KOHLER, Wisc. – The PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits this year. And while it is home to the world's best golfers, The American Club is an elegant resort that anybody can enjoy. Broadway producers gossip about the foibles of New York's glitterati. Insouciant young television executives hoist frothy yards of beer and joke about ratings. A Hall of Fame catcher and his buddies tee off on one of the world's elite golf courses. Fortune 100 CEOs furtively toil to improve their small-business golf swings. A tabloid darling loses herself in a Watsu massage and rose petal milk bath.
Quick. Where are you? East Coast? West Coast? Neither. This is America's Middle Coast – the western shore of Lake Michigan, to be precise – where discriminating travelers and connoisseurs of the good life escape the bipolar frenzy of both East and West at the Midwest's only AAA Five-Diamond Resort: The American Club.
What began as comfortable, clean dormitory quarters for immigrant workers of the Kohler Company in 1918 is today a 237-room, four-season resort that boasts a quartet of the greatest golf courses in the world, one of the most elegant spas in America, and one of the highest-rated restaurants in the Western Hemisphere. Kohler's American Club is utterly unique in its melding of Old World charm with broad-shouldered Midwestern hospitality.
Golfers the world over are familiar with the two Golf Digest 5-star facilities at The American Club: Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. Each venue comprises two 18-hole Pete Dye masterpiece layouts, an enormous, full-service clubhouse, top-notch teaching facilities, and gourmet restaurants. With the exceptional quality of golf offered here, it is no wonder that unassuming little Kohler is ranked by that same publication as the seventh-best golf destination on the planet.
Despite the fact that all four of the courses were designed by Pete Dye, even the well-traveled golfer will be impressed by the variety. Whereas the two courses at Blackwolf Run (The River Course and The Meadow Valleys Course) are intricately carved into rolling, wooded park- and wetlands, the two courses at Whistling Straits (The Straits Course and The Irish Course) are perched atop plunging, windswept manmade dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. When the PGA Championship comes to The Straits Course in 2004, television viewers will find themselves awe-struck by the stark beauty of the links.And if your swing doesn't feel up to the task of tackling four of Golf Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play courses, the Kohler Golf Academy is the perfect place to hone your ball-striking skills. Master Instructor Ji Kim and his staff of dedicated instructors offer custom private and group lessons in a quiet, private setting. From the far end of the Whistling Straits practice tee, with the imposing gray stone clubhouse and Lake Michigan in the distance, even the most recalcitrant slice cannot help but straighten out.
Kim, who was a top instructor at Oakhill CC and Doral Resort before coming to Kohler, is adamant about providing the best possible learning environment for his students. 'I'll never have more than four people in a golf school,' promises Kim. 'And usually the student-instructor ratio is not more than 2 to 1. It gives people the feeling that they are special.' Kim is also adept at making his students feel like their swings aren't hopeless causes. Using state-of-the-art video equipment, he is quick to point out your strengths, focusing on only one or two key areas for improvement, rather than providing an ego-crushing laundry list of faults.
A sensuous paradise
Even if golf were all that The American Club had to offer, it would still be a prime destination. But the truth is that as many non-golfers come here year-round as do golfers. One of the main attractions is the Kohler Waters Spa, which is attached to the enchanting 52-room Carriage House section of The American Club.
Conde Nast Traveler has rated Kohler Waters as one of the 40 Top Spas in North America and the Caribbean, perhaps the most intimate spa to make the list. Supervisor of Guest Services, Joan Rogers, stresses the personalized service guests receive: 'At some big spas, you feel like a number. We really try to make everyone feel special.'
The spa's signature treatments involve water, which is exactly what you would expect from Kohler Co., one of the world's leading plumbing fixture designers and manufacturers. There are waterfalls, mosaic tile-lined plunge pools, hand-forged copper baths, baths that allow you to sit up to your chin in tiny champagne bubbles, baths with river-like currents in them, and tsunami water massages.
According to Jean Kolb, Director of Kohler Waters Spa, the most popular treatment for female clients is the Custom Facial, and for men, it's the Golfer's Foot Renewal, which is absolute bliss after walking The Straits Course. There is even a 'Twogether Room' where couples, sisters, mothers and daughters, etc. can receive massages and other treatments side-by-side and chat about how they never want to leave this heaven on earth.
A culinary paradise
The American Club's most elegant restaurant, The Immigrant Room and Winery, honors the culinary legacy of the immigrants who helped make Kohler in particular, and America in general, great. Winner of Wine Spectator's prestigious Award of Excellence, The Immigrant Room offers an unforgettable dining experience.
From the yellow fin tuna salad to the wild mushroom cappuccino to the rack of lamb, memories of a multi-course meal here will evoke torrential salivary gland activity for months to come. But unless you are a hopeless sweet-tooth, here is a tip for the discerning gastronome: Instead of dessert, opt for the cheese course, featuring several different varieties of locally hand-crafted cheeses, and a glass of fine port. This is America's Dairyland, after all.
If you happen to be in the mood for something less exquisite, but no less delicious, the Wisconsin Room offers a more casual atmosphere and an equally varied menu in the cavernous hall that once served as the cafeteria for the Kohler workers and dormitory residents. And the Horse & Plow serves up pub-style fare and a beer list almost as long as the Winery's wine list.
The promised land
Walter J. Kohler, grandson of the founder of Kohler Company and 27th Governor of Wisconsin, had a vision of a place where the poor and down-trodden castes from the Old World could come, and through hard work and clean living, they could make something of themselves. Kohler had a vision not only of a profitable factory, but also of a New World, an America where work was an integral, rewarding, part of life. This ideal is forged into the gate of the Kohler Co. factory: 'Life without labor is guilt – Labor without art is brutality.'
Toward the goal of making life better for his workforce, and America better for everyone, Kohler built The American Club as a dormitory for his immigrant employees, in an Austrian Tudor style – complete with lush gardens and Sound of Music gazebos – that would help alleviate some of their homesickness. He also founded one of the nation's first planned communities, Kohler Village, where those same employees could in time purchase their own homes.
Today, Kohler's employees still reside throughout the area, and proudly share The American Club, the company's golf courses and spa, and their peaceful lifestyle with visitors from all over the world. One of the highlights of a trip to Kohler is, in fact, a tour of the factory and showroom, where one cannot help but be amazed at the artistic flair infused into, of all things, plumbing fixtures.
Then again, considering Kohler's devotion to art, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that even toilets in this promised land can inspire our admiration. The American Club itself houses one of the finest collections of industrial and fine art in the nation. The company has for decades provided fellowships to young artists, who can live here free of charge in exchange for first-pick of whatever they create while here.
The other motto outside the Kohler factory is: 'He who toils here hath set his mark.' Without a doubt, the toil of generations of Kohlers and their employees has set a mark here – a benchmark for luxury golf resorts everywhere.
So forget the snobbish East Coast and the garish West Coast. We'll take the understated, open-armed elegance of the Middle Coast any day.