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Whistling Straits Owner Pushes To Build New Golf Course, Partly On State Park Land

Local Residents Challenge To Herbert Kohler's Plan To Develop In And Around Kohler-Andrae

Josh Haroldson (CC-BY-NC-ND)

This year’s PGA Championship — one of the biggest tournaments in professional golf — begins at Whistling Straits golf course north of Sheboygan Thursday, at a time when the course’s owner Herbert Kohler is trying to move ahead with controversial plans to build another large course along Lake Michigan sand dunes south of Sheboygan, partially in a state park.

The construction of Whistling Straits 17 years ago was itself controversial, with environmental groups and others raising concerns about wetlands loss and runoff into Lake Michigan, as well as the Kohler Co.’s clout with Gov. Tommy Thompson. However, those disputes are officially over, and golfers — usually paying hundreds of dollars per round — have been belting their way around Whistling Straits for years.

What’s more, organizations that run major golf tournaments have maintained an interest in Whistling Straits ever since it first opened. The course hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 2007, as well as two prior PGA Championships, and is slated to host the Ryder Cup competition in five years.

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Jason Mengel, the director of this year’s PGA Championship, said there are key reasons for why the association keeps coming back to Whistling Straits.

“The Straits course is phenomenal, and one of the most difficult tests of golf, really, in the country,” he said. “But then from there, it’s the wonderful support we get from certainly the Kohler Co., our partners in hosting this championship.”

Herbert Kohler, the owner of the Whistling Straits course. Wisconsin Technical Colleges (CC-BY-NC-ND).

Part of the new golf course would be built near this sand dune in Kohler-Andrae State Park. Chuck Quirmbach/WPR.

About 10 miles south of Whistling Straits, in the Sheboygan County Town of Wilson, is where the Kohler Co. plans to develop its second championship golf course. However, the proposal faces a challenge from Wisconsin residents who revere the undeveloped land.

“It’s beautiful,” said Claudia Bricks, standing a few feet north of the Kohler property where most of the course would be. “You can see the ferns and the mayapples, and the different varieties of every kind of imaginable tree, and the cattails, and the swamp that runs south of where we’re standing now.”

Bricks is co-founder of the Friends of the Black River Forest, a group trying to block the Kohler’s effort. Part of its objection to the plan stems from the fact that a section of the development would be on land that currently belongs to Kohler-Andrae State Park. Kohler wants to gain control of a few acres of the park to build an entrance drive to the golf course.

“I don’t like to see our state public property used for private gain or private profit. And as far as I can tell, it’s been unprecedented up to this point,” said Bricks.

Mary Faydash, the other co-founder of the group opposing the planned golf course, was among the critics of some of the financial deals that led to the construction of Whistling Straits. She said fighting the Kohlers isn’t easy.

“I think it’s kind of systemic in Sheboygan County that people do not speak their true feelings about the Kohler Company. I learned that 17 years ago. I was told constantly when I asked questions that Herbie Kohler gets what he wants,” said Faydash.

Faydash doubts much of an economic benefits report that projects gains for the Town of Wilson. She also worries that politicians will pressure the Department of Natural Resources to see that the new golf gets built.

But recently, the DNR raised a series of questions and concerns about the Kohler proposal, and a public hearing last month on a planned environmental impact statement drew far more critics of the course than supporters. Afterward, Kohler spokesperson Todd Weber said that he heard what residents were saying, but didn’t back down on the building plan.

“Ultimately, we want to have a minimalist-designed golf course that embraces the environment and works well not only for our company, but for the community and the environment,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Friends of the Black River Forest have scheduled a demonstration for late Saturday afternoon in the Village of Kohler to protest the proposed course, as the PGA Championship plays out through the weekend at the nearby Whistling Straits.