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Whistling to an Irish Tune

The Irishness of Whisling Straits

Posted Aug 11, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

whistling straits

The owner of Whistling Straits seemed tickled by the idea of meeting a visiting Irish scribe, almost in the shadow of the green, white and orange tricolour flying outside the magnificent, cut-stone clubhouse.  Herb Kohler is the remarkable businessman who realised a dream with the PGA Championship staging of 2004 and he is now about to experience the thrill all over again. What was it that lay behind the well-publicised, overt Irishness of a stunning, 36-hole golf complex on the shores of Lake Michigan?  And why had this son of an Austrian father and Dutch mother, called the second 18 the "Irish Course."   "Why the flag?", Kohler exclaimed with a hearty laugh.  "Why the Irish flag - right in the middle, sir?"  I tell him I'm hugely impressed.  Another hearty laugh.  "It wasn't for you," he teased.  "It's there every day, as a tribute to the wonderful spirit in your land.   Wonderful spirit." "Unfortunately I have no Irish heritage, but we're not trying to copy or borrow from you," continued the powerfully-built yet elegant 71-year-old. "We just wanted to have people feel that Irish spirit here, in our part of Wisconsin.  You will never see a Scottish flag here.  Nor a Japanese one.  It will always be the Irish flag." Kohler went on: "Before we set about this project, Pete Dye and myself went to your country many times and saw all the leading links courses.  Probably 25 in all. Always links.  There were visits to Lahinch, Ballybunion and to my number one, Royal County Down.  Another of my favourites is Carne, at Belmullet."  Pausing to deliver another of his regular, hearty laughs, he added: "I tried like hell to buy it but they wouldn't sell it to me." In the 2004 PGA, the superb ball-striking skills of Vijay Singh saw him card rounds of 67,68,69,76 for an aggregate of 280 and then defeat Chris diMarco and Justin Leonard in a four-hole play-off for the title.  So it was that only six years after its opening, Kohler saw Whistling Straits take its place among the world's great courses, as the venue of a successful major championship.  And when I remarked on the lingering memory of its dramatic changes in elevation, he explained: "We tried to make this as true as possible to a genuine links, especially in its look.  But only nature could have given us the real thing. "It's going to take years to achieve the sort of firm fairways and greens we want. At the moment, they're closer to American target greens, where you fly the ball in instead of running it. We may eventually achieve a links texture, but it's not going to be in my lifetime." With grey hair and a neatly-trimmed grey beard, Kohler combines the bold skills of an entrepreneur with a sensitivity born of a life-long love of the arts.  Indeed as a one-time actor, he has a speaking role in "Open Range", the highly-acclaimed western starring his friend, Kevin Costner. Meanwhile, from lofty talk of golf, he was suddenly brought back to basics, as in the nature of his $3 billion business, by a woman passer-by who insisted on telling him: "Mr Kohler, I want you to know that I sit on you every day."  He laughed indulgently at what must be an over-worked gag for the owner of a company specialising in bathroom fittings. Is Kohler pleased with the handiwork of his notoriously non-conformist architect?  "Absolutely, and then some," he replied. "We've had a lot of comment about what people estimate to be literally thousands of bunkers on the course.  In fact there are 1,200 and most of them aren't in play. As I've said, the objective was to replicate the look that we had seen on the great Irish links courses and for me, the end product is magnificent. And the real bonus is to watch the joy this week of people seeing it for the first time." 

- Dermot Gilleece

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