Herb Kohler, legendary businessman, golf course owner, dies at 83

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Herb Kohler, the plumbing magnate and legendary golf-course developer who built Whistling Straits, host site of the 2021 Ryder Cup, died Saturday at 83.

Kohler was an avid golfer who made it his mission to turn eastern Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Michigan into an international golf destination.

“His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us,” his family wrote in a Kohler Company press release. “We traveled together, celebrated together, and worked together. He was all in, all the time, leaving an indelible mark on how we live our lives today and carry on his legacy.”

Kohler entered the golf industry in 1988 with the first 18 holes at Blackwolf Run, near Sheboygan, in his home state of Wisconsin. From there, not only did the golf facility grow, adding a second 18 holes by 1990, but so too did its fame. A composite course of the 36 holes at Blackwolf hosted the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Se Ri Pak.

Also in 1998, Kohler expanded his golf portfolio, opening 36 holes at Whistling Straits in the nearby town of Haven. Kohler and architect Pete Dye, who also designed the courses at Blackwolf Run, turned a polluted, abandoned airfield site into a links-like experience, making one think they might be in the dunes of the British Isles.

The Straits course at Whistling Straits has hosted three PGA Championships, a U.S. Senior Open and last year’s Ryder Cup, the site of one of the U.S. team’s greatest triumphs and perhaps the culmination of Kohler’s golf legacy.

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Kohler also helped design the newest course in his portfolio, the 10-hole par-3 track, The Baths of Blackwolf Run, which opened last year. Kohler had been involved with plans to build a fifth 18-hole course on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, south of Whistling Straits.

Wisconsin native and PGA Tour winner Jerry Kerry thanked Kohler for all he’s done for the state in a tweet Sunday night.

Kohler’s influence on the sport wasn’t limited to just his home state. Since 2004, Kohler has owned the Old Course Hotel Resort and Spa, the hotel adjacent to The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, which players must hit over to reach the 17th fairway. He also built The Duke’s Course, a heathland design just outside of St. Andrews.

Kohler’s received various accolades for his contributions to the game, including the Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in 2016 for leaving his “indelible mark on golf and focus on the importance of environmental stewardship.” In 2019, Kohler was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame for making Wisconsin a worldwide golf destination and bringing six major championships to the state. Kohler only got serious about the game in his 50s but was no fair-weather golfer, playing across the globe, rain or shine. He made his first hole-in-one at the Old Course in 2007, the release said. He said he “laughingly remembered” it not only for the ace but also for picking up the tab for his group after the round.

Kohler was born in Chicago in 1938 and became CEO of the Kohler Company, founded by his grandfather Michael, in 1968. He also became president and served in both roles until stepping down in 2015 and handing the reins of the company to his son David. He is survived by his wife, Natalie; two daughters, Laura and Rachel Kohler; and one son, David.

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