Golf paradise among the cows

HAVEN, Wis. - Summer is short and winter lingers in this part of east-central Wisconsin, where dairy farms and cornfields dominate the flat land.

But several minutes outside Sheboygan - about an hour north of Milwaukee - another world exists on Lake Michigan's foggy, wind-swept shores.

This corner of the Midwest is home to four world-class courses built by multimillionaire Herbert Kohler. He has created one of the world's most remarkable golf destinations in a state where winter keeps players off the links for five months or more.

One of the courses was host to the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, and the 2004 PGA Championship will be played at another. Kohler is celebrating the opening of the fourth, the Pete Dye-designed Irish Course, with public play to begin Aug. 1.

''We've come a long way in a short period of time,'' Kohler said. ''What we've built here is truly remarkable. It's a tremendous celebration of golf.''

In the last two decades, the gravelly voiced, white-bearded Kohler has changed from a three-times-a-year golfer to someone who ''loves golf as much as anybody I know,'' Dye said.

Their partnership began 15 years ago, and all four of the area courses were created by the prolific Dye, known in the industry as the Marquis de Sod for his outrageous designs.

''All the coping and muddling together have formed a wonderful sense of friendship and teamwork,'' said Kohler, whose Kohler Co. makes a large portion of the world's bathroom fixtures and small engines. ''Neither of us believed we could do with this land what's been done.''

As for Dye, he's simply grateful for Kohler's patronage.

''It's amazing to have an individual in the industry who really loves golf the way he does,'' Dye said.

The links-style Whistling Straits and Irish Course overlap on several miles of gorgeous lakefront property. Ten miles southwest are two courses collectively called Blackwolf Run, where Se Ri Pak won the 1998 Open.

Whistling Straits and the Irish Course are on land that used to be a runway at a military base and three toxic waste dumps. It also was a popular meeting spot for drug traffickers before Kohler spent six years acquiring the land.

From there, Dye went to work with bulldozers, his imagination and millions of dollars of Kohler's money. In Whistling Straits, he shaped an American Ballybunion with fearsome sand dunes and tough fescue grass fairways, a herd of sheep within the boundaries, a walking-only policy and 170 caddies - all to capture the look and feel of a European links course.

The Irish Course is a worthy companion to the spectacular Whistling Straits, which was awarded the 2004 PGA Championship earlier this year.

Dye said he used ''every trick in the book'' on the Irish, and it shows. Nine holes are characterized by the dunes installed for Whistling Straits, six holes deal with the three creeks on the property, and three are difficult marsh holes.

''There's a potential for disaster on the Irish Course more than on the Straits,'' Dye said. ''It's got everything I can think of, and Mr. Kohler too.''

Kohler calls the Irish ''a twinkle in the eye with a delightful sense of mischief behind it.'' Among the most memorable features is the diabolical par-3 sixth hole, with 90 yards of sand in front of a small green - which is entirely surrounded by sand itself.

''I don't think you'll see too many like it,'' Dye said. ''I've never built one like that before.''

Whistling Straits, where a tee time costs $176, and the two courses at Blackwolf Run, which are carved into seven miles of glacier river valley, attract nearly 90,000 golfers a year.

About 6,000 tee times were booked on the Irish in the first two weeks after reservations opened, and both courses at Blackwolf Run are among the 16 American courses given five-star ratings by Golf Digest.

The area also is home to two hotels, 10 restaurants and cafes, a fancy health club, a wilderness preserve and a water spa opening this fall.

The Irish Course probably completes the area's transformation into a golf paradise, but Kohler and Dye don't rule out another collaboration. After all, their first three courses together already are big successes - all in the least likely of places.

''I'm not sure Pete and I have a long-range vision, but we do enjoy working together,'' Kohler said. ''Is this the end? Probably. There's not too many pieces of land that could rival this.''

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