ALTHOUGH he grew up in Wisconsin along the windswept shores of Lake Michigan and became one of America’s most influential golf powerbrokers, Herb Kohler always loved the people of Scotland. This summer will serve as one of his greatest salutes to the country that gave the world his favourite game.

The 83-year-old graduate of Yale is the current familial leader of the Kohler plumbing fixture empire.

He took that already successful business model and grew the company into more than a corporate success, turning it into a philanthropic force behind multiple art museums and cultural centres.

There’s the John Michael Kohler Arts Centre and its Art Preserve in Wisconsin, while the Kohler Design Centre highlights the most prominent and unusual product designs emerging from the company’s history. And Kohler is also the owner of the St Andrews Old Course Hotel.

Throughout his era heading up the global corporation, Kohler transformed the midwestern town that bears his family name into one of the planet’s golf meccas. Using Kohler’s five-star American Club Hotel as a base, he built Black Wolf Run – an elite park-style course hosting frequent LPGA events.

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From there, Kohler partnered with course design legend Pete Dye to create Whistling Straits – a Scottish links-style track groomed by a herd of sheep and home to more than 1000 nasty bunkers. Consistently ranked among the most challenging courses in the US, the Straits hosted last year’s Ryder Cup after welcoming three PGA Championships and the US Senior Open.

It was Kohler’s passion for Scotland and links golf that led him and Dye to create Whistling Straits. “I simply love links golf,” he said. “Of course, you find the traditional grounds for links golf along the sea. It’s wasteland terrain, often shaped by wildlife looking to survive and get out of the seaside elements.

Herb Kohler purchased the Old Course Hotel in 2004Billionaire US property tycoon Herb Kohler

“We were able to find that same marine environment within 10 minutes of our hotel. We wanted to honour the brand of a historic course like St Andrews without directly copying any of its individual holes.”

Developing Whistling Straits brought Kohler into frequent contact with the people of Scotland. He immediately found similarities in the character and conduct of Scots and the people of the American Midwest. He said: “Just in terms of the sport, Scots and Midwesterners have a passion for the game and are always looking for great golf.

“Otherwise, in terms of income levels and family backgrounds, you’ll find Scotland and Wisconsin share many of the same demographics. They also appreciate and provide great hospitality.”

In the midst of his corporate and golf world successes, Kohler made an unexpected and surprising move when he purchased the Old Course Hotel.

It stands as a prominent backdrop for the course’s opening and closing holes and when the eventual Open champion sinks his final putt on the 18th and raises the Claret Jug, the odds are good that the hotel will be in the photographs.

Built in 1968 on the site of the old St Andrews railway station, the hotel joined the Destination Kohler hospitality family of properties in 2004. In 2020, it underwent a renovation and expansion that included 31 new rooms and an additional restaurant.

“We will be the host hotel for The Open,” Kohler said. “Whether we’re welcoming players, fans or media, we are proud to serve as a focal point during such a great event in any year. Since this is the tournament’s 150th anniversary this summer, we know what a special occasion and what a unique honour it is to play a part in that celebration.”

Owning the hotel offered Kohler ample opportunity to explore the seven courses in the town that gave birth to the game. “I think the New Course is an interesting recreation of the Old Course – while the Castle course has its own unique identity,” he said.

While overseeing the Old Course Hotel’s role in preparing for The Open in Scotland, Kohler is pushing forward on an important new golf project back in Wisconsin.

Herb Kohler purchased the Old Course Hotel in 2004

Before his death in 2020, Dye completed his final design for Kohler. The as-yet-unnamed course will settle into the south of Whistling Straits, offering an executive layout avoiding longer par-5 holes. It’ll be one of the most beautiful creations of its kind in the world.”

While the legal and environmental machinations settle themselves, Kohler’s attention focuses on this important summer in Scotland. While he has had some health complications over the last year, he insists he won’t let those issues keep him from the 150th Open.

“I get to Scotland five times or so per year, and that’s not nearly enough,” he said. “After so many years visiting them and working with them, I have great appreciation and respect for the Scottish people. Whether I am working with employees at the hotel, members of the board of directors, contractors, caddies – I can say I never had a single bad experience in Scotland.”