End of an Era

The Ryder Cup capped a phenomenal championship run for the Kohler Co. and Whistling Straits

Photography by Jim Kelsh

HAVEN, Wisconsin — The 43rd Ryder Cup marked the end of an incredible run for Kohler Co.’s hospitality division, which played host to two U.S. Women’s Opens, a U.S. Senior Open, three PGA Championships and the Ryder Cup in a span of 23 years.

Few other courses in the United States can claim to have been the host venue for such a diverse list of championships in such a short period of time.

Now, the question is, what’s next?

The U.S. team had plenty to smile about in its 19-9 rout.

“Who knows?” said Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the 82-year-old executive chairman of Kohler Co. “The USGA (United States Golf Association) has all sorts of majors, not just with men and women but senior events, juniors, amateurs. There are still a lot of things around.”

Certainly, golf has become as vitally important to Kohler Co. as are toilets, kitchen fixtures, furniture and generators. The company owns two iconic resorts — The American Club in Kohler and The Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland — and five world-class golf courses, with a sixth in the planning stages.

Simply put, major championships sell tee times. Whistling Straits, where the U.S. Ryder Cup team completed a historic 19-9 drubbing of Team Europe in September, attracts golfers from through- out the world who want to play where his- tory has been made.

After a wildly successful PGA Championship at the Straits in 2004, it took mere months for the PGA of America to offer the 2010 and 2015 PGAs and the 2020 Ryder Cup to Kohler Co. in a blockbuster package deal. The contract for the latter, however, was not signed until 2013.

“The PGA of America was a little reluctant to give it to us because their major sponsors like to sell product on the coasts,” said Kohler, who conducted the interview relaxing in the Kohler Co. chalet at Whistling Straits on the final day of the Ryder Cup. “So here we are in the midlands of Wisconsin, and it took some talking and some guarantees before they consented.

“I think if you asked them today, they’re very pleased and rather overwhelmed. On Thursday, these Wisconsinites bought more in the merchandise tent than anyone had bought in a single day in the history of golf.”

Golf royalty Paulina Gretzky and Dustin Johnson.

When it comes to the majors and the Ryder Cup, money talks. Given the success of the U.S. team captained by Steve Stricker, robust corporate hospitality sales and the 40,000 enthusiastic fans who filled grandstands, lined fairways and opened wallets, the PGA of America would be crazy not to consider bringing the Ryder Cup back to the Straits.

The problem is, the event is scheduled out in America through 2037, so the next open date is 2041 (the matches alternate between the U.S. and Europe every other year). Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y., hosts in 2025; Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minnesota, gets its second Ryder Cup in 2029; The Olympic Club in San Francisco hosts in 2033; and Congressional CC in Bethesda, Maryland, gets the matches in 2037.

“To date, there has not been a course in the U.S. that has ever hosted it twice,” said Jim Richerson, president of the PGA of America and the former director of golf at Kohler Co. “Hazeltine will be the first to do that. When it will come back here, if it will come back here … as far as historically speaking, this might be the only time ever the Ryder Cup is played in Wisconsin.”

What about the PGA Championship? It’s unlikely to return to the Straits now that the tournament is held in May. Before 2019, the tournament traditionally was held in August.

“It’s hard to work further with the PGA of America, which is too bad,” Kohler said. “They moved the time for the PGA Championship to the month of May, the third week of May. At that point, it’s not been warm enough in this state to let the fescue grow properly. So other than a Ryder Cup, which is a little bit out of the picture, who knows?”

The flags were flapping atop the 17th hole grandstand on Tuesday at Whistling Straits.

Kohler has passed the baton to his son, David Kohler, the president and CEO of Kohler Co. David surely is working behind the scenes to bring big golf events to Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.

Herb Kohler, though, will forever be known as the visionary who brought big-time golf to the state. His contributions earned him induction into the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame. And the building of Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits spurred other high-end golf construction throughout the state.

Erin Hills followed and played host to the 2011 U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open, both firsts for Wisconsin. Erin Hills gets the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2022 and the U.S. Women’s Open in 2025.

Sand Valley, a sprawling resort in the Town of Rome, has courses designed by David McLay Kidd and the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, plus a 17-hole par-3 course. The Lido, a recreation of a famous course on the East Coast, is under construction.

“Well, of course it’s competition,” Kohler said. “It’s good for them, good for us. It’s attracting a lot of people to this state. The more, the merrier.”

But Kohler started it all, and he received huge ovations from the fans when he was introduced at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony and on the first tee Friday morning.

“They’re amazingly appreciative,” he said. “They really are. It’s quite remarkable. Even though they hiked 20,000 steps in a day (on the Straits). They’re extraordinarily appreciative.”