Gulf Shores has Alabama’s best public course — and much more

Gulf Shores Golf Club, the area’s oldest course, is marked by a variety of water hazards.

 

GULF SHORES, Alabama – First off, let’s make this perfectly clear.  Gulf Shores-Orange Beach – a  community sandwiched between Pensacola, FL., and Mobile, AL., and not far from the Mississippi state line – offers a lot more than golf.

But we will get to those other nice things later. Gulf Shores is a unique spot for golfers. Not only are its courses good, but they’re also not far from each other. The Gulf Coast and Orange Beach Vacation Guide lists 15 courses in the area with three of the best especially close together.

“We’ve got an island that is 32 miles long in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach,’’ said Easton Colvin, public relations coordinator for Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism. “In it there’s 32 miles of pretty, white sand beaches and 20 miles of golf, if you add the yardages of the courses there together.  All of our courses are public.  You can schedule a tee time on your own at every one of them.’’ We also learned that full-service golf packages can be booked by a division of Troon, which owns three of the course, called Coastal Alabama Golf.

The three courses on the island part of Gulf Shores form a tasty trio.

Kiva Dunes has earned the most accolades.  It’s a links-style layout 200 yards off the beaches. Jerry Pate, working with good friend and developer Jim Edgemon, designed it.

Pate was a hot commodity as a player before Kiva opened in 1995. He starred for the University of Alabama golf team, winning the U.S. Amateur in 1974. His pro career started with a bang, too.  In 1976,  his rookie season on the PGA Tour, he won both the U.S. and Canadian Opens. Six years later he won The Players Championship.

Those are pretty good titles to have on a playing resume, and Pate won five other times before shoulder and knee problems slowed his playing career down. With Kiva one of his first designs Pate converted to being a successful course designer, developer and businessman while settling in Pensacola.

The Jerry Pate-designed Kiva Dunes is clearly the most decorated of Gulf Shores’ 15 area golf courses.

In its early years Kiva hosted the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying School three times and was named the No. 1 public course in Alabama in 2017. Located on the Fort Morgan peninsula the facility has condominiums and beach houses to rent, plus four swimming pools, two on-site restaurants and over a mile of waterfront.

Kiva has gained recognition far beyond its home state, and it’s our choice as Gulf Shores’ best – but not by all that much. Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club is pretty darn good, too.

This facility also opened in 1995, with Earl Stone designing its 27 holes on 800 acres.  Peninsula has some things that Kiva Dunes doesn’t have.  It has three nines – the Lakes, Cypress and Marsh – and the facility also has an 8,000 square foot fitness center, eight tennis courts and indoor and outdoor swimming pools.

Third of the island courses is Gulf Shores Golf Club, the oldest course at the destination.  It was built by the father-son team of Jay and Carter Moorish in the early 1960s and they also handled a fullscale renovation there in 2005. The course was hit by Hurricane Sally in 2020 and is still somewhat in recovery mode but its sharp doglegs and numerous water hazards make for a challenging test.

Brad Baumann, the head professional at Peninsula, tees off on his home course.

Biggest of the Gulf Shores facilities isn’t on the island but is just five minutes up the road.  Craft Farms has 45 holes with its Cotton Creek and Cypress courses and a nine-hole par-3 layout.  Those two 18-holers comprise the only Arnold Palmer designs in Alabama.

The legendary Palmer was just starting to dabble in course design when he developed a close friendship with Robert Craft.  They worked together for the 1987 opening of Cotton Creek and the 1993 debut of the Cypress course.  Craft passed away in 2006.  His son has been the mayor of Gulf Shores since 2008.

Though some seasons are better than others weather-wise, there’s pride in what Gulf Shores has to offer golfers.

“Gulf Shores in November is as good a place to play golf as you’ll find anywhere,’’ said Dan Dorrough, now the head superintendent at Gulf Shores Golf Club after stints as an assistant at Kiva Dunes and Craft Farms.

