April 6, 2008

Q&A With Herb Kohler

HERB KOHLER, 69, might be best known for plumbing fixtures, but he's also the globe-trotting owner of Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run and the American Club in Kohler, Wis. -- and the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews.

Q: When you travel, what aspect of lodging is most important to you enjoying your trip?

A: A good bed. A good mattress. A mattress with a pillow top so there's a degree of firmness and yet it's very soft on top. Boy, couple that with a feather pillow and I'm like a baby in a basinet.

Q: What aspect of your five-star American Club are you most proud of?

A: Well, it's way out of the way of the traveler. It's not on either coast. It's in Wisconsin, which is not on the main thoroughfare of either business or tourist traffic, and it's been the only five-diamond resort hotel in the Midwest since 1984.

Q: Say you're leaving tomorrow for a golf trip. What's the first thing you pack other than your golf clubs?

A: I carry a little box of gum. It's made in Australia. Just gum. It's made by the Ferndale Company. It has no sugar. It has menthol and eucalyptus, and it has a wonderful refreshing taste. Whether it's after a meal or during the day it refreshes you. I make sure I have a few boxes of that gum with me all the time.

Q: If someone sent you to an island with no access to the outside the world, what is on your iPod? What one movie would you bring for your DVD player? And what bottle of Scotch is in your luggage?

A: In regards to music, I'd bring my wife and her iPod. She fills our house with music. We like an Italian opera -- you can't beat 'em. The movie that got Best Picture this year -- "No Country For Old Men," I saw it twice within a week and I could go back another two times. I was fascinated by that movie -- many aspects of it. I loved the acting. It was a masterpiece. I probably bring the Glenmorangie 24. I have to tell you I'd also bring a bottle of Bushmill -- which is an Irish whiskey.

Q: If your pilot had problems do you think you could land the plane?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you have a pilot's license?

A: I did. I don't fly enough today to maintain currency but I could land. I'd talk on the radio a good bit, [Laughing] but I'd be able to land the plane.

Q: Do you remember the last time you flew on a commercial airline?

A: About a year ago -- to New Zealand.

Q: Are you an aisle or a window guy?

A: [Laughing] In a commercial plane? Because on a private plane you don't have that problem. But on a commercial plane, I'm probably an aisle guy. Although, if I happen to be on the window, it's a nice place to put a pillow.

Q: You own 36 holes at Whistling Straits, 36 at Blackwolf Run and then 18 in Scotland, the Dukes. Other than those five, what's your favorite course in the world?

A: Royal County Down, because it has all the characteristics of a links course you could possibly want. It was done with very little money at the turn of the century. It was built with about 500 pounds back then. It's on an incredible piece of ground that didn't need much diggin', they just needed to cut the grass.

Q: What do you love about Pete Dye?

A: To my knowledge, he's the only designer in golf who is a consummate artist. He doesn't own a computer, doesn't even own a cell phone [Laughing]. He walks the land four or five times personally. Then he takes a topo map and puts a dot for a tee, a dot for a landing area and a dot for a green. He has a routing and then connects the dots. That's the last time, and the only time, a pencil touches paper. And then everything is accomplished by Pete Dye working with a project manager, who he's probably worked with for 20 years. Mind you, he has about a dozen of these fellows, but he'll come to that sight every seven to 10 days. He goes over the details with the project manager, who knows all of Pete's likes and dislikes, and they make adjustments, and they lay out another 10 days worth of work and away he goes. It's absolutely natural -- it's Pete's hands -- and he is such an artist with a great feel for the game. One important aspect is that he always builds five tees. And those forward tees are often very considerate of the amateur but the back tees will screw with the mind of the pro, or the 3 -- handicap or less, in such a way that it will cause them fits. Pete's always screwing around with the mind of the professional and he does it in an amazing way. That's some of the reasons that attracted us to him, and we've stuck with him ever since. In my mind he's clearly the strongest living designer. Tom Doak is a pupil of Pete Dye and he's building some fantastic courses.

Q: The top 10 of Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Greatest Courses are Pine Valley, Shinnecock, Augusta, Cypress, Oakmont, Pebble, Merion, Winged Foot, Seminole and Crystal Downs. How many of those top 10 have you played?

A: I've played every one except Merion.

Q: Do you do an annual golf trip with friends?

A: We do the Gnarly Balls.

The what?

