Making A Splash
Dirk Willis will tell you he never wanted to leave Kohler in the first place. But in spite of having a successful run as Director of Golf at Kohler, when one of his mentors in the business called to offer him the next step up in his career, he left for California.
While Willis liked what that opportunity brought him, when his phone rang about six months later and it was Herb Kohler asking him to come back, Willis returned to Wisconsin.
“I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Mr. Kohler,” says Willis.
Willis, 51, is now Kohler’s Vice President of Golf, Retail & Landscape.
Before leaving for California, Willis approached Kohler about creating a par-3 short course. The idea didn’t move forward. After his return in 2017, Willis approached Kohler again on creating a short course. By then more destination properties were starting to build them, and Kohler gave Willis approval to move forward on a short course now called The Baths, a name coming from Kohler that follows the company’s long traditional product line.
“What it came down to was trying to identify the right site to build the course,” said Willis. “I took our Kohler property map from corporate engineering and spread out where all of our existing properties were across the county.”
Kohler and Willis narrowed down the list, and decided the best location was where there was an existing infrastructure in place, in a central location. That turned out to be in between holes on the Meadow Valleys course.
One thing both Kohler and Willis take pride in is that all 10 holes on The Baths Course are strong enough that they could be a good fit on any of the four Kohler championship courses. The Baths Course and adjoining two-acre putting green opened in June.
Willis calls Kohler “The Catalyst” for everything that has happened in the state of Wisconsin in terms of destination golf ever since Blackwolf Run was built. Not just bringing in resort guests, but bringing major championship golf to the state.
Working for that catalyst is another experience that Willis relishes.
“If you can work for Herb Kohler, you can handle anything,” says Willis. “I mean that as a compliment, because he challenges you every day, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work for an individual who is passionate about everything we do, he is a single guiding light and all you have to do is follow that light, because it rubs off. Getting back into that culture and atmosphere is something I missed in California and a main reason I came back to Kohler.”
Coming back to help prepare for the Ryder Cup was another reason to return. One thing that will be different Ryder Cup week is the course designer, the late Pete Dye, won’t be there.
“I’m pretty sure Pete knew my name, but he always called me ‘pro,’” says Willis. “When someone came into my office and said ‘Hey pro’ I knew it was Pete. His dog Sixty would always eat in my office. I was with Pete on the course prior to the 2010 PGA Championship, when he put that deep bunker in the middle of the sixth green. Pete would tell me any pro can get out of this bunker. He would jump down in the bunker to hit test shots. Then I would reach down and help pull him out, because he couldn’t climb out on his own.”
Willis grew up in the southwest Wisconsin town of Platteville and started playing golf at age 10 when his dad (Michael), who learned to play while serving with the army in Germany, introduced him to the game. The family joined the Platteville Golf & Country Club, so Willis started riding his bike to the club every day at 6 a.m. and returned home at dark. Willis credits brothers Nick and Dick McKichan, good amateur players and junior golf instructors, for helping him get better.
While attending Platteville High School, Willis won several tournaments, including the conference championship and both regional and sectional titles. He finished second at the state championship and made the all-state team. In college at the University of Wisconsin Platteville, Willis had top-3 finishes at the conference and district tournaments.
Since turning professional, Willis has focused more on work than playing tournaments. At Kohler he won the Wisconsin PGA’s Merchandiser of the Year Award in 2004-2005 and 2006. In 2007 he won the PGA’s National Merchandiser of the Year Award. In 2013 Willis earned the WPGA section award for Junior Golf Development.
When he plays golf, Willis plays pretty well. He has two holes-in-one, and two double eagles on par-5 holes. His double eagles both came with driver and 5-iron, from 214 and 215 yards.
Willis served as the golf coach at Kohler High School, where his teams won multiple state titles, and has served on the state’s high school coaches association board since 2004.
Helping prepare Whistling Straits for the Ryder Cup allows Willis to spend time with another golfer from southwest Wisconsin, Ryder Cup Captain Steve Stricker.
“Steve’s given us suggestions which have been implemented to the golf course, to hopefully make things challenging for Team Europe,” said Willis. Some of those things from an overall resort guest standpoint, we will probably keep in our daily set-up.”
Willis and his wife, Karla, have two children: son McClean and daughter Logan, who still holds some of Loyola (Chicago) women’s golf team scoring records.
After the Ryder Cup, Willis says Kohler Company will work with the PGA of America, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the PGA Tour on bringing more championship golf to Wisconsin as Kohler Company continues to be a catalyst in making Wisconsin a great golf destination.