We made our first trip to Gulf Shores in 2012 and played the same four courses as we did on this visit. The Gulf Shores community looked a lot different this time, though. Now there’s more, new, or at least expanded, attractions.

For starters there’s Gulf Shores State Park with its 6,150 acres creating a haven for hikers, cyclists and Segway tours. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail spans all of the park’s 28 miles and connects both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach to the park. There’s also a nature center, over two miles of uninterrupted pristine beachfront and a lodge (actually a 350-room Hilton hotel that was rebuilt in 2018) featuring the Perch Restaurant.

Our favorite dinner spot was Big Fish, a great place featuring seafood and a sushi bar but steak, pasta and sandwiches are available, too.  Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s, located on the Intracoastal Waterway, also has good food along with live music, a fun arcade, a three-story climbing ropes course and children’s activities. The owner is the sister of one of my all-time favorite singers, Jimmy Buffett.

Sassy Bass Cookout Tiki Bar has a somewhat hidden location between Kiva Dunes and Peninsula but the food, served in hot iron skillets, was delicious in addition to having a unique presentation.

And then there’s the sprawling Flora-Bama Yacht Club with its world famous Flora-Bama Lounge, Package & Oyster Bar. It offers open-air waterfront dining and a lot more. This is a legendary place near Orange Beach that appeals to all ages with its music, interesting decor and numerous bars.  Though it was hit by many hurricanes over the years, Flora-Bama remains a must visit no matter the duration of your stop in Gulf Shores-Orange Beach area.

You don’t have to just play golf and eat in Gulf Shores, either.  On rainy days you can still play miniature golf indoors – at the glow-in-the-dark Jurassic dinosaur adventure. It has a unique 5,000 square foot prehistoric setting and was a nice diversion for even the most serious golfers in our group. Most all of them, however,  preferred the Sail Wild Hearts’  relaxing two-hour sunset cruise in a 53-foot open-ocean catamaran. For more information visit gulfshores.com.

The Flora-Bama Yacht Club is where the action usually is in Gulf Shores.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Sand Valley going in a new direction?

The Lido and Sledge Valley make course construction the order of the day at Sand Valley.

NEKOOSA, Wisconsin – Mike Keiser’s Sand Valley Resort has already brought a new look for golfers looking to travel.

Its two 18-holers, Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes, are walking courses with lots of sand – of course – and lots of great views.  On our recent visit we asked some of the veteran staffers to pick their favorite course and some didn’t hesitate to go in another direction.

Rather than choose between the 18-holers they went with Sandbox, a series of 17 par-3 holes that really makes a player think and have fun at the same time.  We had played the two 18-holers on previous visits, but didn’t get to the Sandbox until this summer. I can see why that course was so positively received.

The holes roughly measure between 50 and 150 yards.  The yardages change with the daily adjustment of tee markers.  And, there’s an extra shovel-designed tee marker on each hole for those wishing to have an extra challenge.  It’s much closer to the putting surface, designed for putting only and ideal for match play competitions.

The greens have all kinds of elevation changes and the many bunkers are deep and difficult to escape. All of this was the creation of architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who also designed the Sand Valley 18-holer. Short courses are the in vogue thing now, and the Sandbox is like no other that we have seen – and we’ve played lots of them.

Choosing a favorite in the short course world isn’t easy, but it comes down to the Sandbox or the Cradle at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort.  They’re different, but both designed purely for fun. I found that playing the Cradle was addictive, but now the Sandbox gets my nod as the more fun of the two.

That review completes our current appraisal of the Keiser’s Wisconsin resort that opened in 2017. It was a big hit from the outset, and now things are changing.

Keiser, a Chicago resident who had a successful career in the greeting card business,  became enthralled with the links courses of Scotland and Ireland.  Taking that passion back to the United States, he built Bandon Dunes — a true links course in Oregon.

He’s also built award-winning resorts from Tasmania to Nova Scotia. We haven’t visited any of those, but we’ve encountered a wide variety of golf destinations in our travels and Bandon stands by itself.

Playing the Sandbox at Sand Valley is a golf experience like no other.

Sand Valley, though, is closer to our Midwest roots. We visited there before the place was open and got a walking tour from Keiser’s son Michael Jr. Our first rounds there several years later didn’t disappoint and we left for the drive back to Chicago this year with the same very positive vibes, but we also had to wonder if Sand Valley isn’t headed in a new direction.

For one thing, the Wisconsin State Amateur took over the two 18-holers the day after our departure. That’s the most significant competition held at Sand Valley since the resort opened.  Could more be coming?

The obvious construction work beside and across the street from the entrance to Sand Valley indicates more projects are in the works, and plans for them indicate it won’t be more of the same golf-wise. This is what I’ve learned:

Next course to open there, in 2023, is The Lido. This intrigues lovers of golf history, and I’m certainly one of those.

Lido Golf Club was a private facility built in 1917 on Long Island. Charles Blair Macdonald, designer of America’s first 18-hole course at the Chicago Golf Club, was the main designer of this one and it was called “the most demanding course ever built’’ in its day. It measured only 6,693 yards from the back tees, but that was considered very long a century ago when hickory-shafted clubs were the best equipment option.

During World War II The Lido became “lost.’’ It was demolished by the U.S. Navy, which declared it a strategic defensive site. Some courses after that were “inspired’’ by The Lido, but the Sand Valley version is being touted as the real thing.

Architect Tom Doak, who is overseeing the project, has the advantage of working with an unparalleled collection of photos which are said to replicate the original Lido to the linear square foot.

Sledge Village is also bringing something new and different to Sand Valley. Scheduled to open in 2024, it’ll bring residential golf into the picture with the building of 36 homes. The residents will have a course to play, called Sedge Valley.  Also included in the project is a six-acre putting course, a tennis center, a bistro restaurant, a pool house and an arcade with golf simulators.

Along with the work being done at Sand Valley Keiser has just come out with a new book, “The Nature of the Game – Links Golf at Bandon Dunes and Far Beyond,’’  written with Stephen Goodwin (Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York).

While copies weren’t available at the Sand Valley pro shop or several PGA Superstore locations at the time of our visit, I did find one at a Barnes and Noble location. The book provides insight into all of Keiser’s resort creations, including what’s in the works at Sand Valley.  His final sentence of the book, though, may be the most revealing:

“The most interesting chapter is always the next one.’’

If you want to understand the benefits of links golf this Mike Keiser book is well worth reading.

 

It’s Christmas time for golfers in the Wisconsin Dells

Christmas Mountain Village has blossomed into one of the best golf destinations in The Dells.

 

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wisconsin – Golf is different in the Wisconsin Dells.  Given all the entertainment options for tourists, golf seems more an amenity than an attraction.

But, make no mistake, it’s a good one.

The Dells offers 142 holes and 12 different golf experiences, ranging from short courses to championship versions. The courses were designed around landscapes left by the glacier period and surrounded by sandstone bluffs, towering pines and rolling hills.  That makes The Dells special as a golf destination.

For the record my favorite course there is the 18-holer at Wild Rock, created by the well respected design team of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry.  It’s a frequent tournament venue.

That said, the best golf facility in The Dells, in my book,  is Trappers Turn. It’s got three fine nines – the Arbor, Canyon and Lakes – as well as a unique 12-hole par-3 course called 12North.  Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North and Oliphant Haltom Golf teamed up on this one for a series of challenging holes that measure between 50 and 120 yards and also includes a one-acre putting green.  Toss in the big clubhouse and restaurant and Trappers Turn gives you all you could want.

That’s brings me to the most interesting course in The Dells.  That would be the 18-holer at Christmas Mountain Village, called The Oaks. Christmas Mountain doubles as a ski area with 16 runs and two chairlifts in the winter.

Superintendent Greg Schernecker (left) and head professional Jacob James have been at Christmas Mountain Village for less than two years, but they have led the resurgence of The Oaks course.

