Kohler becomes a big name in world of golf

By Doug FergusonAugust 7, 2010, 6:13 pm

2010 PGA Championship

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Herb Kohler still isn’t sure how a stack of suggestion slips wound up on his desk, or what possessed an employee from the accounting office at his Kohler Company to put them there.

“That’s what got us into this mess,” he said with laughter that rumbled from his thick chest.

Any golf enthusiast would love a mess like this.

Sipping on a cup of coffee as the third round of the British Open was just starting, Kohler looked across the landscape of St. Andrews from a conference room on the fourth floor of the Old Course Hotel, which he bought six years ago. Next to the Royal & Ancient clubhouse is another property he now owns, Hamilton Hall, a five-story Victorian building of red brick that has become a landmark behind the 18th green at the home of golf.

It gets even better next week for the final major of the year.

The PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits, one of four golf courses Kohler built in Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Michigan. By the end of the decade, it will have hosted three PGAs and a Ryder Cup.

Rex HoggardGolfChannel.com senior writer Rex Hoggard catches up with Herb Kohler in this Q&A as the season's final major gets set to take place at Whistling Straits.

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All this from the leader of a business conglomerate known for its kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

“He got into the game at a late age,” USGA executive director David Fay said. “When you think about how he wasn’t a golfer, and you consider the courses he’s involved with and the golf properties, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Kohler would be the first to agree with that.

His only venture into golf used to be an occasional game using his father’s wooden shaft clubs. He now counts among his favorite memories that cutthroat match – a $1 Nassau – he had with a two-time Masters champion (Ben Crenshaw), a three-time U.S. Open champion (Hale Irwin) and the 41st president of the United States (George H.W. Bush).

Last month, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem presented Kohler with an oil painting to commemorate his hole-in-one on the 11th hole at St. Andrews. This wasn’t a token gesture. Finchem was playing with him that day, along with Fay and NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer.

“We’re lucky to have him in the game,” Finchem said. “I just wish it didn’t take him so long to get in.”

What got Kohler into golf is nothing short of remarkable.

“It wasn’t because I had any knowledge of golf, or a passion for golf,” Kohler said, still amazed after three decades where a logical response to a recurring question has taken him.

Attribute it all to that pile of suggestion slips.

The Kohler Company, founded by his grandfather, took a dormitory that once housed European immigrant factory workers and transformed it into a five-diamond resort hotel an hour north of Milwaukee. The American Club opened in 1981 and was an overnight sensation, pulling guests in from all over the Midwest who were looking for a weekend getaway from the big city.

“I was convinced that the level of service would be visible to people across the street in manufacturing as to what they had to do in selling products,” Kohler said. “I wanted them to see what five-diamond service really meant. And I was convinced that it would reflect well upon the company. And it would match the level of quality of the engines, generators and plumbing products that we were trying to sell under the name Kohler.”

It offered just about every amenity except one that Kohler never considered – until he saw the suggestion slips.

With some 3,500 acres around the village, why wasn’t there a golf course?

“Guests would write these suggestions out at the front desk and they in turn went to the accounting office,” Kohler said. “Every once in a while, the general manager or someone would go through them and try to collect them by topic. This particular pile had gone for a little more than two years and had gotten to be some size. Some young analyst was wondering who to bring it to— the general manager couldn’t respond to it. And he had the courage to bring it up to the CEO.

“He dumped this pile on my desk and I said, ‘I’ve got to do something here.”’

Kohler eventually hired Pete Dye, the start of a relationship stretching over three decades. He was impressed that Dye could build something as penal as the TPC Sawgrass, yet also create a natural course such as The Honors in Tennessee.

First came Blackwolf Run, where Se Ri Pak won her first U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and thus inspired a nation of golfers. Later that year, Whistling Straits officially opened and went after a U.S. Open.

The USGA could only promise that Whistling Straits would be a finalist for 2005 (eventually awarded to Pinehurst No. 2). Kohler instead decided on the 2004 PGA Championship, won by Vijay Singh.

And then came a defining moment for his golf course in Wisconsin.

He said the USGA floated the idea of a Women’s Open in 2007, a Senior Open in 2009 and a U.S. Open in 2011. Wanting more than just another major, he negotiated a deal with the PGA of America to bring back the PGA Championship in 2010 and 2015, followed by the Ryder Cup in 2020.

“The toughest phone call I ever had to make was to call David Fay and tell him we were disinviting the USGA for a U.S. Open,” Kohler said.

Whether it’s selling bathroom fixtures or renovating golf properties, Kohler is big on relationships. Not long after Dye complete the first course, Kohler figured he better take the game more seriously. He has that ace on the 11th hole at St. Andrews. His low round is a 78 on a small course in Wisconsin. But his handicap never got lower than 15.

Even so, it’s the people he has met and the places he goes that makes it all so rewarding.

He was along the fairways of South Africa in 2003 watching the Presidents Cup. Three years later, he was in a golf cart with the former president George H.W. Bush at the Ryder Cup. He counts among his most respected friends Sir Michael Bonallack and Peter Dawson, the last two chiefs at the R&A.

