It’s a different time in the golf industry especially when it comes to building courses. the American market has virtually dried up. Unless you have the deep pockets of a Donald Trump, Mike Keiser or Herb Kohler, new layouts are a scarce commodity.
There is no denying Destination Kohler features some of the finest golf in the world. Four stringent Pete Dye venues are sure to give every golfer a complete bashing. Yet the players keep coming. The settings at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits are as different as a gutta-percha and ProV-1. Plus, if the ball striking becomes too taxing, guests can always lick their wounds in the comfy confines of the Five-Star American Club.
Recently, there is talk of adding a fifth course to Kohler’s portfolio in Wisconsin. Pete Dye would again be the builder of an eighteen hole layout along the shores of lake Michigan just south of Sheboygan. The land is owned by Kohler Company and features a forested tract, wetlands, beachfront dunes, as well as Indian artifacts. It would make for quite a course.
The animated movie, FernGully (my son loves it) depicts a story of the last rainforest being cut down and claimed for a logging company. It’s a typical tale pitting environmentalists against business. In a way, the same things occurring in the fictional rendering are being played out with Kohler’s new course proposal, without the fairies.
It appears there is a strong opposition to this project, some of it coming from a group calling themselves “Friends of the Black River Forest”. They don’t want any part of another Kohler golf course disrupting their piece of paradise. If you look at the site, in person or on Google Earth, you can see a fair amount of trees would have to harvested to accommodate the layout. Sure, this is Kohler land and they can do what they like but such a proposal is so against the nature of Herb Kohler. You see, Herb Kohler loves nature. More specifically, he loves trees.
From the time Blackwolf Run was first created Herb Kohler defended every tree on the property. Pete Dye, had to calculate his way around the owner, almost coming to blows with Kohler about the green site on the initial eighth hole at Blackwolf Run. Over time, the two have come to understand each other and are good friends. But Herb’s love of trees has prevented him from removing a few of the leafy obstacles at Blackwolf Run that would enhance the playing lines. That’s why it is such a surprise he is willing to clear the land for a fifth course.
Even more puzzling is why Kohler feels the need to build a fifth course in Sheboygan County. There are supposed factors in the discussion but it boils down to one primary reason. This is nothing more than an “Ego-Build”.
Since jumping into the resort golf business in the late nineteen eighties, Herb Kohler has garnered much more attention than from manufacturing toilets. Golf has been good to him. He likes hosting major championships. Behind the scenes he likes competing with the likes of Mike Keiser, he of Bandon Dunes fame and other developers. In fact it’s been said when national golf publications rate destinations Herb Kohler is keenly aware of his property’s stature in relation to that of Keiser. The fact Keiser is adding two courses just outside of Wisconsin Rapids makes things more interesting. Both men have differing philosophies on the character of their properties but both are also competing to get players on their fairways.
It has also been speculated that the proposed “#5” would be capable of attracting another Men’s US Open to Wisconsin. With the first one scheduled to be played at Erin Hills, just west of Milwaukee next summer, that seems unlikely. Should Erin Hills achieve major success, the USGA would be prone to stick with it for future Open opportunities.
Another reason might stem from the fact that the Straits Course is a terrible spectator layout. Traffic gets congested in choked corridors, the mounding is slippery and hazardous, and patrons are squeezed between holes going out and coming in. Perhaps a new course could attract a future PGA Championship after the Ryder Cup is contested at the Straits in 2020.
Another head scratcher is the potential for added profitability. Kohler golf is its own corporate division and is expected to add to the bottom line. International acquisitions haven’t gone as planned and have put a bit of a strain on the operation. The purchase of the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews wasn’t as smooth as anticipated. Renovations called for a more invasive project than what was originally thought. In addition, the four courses in Sheboygan at two different locations aren’t as efficient revenue sources as they could be. I was once told that Whistling Straits would have been much better off with just the one course. The Irish Course didn’t bring the bang for the buck it was expected to.
Which brings us back to the FernGully dilemma. Why build #5? Why cut down the trees? Why add a course that is going to tax your bottom line? Why indeed? Because Herb Kohler wants to, that’s why. Because Herb Kohler has a few billion dollars lining his pockets. Pete Dye wants one last shot at it also. So as much as it doesn’t make business sense or environmental sense, you’ll likely see another Kohler course on the shores of Lake Michigan. It will be interesting during construction to see if the fairies show up.