Herb Kohler Jr., who oversaw the expansion of his family’s plumbing business into a global industry leader while also becoming a leading figure in the golfing world, died Saturday in Kohler, Wisconsin. He was 83 years old.
“His zest for life, his adventure and his impact inspire us all,” his family said in a statement released on Sunday. “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.
Born in Chicago in 1939, Kohler first went to work for the family business, founded by his grandfather Michael Kohler, shortly after graduating from Yale University in 1965. Four years after the death of his father, Herb Sr., in 1968, Kohler Jr. became CEO and added the title of chairman in 1974. He held both positions until 2015, when his son David took over and Herb Jr. was became executive chairman of the company.
It was in his adult life that Kohler became passionate about golf, both as a business and as a hobby. He almost single-handedly transformed Sheboygan County in his adopted home state of Wisconsin into a premier golf destination with the development of The American Club resort in the late 1970s and the creation of a pair of 36-hole golf facilities: Blackwolf Run, with its Meadow and River (93rd on Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses list), and Whistling Straits, with the Strait (23rd on the 100 Greatest Golf Courses list) major golf courses from Golf Digest) and Irish Course.
Blackwolf Run was the first item in Kohler’s golf portfolio, opened in 1988. In 1998, an 18-hole composite course hosted the US Women’s Open, memorably won by Se Ri Pak of South Korea on the amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in an 18-hole playoff. Pak was the first South Korean to win a major – men’s or women’s – and her victory is credited with inspiring a whole generation of South Korean female golfers to take up the game.
Ten years later, Kohler opened Whistling Straits, bringing in famed architect Pete Dye to take a flat, abandoned airfield on Lake Michigan and turn it into a replica of a seaside link. The strait course went on to host three PGA Championships (2004 won by Vijay Singh, 2010 won by Martin Kaymer and 2015 won by Jason Day) and a US Senior Open (2007 won by Simon Hobday). It also hosted last year’s Ryder Cup, which the United States topped 19-9.
Kohler’s involvement in golf took on an international dimension in 2004 when he purchased the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland, next to the Road Hole on the famous Old Course. He also bought The Duke’s, a moorland course outside St. Andrews.
Kohler’s passion for the game blossomed into him also becoming a course designer, helping to build the 10-hole, par 3, Baths of Blackwolf golf course which debuted in June 2021. He also had the plans to construct an 18-hole public golf course on Kohler Co. property along the shore of Lake Michigan in southern Sheboygan County.
His involvement in the world of golf has earned him various industry accolades. In 2016, Kohler received the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s Old Tom Morris Award, which recognizes his “indelible mark on golf and his emphasis on the importance of environmental stewardship.” He was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2019.
Kohler is survived by his wife, Natalie; two daughters, Laura and Rachel; and a son, David Kohler, as well as 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The family plans to arrange a private service. A Kohler Co. spokesperson said a public tribute to Kohler will be held at a later date to be determined.