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.
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.”