PartI - General Details, Irish and Meadow Valley Courses
After years and years of wondering whether or not Kohler really has a top 5 Modern Course and three courses in the top 200 Modern according to GolfWeek magazine, the Mrs. And I finally took a trip to the lovely “America’s Dairyland” known as Wisconsin to see for ourselves. I can say that one of those two statements is true, one is not. Kohler the man evolved into an hotelier and entertainment magnate as well as a manufacturer of plumbing and power generators – kudos to a man who inherited a massive fortune and family business to make it expand and enter new territory rather than sell out and squander it. The man is to be admired. We were also given the pleasure of having him speak to our group as a bonus; rarely does one have the opportunity to rub shoulders with a real Tycoon in the most positive sense of the word and listen to his thoughts on a number of topics. Politics, I maintain a fair distance by necessity, so that’s that.
Started as a quintessential American getaway luxury hotel has evolved into the **** Hotel for the Kohler Golf empire. Shuttle Busses efficiently take you to the golf properties and 5 minutes to the local “Sports Core” (Ye Olde Towne Rec Centre by another name) for the Jacuzzi. That is my only real gripe – otherwise it’s $35 for entry per day to the Kohler Waters Spa – a mere shadow of the Old Course Hotel’s Kohler GREAT Waters Spa – use of which is gratis for OCH guests and is surely the Disney World Park of Jacuzzi spas. Dinner at the Immigrant Restaurant in the basement of the American Club had an army of fresh-faced eager young staff cheerfully over-serving us in a most pleasant way superior quality food and a fairly priced (for locale) wine list with excellent selections. Breakfast at the Blackwolf Run Clubhouse is far superior to its sister one at the Whistling Straits clubhouse (a real head-scratcher) so eat their buffet if you want the Big Breakfast as I do when “I resort it”. Loads of range balls are available for the practice (I hit 20 total for 4 rounds) rats of you with high quality facilities and instruction available. Top quality club rentals for $50/round are available if you don’t want to bring your own.
Hotel rooms, well, honestly folks just rave about them; we got the runt of the litter Room 213 (literally according to the evacuation map), but it was well located and if I weren’t such a big lug really a very nice room. Recent refurbishment rather darkened the wood so it’s a cozy or cramped (John Wayne types) feeling depending on how you look at it. We got the dud of the showers with the jets in the wall hitting you in the belly and netherlands if you are 5’17” as am I and the pie pan ceiling mounted shower is only 2.5 GPM (I had them check) as intended to lightly water you (if you don’t have to duck). I frankly waited too long to inquire about another room, so be aware of options as it is a lovely older building featuring many different room and bath arrangements. Other than in the non-renovated back 40 (aka West Wing) with pink fixtures we had no options so cramped and very convenient was just fine. For me, it fell pretty short of expectations based upon others informations prior but with planning and redanman’s forewarning you should be in the lap of luxury.
Four “way better than average” courses did NOT fall short of expectations. Up front Whistling Straits (will henceforth be listed WS) did not live up to its extraordinary hype, but was very, very good. Your favourite will depend on what you like. In fact there are FIVE courses at Kohler Resort: Whistling Straits, Irish, River, Meadow Valley and the Original that started it all and will be played by the LPGA in 2012 – The Blackwolf Run Tournament course, not normally open for guest play. On a slow day, maybe, just maybe they’d let you play it. I’ll do Whistling Straits last just to make sure that you read the whole enchilada here, folks. Conditioning was uniformly excellent and trees in play are limited to a famous few which I’ll address. They are all walkable but you need a cart ride through a tunnel twice for the River Course and a lift to the first tee of the Meadow Valley Course. Interestingly angles are least in play at WS and perhaps most in play at River, most notably the sublime 2nd and 3rd par 4 holes. The PGA of America’s narrow-minded narrowed fairway approach to “Championship Golf” at WS robs several holes, most notably #7 – disturbingly so - of the strategy by width dictum. More later ….
The history of golf at Kohler (short version) is as follows – paraphrasing Herb Kohler himself.
Having built the American Club, demand for golf required that the club take guests to a local public and private course. When demand reached the tipping point, Kohler contacted half a dozen architects and built 6 holes with an unnamed architect that did not suit the bill. Another six were called in and Mr. Dye won (I think the two have quite a bit in common including a very healthy respect). Dye then created the 18-hole Blackwolf Run course. This is the tournament course you’ll see in July, 2012, the USGA Women’s Open. Then a third nine (middle of River from 5-13 as you play them) was created as an isolate nine with a fourth nine following quickly as demand was two months into the future almost immediately. With a slight modification/accommodation one has two distinct 18-hole entities out of the Blackwolf run Clubhouse. Even more golf was needed and Mr. Kohler wheeled and dealt with a Power company to get the land that became the Whistling Straits (Straits & Irish) complex. In the negotiation process the permitting to allow creation of the moonscape that became Whistling/Whistling was taken care of post haste.
Something in the realm of 800,000-900,000 cubic yards of fill were brought in to raise up the beach creating the dramatic Cliffside setting of the WS course. If you have visited Kingsbarns in Scotland, you can sort of get the picture (especially the shelving of much of KB’s first nine holes). The Irish was built on the west side of the more famous Whistling Straits (Straits) as it is known and for now that’s it about WS. Although Mr. Kohler wavered a bit on his potential Bandon Area project it seems someday it will happen. He was asked by one of the GolfWeek group that was present for dinner with Herb and certainly did not deny the potential project, but rather was clear that nothing was going to go forward at this time. He was also rather complementary of Bandon Dunes’s Mike Keiser and one sensed a bit of competitive nature between the two astute scions of American Business who have ventured successfully into the golf arena.
