Have you heard about the new golf course at Destination Kohler?
No, they haven’t yet gotten approval to develop the land south of Whistling Straits that could eventually be considered for US Open Championships. No, it’s not going to cost you an arm and a leg to play and it’s not on a new site in the Sheboygan area.
It is, though, a ton of fun, is architecturally significant and should absolutely be added to the itinerary of any golf enthusiast visiting Kohler in 2022.
For several years, probably the biggest trend in destination golf has been toward non-championship courses.
The Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes, for example, has long given visitors a reason to loiter outside the Pacific Dunes clubhouse, challenging their friends to ridiculous putts while enjoying craft beers and cocktails, and reveling in one of the country’s most majestic sunsets over the Pacific Ocean.
Non-championship golf courses
Non-championship courses solve an issue golf resorts have always faced: How can they keep players on-site doing golf things when they’re not playing their [often nationally ranked, like at Kohler] 18-hole courses?
When we go on golf trips we want to play golf. But at a resort like Kohler, Bandon, Streamsong, Pebble, Pinehurst or other highly renowned destinations, that urge can be strongly effaced by a number of impediments, including:
- Cost: Rounds of golf at these destinations typically cost $200-plus
- Time: We already played that day and there’s not enough sunlight for another full round
- Effort: Especially at walking-only facilities, the idea of putting in another 20,000+ steps can be daunting (I averaged over 45,000 steps/day at Bandon, for example)
Non-championship golf amenities, including short courses, putting courses and even call-your-shot / game facilities (eg: The Horse Course at The Prairie Club in Valentine, NE) keep visitors engaged playing golf, making golf memories on-site while getting a sense of value by not having to spend a fortune to play.
This is where The Baths is perfect for Kohler.
The Kohler experience has always revolved around high-end golf and high-end indoor amenities. But make no qualms about it, Kohler is one of the true centers of the golf world because of its golf experience.
For avid players, everything indoors (hotels, spas, shopping centers, restaurants, bars) is a bonus because more than anything we want to spend time enjoying the game. The Baths will do a beautiful job of enhancing that experience at Kohler, and will help garner bonus memories that keep players coming back.
They’re baths, not ponds
One unique aspect about the Baths development is that the name was in place prior to any of its design. Lutzke and Kohler hadn’t even started planning the holes yet, and the baths had yet to be dug. It was the architects’ job, then, to design the course to fit the name.
The Baths is a perfect marriage between golf and community, and in Owner & Course Co-Designer Herb Kohler’s ideal world will coexist as both. While “The Baths” is certainly an homage to the luxurious bathroom fixtures his company has designed and manufactured for 130 years, it also refers to the land’s secondary purpose: For swimming and bathing.
The four water features are shallow and clay-lined with compacted sand bottoms and fieldstone rock ledges for lounging. They also have beach access to allow visitors to wade in, and no golf holes need to be played over water (some can from alternate tee boxes).
While I can’t quite picture how the swimming experience will work, I’d happily be the first in line for a warm Summer afternoon dip.
Designed by Chris Lutzke and debuted this past Summer, The Baths sits adjacent to the first tee of the Meadow Valleys course. Set on 27 acres of land within the championship layout’s footprint, it features ten holes with charming Golden Age architecture including classic design templates like the Redan, Dell, Cape, Alps and Punchbowl.
It was important to Kohler that the course included these Golden Age design concepts, but he did not want carbon copies and had the goal of ensuring each hole has its own pulse and identity while maintaining the overall flavor of the Blackwolf Run property it inhabits.
Lutzke, a 33-year associate of Pete Dye’s, worked with the late, great architect on all the courses at Kohler. He worked hand-in-hand with Mr. Kohler at The Baths, too, carrying out the owner’s vision while infusing his own style.
“We followed the Pete Dye process, starting with the routing. Herb put together his proposed routing, and I did mine. Then we collaborated, starting with the location of the pavilion and putting course and identifying where the 9 to 10 par 3 holes would fit.”