Located in unincorporated Dells, it has the widest range of lodging options I’ve seen at a golf facility.  There are 60 year-round residents and visitors can also stay in campers, tents, log cabins, condos or villas. BlueGreen Vacations Unlimited oversees that.

What Christmas Mountain Village lacks is historical information, perhaps because the staff is relatively new.  Jacob James, the head professional, has been on hand for less than a year and Greg Schernecker, who has done solid work in improving course conditioning as the superintendent, has been on the staff for less than two years after coming over from John Deere Co.

Schernecker built a nine-hole course in Poynette, Wis. from the ground up in 1999.  He had superintendents jobs at two other Wisconsin courses over a 10-year period before his stint selling Deere equipment, but the focus now is on upgrading Christmas Mountain Village.

“We’ll just keep improving,’’ he said.  “I’m excited to see where we can take the course next.  I want this to be the best course in The Dells.’’

From what we could gather the resort opened in 1969 for skiers. The Oaks course was designed by Art Johnson. Johnson passed on in 2010 at the age of 82, and his architectural work on The Oaks was reportedly done in 1985. The course opening, though, wasn’t opened until  1990. At least that’s what we could find in published reports.

Johnson participated in the design of about 40 courses, most all in Wisconsin, and was best known as a park planner for many years in Madison.  He was dedicated to his craft, as his death came following a heart attack triggered when he had been taking down a tree and lugging away some logs near his home.

Views like this are typical of all three nines at Trappers Turn.

Christmas Mountain Village also has a nine-holer called The Pines.   Schernecker brought it back to life after it’d been closed for two years.  The Oaks, though, is the eye-catcher – especially the back nine.  The views there are stunning and the course can stand up to any in the area.

While all the putting surfaces are huge, The Oaks has two that are unique.  One is in the shape of the state of Wisconsin, the other in the shape of the state of Illinois.  Flags of both states are behind their respective greens.

Fairfield Hills, located in the foothills of Baraboo, has the largest practice range in the Dells and a course that has 12 holes.  It can be played at three, nine, 12 or 18 holes, however.

Pinecrest, in the Dells’ downtown area, is a par-3 with holes ranging from 90 to 150 yards.  This facility also includes an archery course.

The setting for Spring Brook, another nine-holer, is in tall pines with rolling terrain and wooded surroundings. It’s good for all skill levels and especially good for family games.

Trappers Turn’s clubhouse/restaurant is the best in the Wisconsin Dells.

 

Sentry will be a more prominent name in golf for years to come

SentryWorld may have the best picture of its iconic Flower Hole on the wall of its pro shop.

Patience and loyalty are enviable qualities, and they figure to pay off big time for Sentry Insurance once the 2023 golf season gets into gear.

Sentry was patient, closing the course at its headquarters in Stevens Points, Wis., for two major renovations in the last 10 years.  Now it’s on the clock to host one of golf’s most popular events, the U.S. Senior Open, in 2023.

And that’s not all.  In August Sentry agreed to a sponsorship extension with the PGA Tour as the title sponsor of the Sentry Tournament of Champions.  The agreement started in 2018, as the company’s first major sports sponsorship, and  now it’ll be the season-opening event on the PGA Tour from 2024 through 2035.

The tournament will be an early highlight of the 2022-23 season Jan. 2-8 at The Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii with a $15 million purse, up from $8.2 million in 2022 and will lead off the 2024 season when the circuit transitions to a calendar-year season.

With professional golf in a state of flux since the arrival of the controversial LIV Tour the role of Sentry Insurance will be enhanced.

“Our thanks to Pete McPartland (Sentry’s chairman of the board, president and chief executive office) and his team for their partnership, loyalty and trust in the PGA Tour,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

“One of the smartest decisions we’ve ever made was to align ourselves with the PGA Tour,” echoed McPartland.

Sentry entered the golf business in 1982 with the creation of SentryWorld.  The course   drew immediate attention for one reason.  It’s par-3 sixteenth hole was – at least arguably – the most beautiful hole in golf.

