Herb Kohler Jr.: A fixture in business and golf

A former GCSAA Old Tom Morris Award recipient, Kohler left a legacy on and off the course.


Herbert Kohler, Jr.
Wisconsin native, entrepreneur and golf industry leader Herbert Kohler Jr. passed away Sept. 3 at age 83. Photo courtesy of Kohler Co.

In remembering the late Herb Kohler Jr., Steve Friedlander thinks about the legend and his passion for life every minute, every day.

“Mr. Kohler lived a full life. A guy who never stopped. Those of us who worked for him had the same mindset — we’ve got a lot to do,” Friedlander, who worked eight years for Kohler as Kohler Co.’s general manager/director of golf, said Tuesday. “Mr. Kohler was sincere about the game and growing the game.”

Kohler, GCSAA’s Old Tom Morris Award recipient in 2016 and executive chairman of Kohler Co, died Sept. 3 in Kohler, Wis. He was 83. At the company’s headquarters in Kohler, he expanded his family’s household goods empire before falling in love with golf, eventually developing Wisconsin into a golf destination. Kohler was on site one year ago this month to witness his crowning achievement; the U.S. team defeated the Europeans in the Ryder Cup at his Whistling Straits course in Haven, Wis.

Wisconsin native and golfing standout Steve Stricker once told GCM, “He just has so much of a presence about him, and it’s pretty neat what one person has done for what has transpired for golf in Wisconsin,” Stricker said. “He just looks like a guy who should have a statue.”

An entrepreneur and innovation-minded leader, Kohler was born in Chicago and served in the U.S. Army reserves before earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial administration from Yale. He became a full-time R&D technician at Kohler Co. (the family business was founded in 1873). Shortly after graduation, he was named director of the company in 1967, and when his father died a year later, he was promoted to vice president of operations. He was elected chairman of the board and CEO in 1972, and president of the company in 1974 at the age of 35. In 2015, he became the company’s executive chairman, with son David taking the helm as president and CEO.

“If I sell you a bathtub, there has to be something about it that gives you pleasure not only at the time of the transaction. Years later, we want you to think this is one of the best buys of your life,” he once said in an interview. “The same applies with everything we provide — an engine, generator, toilet, table, hotel room, spa service, golf course, you name it. If you think about it five years later and, inwardly or outwardly, it makes you smile and we can do this consistently, then we’re living up to our mission.”

Ed Allmann worked for Kohler in public relations and marketing communications more than 30 years ago. He calls Kohler a “pragmatic visionary.”

“I always said one of the biggest things I learned from him was to know your brand, heed its mission, take risks, and make wise and forward thinking decisions,” Allmann says, adding that Kohler was “the most confident person I’ve ever known,” and that his confidence was contagious, transferring to people working with him, empowering them to overcome their doubts and accomplish their goals.

Herbert Kohler Jr.
In his younger days until the 21st century, Kohler oversaw the rise of his family's company into a dynamic global business. Photo courtesy of Kohler Co.

In golf, Kohler took the game to another level when he paired with course design icon Pete Dye. They developed a relationship that led to Dye designing Blackwolf Run golf course, which opened in 1988. Whistling Straits, another Kohler-Dye collaboration, opened 10 years later. The two 36-hole facilities have hosted six major championships, including last year’s Ryder Cup. Kohler also purchased the Old Course Hotel next to the famed Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland and added a heathland course outside of town, The Duke, to his portfolio. The Kohler-Dye dynamic was something to see. They argued, had fun together and ultimately admired each other dearly.

After he turned 50, Kohler accelerated his desire to be a student of the game and player. In 2007, he produced a memorable moment. Kohler recorded his only hole-in-one on the par three 11th hole at the Old Course.

In an interview with GCM for the Old Tom Morris Award, Kohler described his admiration for the award’s namesake. “Through pictures and archives, I got to know this man called Old Tom Morris. And the more I knew about him, the more I loved it,” Kohler said. “I try in my own way to be as much like him as I can. He was an entrepreneur of the first order. He was an inventor of the golf ball. He invented clubs used in the game. He won the British Open four times. He was the first official keeper of the greens. You put that combination together, and he was an extraordinary man.”

So was Kohler, says GCSAA’s Mischia Wright, associate director of the GCSAA Foundation. She knew him for two decades, after Kohler took interest in the association. Upon hearing of his passing, she was crushed. “My tears wouldn’t stop,” Wright says. “So many of our conversations came back to me. And one of his best traits was Herb had this smile. It made you smile. All I can think about is all that he did for this game. We lost a good one.”

Kohler is survived by his wife, Natalie; two daughters, Laura Kohler (Steve Proudman), and Rachel Kohler (Mark Hoplamazian); and one son, David Kohler (Nina). He is further survived by 10 grandchildren—Lily, Hannah, and Rachel Proudman; Mara, Lena, and Leo Hoplamazian; Ashley, Samuel, Jack, and Tait Kohler—and three great grandchildren, Ophelia, Herbert, and Uma Cartwright.

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor