Q&A with David Kohler, CEO of Kohler Co.

David Kohler at Whistling Straits.
David Kohler at Whistling Straits. Credit: Jake Hill

As the countdown to the 2020 Ryder Cup nears one year, planning and preparation are well underway at Whistling Straits in Sheboygan. It will be the fourth professional golf tournament to be hosted at the Kohler Co. course and the first time the biennial men’s golf competition between teams from Europe and the U.S. is held in Wisconsin. Kohler Co. chief executive officer David Kohler recently hosted several journalists at Whistling Straits for a roundtable-style discussion about the planning process and impact of the tournament. BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Maredithe Meyer was among the journalists participating in the Q&A. Here is a transcript of portions of the discussion:

 “We wanted to get the message out to the state because it’s such an epic event. It’s a once in a lifetime for the state of Wisconsin. We’re never going to see probably in our lifetime the Ryder Cup back in the state. And if you think about it, last year in Paris, next year in little Kohler, Wisconsin and then Rome and New York—we’re in the big leagues here as a state on the world stage.

 “And the interest we’ve had has been pretty incredible. If you just gauge volunteers, we’ve had 30,000 people register to be volunteers for 4,000 spots. But the general interest we’ve had already in registration and in corporate sales has been exceptionally strong, which is expected because if you look at the history of our major championships here and the PGA championships, particularly the one in 2004 and 2015 broke records in attendance.

What’s the expected economic impact?

“We estimate the economic impact to be about $135 million. And if you think about it, this event will be viewed by 500 million households around the world, 27 hours of news coverage, and a significant impact on the state and local community. All things combined are quite significant…

“…The carry over of how that benefits the state in the following two, three, five years in terms of people wanting to come to the state and play golf, I think, is significant.”

How far do you expect the hotel impact to reach?

“All the way from Milwaukee to Green Bay, west and everything in this corridor will be utilized. And given the arteries we have with I-43 and west on Highway 23, we actually have pretty good flow into the venue, whether you’re coming from the north or from the south.

“And then there’s a service that’s being utilized by the PGA of America and the Ryder Cup for local residents who want to rent their homes (Rent Like a Champion). So there will also be a rental home market in the area that people will be leveraging.”

David Kohler
David Kohler Credit: Jake Hill

What infrastructure is needed to host this event?

“Significant build out. There will be a million square feet of temporary structure… What we’re focused on and passionate about is creating that incredible experience for everyone, whether you’re a caddy, a player, a corporate hospitality customer, or a fan with a normal daily pass or weekly pass. We want to make sure it’s an incredible experience from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, so it’s focusing on all the details, from food and beverage to what their experience is moving around the course.”

What value does the Ryder Cup have to the Kohler Co.?

“First of all, to me, it’s a great capstone on my father’s contribution to the game of golf, the state of Wisconsin to Kohler Co. in establishing the golf business. From a golf course standpoint, as we said, it’s the pinnacle of any event you could host on your golf course, so it gives great credentials there. Third is the customer benefit. We, like other companies that are clients using corporate chalets, will bring hundreds of customers here from all over the world to enjoy the event and work with us. It’s one of the most sought after events for corporate clients to bring customers to because it’s so unique. We’re going to leverage that very highly.”

Why has Wisconsin become a golf destination?

“First of all, I think we owe a lot of credit and respect and acknowledgement to my father, Herb Kohler (executive chairman of the Kohler Co.). He and (golf course designer) Pete Dye worked together to build Black Wolf Run and then continued to build and expand truly unique destination golf courses and championship courses in the state of Wisconsin. Building the four courses and maintaining that single level of quality was a very bold move in rural Wisconsin— to build courses that are now top courses in the world. All those courses are in the top 60 public courses in the country and Kohler is a worldwide golf destination…”

“…But it was that attention to really build something unique and carry that through that started it all. It attracted the interest of the PGA of America and it was really their strong commitment that made it possible with the 2004, 2010, 2015 PGA Championships and Ryder Cup.”

“It was also a bold move for the PGA of America to create that type of commitment over a period of time to a new course. But that combination was really the beginning and then it captured the interest of other investors, and thus we see Erin Hills and then Sand Valley. Erin Hills has attracted golfers and also a major. I really credit Herb and the work of the teams throughout the years to build Kohler as a golf destination, making Wisconsin a golf destination.”

How will Whistling Straits continue to attract large-scale tournaments?

“With the move of the PGA Championship earlier this year to May, it’s obviously more complicated for this venue to host a major that early in the year relative to growth and development of the golf course.”

“But we’re evaluating where we want to go, honestly. We think that the pedigree or the credentials that Whistling Straits has garnered over the years with four men’s majors, the U.S. Senior Open as well as the Ryder Cup, there’s not a whole lot more that you can do to cap that so we are trying to think about what we want to do. The course does not need any more credentials.”

Will you try to land a U.S. Open?

“We are evaluating all options—in terms of what events would make sense here— with the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, USGA, all the organizations, and just being open minded. We don’t have an urgency to commit to anything because of what we’ve accomplished already, so it’s really about finding the right fit for our organization over time. And we’ve got plenty of things in the works: continuing to work on the fifth golf course and other elements to continue to improve all the amenities and unique features of Kohler as a golf destination.”

What’s the latest news on the fifth course?

“Nothing dramatically new. We continue to be working through the permitting process and it’s just been slow and methodical with some of the challenges that have come up with the organizations … We definitely want to continue to do it when all the appropriate approvals are met.”

Do you remain hopeful about the approval process?

“One hundred percent. We are committed to doing it. We think it will be tremendous for the state as well as economic impact, and good for the game of golf. We are passionate environmental stewards so we’d be committed to doing it in the right way.”

Those interested have until Sept. 13 at 10:59 p.m. to register at RyderCup.com for a chance to be randomly selected to purchase tickets.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.