Herb Kohler, who managed the growth of his family’s plumbing and manufacturing company into a global industry leader and rose to prominence in the golf world, passed away on September 3 in Wisconsin. He was 83. Kohler, born in Chicago in 1939, began working for the family business, which his great-grandfather Michael Kohler established in 1873, not long after graduating from Yale University in 1965. Herb Kohler Jr. succeeded his father as CEO and president in 1974, four years after Herb Surpassing was in 1968.
He held these positions until 2015, when his son David took over as the fourth Kohler generation to lead the business, and Herb Jr. was named executive chairman. During his tenure as CEO, Kohler expanded the company from a $133 million enterprise to one that generated close to $6 billion in revenue in 2015.
Kohler didn’t develop a deep love for golf until he was an adult, both professionally and recreationally. With the construction of The American Club resort and two 36-hole golf clubs, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, in his adopted home state of Wisconsin, he nearly single-handedly transformed Sheboygan County into a major golf destination.
Opening in 1988, Blackwolf Run was Kohler’s first golf facility. The 1998 US Women’s Open was held on a hybrid 18-hole course. Ten years later, Kohler opened Whistling Straits, commissioning Pete Dye to recreate coastal links on an abandoned airfield next to Lake Michigan. The Straits course last played home to the 2007 US Senior Open, the Ryder Cup, three PGA Championships (2004, 2010, and 2015), and the US Senior Open.
When Kohler bought the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, Scotland, in 2004, his participation in golf expanded internationally. Outside of St Andrews, he also purchased The Duke’s Course, a heathland course. Because of his love for the sport, Kohler developed into a course designer and contributed to creating the 10-hole, par-3 Baths of Blackwolf golf course, which debuted in June of the previous year.
Additionally, he had plans to develop an 18-hole public golf course on land owned by Kohler Co. along the southern Sheboygan County shore of Lake Michigan. He received numerous honors from the golf industry due to his commitment to the sport. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America presented Kohler with the Old Tom Morris Award in 2016 in honor of his “indelible influence on golf and the focus on the need for environmental stewardship.” In 2019, he was admitted to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
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