it in many different ways with many different businesses. It was that ability to organize and get your act together that enabled us to be pretty effective and efficient in working with these organizations to produce a good tournament. That first Women’s Open broke all the records. Unit records, dollar records… it was amazing. It just opened people’s eyes. Now, the newness had a lot to do with it. But all of a suddenThe PGA of America started to have some interest, but I didn’t want to cut out the USGA. So all of a sudden these two organizations were at least to some extent competing.

The state of Wisconsin has become quite an epicenter for big golf competitions. Since 1998, the state will have hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens (Blackwolf Run), two PGA Championships (Whistling Straits), a U.S. Senior Open (Whistling Straits), a U.S. Amateur (Erin Hills), a U.S. Mid-Amateur (Milwaukee C.C.), a U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (Erin Hills) and in five years, a U.S. Open at Erin Hills. What makes Wisconsin so attractive for major golf events? 

Kohler: Well, people love golf. There’s a lot of little public courses in the state. Now, will the saturation [of events] hamper this? Will the quality of television, which has improved and improved and improved, dampen it? Possibly. But there’s still a lot of enthusiasm.

What you also have are course that the public can play. People can come and enjoy these venues that host majors, which isn’t the case at a lot of places. 

Kohler: That’s right. It’s very significant. Every one of these courses is in the top 100 public courses.

Since opening your courses, you’ve only had professional competitions. Have you thought about bringing a national amateur championship to either Whistling Straits or Blackwolf Run? 

Kohler: Sure. No reason not to. The way they’ve been scheduled, it’s hard to fit one in. But will there be a time? Absolutely. The U.S. Amateur would be great. They can play it all here. You wouldn’t have to go anywhere else.

I understand after the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, you went to Chile for the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship to take that event in, especially to see Jenny Chuasiriporn, the runner-up at that Open. What made you go to South America to watch this competition? 

Kohler: It was wonderful to see these kids play. Pete Dye was the one who inspired much of this. My relationship with him is what really charges me up. Pete and Alice [his wife] wanted to go. It was terrific. There was a lot of nationalism. For awhile, you wonder if it is positive or negative. They get a little rabid.

How much golf do you get to play now? 

Kohler: I played 90 rounds for about 15 years, and now I am down to 20. It’s just because I can’t play very well anymore. But… one year ago, The R&A made me a member. I went to the spring meeting this year and with a high 20s handicap, would you believe I won a tournament. Here I am, playing this course with all these 70- and 80-year-old guys and I beat them. Mind you, it was the Stableford method of scoring.

Scotland also happens to be the place where you experienced a true thrill, making a hole-in-one on the Old Course at St. Andrews playing with former USGA Executive Director David B. Fay and current PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.  

Kohler:  It was on No. 11. And Mr. Finchem gave me a painting depicting the event. It was very special. It’s my only hole-in-one. It’s not a bad place to do it.

But I made the big mistake of inviting them up to the bar the following night at the Old Course Hotel.  There were about 25 people. I said you can take that menu and order whatever you want. Well, I really didn’t go through the menu beforehand. Here was a 50-, 60-year-old scotch. Just one drink, one shot … 235 pounds a shot. It was a little less than $500.

Was it worth it? 

Kohler: There were 20 of them that had it. Several times. They just killed me. I am not going to card any more holes-in-one.

You purchased the Old Course Hotel in 2004. What prompted your interest in this property? 

Kohler: It was a curious thing. In August, we had the PGA Championship here [at Whistling Straits]. There was an American who lived in Paris visiting his relatives in Chicago. He had an extra day and drove up here on a Wednesday. He toured Whistling Straits, went through our hotel, drove back to Chicago and flew back to Paris. A couple of days later, he wrote me an email. I didn’t know this person. The upshot is that he was a member of a management buyout group that was trying to buy the Old Course Hotel from a Japanese company. They had been working at it for about nine months and still hadn’t gathered enough equity. So he asked if I would be interested.

I had been there about a half-dozen times, so I knew about it. I knew its level of quality. And it happened to match closely what we were doing here with the American Club. And it even had a [golf] course associated with it called The Dukes. I told him when we participate in something like this, we have to have a controlling interest because we have to maintain a certain level of quality in everything we do. I thought that would kill it. They still invited us in. We negotiated with the managing director and 40 days from the day I got that first email, we owned the hotel.

Isn’t that a quick transaction for something of this magnitude? 

Kohler: Very fast. Normally, it would take six to 12 months. But the Japanese company had a chairman who was 85 and he needed to settle his estate. And he was very impatient. He said either you do it quickly or no deal. And we’ve never regretted it. It’s been a great experience.

If you could pick a dream foursome, who would be in it besides yourself? 

Kohler: President George H.W. Bush, Pete Dye and probably Tim Finchem. And I would add [former R&A secretary and five-time British Amateur champion] Michael Bonnallack and [current R&A chief executive] Peter Dawson. I asked [President Bush] to be a member of my board of directors. And I did it on the phone. There was a pause. He said, “Herb, I need 30 days to give you an answer.” He called back on the 30th day and said, “Herb, I regret to tell you that I am going to have to decline and have made a decision to run for president.” Mr. Bush, I have heard a lot of excuses in my day, but that’s the [biggest] one I have ever heard. But he ran for president [and won]. I have played many rounds of golf with him, and fished.

Is there a hole at your properties that somehow always gets you? 

Kohler: It depends on what tees I am playing. I have been moving significantly forward over the years. But the first hole that they’ll play for the Women’s Open is pretty tough. That second shot…it’s severely uphill to a very small green. That’s a very difficult starting hole. And then the No. 3 hole. That’s a tough darn hole. It doesn’t look that tough, but boy it’s tough.

What’s the best score you have shot here? 

Kohler: Oh heaven. A 78. On the River Course.

Are there days when you give resort guests a chance to play the original 18-hole routing at Blackwolf Run? 

Kohler: We have the last two years as we have re-grassed these courses. We split it up in such a way that we did the championship course, the course we are going to play [for the Women’s Open], we did those two nines first, and the other two nines second. So it enabled us to play the championship course this year. That was a nice lead-in to the [Women’s] Open.

Is the ultimate dream for the resort to host a U.S. Open? 

Kohler: No. I just want to keep hosting. We’ve had a good run with both the USGA and The PGA of America. I hope they have enough respect for us that that will continue.

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