Herb Kohler Jr., a towering figure in business and in golf, leaves a significant legacy

Kohler transformed his grandfather's plumbing manufacturing company into a worldwide name, then turned a small Wisconsin coastal region into a leading golf destination. He died Sept. 3 at 83

Herb Kohler Jr.

Herb Kohler Jr., who shaped the family business started by his grandfather into one of the world's leading plumbing manufacturers and then built a premier golf destination that would host major championships and the 2021 Ryder Cup, died on Saturday in Kohler, Wisconsin. He was 83.

While Kohler may be best known for his work at Kohler Co. for 61 years, 43 as the CEO, in the late 1970s he branched out to develop The American Club — originally built as a Kohler immigrant workers’ dormitory in 1918 — into a luxury spa and resort. Kohler, a passionate golfer, eventually developed a golfing destination, hiring noted course architect Pete Dye to design Blackwolf Run (1988) and then Whistling Straits (1998) among its amenities. Combined, the two courses have host six major championships and the 2021 Ryder Cup.

“His zest for life, adventure and impact inspires all of us. We traveled together, celebrated together, and worked together. He was all in, all the time, leaving an indelible mark on how we live our lives today and carry on his legacy,” said his family in a statement.

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Kohler was born in Chicago in 1939 and attended Yale University. Soon after graduating Yale in 1965, Kohler went to work as a research and development technician for the company founded by his grandfather, Michael Kohler, in 1873. He became a company director in 1967 and vice president of operations when his father died a year later. In 1972, Kohler was elected chairman of the board and CEO, adding the title of president in 1974. In 2015, Kohler became the company's executive chairman, turning the reins of CEO and president to his son David.

When Kohler took over as CEO in 1972, the company was a $133 million operation. By 2015, the company was nearing $6 billion in annual revenue. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / 09.04.2022] His mark on golf in Wisconsin was equally as grand. In addition to building Destination Kohler into one of the world's top golf resorts along the Lake Michigan coast, it became a major player, hosting three PGA Championships (2004, 2010, 2015), two U.S. Women's Opens (1998, 2012) and a U.S. Senior Open (2007). The crown jewel for Kohler, though, may have been last year's Ryder Cup, which had a significant financial impact. [Perfect Putt / 09.27.2021]

"The PGA of America is deeply saddened by the passing of Herb Kohler, whose impact upon golf extends well beyond his world-class properties that hosted major championships and the 43rd Ryder Cup," said Jim Richerson, PGA president, in a statement. "Mr. Kohler was a passionate custodian of our sport's future, and we were captivated by his vision. A friend to all involved in the game, Mr. Kohler challenged us to maintain golf's highest standards. We send our thought and prayers to his wife Natalie and the entire Kohler family."

The First Call contributor Joe Passov wrote of the complex man: "To describe someone as “larger than life” invites criticism on two fronts — as both hyperbole and cliche. But how else can Herb Kohler be described? Depicted by the architect of his golf courses, Pete Dye, as “a hefty man with a heavy beard,” Kohler possessed a remarkably expressive face, an imposing mien and an outsized personality. With his bushy eyebrows and facial whiskers bracketing his twinkling eyes, he seemed to convey something demonic and delightful all at once. Then he laughed that hearty laugh and you knew right where you stood with him. There was no one like Herb Kohler." [Sports Illustrated / 09.05.2022]

Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel golf writer Gary D'Amato, who first Kohler around the time Blackwolf Run opened, added: "Kohler was many things to many people — wealthy business tycoon, iron-fisted CEO, strong-willed conservative, perfectionist, avid outdoorsman, passionate (if slightly below average) golfer — but to me, he was just Herb, a friend of the game." [Wisconsin.Golf / 09.04.2022]

Attention to quality and customer service became Kohler Co. trademarks, and those characteristics were quintessential at his American Club. [The First Call / 09.22.2021] When Kohler himself traveled, the most important aspect of lodging to him was "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," he said. [Golf Digest / 04.06.2008]

Here is a roundup of Kohler tributes on Twitter:

> Steve Stricker, who captained the victorious 2021 U.S. Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits: "I’m saddened to hear about the passing of Herb Kohler today! He’s done so much for golf in Wisconsin. He made it possible for to bring the cup back home! That was for you Herb! RIP"

> Golf Course Superintendents Association of America: "GCSAA regrets to hear of the passing of Herb Kohler. The impact and legacy of Kohler — former trustee and donor, Old Tom Morris Award winner and golf course owner — will live on in the world of golf. Our condolences to his family."

> U.S. Ryder Cup: "Rest In Peace to a true visionary, Mr. Herb Kohler"

> Padraig Harrington, 2021 European Ryder Cup captain at Whistling Straits: "Sad to hear of the passing of Herb Kohler. A gracious host of the 2020 at one of his life’s great accomplishments, Whistling Straits. Just a lovely man who left his mark on life and the game of golf. RIP"

> Journalist and author Robert Lusetich: "Old man #Kohler was the quirkiest of men. After he bought the Old Course hotel, he bought Duke's, a parkland course just outside St Andrews. The starter was fastidiously Scottish. Kohler showed up late for his 8am tee time. Teesheet packed. Starter refused to let his group out!