The hole that architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his associate, Bruce Charleton, created wasn’t a tough one, but it had over 30,000 flowers on it so it was very easy to look at – and it still is. We had our latest look at it this past July.

In its early years the course simply had 17 other holes, and now – after a trying 10 years – it has much more than that.  Jones and Charleton did one renovation of the course in 2012-13 with Wisconsin architect Jay Blasi helping out, and then Jones and Charleton returned in February of 2020 to expand on what they’d done after the resort landed the 2023 U.S. Senior Open.

In effect the course – the only 18-holer on the property – was shut down twice, for two-years each time, over a 10-year period. The accompanying Inn was also  almost completely rebuilt as well so, obviously, the first golf destination resort in Wisconsin history was a quiet place for a substantial period.

“That brings back a moment in time when there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears,’’ said Mike James, the resort’s general manager who came on the scene in 2014.  “It’s been pedal to the metal on improvement projects to make SentryWorld as good as it possibly can be – and it’s been fun over the years seeing where SentryWorld was and where it is today.’’

James declined to give a cost figure on all the work that has been done on the golf course and in the creation of a beautiful boutique hotel, but he’s convinced “it was money well spent.’’

Jones called the parkland-style course “My Mona Lisa,’’ when it opened 40 years ago. His work there in the first renovation – it’s called a “re-imagining’’ now – resulted in water coming into play on 12 holes.  At that time the restaurant and banquet hall were also completely redone.

The new terracotta cart paths stand out on SentryWorld’s new course almost as much as the Flower Hole.

The “re-imagining’’ was created in 2012 and 2013, and the course re-opened in 2014. Most striking was the building of the terracotta colored cart paths.  The iconic Flower Hole remains, with 33,000 flowers planted over two days every June. Each year there’s a new palette, with the color scheme and design changing.

Then, in February of 2020 — a month before the U.S. Golf Association announced that SentryWorld would host the 2023 U.S. Senior Open and the pandemic shut down the PGA Tour and most of the golf world — the second renovation began.

“We closed due to Covid and took advantage of that time to make more improvements,’’ said James.  “In a weird way the pandemic afforded us the opportunity to make changes when there weren’t golfers on the course.’’

The major project this time involved the installation of the Sub Air irrigation system on every green.

Both the pandemic and the landing of the big tournament played a role in what was happening at the resort.

“It’s hard to tell how we would have progressed,’’ said James, “but the championship means so much to us.  They don’t hand those tournaments to just anybody.  As for the pandemic, we’re a destination facility and wanted to be careful.  We wanted to protect our staff and customers.’’

This is the view that greets you when you enter the new Inn at SentryWorld.

The Inn, with a unique Frank Lloyd Wright architectural flavor in its design, didn’t open until March 29 of this year and it isn’t there because of the one golf tournament.

“It was done for the benefit of SentryWorld’s general business and Sentry Insurance’s business,’’ said James.  “It was a business decision made without regard to the U.S. Senior Open, although it will be utilized for the championship.’’

Last touches on the course are still to be made, and the two new refreshment stations just opened on July 12.  SentryWorld went on the clock for its Senior Open as soon as this year’s version at Saucon Valley, in Pennsylvania, was completed.

The event will be contested on SentryWorld’s course from June 29 to July 2 in 2023, six months after the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. The Senior Open will  be the third U.S. Golf Association national championship played at the resort.

“No doubt it’ll bring the spotlight on SentryWorld,’’ said James. “It’ll be broadcast in 125 countries around the world, and having the best players in the world playing our golf course is an honor.’’

It goes beyond that, however.  Other big championships have been held in Wisconsin – at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits in Kohler and Erin Hills in particular – but this will be the first such event in the central part of the state.

“It’ll have a $20 million-plus impact to the area, and that’s significant,’’ said James. “We want to give the players a great experience and have the community, the state and the region experience this.  Once the final putt drops we’ll start thinking about what else we can do.’’