Being hard to the WS course, wind plays a major part of strategic planning on Irish. It is a course not to be missed under any circumstances other than “I can only play one round and I must play WS!” Despite the 18th being a clunker, this course was the biggest surprise by far. It is seldom discussed among architecture buffs, probably because there are 3 different styles used in creating the course and WS adjacent and calling. A small portion uses the style and resembles Whistling Straits, a bit is relatively Parkland in character and some is the faux links that Dye has built examples almost everywhere from Riverdale Dunes in Northeast Denver to the absolutely superb Colleton River Course (which I will profile some day – in my opinion Hilton Head’s best golf course). Irish has large ponds in play on four holes and although the irrigation pond is necessary, coming in on 17-18 really can make one forget just how good a course Irish really is.
Getting it out of the way – 18 is an astonishingly awkward Par 5 closer with a pond left and bunkers right off the tee, it is without question the worst of the 72(3) holes at the resort. A well-placed drive in the proper wind allows one to attack the green in two, but with a crossing stream at 100 or so yards from the green, there is essentially no layup area short, it is a swathe of fairway less than 20 yards deep. The land on the other side looms like half-dome in the distance threatening to repel all attacks on the very large mesa green complex. There is just no place to play one’s second shot into the wind. After a slightly weak drive I carefully calculated to lay up to 100 from centre of green into 3” bluegrass and pulled it off to follow up with a very hard hit 7-iron to a back pin for a 2-putt par. Honestly it was a par I was proud of but not one you want to (nor CAN!) call up every time. A few photos help, but for more I proudly refer you to Professor Joseph Bausch’s The Bausch Collection at Joe Logan’s www.myphillygolf.com – a wonderful collection on a great resource and information site. Joe Logan was the golf writer for Philly’s Inquirer Newspaper for years and is a very polished writer
Hole #1 is very reminiscent of WS #1 then #2 is recalled at #17. Several good par 3’s and 4’s abound throughout the first nine with number nine utilizing a stream to perfection. As a bit of a weakness the two par 5’s on the front are aligned and designed a bit too similarly for greatness, but are great fun. The run from 10-13 play right along WS and evoke it as well. The thirteenth is a Dell style par 3 that is worthy of play over and over. One wishes that there were multiple flags to play to. Starting the Parkland run - Fourteen has a dual fairway requiring a precise lay up on the right of the stream or a bold carry over the diagonal to attack this par 5 in two with a better run-up angle to the green via the left. Two rather good shots are required to have a chance for birdie on this very well-designed par 5. Two superb long par 4 holes follow in alternate winds on this very windy site a great Links concept executed in a more Parkland style. Personally #13 as the last par 3 location was rather odd from Mr. Dye as well, he usually places one in the last 2-4 holes.
Routing: Decent, rather walkable, a bit of an adventure from one milieu to next
Holes: Threes highlighted by the 13th were solid but as a playing companion at #3 said “17 Harbourtowne” were solid. Fours were varied although for a purported Links, two water holes with basically the same hole detracted but 14-15 excellent. Fives: Despite the idiotic 18th and repeating holes on the front were better than most
To avoid duplication, some comments under Whistling Straits.
The more walkable of the two Blackwolf Run Clubhouse courses requires a lift to the first tee. The first nine is literally in a meadow but with a few well-used glacial contours. Starting slowly with two shortish straightforward fours and a routine three get you off and going and feeling one with your game. These are soon to be followed by several stellar holes. The run from four to six is just top shelf and is to be savoured. A reachable par 5, the fourth hole uses natural landforms to create a wonderful hole. A blind green is present for any two-shot approach but can be clearly seen if using a proper second to set up the third. The fifth uses trees in a very clever way in the meadow, requiring a precisely-placed drive to approach the green head-on with a straight shot. As seen from the accompanying photo, fully flushed-out trees will magnify the importance of a correctly placed drive. A clever concept, perhaps the reverse dog-legged hole – a much more versatile concept offering a multitude of solutions; one wonders why more holes using this concept aren’t built. Landforms again figure prominently in the long par four sixth requiring the player to play a shot right as close as one dares to the left to get a preferred approach. Seven to nine are good design and challenge but 4-6 are very special and remarkably clever – perhaps my favorite 3-hole stretch at all of Kohler.
The second nine uses the green complex of the original first hole of the original Blackwolf Run course’s first hole to create the tenth. It is a bit awkward but a good solution to getting to the rest of the holes. Much more similar in character to the entire River Course, holes 11-18 comprise 2-9 of the Blackwolf Run course familiar to those following Women’s Golf. The par 5 11th and 16th holes will strike one as Typical Dye” and that’s a compliment. Shortening both fairway bends on each by taking on risk one can try to reach in two, but a safe 3-shot method works very well. The two par 3’s have a bit of awkwardness to them and the fours are not as well-done as those on the other nine of Meadow valley, River or the other courses. Despite this generalization, the long-playing 12th is easily the most distinctively good par 4 on the nine. The final hole is an awkward mess with a separate green for the Red tee players to negate the mandatory (overly demanding for the shorter player) crossing of the Sheboygan River for the final shot. So much of the second nine Meadow Valley comprises the first nine of the Blackwolf Run Tournament course, the fifth Kohler Course. I did not get the opportunity to play the actual tournament course since I did not play the original hole which is preserved and maintained, but rarely used save the green. My next installment will address that course as an entity after I review the entire River Course. I would rank it 3 out of five of the courses overall as I might prefer River to Straits and I am currently fence-sitting as to my overall preference list.