Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run and a Kohler Family Dynasty In The Heartland

Whistling Straits. Blackwolf Run. Pete Dye. The American Club. The Kohler Company. Kohler Village, WI. And yes, so much more. It is not often I find myself at a loss for words especially with so much to talk about. But that is exactly the case when trying to put down on paper my 5 day experience at the amazing Kohler Village in Wisconsin.

To say this is one of the finest golf mecca’s on the planet would be true. To overlook the two hotel properties, spa, more than half dozen dining options, sports center, shops and Kohler factory would be criminal. Did I forget to mention horseback riding, trap shooting, kayaking, fishing, biking, hiking, archery and garden tours? All this within the utopian village called Kohler.

An Overview

As I mentioned, this is a village and not a resort. It covers a few square miles of property just west of Sheboygan, WI on rolling wooded and open landscape with the Sheboygan River meandering throughout. While the various hotels, shops, golf courses, restaurants, spa, sports complex, Kohler Design Center, etc are mostly within walking distance of each other there is convenient free shuttle bus service connecting all these locations.

The Golf

This four course, Pete Dye design showcase, is a world renowned golf destination. There are two separate, and very different, venues each with two championship level courses; Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. I played all but the Irish course at Whistling Straits on this trip.

Blackwolf Run

This complex is located within the village and is home to the Meadow Valleys and River courses. These two courses occupy the rolling hills, wooded river bottom and once open farmland that predated the golf courses. Opened in 1988 as the River and Valley course, the Meadow nine was added in 1989 and nine more holes finished the 36 hole layout in 1990. They share a wonderful hilltop log cabin clubhouse that is home to the Pro Shop, a bar, restaurant (more on this later), locker rooms and meeting facilities.

Blackwolf Run has twice hosted the U.S. Women’s Open (2012, 1998) on the original 18 hole course. In addition, the River Course was home to the men’s Andersen Consulting Championship of Golf in 1997, 1996 and 1995.

The Meadow Valleys course is set on more open rolling terrain than its River Course cousin. The expansive vistas and apparent generous fairways belie the often subtle yet diabolical Dye design features that make his courses so challenging. Hitting to the wrong side of a fairway may leave a shorter but blind shot to the green. Missing the putting surface can result in cavernous sand traps, watery disasters or impossible short sided up and down pitch shots.

Of the two courses at Blackwolf Run I would say that this is the more playable for the average golfer yet by far no walk in the park. Fast greens, wind, challenging design features and the need for placement and execution will no doubt add a dozen or more strokes to the average score you shoot at home.

The River Course is one of the most beautiful Midwest woodland style courses you will ever play. It meanders alongside the Sheboygan River which comes into play on nearly half the holes. If the sheer beauty of the course does not distract you then the temptation of its risk/reward design certainly will. Whether it’s the long and challenging water lined Par 3’s like the 4th and 13th or the elevated tee shots from the 5th and 8th holes, you will be hard pressed whether to grab your club or your camera first.

The greens here are some of the truest and fastest I have ever played. They were absolutely amazing. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to play from the correct tees to match your ability. This course is not for the faint of heart or golf beginner. Teeing it up from too far back is a recipe for both disaster and frustration when enjoyment should be your only goal here.

As at Whistling Straits, caddies (or fore caddies) are available and if this is your first time here they are quite invaluable. Gary was my forecaddie on the River course and his insights, course directions and club selections were a big help in ensuring an enjoyable round. FYI: Gary pointed out that his average patron shot well over 100 so be forewarned about course length and difficulty.

Whistling Straits

Whisling Straits is made up of the world famous Straits Course and its sister track the Irish Course. This two course complex is a 15 minute drive from Kohler Village (7 miles north of Sheboygan) by car or shuttle bus and could not be any more different than Blackwolf Run. It is located right on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Having yet to play in Ireland, Scotland and the like from which it has been modeled, I can best describe this as a place of soaring sand dunes as far as the eye can see with a bit of grass thrown in for good luck. It is a cross between a moonscape with a few fairways and greens and a seaside (Lake Michigan) sand box with enough grass planted to make it look unlike any golf course you may ever see or play in your lifetime.

