Almost 25 years ago, plumbing magnate and occasional golfer Herb Kohler decided to build a golf course for guests at his new American Club hotel. He hired designer Pete Dye, and despite the fact that the two men butted heads like Bighorn sheep, they managed to create Blackwolf Run. In the process, they became close pals, and by 2001 they had created the finest four-course resort on earth.
Despite its off-the-beaten-path location in the dairy heartland, The American Club earned more votes from Golf Magazine readers than any other property in our 2008 Premier Resorts Awards. What’s the secret? It’s not that complicated: A hotel that’s unsurpassed for dining, service and spa facilities, and four of the nation’s greatest public-access courses.
Here’s why Herb’s Haven is worth every bit of your time and money.
It’s obvious where the Kohler folks put the Irish Course in the pecking order, given that it’s half the cost of the Straits and $65 cheaper than Blackwolf Run’s River layout. But it gets my nod for third place over Blackwolf Run’s Meadow Valleys layout, due to its superior variety and greater ‘Wow!’ factor.
It bears little resemblance to an Irish links — the lake views are rare and the forced carries over creeks and ponds plentiful — but the Irish is still an enjoyable walk over flatter terrain. It sports an astonishing number of bunkers, and is overall a superb test of shotmaking that culminates in a great stretch of closing holes.
This rather awkwardly named track wins my vote as one of the nation’s most underrated courses. Maybe it’s just overshadowed by its siblings, although some think that the prairie-style front nine lacks drama and visual appeal. What I found was a series of hard but playable holes, some brilliantly designed. And there’s more of the same after the turn. Dye’s clever use of risk/reward angles reminds you of just why he is so revered, and a couple of potentially card-wrecking holes (the 14th and 15th) remind you why he is so feared.
Kohler gave Pete Dye a simple directive when it came to Whistling Straits: “I want it to look like it’s in Ireland.” With eight holes routed along Lake Michigan, 70-foot-tall sandhills draped in fescue, firm and fast conditions, the ever-present wind, and the freakish number of bunkers — more than 1,000 in all — that Dye sprinkled like powdered sugar on French toast, we can only say: Mission accomplished.
Yes, it’s tough, and the weather makes it even more brutal. Sure, the steady diet of rippling fairways and blasted-out bunkers make holes run together in your mind. But collectively the holes at the Straits course — especially the foursome of fearsome bluff-top par-3s — draw you back like a riptide.
Whistling Straits is designed to look like an import, but Blackwolf Run is as Midwestern as corn dogs. Dye’s canvas was crossed with streams and the twisting Sheboygan River. He plucked nine of the original holes for a new course he built in 1988, leaving behind the current holes 1-4 and 14-18. The newer holes are the most memorable. The 337-yard 9th can be approached three ways, while the right-swinging par-5 11th and the par-3 13th — a near-dogleg — both flirt with the river. Dye’s typically penal water hazards, rough and bunkers will cause some angst, but overall, this 1998 (and 2012) U.S. Women’s Open site is a worthy number two in the Kohler arsenal.
This classic Tudor structure once housed Kohler’s immigrant employees, and the sense of history is palpable. It is home to the fine-dining Immigrant Restaurant and Winery Bar, with six separate dining areas each themed to celebrate a different European ethnic mix, in tribute to Wisconsin’s early settlers. Those who prefer extra space can stay across the street in the Carriage House annex, while budget-minded golfers should stay down the street at the handsome Inn on Woodlake. Rates from $309. 800-344-2838, destinationkohler.com.