Blackwolf Run - River Course (WI)?
Gazing over the beautifully sculpted landscape the Kohler Co. turned into Whistling Straits, legions of golfers might reasonably ask this question as they prepare to hit their drive off the first tee:
How exactly did a world leader in plumbing products get into the golf-course business?
An interesting question, says Alice Edland, the longtime Kohler employee who runs Kohler's hospitality and real estate businesses. The process, she said, began not through some strategic plan the company's leadership adopted.
Instead the golf and resort business Kohler built are the direct result of taking the company's assets and finding ways to use them in different and creative ways.
That's the way Kohler began as a company. According to a company history, Kohler began to produce cast iron and steel implements for farmers, castings for the area's furniture factories and ornamental iron pieces.
In 1883, the company's John Michael had a thought. By applying a special baked enamel coating to a Kohler horse trough, Michael created a bathtub. The bathtub immediately put the Kohler Co. into the plumbing business.
The golf course and resort business evolved in the late '70s when the company was finding ways to sustain the huge manufacturing complex the company maintains. The company, Edland explained, had found ways to remake the old manufacturing assets and soon turned one such historic building, built in 1918 for immigrant worker housing, into the American Club.
Today, the American Club, opened in 1979, is a top-tier resort.
As the club prospered, Edland said, the company realized that its customers wanted to play golf. The resort dutifully booked customers at area country clubs or public courses.
"At about that time, Herbert V. Kohler Jr. began to play golf," Edland said. Kohler is chairman and president of the Kohler Co.
When the boss enjoys golf and he has a resort to run, the obvious choice is to connect the dots. Kohler and his company did by building the River Course at Blackwolf Run.
"The first year we had projected we would do something like 12,000 golf rounds. We did 18,000," Edland said.
In 1989 a third nine was added at Blackwolf Run and a fourth nine in 1990. Today, the two courses -- known individually as the Meadow Valleys Course and the River Course -- are top attractions for golfers.
In the early 1990s, the Kohler Co. added Inn on Woodlake, a mid- priced hotel, and began expanding the golf operation. Kohler began to look for new property along Lake Michigan to build another course. It was a daunting task finding the right property, Edland said.
"We looked south of Sheboygan, but that meant putting a lot of landowners together. Finally we realized Wisconsin Electric Power Co. had some large holdings in the Haven area. We dealt with them, and purchased some other land that Wisconsin Electric took in exchange," Edland said.
That property along Lake Michigan became Whistling Straits, which opened in 1998.
The opening of the golf courses, plus the addition of The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Sheyboygan Falls, has made Sheboygan County a golf destination.
The region, in fact, has gotten notice in various golf publications as a must-play destination for serious and monied golfers.
"You go out to the Sheboygan County airport on a normal weekend," said Dennis Ladwig, the former president of Lakeshore Technical College who is working for the PGA in the run-up to the tournament. "All of a sudden you have people coming in and leaving that never came to Sheboygan before, and they are here to play golf.
"Kohler had an excellent vision to create a culture here," he said.
Edland said the company's client base has broadened as well. Previously, 60% of Kohler's resort guests came from the Chicago metropolitan area; today it's down to 40%.
"We have guests from all over the world to come for golf," Edland said.
While all of the attention will be on Whistling Straits, The Bull has seen its business and reputation grow as well, said Dave Bachmann.
It was Bachmann and his father, Dave Sr., who turned the family farm into the golf course. Opened in June 2003, the course has been the beneficiary of golfers who, in many cases, will play one of the Kohler Co. courses in the morning, and head to The Bull in the afternoon. Or vice versa.
"There is a lot of reciprocity," said the younger Bachmann.
Like the Kohler Co. courses, the Bull attracts customers from a number of states, but mainly Illinois and the Chicago area. Many golfers can make a day out of it, and need be, return to their homes at night.
Bachmann said he welcomed the attention the PGA Championship will bring to the area. And business, he added, hasn't been hurt one bit.
"We are filled up daily next week," he said.
Edland said the Kohler Co. is not resting on its golf laurels. Edland said Herbert Kohler is now looking for a piece of property somewhere in the world where he can replicate the golf experience golfers have in Sheboygan County.
"I've made trips with him to Scotland, North Carolina, Florida," Edland said. "I think he's looking for a special piece of land. At this point, he continues to hunt for that."
And Herbert Kohler is not in this for the fun of it, Edland said.
