Editor’s Note: This story runs on the official Ryder Cup program produced by GolfWeek.
Dirk Willis, PGA, will tell you he didn’t want to leave Kohler at all. But despite his successful career as Director of Golf at Kohler, he went to California when one of his mentors in the industry called to offer him the next step in his career.
While Willis liked what the opportunity brought him, Willis was returning to Wisconsin when his phone rang about six months later and Herb Kohler asked him to come back.
“I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Mr. Kohler,” says Willis.
Willis, 51, is now the vice president of golf, retail and landscaping for Kohler.
Before leaving for California, Willis turned to Kohler to create a par-3 short course. The idea didn’t make any headway. Upon his return in 2017, Willis reached out to Kohler again to create a short course. More destinations began construction around the time, and Kohler gave Willis permission to move forward on a short course now called The Baths, a name that comes from Kohler and follows the company’s long traditional line of products.
“It was about finding the right location to build the course,” said Willis. “I took our Kohler property card from Corporate Engineering and distributed all of our existing properties across the county.”
Kohler and Willis narrowed the list and decided that the best location was where there was existing infrastructure, in a central location. It turned out to be between the holes of the Meadow Valleys course.
One thing that both Kohler and Willis pride themselves on is that all 10 holes on the Baths Course are tough enough to fit on any of the four Kohler championship courses. The Baths Course and adjacent 2 acre putting green opened in June.
Dirk Willis and Herb Kohler.
Willis calls Kohler “The Catalyst” for everything that has happened in the state of Wisconsin regarding destination golf since the Blackwolf Run was built. Not only brings resort guests, but brings major championship golf too
Working for this catalyst is another experience Willis enjoys.
“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 don’t want it any other way. I work for a person who is passionate about everything we do, he is a single guide light and all you have to do is follow that light because it rubs off. Getting back to that culture and atmosphere is something I missed in California and a major reason I returned to Kohler. “
Coming back to prepare for the Ryder Cup was another reason to return. One thing that will be different on Ryder Cup week is that the track designer, the late Pete Dye, will not be in attendance.
“I’m pretty sure Pete knew my name, but he always called me ‘Pro’,” says Willis. “When someone walked into my office and said, ‘Hey Pro,’ I knew it was Pete. His dog Sixty always ate in my office. I was on the course with Pete ahead of the 2010 PGA Championship when he put this deep bunker in the center of the sixth green. Pete would tell me that any professional can get out of this bunker. He jumped into the bunker to take test shots. Then I would reach down and help pull it out because it couldn’t climb out on its own. “
Willis grew up in Platteville, southwest Wisconsin and began golfing at the age of 10 when his father (Michael), who learned to play while serving in the German military, introduced him to the game. The family joined the Platteville Golf & Country Club, so Willis rode his bike to the club at 6 a.m. each day and returned home after 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 section titles. He finished runner-up in the state championship and became the all-state team. At the College of the University of Wisconsin Platteville, Willis had top three finishes in conference and district tournaments.
Since turning pro, 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 received 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-headed eagles came from 214 and 215 yards, both with drivers and 5-irons.
Willis served as a golf coach at Kohler High School, where his teams won multiple state titles, and has served on the board of the state’s High School Coaches Association since 2004.
By helping prepare Whistling Straits for the Ryder Cup, Willis can hang out with another golfer from southwest Wisconsin, Ryder Cup Captain Steve Stricker.
“Steve gave us suggestions that were implemented on the golf course to hopefully make things challenging for Team Europe,” said Willis. From the point of view of the resort guests, we will probably keep some of these things in our daily setup. “
Willis and his wife Karla have two children: son McClean and daughter Logan, who still holds some of the high scores for the Loyola, Chicago women’s golf team.
Willis says that after the Ryder Cup, Kohler Company will partner with the PGA of America, the United States Golf Association (USGA), and the PGA Tour to bring more championship golf to Wisconsin as the Kohler Company continues to be a catalyst for Wisconsin to make a great golf destination.