The Straits course is hard by the shores of Lake Michigan. It has twice hosted the U.S. Men’s PGA Championship along with a Senior Men’s U.S. Open. It consists of nine holes out and back to the south of the clubhouse and nine more holes of the same to the north. This course is walking only and caddie mandatory and if you are not in shape for a sometimes rigorous 6 mile, 5 hour trek then this might not be the venue for you. The course is stunning and intimidating, beautiful yet treacherous, demanding and diabolical and every bit as fabulous and memorable as a day at storied Pebble Beach or any other course for that matter! All this and a flock of Scottish Blackfaced horned sheep that are free to roam the course (or in my case occupy a tee box) and only add to the mystique that is Whistling Starits.

The Straits course may have the most amazing and fantastic collection of Par 3’s I have seen, heard of or played. Each one hangs precariously to the dunes above the shoreline with greens seemingly perched as if ready to tumble into the surf below. Grab your camera as this may be the only great shot you take on any of these treacherous lakeside three pars.

I can only tell you to listen to your caddie, bring your “A” game, know how to play from sandy traps and lies of every size, shape and description and don’t be too proud to put your ball into the safety of your pocket should one of these holes prove more than you can give.

The Irish course is just inland of the Straits course and is a very close cousin excepting a lakeshore setting. The Irish is cart path only, or caddy, due to its rugged dune setting. This is also no slouch of a course and an amazing test in its own right.

The Lodging

There are actually three separate lodging options in the village: The American Club, its adjacent Carriage House (home to the Kohler Waters Spa). and a short distance away the Inn on Woodlake.

The American Club began life in 1918 as a 115 unit rooming house for immigrant workers at the Kohler factory. It has a long and storied history as a state of the art facility. By 1942 it had grown in size and underwent a total remodeling with larger guest rooms and was transformed from a workers dormitory to a public inn. 1978 saw the building added to the National Register of Historic Places and another complete renovation took place. By 1991 two additional wings were added bringing the total to 237 rooms, multiple restaurants and 21,000 feet of conference space.

With ample size rooms, to die for bathrooms, great gardens and the most beautiful greenhouse with stained glass walls that serves as a coffee shop, The American Club will grow on you.

Next door, above the spa, are rooms in the Carriage House. These rooms are a bit more modern in feel and offer free and direct access to all spa facilities. A short distance from these two lodging options is the newly renovated Inn on Woodlake. This small boutique hotel is dog friendly, on Wood Lake and immediately adjacent to the village shops and sports center with its indoor pool, tennis and small beach.

The Spa

The Kohler Waters Spa occupies the first and lower levels of the Carriage House. The first level is for manicure, pedicure and salon services, The lower level is where the real fun begins. The spa has a quiet room, treatment rooms and separate Men’s and Women’s locker rooms. Each has its own hot tub, cool soaking tub, sauna and steam room along with the expected showers and lockers.

Between the two locker areas is a shared quiet pool that can best be described as a small lap pool with a large waterfall at one end. This coed area has plush chaise lounges around the perimeter and is the perfect spot for relaxing before or after any massage or other Kohler exclusive body treatments.

The top floor of the Carriage House is a very private glass enclosed room with a large whirlpool tub. Again, chaise lounges ring this comfortable and relaxing private retreat.

The Dining

This trip I ate at five of the great dining options available across all the Kohler properties. In the American Club there was an amazing Sunday breakfast buffet and brunch in the Wisconsin Room. This beautiful and stately setting begs you to dine slowly and savor every moment. In the lower level is the Horse and Plow. This is a fun and lively sports pub with food and drink to match. It is the most casual of the dining options with great happy hour prices.

Perhaps the biggest dining surprise at Kohler is the outstanding food in the two golf clubhouses. The log cabin setting at Blackwolf Run belies its excellent food, While it is open for breakfast and lunch it is the fine dining menu for dinner that stole the show for me. I highly recommend the enclosed veranda portion of the dining room with its floor to ceiling windows looking down on the 18th hole of the River course.

The stone clubhouse at Whistling Straits offers both a warm and welcoming dining room as well as an outdoor patio overlooking the Straits course and Lake Michigan in the distance. The food here is simply excellent whether at breakfast, lunch or dinner. But like Blackwolf Run I must say that dinner was my favorite. From the fantastic appetizers to the wine and all the way through to dessert this is a fine dining experience rarely found (or unexpected) in a golf clubhouse.

I encourage you to visit their website (www.americanclubresort.com) for comprehensive coverage of the golf courses, dining, lodging, spa and all else that is Kohler.

