Plumbing and golf magnate Herb Kohler dies at 83

  • Herb Kohler
    Kohler Company

    Herb Kohler, developer of several top golf courses, including Whistling Straits, has died at the age of 83

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Herb Kohler, executive chairman of the giant family-controlled bathroom product company Kohler, and the developer of several top golf courses, including Whistling Straits, twice host to the PGA Championship and the venue of the most recent Ryder Cup, has died at the age of 83.

Founded in 1873 in the town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, by Herb’s grandfather John Michael Kohler, an immigrant from Austria, the Kohler Company now has interests in several other manufacturing sectors as well its hospitality operation. It employs 40,000 people globally.

In the late-1970s, Herb Kohler developed a former immigrant workers’ dormitory built in 1918 into the American Club, now one of the Midwest’s leading luxury resorts.

During The American Club’s early years, guests asked Kohler why the resort offered transportation to local golf courses, but no golf course itself. This ultimately led to his deep involvement in golf, and a long-term partnership with the legendary golf designer Pete Dye. Blackwolf Run, the first piece of Destination Kohler’s golf portfolio, opened in 1988. Whistling Straits came ten years later, transforming a polluted, abandoned airfield site into a dramatic golf course that would become a regular host of Major championships, and, most recently, the 2021 Ryder Cup. He went on to buy the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, Scotland, next to the seventeenth hole of the legendary links, then the Duke’s course on a hillside above the town, and later the former university hall of residence Hamilton Hall, that dominates the view over the eighteenth green of the Old course.

Kohler employed architect Tim Liddy, who worked for many years with Pete Dye, to redesign the Duke’s course. Liddy told GCA: “He was a true gentlemen and tremendous leader. His high level in the understanding of architecture, golf architecture and the arts was unmatched. Many of my fondest memories are dinner with him, Sir Michael and Lady Angela Bonallack in Scotland while working on the Duke’s St Andrews. And of course, watching him and Mr Dye with their deep friendship working on the many world class golf courses in Wisconsin together was pure joy.”

Another Dye protegé, Tom Doak, knew Kohler for over thirty years. He told GCA: “I first met Mr Kohler in 1987 when Mr Dye suggested he hire me to take photos of his new golf course, Blackwolf Run. Herb was brand new to the golf business and I was a precocious veteran, so he and his management team had lunch with me three days straight, asking all sorts of questions about hosting tournaments and promoting the course. Mr Kohler and Mr Dye had a few battles over the course of their relationship, but Herb had both great ambitions and the money to pursue them, and in the end they built four fine courses together.

“One of the keys to that success was Herb’s willingness to find the right piece of ground to do something great. For his original eighteen holes, Herb had refused to let Mr Dye go into a natural area further along the Sheboygan River, and when he challenged Pete after a third nine was disappointing, Pete told him if he wanted something great it needed to be along the river, and the back nine along the river was born. Likewise, when he set out to develop Whistling Straits, he was willing to go ten miles from his home base to find a piece of property dramatic enough for his goals.

“We discussed working together on a couple of projects over the years, but sadly it never came to pass. I suspect he would have driven me crazy as a client, but I am positive he wouldn’t have settled for anything short of my best work.”

Kohler is survived by his wife Natalie, three children and ten grandchildren.