A: It's the Gnarly Balls Gang. We used to go once a year to Scotland and Ireland. What we do today is travel all over the United States, and to some extent beyond, with the Gnarly Balls Gang. We have a great deal of fun with them.

Q: Is this once a year?

A: Oh no. The new year begins for us in January and goes through Memorial Day. And then we shut down because we never play in good weather. Then we start up again on Labor Day and go until the 22nd or 23rd of December.

Q: Who is this gang?

A: We have eight regulars, about twelve in all. We count a match if there are three or more present. We can be anywhere in the world. The match is always for money. If I bet you but you don't accept it, we don't have a bet. So that keeps the total amount of the bet very reasonable.

Q: 50 bucks? 20 bucks? 100, or is it more? What are we talking about?

A: Normally we play 10-10-10. No automatic presses. Only press when you're two down or more. In addition to that we play a $2 skins game -- $2 a skin with no carries. And then we play Honest John, which is possibly a game you have not heard of, but it's a great equalizer. You stand on the first tee, proclaim your score for the day, and to the extent you are off, you pay a dollar a stroke, high or low.

Q: Who makes up this gang? Are they old friends of yours?

A: Friends in the area. Some people in the company, some people outside the company. Just good friends.

Q: Do you keep a running score? Do you declare a Gnarly Balls Gang Champion?

A: It's whoever wins the most money. After every day we record the amount of money that exchanged hands. We adjust the running score and we always adjust the handicaps before any match so you're always playing with a current handicap. The money builds over the course of the year. The one who wins the most money is the Gnarly Balls Champion. The person who loses the most is the Glass Balls Champion.

Q: What do you get for both?

A: The Gnarly Balls Champion gets a large piece of driftwood. On this driftwood is a large eyebolt with a heavy steel chain. And on this chain are two softball sized cast iron balls -- and they're rusted [Laughing]. And there's a brass plate, and on this plate is recorded the champion and the amount that he won that year. And then there's a reserve champion and the amount the reserve champion won. And those two lists are on this piece of driftwood. For the glass balls champion, we give him a very polished piece of mahogany with a very tiny eyebolt of pure gold, and a little gold chain, and two very delicate golf ball-sized glass balls [Laughing].

Q: Have you ever been the Gnarly Balls or Glass Balls Champ?

A: Over the last 17 years I've won the Gnarly Balls about five times, and never the Glass Balls.

Q: Of your five titles, what's the most you won?

A: It was about 800 bucks.

Q: Tell us about your hole-in-one. I hear it was at a decent track in Scotland.

[Laughing]. It was at the 11th hole at the Old Course. It was 5:00 in the evening, it was overcast, so it was darker than normal. Earlier that morning I had sprained my left wrist so I was thinking about not joining the match, but for some reason I did. Maybe I did because of the nature of the players in the foursome. I was the most useless partner David Fay ever had. I was remarkably inept. I kept overpronating. I used a six iron. My caddie told me to hit it five yards left of the pin. I looked at him with a very puzzled look because there was nothing accurate about my game that day. I got over the ball and I said, 'Now Kohler, if you're going to hit one shot today this better be it.' It was an amazing environment. There were people coming off the 8th green. There were people teeing off on the 10th. There were people on the 12th tee. The whole course was slowed up and they were standing around. I said 'Kohler, you cannot be the laughing stock of the Old Course.' I took this damn swing and low and behold, I hit one of the prettiest draws you've ever seen. It started out three yards to the right of the pin and drew slowly to the left, hit just in front of the hill on the left, rolled over the hill, disappeared, came up onto the green and then rolled about three yards to the right and bloop, into the hole. It was amazing! It was absolutely amazing!

Q: So the group is David Fay of the USGA, Ken Shanzer of NBC Sports and Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour. Those are three pretty serious guys. What was the celebration like after it went into the hole?

A: Well, no one in our group could believe Kohler was capable of it on a day like this but it was interesting because the whole environment erupted at once. It was neat. It was a postcard moment.

Q: Were there any high-fives?

A: Yeah. There were slaps on the back -- slaps on the butt.

Q: What guys do, I guess?

A: Right.

Q: Other than the 11th hole at the Old Course is there another hole you'd like to ace?

A: The 11th at the Straits course -- with the pin on the far right.

Q: Any more hole-in-ones to report?

