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July 3, 2007

Herb Kohler


RAND JERRIS: It's a pleasure and an honor to welcome Herb Kohler to the interview room this afternoon. Maybe you could start us off with some thoughts on what it means to you personally to have the U.S. Senior Open this week here at Whistling Straits.
HERB KOHLER: You know, I've been walking out there, and it gives me goosebumps. To see these legends, people that I recognize, know by name, long before I played the game, walking these fairways, Hale Irwin, Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller, and just to go down there and talk to them about how they're dealing with this wind is quite an experience.
RAND JERRIS: Talk a little bit about for those who might not know, talk about the story behind the creation of Whistling Straits. How did this golf course come to be here?
HERB KOHLER: Oh, goodness. It goes way back almost to the beginning of our involvement in golf. We opened a 125-room hotel in 1981, and this was long before the day of the email. By 1983 I had a stack of papers that one of my managers brought to my attention. These were suggestion slips, about 100 of them, and the essence of those slips were, Mr. Kohler, we thank you for taking us to a little public course over here and a private course over there, but you built what we thought would be a resort hotel. But you don't have a golf course. You have all this land; why don't you consider building something?
I didn't know much of anything about golf. I played maybe twice a year with my father's wooden shafts. But I had a great vice president of business development by the name of Bob Melbourne, and he happened to be a 3 handicap. We sat down and just talked about it for ten days, and the gist of that was we came up and decided to bring in six different designers and interview them, and we picked a pair who had done two courses for the PGA TOUR, had them lay out five holes, and then we brought them back and talked about their philosophies.
And their idea of designing resort golf was to make sure that the green surface was always two feet or more below the landing area on a par 4 or 5 or the tee of a par 3. Now, that's all well and good for resort golf; it tends to speed the game.
But here we were over at what is now Black Wolf Run in and out of a river valley. What it did was to extend the distances between greens and tees, applying that philosophy.
And that's all well and good if you have carts, but if you're going to walk the fairways, that's not acceptable. 100 yards, 150 yards between the green and tee, just doesn't work. And our notion even back then was championship golf. Even though we were building something for a resort hotel.
So believe it or not, in our ultimate wisdom, we terminated our relationship with that pair of designers and brought in another set of six different designers, and in the second set we found this curious fellow by the name of Pete Dye.
Well, after some conversation and a fair degree of turmoil, I happened to be a tree hugger, at that time especially, and Pete also loved trees but he liked to plant them after he wiped them out to build his course.
Anyway, we got through that first course, and it created such interest, such demand, that we were literally coming up, our lead time for getting a tee time was three months. Well, obviously that's not acceptable for resort golf, especially someone who fashions themselves as running a five-diamond operation.
So we had no vision at all. We looked around, where could we build a third nine to relieve the pressure. We built that third nine, attached it to the first nine, didn't affect demand one iota, still covered up. We went out and found land -- this one actually took a month, found some more land for a fourth nine and attached it eventually to the second nine.
Well, when we did that, Golf Digest, which had named the first 18 holes the best public course in 1988, they wrote an editorial and said Kohler and Dye had committed the greatest crime in golf by tearing apart that first course and doing these attachments.
Mind you, they wrote the article without ever seeing the course or the two new 18s. When they finally did a year later, they thankfully wrote a page of apology.
The upshot, however, was that those two 18s didn't affect demand, and I had to go out and literally search for land for a third course, and that took me a long time because I was looking for sand-based land, and we have a fair amount on the lake shore, but it all happened to be owned by multiple property owners.
And I negotiated for well over a year and couldn't get it done. Then I finally ended up taking out a plot map and looking for the biggest property I could find on Lake Michigan owned by a private party, and I found some land owned by a utility. Well, I called up the chairman and went down to visit him.
After a year and a half of conversations, he finally said to me, Mr. Kohler, the only way you're going to get some land to build this course, at least get the land from me, is if you go out and buy an adjacent farm and then trade me that land so I can still build my utility.
Well, the thought of a golf course next to a utility gave me a frightful image, but it was the only way I could get the land. So I went and bought the farm, made the trade, and we ended up with 500 acres on what you now see is Whistling Straits.
No sooner had we bought that and we got into a real tiff between the Department of Natural Resources, which had jurisdiction over wetlands, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which had jurisdiction over the lake shore. They wanted to protect erosion, the Army Corps did. And the Department of Natural Resources had to protect their wetlands.
Wisconsin had a law that no mitigation -- unlike the great water States of Florida, California, Maryland, et cetera. They prevented mitigation but not Wisconsin. So we had an impossible obstacle.
Thankfully the Army Corps rose up and said, now, look, DNR, why don't you permit Mr. Kohler to build this course and do to them what state law requires of these other water states. For every acre of wetland they take, they have to put three back of active wetland. What we had out here was a flat dish about one foot deep, and that was enough -- clay-based, enough of a base to contain the water. You couldn't see it, it grew aquatic plants, but that was it.
But DNR persisted. The Army Corps said, now, look, if we let the erosion take its course, at about five feet per year, it's going to be about ten years before the edge of the bank cuts into that wetland, and it's going to drain it. So if you don't let Kohler do something, you won't have a wetland and we're going to have an eroded bank and a mess in Lake Michigan. The outcome of all of that was they finally let us go ahead.
Then they asked Pete Dye to give them a precise drawing of the course we intended to build. Pete Dye has never drawn anything in his life. He puts a dot on the paper for a tee, a dot for the landing area and a dot for a green. Connect the dots, and that's the last time pencil meets paper.
Everything Pete's way and everything in building a course is with the eye. That's the artist in Pete. That's really why these courses are what they are and why they're such a high degree of excellence, because of Pete Dye. No one back in the office drew any course.
We built that third course. The lead time was reduced slightly to two months. We finally ended up having to build a fourth course, and finally we now have an infrastructure that can balance the demand for golf. It's this demand that we see in Wisconsin that's been absolutely remarkable at making these courses successful. So that's the story. I was a little long.