This plaque commemorates all that’s been done by Robert Trent Jones Jr. at SentryWorld.

 

 

Eagle Ridge’s General is getting a “Celebration Restoration”

 

The sixth hole on The General is getting the most attention in Eagle Ridge’s “Celebration Restoration.” In addition to a new tee the par-3 now has railroad ties on its green-side front bunker.

GALENA, IL. – The General at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa isn’t your ordinary golf course – not by a long shot. So, it’s fitting that this Andy North-Roger Packard design isn’t getting the standard treatment for a course hitting its 25th anniversary.

It’s getting a “Celebration Restoration’’ instead.  We’ll explain, but first know this:

Not only is The General one of the very best courses in Illinois, it’s also the most different.  No 18-holer in Illinois has the 280 feet of elevation changes that The General has.  It’s a course that isn’t suitable for walking, but its views are unmatched.

So is its history.

John Schlaman was the director of golf at Eagle Ridge when The General was under construction. Schlaman, who would later direct the operation at Prairie Landing in West Chicago, is back now as head professional of the resort’s South Course. He can attest that the building of The General was no easy task 25 years ago.

“Building that course was obviously difficult,’’ recalled Schlaman.  “What I remember most was the fire in the hole. For a lot of that course we had to dynamite stuff to create different routings. We also struggled with seeding on the 17th hole.  It’d wash out and had to be re-seeded.’’

That happened several times, to the dismay of the two architects. North was a two-time U.S. Open champion, and Packard, who also worked on two of the resort’s other three courses was the son of Larry Packard – one of the great architects of his generation.  Both Roger and Larry have passed on.

Eagle Ridge professional John Schlaman hit a tee shot that shows The General’s signature hole when the course was under construction. Now he’s in charge of the resort’s South course.

Playing The General was always a memorable experience, but the course was never ideal.  Keeping the course in proper condition wasn’t easy, in large part because of its elevation changes. Previous owners were reluctant to deal with that.

The nines were flipped after Mark Klausner took over ownership of the resort in 2019 and brought in Mike Weiler as director of golf. That was a big change, and a most positive one.

More recently Weiler uncovered two “mystery tees.’’  They were there when North and Packard did their work but disappeared from the scorecard seven years ago. Weiler found what looked like overgrown tees at Nos. 6 and 8. To be sure he had superintendent Sam Marzahl conduct some soil tests that confirmed it.

Now, rather than honor the reputation The General has built over 25 years, the Eagle Ridge leadership is focusing more on a restoration project centering on those “mystery tees’’ but it’ll go much further than restoring a couple of tee boxes.

“We’re not so much celebrating as we are upgrading,’’ said Weiler.

Marzahl was hired as The General’s superintendent two years ago, and he’s tackled a cleanup project encompassing the “mystery tees’’ that will lengthen those two holes and add still more spectacular views for the players. Other tees have been added and the end result may add as many as 400 yards to the layout from the back tees.

Eagle Ridge owner Mark Klausner is delighted with new maintenance equipment that he acquired in a three-year deal with John Deere Co.

Klausner, meanwhile, brought in Moline, IL.-based John Deere Co. for a much-needed replacement of maintenance equipment that was at least nine years old under the previous ownership.

“A three-year deal for $1 million a year,’’ said Klausner.  “They’ve been super people to work with, and they teach us how to use the new equipment.’’

Klausner had also ordered an expansion of The Highlands restaurant, the moving of the Village Store and the creation of a new, very upscale Stonedrift Spa.  It’s scheduled to open in mid-September. That’ll be a story in itself when it’s ready.

The steep path from the No. 2 tee to the green is typical of the elevation changes on The General.

In the meantime the “Celebration Restoration’’ and spa opening will follow The Legends Dream Big Charity Golf Tournament, the highest profile event in resort history coming up on Aug. 10.  That celebrity-filled outing is one of the lead-ins to the following night’s Field of Dreams game between the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds in Dyersville, Ia., about an hour’s drive away.

