Players who like to stack up their games against the very best courses can thank Herb Kohler, head of the plumbing fixtures company, for developing the nation’s finest 72-hole public-access complex. In the mid-1980s, Kohler struck up a relationship with Pete Dye, who, with Kohler’s input and bankroll, created a quartet of superlative courses in this company town. All four layouts — two at Blackwolf Run and two at Whistling Straits — are fixtures on GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 You Can Play, an unprecedented achievement for a single resort. Add Midwestern hospitality, Wisconsin microbrews and off-course attractions, and Kohler shapes up as a world-class weekend getaway.
Kohler is a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Chicago and about an hour north of Milwaukee. After arrival, have lunch at the rambling log clubhouse at Blackwolf Run (try an entree salad) followed by golf on the Meadow Valleys Course, a brilliant layout routed around glacially formed ridges, hollows and bluffs. Swallow your pride and move up a set of tees — Meadow Valleys, like the other three Kohler venues, is tough as nails from the back. This is the course Dye prefers to play when he’s in town.
Check in to your hotel. (See “The Deal.”) Have dinner at the tavern-like Horse & Plow at The American Club. Don’t pass up the grilled Sheboygan County sausage sampler, a plate of delectable local bratwurst. Get plenty of rest.
Big day for enthusiasts. Travel 10 miles north to Whistling Straits, a 36-hole facility spread across a former military camp on low bluffs fronting Lake Michigan. Play a morning round on the Irish Course, a mishmash of design styles, from links to parkland, that somehow falls together. Avoid streams and ponds that come into play on 12 holes. Lunch in the magnificent stone clubhouse.
If 18 holes is enough, spend the afternoon biking the 17-mile Old Plank Road Recreation Trail, canoeing or fly fishing the Sheboygan River, or hiking the 500-acre wilderness preserve at River Wildlife. If you’re dying to tackle the resort’s marquee track, hire a caddie or carry your own bag around the walkers-only Straits Course, site of the 2004 PGA Championship. There’s plenty of room to drive the ball on the wide fescue fairways, but evil bunkers, tricky greens and swirling winds can prove to be ruinous. Block out the bleating of the sheep that graze in the rough. The collection of par 3s on the Straits, dangled above the shoreline, is phenomenal. One of Dye’s all-time best.
Golfers who’ve played two rounds should stay for an excellent dinner. If not, try The Immigrant, a gourmet restaurant beneath The American Club. Start or end at the Winery Bar, a cozy piano lounge with a wide selection of Wisconsin cheeses and fine wines by the glass.
Rise early for a final round on Blackwolf Run’s River Course, a brawny test that is guaranteed to steamroll pretenders, (Course/Slope Ratings of 74.9/151 from the tips at 6,991 yards). It’s not enough to hit a long, straight drive and find the green with an unerring approach shot — you’ll likely face a slippery putt that breaks three ways. Holes that trace the meandering Sheboygan River are gorgeous, but the best holes are on higher ground. There is no let-up; only Bethpage Black ranks ahead of the River as the nation’s supreme public-access test of parkland golf. Have lunch on the verandah overlooking the lazy river and the huge double-green that concludes both courses at Blackwolf Run.
Got time? Visit the exhibiton hall at the Kohler Design Center to admire the designer bathrooms, or drop by the Shops at Woodlake Kohler, an eclectic collection of 25 specialty shops and boutiques. You’ll sleep like a baby when you make it home.
[As of August 2003] Two options. Go full boat at The American Club, a GOLF MAGAZINE Gold Medal resort whose deluxe bathrooms, as you’d expect, are appointed with Kohler’s top-of-the-line fixtures. Through October 31, rooms start at $299, based on double occupancy, on Friday and Saturday. A la carte golf rates: $202 for River, $171 for Meadow Valleys (cart included), $270 for Straits, $198 for Irish ($50 caddie fee included, gratuity extra). A three-night package, featuring golf for two on the River, Meadow Valleys and Irish Courses, starts at $2,093.
Great value is on tap at the Inn on Woodlake, which has been expanded to accommodate golfers who don’t require five-star luxury. The two-night Golf Inn package, designed for two players, features golf on the River, Meadows Valleys and Irish Courses. Rates through October 31 range from $1,579 to $1,695.
Reservations: 800-344-2838; www.destinationkohler.com.