Q. I understand that when you go out and walk around your course, you get approached by quite a few fans who thank you for what you've done for golf, and it even happened at Oakmont I hear where people were coming up to you and thanking you. How does it feel to be signing autographs for golf fans, when 20 years allege you probably didn't barely imagine getting to this point, and now here you are with people recognizing you for your golf instead of your generators or your hospitality. How does that feel?
HERB KOHLER: I have to start by telling you a cute little story. Pete Dye and I were standing near the first tee at Cruden Bay, Scotland, and talking to the owner of a hotel that we had stayed in that day. Pete was telling him about me and about some of the things he had done in the United States, and all of a sudden this chap popped up and said, "You mean to tell me he's more than just a plumber?"
My life has changed dramatically since we broke ground for that first golf course, in the kinds of friends I have and the people you meet. Obviously the world of plumbing doesn't attract this kind of media (laughing), nor do generators or even furniture.
It's a remarkable experience. It starts with the values of the game and then impacts all the people around golf. You know, I think it's remarkable how those people have been impacted by those values as suddenly as can be. It helped me sort out some of my executives, the importance of those values.
And then you come to the recognition and the spotlight that it shines on the company. So what this game has meant for Kohler has been remarkable. It couldn't have happened any other way.

Q. Do you like to see the wind whip up like this, and do you hope it's going to last through the weekend?
HERB KOHLER: You know, in 2004 I was just begging for it. It's a little brisk right now (laughing). These guys even without the wind are going to have as much as they can handle.

Q. What kind of scoring would you like to see this week, and will you be rooting for players to go higher or lower?
HERB KOHLER: Well, back in '04 on the first day of the tournament when they were 7-under, I was scared to death. Mind you, I restrained myself and didn't say anything to the director of the tournament because I knew he'd just react the wrong way if I did say something, so I didn't. And he adjusted. He adjusted in tees and greens, and it got progressively more difficult as the tournament went on.
And on the last day, the leader on the last day, 11-under, came back to 7-under, shot a 76, and they ended up for the four days at 7-under.
Now, was that a good score, a bad score? For me it was a great score. It was a great lesson on how you manage a golf course throughout the course of a tournament and you're adjusting conditions. You've got to make it fair. You've just got to make it fair. It's hard enough to hit these fairways in placid conditions, but it's very, very difficult under the kind of wind that you're feeling out there now.
So what kind of scoring? I know the USGA are absolute experts at adjusting to the extent they can to the conditions, as you can adjust out there with the tees and with the pin placements on these greens. So I want a fair and tough test, and this is the national championship for we owners. So be kind, USGA, be kind. Well, be slightly kind.