A: I was once playing a course in Michigan. I was on this par 3 -- it was 146 yards long. There was water from tee to green. The green was shallow in depth but very wide. There was water and then a bunker and then there was an elevated green. I took a shot -- in the water. I took a second shot -- in the water. I took a third shot -- in the water. I took a fourth shot -- in the hole [Laughing] -- For a seven! That's the only other time I came close.

Q: Where is your hole-in-ones ball now?

A: It's on my secretary's desk ready to be encased.

Q: I heard the story that someone got into the expensive Scotch after the hole-in-one. Did you ever figure out who ordered all of the good stuff?

A: It was about five people. It was a 57-year old Scotch. What was the price? I think it was 225 pounds a glass and it happened to be on the menu at the bar on the fourth floor of the Old Course Hotel. I had said to these folks, 'You could have anything you want off the menu.' [Laughing] This darn menu has a Scotch from every distillery in Scotland. It has over 216 different kinds of Scotch. I had never seen these darn glasses at 225 pounds -- Oh my God. And they didn't tell me about it until I got the bill. It was very funny.

Q: Can you tell me what to look for in a good Scotch?

A: You're looking for a single-malt first of all. Probably not a blend, although Johnnie Walker makes some excellent blends, but that would not be my first recommendation. A single malt with a little age on 'em, like 18 to 24 years. Now mind you, you're going to pay a pretty good price for a bottle like that, you'll probably pay well over a hundred bucks, but it's a beautiful taste.

Q: What bottle do you recommend for a guy like me without having to cash in my 401k?

A: How much do you want to spend?

Q: Let's say 100 bucks.

A: A Glenmorangie 18 or McKellans 18 or 24. These are wonderfully aged and great distilleries.

Q: Are you a hunter?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you have any animals hanging in your office or at home?

A: I do. In my office. I have three -- of which I'm very proud. I have a cross between a goat and a deer. They're only found above the tree line in Austria. It's an amazing little animal. You have to do a fairly rigorous climb to find 'em. I also have a wild boar, who was about 450 pounds. He was a big fella. I shot him with 350 Magnum pistol. I was on horseback, but I had gotten off the horse. The hog was down in an arroyo. There were four dogs that had pushed him down there. Well, when an old male boar is attacked, he sits down to protect his testicles. And then he slashes with his tusks from side-to-side. And if these dogs come in on him, which they will, invariably he catches one of them with his tusks and he can fling 'em 20 yards. And, in this particular instance, he in fact did that. He sort of slit the stomach lining on this dog and when the dog landed he just lay there and all of his stomach just poured out onto the ground. Anyway, I took a shot at the boar when the dogs were away for a second and I hit him in the shoulder at about 50 yards. Well a shoulder shot on most animals will be a kill shot. On a boar, it just makes him mad. And this old fella came up the bank of this arroyo right at me. I took three more shots. The only place you can kill a boar is either between the eyes or behind the ear. Those are the only two places you can get an instant kill. And, finally, on the fourth shot, I got him between the eyes. He was about five feet from me at that point [laughing]. Anyway, after skinning him out and what not, after strapping him to the horse, I went down and got the dog. This dog was still alive. I took a bandana and tucked back all his innards and took this bandana and wrapped it around his stomach. I picked up this dog, put him on my saddle in front of me, and carried that dog for 10 miles to the nearest veterinarian. And that dog is alive today.

Q: Oh my Lord! What kind of dog is it?

A: It's a little dog. Twice the size of a beagle. It looks like a fox-hound but they are trained for wild boar.

That's crazy.

A: It is crazy. Crazy, crazy!

Q: And what's the third animal on your wall?

A: The third animal is a 12-point buck I took on our property in southwestern Wisconsin on the Mississippi. So those are the three.

Q: If you had a fourth what would you hope it would be?

A: Oh gosh. Those animals in Africa. They are the fiercest animals in Africa. A Cape buffalo. The older I get the less inclined I am to hang any more on the wall. It's the total experience of you and this animal. If you are the hunter and not the shooter, it can also be a great experience.

Q: One last question. Seven is not a good golf number but I hear you're a fan. I hear you have it all over the place. Any reason why?

A: It just happens to be my lucky number. The number of my plane has triple sevens, the car license has triple sevens and my extension at work is five sevens. It's not lucky in golf, but it is everywhere else!

Although you did record the other hole-in-one in Michigan on the seventh shot.

A: [Laughs]. That's correct!