"This is a profitable division of the company," she said. "Frankly, Mr. Kohler goes in expecting to be profitable. He's very serious about it."
And, this was just printed recently regarding updates on the course. More than likely a update prior to the US Women's Open which is set to return in 2012:
Herbert V. Kohler Jr. owns four world-class golf courses in Wisconsin, along with the famed Old Course Hotel and the Duke's Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
And he's not finished yet.
On Tuesday, Kohler, the president and CEO of the Kohler Co., said he was searching for land on which to build more golf courses, but added that whatever he finds likely would be outside the United States.
"There aren't many areas left in this country, frankly, especially on shoreline, especially on water you can't see across," he said. "There is very little land in this country left to build great golf courses.
"But there are those kinds of areas elsewhere in this world and that's what we're looking for."
Kohler also revealed that Pete Dye, who designed the four courses at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, would return next week to make "a hard look at some adjustments at Blackwolf Run. He may even tweak (Whistling Straits)."
"We have to keep challenging these players," he added. "They're awfully good. So we're doing two things: We're searching and we're making some internal adjustments at the same time.
"But you'll be hearing from us again."
Though he admittedly knew little about golf before opening the original 18 holes at Blackwolf Run in 1988, Kohler has become one of the most influential and powerful men in the game.
The success of his courses inspired a course-building boom in Wisconsin in the 1990s. He brought the U.S. Women's Open to Blackwolf Run in 1998 and the PGA Championship to Whistling Straits in 2004. The latter was the first men's major championship played in Wisconsin in 71 years and set PGA records for attendance and economic impact.
This week, the best over-50 golfers in the world will tackle Whistling Straits in the U.S. Senior Open. And Kohler has a blockbuster contract with the PGA of America that will bring the PGA back in 2010 and 2015 and the Ryder Cup in 2020.
Once an infrequent golfer who used his father's hickory-shafted clubs when he did play, Kohler is a fanatic with a 21 handicap who is known to tee it up in any kind of weather. He loves the classic seaside links courses of Scotland and Ireland, which were the inspiration for Whistling Straits.
On Monday, Kohler stole away to Blackwolf Run and played a friendly game with Michael Jordan.
"He's a 4-handicap," Kohler reported. "He played it from the tips and shot 90."
Kohler himself didn't become a celebrity until he got involved in golf. He is besieged by grateful golf fans wherever he goes in Wisconsin and probably is the first plumbing magnate in history to carry a Sharpie to sign autographs.
Even at the U.S. Open last month at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, fans approached Kohler and thanked him for what he has done for golf.
Kohler said he was grateful for what golf has done for him.
"My life has changed dramatically since we broke ground for that first golf course, in the kind of friends I have and the people I meet," he said. "Obviously, the world of plumbing doesn't attract this kind of media (attention), nor do generators or even furniture.
"It's been a remarkable experience. It starts with the values of the game. . . . And then you come to the recognition and the spotlight that it shines on the company. So what this game has meant for Kohler has been remarkable."
With all that said, I was finally able to get out and play the River course for the first time. Nevermind the 30 mph winds, or the 100+ temperatures (I guess 105+ heat index).. I was there to play some golf!
Whilel I didn't shoot the best round, I definitely walked away extremely impressed. It's not exactly "new news" regarding the level of service you'll receive from the Kohler Courses. Or the quality of their courses, and associated club house, for that matter. So, I don't know what I was thinking prior. But, it's just an absolutely beautiful lay-out from start to finish, and conditions of the course were darned near perfect. Even though we haven't had rain in quiet awhile.
Here are the course vitals:
Black - 3635/3376: 7011 (74.4/148)
Blue - 3432/3175: 6607 (72.6/139)
White - 3193/2917: 6110 (70.2/129) **For women: 75.3/138
Red - 2605/2510: 5115 (70.1/124)
And, I just happened to have my camera for those of you who haven't had a chance to play it yet. Or, just want a friendly reminder that you should play it again for those who have. Besides, everyone likes pictures..