Q. As interesting as it's all been to hear the history of how the properties have evolved to where they're at today, it seems like when we read golf travel magazines it seems like resorts are doing things to keep pace with competition at golf courses, spas, other things. Where do you go from here? What's next? Or are you in a stand pat mode for a while?
HERB KOHLER: It may seem like we're standing pat but we aren't. Our minds are going, and our search for land is continuing. There aren't many areas left in this country, frankly, especially shoreline, especially on water you can't see across. Very little land in this country left to build great golf courses.
But there are those kinds of areas elsewhere in this world, and that's what we're looking for.
By the same token, as the game has evolved, courses have to keep up with the game. And when this tournament is over, Pete Dye is coming in here and going to take a hard look at some adjustments at Black Wolf Run. He may even tweak this one.
But you have to make those tweaks. We have to keep challenging some of these players; they're awfully good. We're doing two things. We're searching and we're making some internal adjustments at the same time. But you'll be hearing from us again.

Q. What are some of the areas that you'd be looking at, and just in terms of specifics, what kind of tweaking are you talking with on Black Wolf and here at Whistling Straits?
HERB KOHLER: Just really additional points of interest. One of the great holes on the River Course at Black Wolf is No. 11. It's a long par 5 that wraps around the water. That's a particular challenge on every shot, on each of the three approach shots.
What we're trying to do is get that level of imagination and difficulty, requiring imagination of the player, to create his own strategy in how he plays that. We hope to get that kind of difficulty of requiring that kind of strategy, strategic approach, on each of those holes, on both courses at Black Wolf. So those are the things we're looking at. Any one thing I can't tell you until Pete gets out there and we talk about it.

Q. Pete Dye is going to come out next year?
HERB KOHLER: Well, he's coming out in a week and we're going to walk.
RAND JERRIS: Can I ask you if you have a favorite hole out here? Is there a place on this golf course that to you really represents your vision, your dream of what this could be and a place that you sort of like to retreat to?
HERB KOHLER: You know, you ask me anything favorite, favorite course, favorite hole. How many children do you have? Which one is your favorite (laughter)? I mean, I can literally talk about every hole on the Straits course and tell you about things that fascinate me. But you take the last four holes coming in on this course, and it's going to be hard to find four holes that create that kind of interest, that kind of variety, that kind of difficulty. And I think that's the real test for a national championship.

Q. Talk about Dale Douglas. He's 71 years old, 22nd straight U.S. Senior Open. As a golfer yourself who's been slowed by a few injuries, what do you think of that kind of durability to just be able to do 600 Tour events, 22 in a row at this level?
HERB KOHLER: I can't even imagine it. You know, you would think the arthritis, whatnot, would take over and slow down the swing a little bit. But he keeps going. I mean, how he does it, I -- maybe it's diet, maybe it's continual exercise and a good, loving wife.

Q. Compare from 2004 to 2007 some of the course changes. I know Jay Haas said he didn't think there was much of a difference other than some of the distances maybe being shorter. What do you see as the difference in the course setup or something that is a little bit different from '04?
HERB KOHLER: The 18th hole is just different. The fairway from the tee shot is substantially different. The level -- the fairway used to slope. We leveled the fairway, put up a set of bunkers on the right-hand side and a fairly significant drop on the left-hand side and a wasteland, and then he changed the bunkering at the very end of that plateau.
If the ball runs to the end, chances are fairly good if it's running, if it's flying or a big bounce, it'll run into a bunker. It takes -- Tiger could out-drive the fairway today with a 320-yard shot, but Tiger, unless the wind is blowing in his face, wouldn't use a driver.
So I don't think anyone is going to be beyond that fairway, especially the way the USGA is setting up those tees.
But then that second shot, Peter actually reduced the lobes on the green and probably will be a little bit more difficult than it was in 2004. And the 2004 greens created a lot of excitement. But this one will, too, and I think more so. When he cut out those big lobes, it made it look a little bit like a four-leaf clover, thankfully.
RAND JERRIS: We thank you very much for your time this afternoon.
HERB KOHLER: You're welcome. Appreciate it.

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