QA with Herb Kohler


For a man who has never played in a single PGA Tour event, manufactured a golf ball or club, or held a spot among the game’s power brokers at the U.S. Golf Association or Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, Herb Kohler has become an unquestionable catalyst in the game.

Kohler, 71, is the president and chairman of Kohler Company, a plumbing fixture giant, which owns Whistling Straits, site of this year’s PGA Championship, the 2015 PGA and 2020 Ryder Cup. Also part of the Kohler portfolio is Blackwolf Run, site of the 2012 U.S. Women's Open, the five-star American Club hotel and the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews. How has Whistling Straits evolved since the 2004 PGA Championship and what might players and fans expect to see?

Herb Kohler: Something a little more exciting. No. 8 will be really interesting if players can avoid that really deep bunker in front of the green. I obviously can’t guarantee a playoff (like the one that highlighted the 2004 PGA at Whistling Straits). The 18th hole has undergone a number of changes over the years. Is it where you would like it to be or do you envision more tinkering?

HK: The 18th hole has two fairways, the left fairway requires a big drive. You could end up with a wedge or sand wedge in your hand and could throw a real dart. We’ll see how it plays, if it plays as I describe it will be a great finishing hole.

(Designer) Pete Dye is coming back on Aug. 20 and we will always tinker. We are trying to make this the best golf course in the world. (Dye) wanted to tinker in July. I had to talk him out of it. He said, 'Herb, I’m getting on in years.' With the Ryder Cup scheduled to be held at Whistling Straits in 2020, do you think it is a better stroke-play or match-play course?

HK: That’s a hell of a tough question. I feel it’s perfect for each because of all the options, five tees on every hole. In a match-play tournament you could make (Nos.) 13 and 14 drivable, you wouldn’t do that in stroke play. It is surprisingly flexible golf course.

Herb Kohler
At 71, Kohler remains one of the most powerful figures in golf. (Getty Images) You were at the Open Championship and with your connection to the Old Course Hotel, I would be curious why you think St. Andrews is such a great major venue, both inside and outside the ropes, and can you bring that vibe to an American venue?

HK: What St. Andrews has is incredible history that goes back 300-400 years and you walk the course and the town and that history is all around you. People were playing golf on that piece of ground before they knew the world was round. You sit there on the balcony of your room looking over the 17th fairway and it is amazing. I have looked at it 50 times and every time it gives me goose bumps.

You can’t translate that to an American venue. We have other things. We have a course with great color and great options and great flexibility. A community that’s filled with charm.

If you built a course like that in the U.S. they would laugh you out of town. Imagine asking a pro to hit their driver on the second-to-last hole over a building? I ask this in the context of a man who has built a 7,500-yard golf course to host major championships and in light of the ongoing debate on Tour for more equipment rollbacks, do you think it is time for a bifurcation of the Rules of Golf between the professional and amateur games?

HK: The magic of golf is that we all play under the same set of rules. It’s the greatness of this game. So no, I hope the R&A and USGA never try to sort out a different sets of rules.

It is not the length of a drive that has won this championship. Louis (Oosthuizen) is a very good driver, but not a very big driver. He beat his opponents because of his ability to control his emotions and control his mistakes. With the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup scheduled on the Straits Course through 2020 it would seem to preempt the resort from hosting a U.S. Open in the foreseeable future, but you have hosted a U.S. Women’s Open and would fill an apparent Midwestern hole in the U.S. Golf Association rotation. Can you envision hosting a U.S. Open?

HK: We are very comfortable and pleased with the PGA of America. The PGA ends up with the greatest number of the best players in the world, and that is really something.

The other thing is the time of year in Wisconsin. All the fescues, as they wave in the wind, it is an extraordinary sight. You can’t get that in June.

I don’t long for anything. If one day my successors thought a U.S. Open would be a good test for this course, fine. But I am delighted with what I have and hope to keep going. In 2004 the PGA Championship was decided in a playoff between a long-hitter (Vijay Singh) and two relatively short hitters (Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard). Is that the ultimate compliment for a championship venue?

HK: Yes, Vijay was a power hitter, Chris was good all around, Justin had a good short game, but the key was they were all on their game.

The key for Vijay he was able to drive almost to the green at the 10th hole (in the playoff). That was the deciding shot in the playoff. He wasn’t sinking many putts, but he did sink that one.