Spy on Golf: FedEx Cup Keeps It Short, USGA Goes Long

What’s the golf world talking about this week?

Aside from Tiger Woods, that is?

FedEx Cup logoFor starters, the PGA Tour’s oft-maligned but fairly entertaining FedEx Cup gets underway Thursday with The Barclays. No “Classic,” no “Championship,” just The Barclays. (Yeah, it takes some getting used to.)

Golf also holds its biggest non-professional event this week. The U.S. Amateur, boasting a roster of past winners like Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, will crown its 111th champion at Erin Hills Golf Course in the hinterlands of Wisconsin.

Here’s an oddity: The Barclays features a course measuring less than 7,000 yards, while the amateurs must tame a track tipping out at 7,700-plus. More on that in a moment.

As for Tiger, he spent last weekend working with the geek squad at EA Sports, preparing the 2013 version of his immensely popular video game. Too bad the game has a better Q Rating than Tiger himself. One survey reveals that 42 percent of the public view Woods unfavorably – not far behind America’s most disliked celeb, Paris Hilton (60 percent).

Maybe somebody should introduce those two…

FedEx Cup: Uphill climb for some players

Here’s how The Barclays shakes out:Plainfield Country Club

The top 125 players in the regular-season FedEx Cup standings comprise the field; the top 100 in the post-tourney standings survive to play next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston.

The Tour folks guesstimate that the current top 87 are safe regardless of how they fare this week, leaving 13 spots up for grabs. That means guys like Anthony Kim (92), Graeme McDowell (93), Retief Goosen (103) and Camilo Villegas (109) need to get hot or go home.

More interesting, to us anyway, is how the pros handle Plainfield County Club, a Donald Ross-designed classic in Edison, N.J. At just 6,964 yards, it’s a pipsqueak by today’s standards. It’s also been drenched by rain in recent weeks, meaning the course could be vulnerable to a deluge of low scores.

Erin Hills continues new direction for USGA, American golf

While the pros tackle diminutive Plainfield, the amateurs face the longest course in USGA history. At its max, Erin Hills stretches to a gulp-inducing 7,760 yards, topping by 18 yards the record set in this event last year by Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington.

Both courses were built within the last five years and will host future U.S. Opens (Chambers Bay in 2015, Erin Hills in 2017). And their length comes with a couple of caveats.

For one, ace USGA setup man Mike Davis promises significant changes in day-to-day tee placements, predicting Erin Hills actually will play between 7,200 and 7,600 yards.

Second, the course is conditioned to play firm and fast, allowing drives to run out to what figure to be ridiculous distances. That’s in keeping not only with the Chambers Bay template, but the nascent move toward firmer fairways throughout American golf.

It’s a movement we’re completely on board with for a number of reasons; we’ll discuss those in a future installment.

In the meantime, enjoy this week’s action. Oh, and if you run into Tiger, tell him you know of a girl who’s just his type.

Sundara – World Class Spa in the Wisconsin Dells

Heaven on earth may be hiding in the Wisconsin Dells, disguised as Sundara, a luxury destination spa. An area long known as the water and amusement park capital of the world now offers a first class retreat for discriminating adults.

Sundara is part of the Wilderness Resort family of properties. It lies concealed in the woods just north of the main Wilderness Resort and shares the site with a championship golf course, Wild Rock. The secluded setting is the antithesis to the normal Dells experience.

The resort is comprised of a luxurious main building and stand-alone villas. The main building contains the spa, a 3 story dining rotunda and  luxury suites. Suites feature a fireplace, king size feather bed, writing desk, Sundara bath products and Kohler fixtures which rain, mist and shower you in water.

The Spa itself occupies most of the main floor. Upon checking in, a staff member will take you on a brief tour of the facilities. You will be assigned a locker for the day and if it is your first visit to Sundara, they will explain the bathing ritual to you. After the tour, I returned to the locker room to begin my day of rest and relaxation. Separate women’s and men’s locker rooms have private showers and changing areas, complimentary bath products and an endless supply of thick, cushy towels.  From there, the ritual begins.