Eagle Ridge has more golf than just The General.  In all there’s 63 holes – 18 on both the North and South courses and nine on the sporty East layout. Larry Packard designed the North, which opened in 1977 and hosted the Illinois State Amateur right away.  Gary Hallberg, who would become a multiple winner on the PGA Tour, was the champion.

That event set the tone for what was to come.

“Gary was 4-under on the North and the next year, when he won at Crestwicke (in Bloomington) he was 13-under,’’ said Weiler. That underscored the fact that Eagle Ridge had a course of championship caliber.

“The North had just a ton of elevation changes,’’ said Schlaman.  “You didn’t see (PGA) tour events on courses like that.’’

And you still don’t.

The South, which opened in 1984, was a combined effort by Larry and Roger Packard and Roger would later create the East, which is shorter but is certainly no executive course.

Weiler admits that all the resort’s courses had problems.

“The condition of the courses, we had issues,’’ he said.  “Now we’re getting compliments on every golf course.’’

He also found a new forward tee at No. 5 on The General that won’t impact the course’s yardage and – in one of the most visual changes – a bunker fronting the No. 6 green has been reconstructed with railroad ties put in place. A new back tee which would lengthen No. 10 is also under consideration.

While the “celebration renovation’’ has a catchy title, Weiler labels the in-house project more a “tee enlargement program’’ that was needed to bring back the looks that North and Roger Packard originally created.

“Roger and Andy created some visual objects than can confuse your eye,’’ said Weiler, who had never played an Eagle Ridge course until Klausner hired him.

“This has been so exciting,’’ said Weiler, noting the resort has 182 new golf members. “We want to move past that.  Eagle Ridge is back!’’

You can get views of three states when you’re playing The General.

This jam-packed golf journey evolved — despite these changing times

The Bear at Grand Traverse remains a bear of a golf course despite changes over the years.

Golf travel writing is a lot of fun, but it isn’t easy.  I guess you could say “It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.’’ At least that’s how we felt after the first month of our later-than-usual start for our spring trip.

From May 26 to June 24 we played 342 holes spread over 18 courses in three states. During one stretch we played 13 days in a row. Our long-range planning didn’t call for this, but that’s how it turned out.

Bad weather never stopped play, but it did reduce one round from 18 to nine holes. We’ve done more extensive travel on our golf/writing journeys over the last 13 years but never anything as concentrated as this.

The goal was to ascertain how golf travel has changed with a little more time separating us from the heart of that horrible pandemic. Looking back now, the start – three rounds each in golf hotbeds Pinehurst and Myrtle Beach – seem like a warmup for what was to come.

Sixteen rounds, spanning 234 holes, were played in Michigan. We played rounds that started in 40-degree temperatures there, and also had some that were played in 90-degree heat. With both Joy and I in our seventies, this golfing odyssey took a physical toll.  We were dead (well not quite) tired when we finally drove past the Michigan border into Indiana – but no regrets!

It was clear that golf has benefitted from the pandemic.  That’s what all the course operators told us, corroborating media reports of the last 18 months. We saw more golfers on courses in June than we used to see in that month. Still, it wasn’t like any of those courses were turning away players because they had run out of tee times.

It was much more obvious that staffing issues were a problem in all phases of our golf travel.  Hotels and restaurants were negatively impacted more than the golf facilities themselves. But, it’s important to note that our stops were at places that’d be considered golfing hotspots any time of the near, and not just in June.

THEN AND NOW: On our first visit to Crystal Mountain seven years ago (top photo) we watched pro Greg Babinec shoot a 64 before he guided Joy in the purchase of new irons. On our recent visit Grand Traverse director of golf Tom McGee (bottom photo)  helped us deal with the treacherous Bear course.

The trip climaxed at two of our old favorites, places where we had especially fond memories from past trips.