Just prior to our round, the galary crossed the river (two fawns w/ doe)
#1 ("Snake") - 564/534/493/411 (par 5) Hcp: 5
#2 ("Burial Mounds") - 376/370/350/310 (par 4) Hcp: 13
#3 ("Gotcha") - 461/410/389/295 (par 4) Hcp: 1
#4 ("Swan Lake") - 195/185/144/117 (par 3) Hcp: 15
#5 ("Made in Heaven") - 419/388/375/275 (par 4) Hcp: 3
#6 ("Jackknife") - 361/343/308/265 (par 4) Hcp: 17
#7 ("Glencary") - 401/374/352/293 (par 4) Hcp: 7
#8 ("Hell's Gate") - 521/512/484/401 (par 5) Hcp: 9
#9 ("Cathedral Spires") - 337/316/297/238 (par 4) Hcp: 11
#10 ("River & Marsh") - 222/204/175/147 (par 3) Hcp: 14
#11 ("Rise & Fall") - 560/542/522/446 (par 5) Hcp: 6
#12 ("Long Lagoon") - 465/433/372/333 (par 4) Hcp: 2
#13 ("Tall Timber") - 205/192/140/101 (par 3) Hcp: 10
#14 ("Blind Alley") - 346/310/294/228 (par 4) Hcp: 16
#15 ("The Sand Pit") - 354/346/329/290 (par 4) Hcp: 18
#16 ("Unter Der Linden") - 580/540/511/483 (par 5) Hcp: 8
#17 ("Snapping Turtle") - 175/168/153/131 (par 3) Hcp: 12
#18 ("DyeHard") - 469/440/421/351 (par 4) Hcp: 4
Hope everyone enjoys..
Nice pics Brad!
Just to add a few notes...this is an extremely visually intimidating golf course. There are very few "safe" plays anywhere - basically miss the fairway and you're probably in a position where par becomes very difficult. Same thing around the greens - tough to get up and down from most spots. However, very fun to play...and some of the best greens I have played as far as having tons of "character" - every one is filled with little humps and ridges that have to be negotiated. Overall, a highly recommended play!
That course blends "right into" the land itself. Better start saving my $$$$$ so I can play that and The Straits next summer!
Courses like that serve as a great reminder of how golf is the best sport in the world.
god do i hate florida golf looking at those pics.
thanks for the fantastic review
That course blends "right into" the land itself. Better start saving my $$$$$ so I can play that and The Straits next summer!
You're going to be mighty busy when you're up in this neck of the woods. Straights course, now the River course, the Bull, the Bog, Erin Hills..
..could be a fun filled week.
Like I said before, let me know if you need to fill out the four-some.
Like Matt said, the course really is a full value for the quality of the shots. There's little area to miss towards, especially around the greens. As, like you can see, there's sand, knolls, water, and prairie grasses found through-out the course. Considering the ungulations throughout the greens, it makes things serious if you're missing greens in reg. Don't take that to mean that it's easy off the tee, as you still have to hit quality shots in order to put yourself in position to score. It just doesn't make anything a gimmie.
If you have the means, definitely try to get on this course.
whoa! is that a flat eric avatar up there? i thought no one knew who he was. awesome.
The River Course is one of my courses that I've ever played, I enjoy it more than the Straits course. You could play this course 100 times and never grow tired of it. I'm usually not a big fan of architect's naming holes, but I know every River Course hole by name. They seem to just fit. I try to get up there at least once a year. Thankfully they have deals running every now and then, usually around the holidays.
To me, the best way to play Blackwolf is to look for the Original 18 special. They do it every couple years(they did it this April) where they close off the newer holes, and return the course to it's original routing from 1989 that they used for the Women's Open.
That's when you see how great that course can truly be, to me the original 18 at Blackwolf is better than either of the two full courses and better than either course at Whistling Straits. I always tell people who are going up there and considering only doing the River course that they need to play both River and Meadow Valleys to get the real experience of what Pete Dye intended. I think the split ended up being 9 of the original to each course, and you lose out on how great the place can really be if you skip the Meadow.
They used to run specials like this at the end of the season like October or November, but now they've switched and it's usualyl $50 or $60 to play the Meadow the Irish Course and Whistling Straits.
Great pics for a great course!! I've only played the River once 2 years ago, but looking back at your pictures I started recalling some of my better shots. I always forget the bad ones.
Did you go for the green on #9? I did and got lucky finding the "fairway" right and pin high. What did you think of "tall timber"? That was the only hole I didn't like. I couldn't get my low irons high enough to get over the trees. Now with a hybrid I don't think I'd have a problem.
I've been trying to schedule a golf (for me) and spa (for wife) vacation to Kohler. Someday.
I worked at Blackwolf last summer and played all four Kohler courses a lot and the River is one of my favorite courses that I've played. It's a great golf course and it's very hard, but it's fair. I played the River probably 25 times last year and loved every minute of it. I hope you had fun.