KOHLER, Wis. — Herb Kohler, plumber salesman extraordinaire, thought he was meeting demand at his secluded Wisconsin resort in 1988 when he opened 18-hole Blackwolf Run Golf Course. Little did he realize that he actually was creating demand for more golf.
Having converted a rundown dormitory for Kohler Co. laborers into a luxury retreat, Kohler placed enough confidence and trust in his golf architect, Pete Dye, that he split up that initially successful 18-hole Blackwolf Run course.
The original front nine became the back half of Meadow Valleys, and the original back nine became Nos. 1-4 and 14-18 of the River Course.
The risky venture worked. Today, The American Club, his five-star resort, boasts four highly rated Dye-designed courses. Small wonder that Kohler perennially places among the world’s top golf destinations.
When the world’s best female golfers set up shop here an hour north of Milwaukee for the July 5-8 U.S. Women’s Open, they’ll be returning to a course that carries great weight for their game. For one thing, they’ll be playing the composite Championship Course through the Sheboygan River Valley and surrounding meadowland that reprises the original 18-hole layout. It’s a course that fits the terrain naturally, with iconic landmark imagery that celebrates Midwest Americana. And it’s a layout with history. In 1998, in one of the most thrilling U.S. Women’s Opens, rising star Se Ri Pak outlasted amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in a 20-hole playoff after both had deadlocked at 6 over.
This time around, Blackwolf Run will play 500 yards longer and about 2 feet faster on the Stimpmeter than in 1998. It’ll still be the same routing, with its constantly shifting sensibilities – open prairie ground, shots across creeks and wetlands, the occasional descent into a river valley and open looks alongside ponds. Along the way, golfers (and spectators) are treated to Dye at his most powerful in eliciting native terrain and culture – sometimes to outrageous excess.
Dye wastes no time getting you into the setting. The opening tee shot carries across the Sheboygan River. From there, the hole (called “Quiver”) plays to a green perched uncomfortably 45 feet above the fairway, with the entranceway squeezed tightly by the canopies of overhanging trees.
The course opens onto prairie ground, then heads into a valley at the 409-yard, par-4 fifth (“Nature’s Course”), where a creek wraps around the green. To the right, on the path to the next hole, is another one of Dye’s thoughtful touches: a bridge made out of the bed of an old railroad car. And on the next hole, the 200-yard par-3 sixth (“Mercy”), the green lines up with a farm silo as a distant backdrop – another reminder of where you are.
The back nine has a somewhat more sculpted look, with Dye’s trademark angular mounds and long, steeply faced bunkers that disorient you (by intent) as to the ideal carry point. A pond creates an ideal spot for him to place the 195-yard, par-3 13th (“Swan Lake”). Along the opposite shore, he strung out the 342-yard, par-4 14th (“Blind Alley”), daring you to cut the angle off the tee. Once or perhaps twice during the U.S. Women’s Open, this seductive hole will be shortened to a 285-yard, risk/reward, drivable par 4.
If it’s possible for one hole to embody an entire design career, then it’s the 16th, a 602-yard par 5 (“Unter der Linden”). Actually, you can’t go under the linden tree 70 yards short of the green but must go around it (“Um der Linden”). Along the way, you have to fend off a triple dogleg with a massive fairway bunker left, copses of hardwoods down the right and a green suspended over the edge of the river. A warning sign behind the green reminds resort guests not to back up too far while looking at their putts lest they tumble into the water.
Presumably, the sign won’t be there for the Women’s Open. It’s not necessary. Players will know from the first hole that a slight misstep anywhere at Blackwolf Run could send them over the edge.