With his course hosting its second U.S. Women's Open, Herbert Kohler Jr. recalls Se Ri Pak's victory at Blackwolf Run in 1998 as a landmark moment that transformed women's golf.
The Kohler Co. chairman and CEO says the resulting wave of Asian-born players is teaching American golfers a lesson about the value of hard work.
"These Asians have done so well because they know the meaning of work," Kohler said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "They work and they work. And that is starting to have an impact on the Americans. The Americans have now seen what the Asians can do, and they're starting to work."
Pak's victory at the Kohler-owned course in central Wisconsin 14 years ago is widely regarded as the main catalyst behind an explosion of interest in women's golf in Asian countries beyond Japan; today, seven of the top 10 players in the world rankings are from Asia, and defending Open champion So Yeon Ryu is from South Korea.
The 73-year-old Kohler is the leader of a company that is best-known for its plumbing products empire but also operates a high-end resort and golf properties in the picturesque central Wisconsin town that bears the family name. He said he believes the work ethic he sees in Asian-born golfers is the reflection of a cultural attitude that exists well beyond the golf course.
Kohler said his company has 11 manufacturing plants in China, which produce products mainly for sale to Chinese customers.
"We're very successful in China because of the attitude of those people toward work," Kohler said. "They love to work, they know how to work and they do what it takes. And they love to win."
Kohler sees Pak's 1998 victory as a symbol of that desire.
"It stirred a nation, inspired this nation," Kohler said, referring to South Korea. "And it got all these young women who were just yay high at the time, seven, eight years old, they started dreaming. And then they started playing, and then they started practicing. And then they got very good. And then it started to spread, and it spread to Taiwan and now it's just beginning to spread to China. And so what happened in '98 literally made this game, at least for women, a world game."
At the time, Kohler didn't see it coming.
"Heavens no. How could anyone?" Kohler said. "I don't think any major in the last 40 years has had the impact of that particular tournament, in terms of inspiring a great number of people. And in this case, it's now inspired a region of the world. Just remarkable."
The Kohler Co. was founded by John Michael Kohler in 1873. Today, the Kohler family fortunate is estimated at $2.2 billion by Forbes magazine.
Kohler Jr. is active in politics — he briefly met with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the course on Thursday — but is most focused on the family's businesses. More and more, the company is becoming known for high-end golf, a development Kohler might not have expected when he opened Blackwolf Run back in 1988 as a response to requests from customers at the resort.
"I didn't even know how to play the game," Kohler said. "I had a bag that was my father's, and I had a half-dozen wooden shafts in that bag. I played twice a year, but I didn't know the game."
Blackwolf Run is hosting its second women's Open, while nearby Whistling Straits hosted the PGA Championship in 2004 and 2010, and the U.S. Senior Open in 2007. Whistling Straits will host another PGA Championship in 2015 and the Ryder Cup in 2020.
Those big events are a boost for the company.
"What golf does is to shine a spotlight," Kohler said. "And it's a very bright spotlight. It shines it on the resort, it shines it on our plumbing products, on our engines, our generators, our furniture. And for that, we're grateful. It's an amazing little spotlight."
The two main Kohler-owned courses are facing a regional challenge from Erin Hills outside Milwaukee, which hosted the U.S. Amateur last year and will host the 2017 U.S. Open.
"The USGA has needed a Midwest venue, and we have had this wonderful run with the PGA of America, starting in 2004 with the PGA Championship, another one in 2010, another one coming up in 2015 and the Ryder Cup in 2020," Kohler said. "It was hard for the USGA to fit into that with a men's Open. They tried several courses in the vicinity of Chicago and didn't really find something they were comfortable (with) and so now they're trying Erin Hills. And we'll see what happens."