– Chris Lutzke, CR Lutzke Golf
A walking only facility, the two created a comfortable routing that ventures south from the log cabin refreshment pavilion for three holes, loops around the inland ponds and returns for three more to the southern tip of its two-acre putting course.
Early and often, players are presented opportunities for creative shot-making at The Baths, utilizing its mounds and oversized green complexes to nestle up to dramatic pin placements.
Each of the ten holes Lutzke and Kohler designed fit well within The Baths but were created with the thought in mind that they all need to be good enough to stand alone on any of the resort’s four championship courses.
With respect to quality I believe they would, but its less formal setting allowed the team to get more creative without the concern of having holes that might be considered “too gimmicky” if on a championship layout.
Probably my favorite among them is the 139-yard downhill fourth. Featuring a classic punchbowl green, the tee shot puts a lofted club in players’ hands and lets them use the many banks and runways of the cupped playing surface to carom balls onward from any angle.
“It’s really fun when you hit a wayward shot, catch the bentgrass and end up putting for birdie on a hole like this.”
– Chris Lutzke, CR Lutzke Golf
The course’s Dell hole, the sixth, is a 125-yard slightly uphill design played to a green shrouded by mounding. Modeled after the famous fifth hole at Lahinch, this is a playful tee shot that requires accurate ball striking.
We played The Baths on the day they debuted their deepest tee box, the 185-yard seventh. A Cape hole running alongside one of the baths, it’s a nervy shot to say the least with water enveloping the entire right side and a narrow green abutting it.
We knew there had been no holes-in-one from this tee, so used the opportunity to take my tee shot to Instagram Live (I since posted it as a comment to tease this article):
Another of my favorite designs on the new course is the Alps-inspired eighth. Featuring a green completely hidden from view, it’s the one hole I think might not go over well on a championship course. I can see people labeling it as too gimmicky or unfair in that setting, but for a par three course like The Baths it’s an absolute star.
“Mr. Kohler was adamant about the Alps eighth. It’s the hole he was always most excited to see.”
– Chris Lutzke, CR Lutzke Golf
Chris and his associate, Abe Wilson, who does Lutzke’s [and did Pete Dye’s] finishing work, manipulated the land on eight tirelessly, repeatedly heightening the mound that fronts the green and constantly pushing and pulling the terrain to create the look they envisioned. All this work resulted in a gem of a golf hole.
The second longest hole on the course is the 159-yard ninth. Modeled loosely after the par four 18th on the Straits, little pot bunkers litter the tee shot’s flight path, visually intimidating players from the tee.
The scariest part of this hole, though, is its green, which is perched well above the rest of the playing surface and for our round was pinned just past several deep greenside traps.
The course finishes with a short and sweet shot out of the dunes toward water. While the yardage book puts the tenth at 103 yards, it could easily be played to any number of pin locations on the practice green, lengthening it considerably.
All the crazy contours of the Himalayas-inspired putting course make this last shot a fun one, and allows golfers to play it however they’d like as either a long bump and run opportunity utilizing its slopes or through the air with more of a full swing.
Short courses like The Baths can be the perfect way to spend an hour and a half between tee times, wind down before dinner, settle or enhance bets, get your entire crew together for a big game or even just dial in irons and wedges before taking on the “big” courses.
Whether as a warm-up or wind-down, I think Lutzke and the entire Kohler team knocked The Baths project out of the park. The course features incredibly interesting greens that are rarely found elsewhere in the Midwest (eg: The Dell, Punchbowl, Alps and Redan), the holes are varied and unique with different required shots, it’s playable for golfers of all skill levels and visitors can spend as much or little time there as they’d like in a laidback environment with access to food and drinks and one of the best practice greens found anywhere.
Whether spending one day on-site or several, make sure to free up time for Kohler’s newest and most leisurely golf amenity: The Baths at Blackwolf Run. I guarantee you’ll love it.
Location: Kohler, WI
Yardage: Tee 1-771, Tee 2-1068, Tee 3-1362
Par: 30 (10 holes)
Rates: Resort guests-complimentary; non-resort guests: $75