I am just back from another visit to Kohler, Wisconsin. To say I loved it would be an understatement.
The golf and spa resort here has gone through several name changes over the years (same ownership) because it keeps expanding, and these days everything under the resort umbrella is called Destination Kohler. I think it is an ugly name, but if I am right, it is the only thing ugly about this beautiful place.
There is little doubt that Destination Kohler is among the world’s very top golf resorts, the crème de la crème, worth traveling long distances and spending top dollar on. It rarely disappoints. In addition to its excellent array of golf courses (four of them), it has one of the finest luxury hotels of any golf resort, several excellent restaurants, a great spa, all kinds of other sporting and entertainment facilities, and a charming setting. It also offers lower priced options to the luxury American Club hotel.
Kohler is a complete entity, with a quaint village feel to rival Pinehurst, extensive and widespread resort facilities to rival Pebble Beach, and an array of golf to rival Kiawah, which I consider its main rivals. It easily sits in this top pantheon of golf resorts, and is certainly one of the top five in the US and top ten in the world. It even challenges Bandon Dunes, which these days is widely acknowledges as having the best collection of golf courses of any resort anywhere. Unlike the other resorts I mentioned, people go to Bandon solely to golf, as it is lacking in almost all other aspects of a “resort,” and while Bandon does have better overall golf quality than Kohler, it was here in Wisconsin, at Whistling Straits, that the entire concept of walking only, retro-links design was conceived, the idea upon which Bandon is entirely built. Even designer Pete Dye thought the walking only wouldn’t work and carts would be rolled out at the Straits, but this has not been the case: Owner and visionary Herb Kohler was right, and Whistling Straits launched golf’s hottest trend, one that has given us not only the courses at Bandon, but future US Open venues Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, along with Michigan’s Arcadia Bluffs.
If the name Kohler sounds familiar, it is probably because you have a tub, faucet, sink or toilet with the name in your home. Kohler is one of the world’s largest and best plumbing companies, but also makes small engines and generators, which is a less high profile business, but actually bigger than all the plumbing stuff.
Over a century ago, the fist Kohler bathtub was made here in rural Wisconsin, and since then the company has done nothing but grow. The entire town of Kohler was purpose-built to be a factory worker’s utopia, a place where hard working immigrant laborers could work in conditions that were awesome for the time, get assistance from their employer to obtain US citizenship, and buy a slice of the American dream, purchasing houses built by the company at below market prices and with financing direct from Kohler. It was and still is one of the best companies to work for.
In 1912 Walter Kohler, son of the founder, was the one who came up with this idea of futuristic, progressive factory town where work and social life was integrated, and to make it work, he hired the leading urban planner and landscape architect in history, my very own relative, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, to design the town in a park-like fashion that would link the workers new homes, factories and the American club, then an employees dorm, with footpaths and fit it all together. Olmsted crafted a 50-year plan for Kohler, one of the first planned communities in history, and still ne of the best.
More than half century later, Herb Kohler, the current CEO, decided to expand into the hospitality business, hiring Pete Dye to build his first golf course and renovating the American Club from workers dorm to luxury hotel. Herb has never stopped tinkering with the resort, adding hotels, restaurants, facilities and golf courses and turning it all into what is now Destination Kohler. Over the next few posts, I will take a deeper look at the various facets of this gem.