Step One: change into your bathing suit and step into the Purifying Bath Ritual area. This intimate, cathedral-like room leads you through the multi-step ritual. In the center is a large whirlpool bath. Shower enclosures and a steam room occupy the perimeter. Step Two is a warm rinse in one of the small shower alcoves where you polish your skin with exfoliating sand. Step Three, the steam room, to cleanse your pores and relax. Step Four, another rainfall shower to rinse clean. Step Five offers you a choice: a dip in a cool water pool or a hot water whirlpool. Whichever you choose, the idea is to alternate between them for the best effect.

If you plan to stay awake or care to nap, the Quiet Room and the outdoor pool area are next. In the Quiet Room you can enjoy complimentary coffee and juice along with fruits and trail mix while you doze or read while overlooking the pool just outside. The outdoor area is the perfect place to sun, swim and nap. The infinity edged pool appears to flow into an adjacent water feature. Small alcoves built into the pool offer locations for rest and quiet conversation. A large whirlpool is located on the pool deck. Completing the space is an outdoor bar serving lunch and snacks, and a gas firepit for evening gatherings.

Spa services are abundant. I opted for a massage. The service was excellent. From choosing your own scent for the oil, to the level of massage pressure, this was a blissful time of relaxation. After a full day of bathing, napping and massage it was time to go back to our room.

On this trip we stayed in a private villa. Our unit had over 900 square feet that included a high-end kitchen, separate sleeping room and an amazing vaulted spa room overlooking the Wild Rock golf course.

The kitchen featured stainless appliances, slate floors, cherry cabinets and granite counters complete with dishes and utensils. Next, a modern and spacious sleeping room. It was large and beautiful with curved wet bar, flat screen TV and the most comfortable feather bedding you could imagine.

French doors led to the best surprise yet, an even bigger room that resembled a modern day beach hut. This oasis had a barrel vaulted cedar ceiling with walls of windows in all directions. The highlight? A 2 person whirlpool with underwater mood lighting. For good measure, throw in a writing desk, bistro table and two cushy chairs with ottomans.

Sundara has set a new standard for Wisconsin Dells luxury accommodations and pampering. I can’t wait to return and in the mean time, I am thinking of keeping this gem as my own little secret.

Wild Rock Golf Club – Championship Play in the Wisconsin Dells

If you are coming to the Wisconsin Dells and have time to golf, then a round at Wild Rock Golf Club should be on your agenda. Part of the Wilderness Resort, Wild Rock opened in the spring of 2009 and is claiming its place as the best the Dells has to offer.

First of all, this is championship caliber golf at a first rate venue. The course can be stretched to over 7,400 yards in length for the pros among you. Numerous tee boxes offer a fun round for all players with the forward tees coming in at just over 5,100 yards.

The look of this golf course is big, broad and brawny. The layout actually encompasses three distinct and unique environments. The first and last few holes were once farm land and while not flat, they are nothing like what you will find on the middle holes. There, the course takes a turn into the hills and offers some of the most outstanding views and golf shots you will ever see or have to hit. There is nothing better than soaring tee boxes looking out over emerald fairways and greens lying far below. If you survive the elevation changes and intoxicating scenery you are then deposited in a stone quarry for a couple of holes. Claw your way through here and you will enjoy the final holes back to the clubhouse.

The layout has some very consistent design features while still providing eighteen unique and very interesting holes. Three things stand out in my mind. First, most fairways start out as wide as landing strips, offering generous play off the tees provided you avoid the ever present pot bunkers that guard the landing areas. These wide and forgiving landing areas were meant to aid the average golfer while challenging the better golfer to hit a tee shot to the preferred side of the fairway. Second, and by leaps and bounds my favorite part of the design, is the natural feel and look of the entire course. Great attention was paid to make the course blend seamlessly into its natural environment. Almost all of the holes are lined with long Fescue grass acting as a Bermuda Triangle for errant shots. Sand traps feature ragged edges and irregular shapes and look as if they somehow eroded into their current locations. Finally, the green complexes are stunning. Many are well bunkered and most are undulating with multiple choices for great pin locations. If you love the short game and putting then you will absolutely have the time of your life at Wild Rock.

All in all this is one of the better resort courses in the Midwest. The property has a beautiful new clubhouse, excellent driving range and a north woods feel to the entire setting. And if you really want to end your day in style, the renowned Sundara Spa is right next door and is a world class facility on its own. Good golf is now abundant at the Wisconsin Dells and Wild Rock has upped the ante by providing a truly great golf experience for all those lucky enough to seek it out.

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