“I love the game because of the people associated with the game,” Kohler said. “Some of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life are associated with the game and have devoted their lives to it. And I love the game because of the spotlight it created on what we do. It shines on this company and reflects on its products and services like nothing else could have done.”

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Suspended Hensby offers details on missed drug test

By Will GrayDecember 12, 2017, 11:30 pm

One day after receiving a one-year suspension from the PGA Tour for failing to provide a sample for a drug test, Mark Hensby offered details on the events that led to his missed test in October.

Hensby, 46, released a statement explaining that the test in question came after the opening round of the Sanderson Farms Championship, where the Aussie opened with a 78. Frustrated about his play, Hensby said he was prepared to give a blood sample but was then informed that the test would be urine, not blood.

"I had just urinated on the eighth hole, my 17th hole that day, and knew that I was probably unable to complete the urine test for at least a couple more hours," Hensby said. "I told this gentleman that I would complete the test in the morning prior to my early morning tee time. Another gentleman nearby told me that 'they have no authority to require me to stay.' Thus, I left."

Hensby explained that he subsequently received multiple calls and texts from PGA Tour officials inquiring as to why he left without providing a sample and requesting that he return to the course.

"I showed poor judgment in not responding," said Hensby, who was subsequently disqualified from the tournament.

Hensby won the 2004 John Deere Classic, but he has missed six cuts in seven PGA Tour starts over the last two years. He will not be eligible to return to the Tour until Oct. 26, 2018.

"Again, I made a terrible decision to not stay around that evening to take the urine test," Hensby said. "Obviously in hindsight I should have been more patient, more rational and taken the test. Call me stupid, but don't call me a cheater. I love the game. I love the integrity that it represents, and I would never compromise the values and qualities that the game deserves."

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Day's wife shares emotional story of miscarriage

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 4:12 pm

Jason Day’s wife revealed on social media that the couple had a miscarriage last month.

Ellie Day, who announced her pregnancy on Nov. 4, posted an emotional note on Instagram that she lost the baby on Thanksgiving.

“I found out the baby had no heartbeat anymore. I was devastated,” she wrote. “I snuck out the back door of my doctor, a hot, sobbing, mascara-covered mess. Two and a half weeks went by witih me battling my heart and brain about what was happening in my body, wondering why this wouldn’t just be over.”

The Days, who have two children, Dash and Lucy, decided to go public to help others who have suffered similar heartbreak.

“I hope you know you aren’t alone and I hope you feel God wrap his arms around you when you feel the depths of sorrow and loss,” she wrote.  

Newsmaker of the Year: No. 5, Sergio Garcia

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 1:00 pm

This was the year it finally happened for Sergio Garcia.

The one-time teen phenom, known for years as “El Nino,” entered the Masters as he had dozens of majors beforehand – shouldered with the burden of being the best player without a major.

Garcia was 0-for-72 driving down Magnolia Lane in April, but after a thrilling final round and sudden-death victory over Justin Rose, the Spaniard at long last captured his elusive first major title.

The expectation for years was that Garcia might land his white whale on a British links course, or perhaps at a U.S. Open where his elite ball-striking might shine. Instead it was on the storied back nine at Augusta National that he came alive, chasing down Rose thanks in part to a memorable approach on No. 15 that hit the pin and led to an eagle.

Full list of 2017 Newsmakers of the Year

A green jacket was only the start of a transformative year for Garcia, 37, who heaped credit for his win on his then-fiancee, Angela Akins. The two were married in July, and months later the couple announced that they were expecting their first child to arrive just ahead of Garcia’s return to Augusta, where he'll host his first champions’ dinner.

And while players often cling to the notion that a major win won’t intrinsically change them, there was a noticeable difference in Garcia over the summer months. The weight of expectation, conscious or otherwise, seemed to lift almost instantly. Like other recent Masters champs, he took the green jacket on a worldwide tour, with stops at Wimbledon and a soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The player who burst onto the scene as a baby-faced upstart is now a grizzled veteran with nearly two decades of pro golf behind him. While the changes this year occurred both on and off the course, 2017 will always be remembered as the year when Garcia finally, improbably, earned the title of major champion.

Masters victory

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Video: See the putt that made Sergio a major champ

Green jacket tour

Article: Take a look at Sergio's crazy, hectic media tour

Article: Garcia with fiancée, green jacket at Wimbledon

Article: Watch: Garcia kicks off El Clasico in green jacket

Man of the people

Article: SERGIO! Garcia finally gets patrons on his side

Article: Fan finally caddies for Sergio after asking 206 times

Article: Sergio donates money for Texas flood relief

Article: Connelly, Garcia paired years after photo together

Ace at 17th at Sawgrass

Growing family

Article: Sergio, Angela get married; Kenny G plays reception

Article: Garcia, wife expecting first child in March 2018

Departure from TaylorMade

Article: Masters champ Garcia splits with TaylorMade

Squashed beef with Paddy

Article: Harrington: Garcia was a 'sore loser'

Article: Sergio, Padraig had 'great talk,' are 'fine'

Victory at Valderrama

Article: Garcia gets first win since Masters at Valderrama

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Newsmakers of the Year: Top 10 in 2017

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 12:30 pm