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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.