First of those was Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City, Mich.  It’s the home of The Bear, a Jack Nicklaus design that is arguably the toughest course in Michigan. It wasn’t as tough as it had been in June of 1985, when I played it for the first time. That was a breakthrough event in the golf travel industry.

Grand Traverse Resort & Spa took the then unheard of step in staging an elaborate media day to get its newest course up and running.  The U.S. Open was held that year at Oakland Hills at a time when media turnout for tournaments was much higher than it is now.

The upscale resort, which has three courses, invited the media horde from Oakland Hills to come to Grand Traverse the day after the Open, won by Andy North but also notable for T.C. Chen’s “double chip’’ that severely hurt his improbable run at the title.  (He later was dubbed “Two-Chip Chen).

Members of the Golf Writers Association of America were invited to hold a meeting at the resort, spend a night to recuperate from the tournament work week and then play The Bear – a rare, at that time, opportunity that drew a big turnout.

With its elaborate mounding covered in deep fescue, The Bear was brutal at that time. Tom McGee, now the director of golf operations, said the cutting back of the fescue slowly started in the 1990s because players rightly complained that it was too tough.  It wasn’t as tough this time – but it was tough enough and those deep bunkers were still a constant challenge.  The Bear, while never used for a PGA Tour stop, is the annual site of the men’s Michigan Open. In short, all is still well at The Bear.

The final stop came at Crystal Mountain, a popular golf/ski resort that opened in 1956.  It  was to host the Michigan Women’s Open the week after our visit on its Mountain Ridge course. Michigan’s version, which has been held for 29 years, is considered the best of the women’s state opens with its $40,000 prize fund.  This year’s tournament had 74 players for the 54-hole competition.

Crystal Mountain, in Thompsonville, is one of Michigan’s most popular destinations for golfers and skiers.

We made our first of several arrivals at Crystal in 2015, at a time when Joy was playing with clubs that badly needed replacing. An assistant pro, Greg Babinec, played with us and he urged Joy to try a set of upscale rental clubs.  On the second hole of the Mountain Ridge layout , a par-3, she put her tee shot within inches of the cup.  I knew after the excitement of that near hole-in-one that a purchase of that set of irons was inevitable.

Babinec is now the head professional at Crystal Mountain, and we also remember that day because he shot a 64 — a score he said was his best at the time.  Babinec wasn’t on site when we were there this time. Too bad, but – though the clubs we purchased then are no longer in use – that was one of the many fun memories we’ve had in our golf travels.

This time we played Crystal’s other course, Betsie Valley. It underwent a four-hole renovation (holes 4, 5, 8 and 9) last year under the direction of architect A. John Harvey. Betsie Valley is 400 yards shorter than Mountain Ridge but still a worthy challenge and offers great views.

The resort also has a 10-acre practice and learning center for golfers as well as archery, tennis, pickleball courts, disc golf, 25 kilometers of mountain biking and hiking trails and a water playground for those looking for more than just good golf.

Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, in Acme, offers much more than its three 18-hole golf courses.

 

 

 

Michigan resort A-Ga-Ming is unusual for more than just its name

With Torch Lake in the background, The Torch course shows off A-Ga-Ming’s great views.

There are golf resorts – and then there’s A-Ga-Ming. It has four courses in Northern Michigan, but their 72 holes are spread out. Each has its own history, but over the last 22 years they’ve grown together.

Mike Brown and Larry Lavely were 27-year old Central Michigan University alums when this project started. They moved to the northern part of Michigan when they bought a course called A-Ga-Ming in 1996.

A-Ga-Ming had a catchy name. For American Indians it means “on the shore.’’ Roy Wetmore designed the original nine holes in the 1970s and Chick Harbert arrived to build the second nine in 1986.

Ten years later the Brown-Lavely team arrived, and over the years Jerry Matthews – the long respected, prolific Michigan golf course architect – made his impact, too.

The Nos. 1 and 10 fairways are typical of the sporty nature of the Sundance course.

Matthews designed Sundance, a second 18-holer at A-Ga-Ming, in 2005 and the original course there was renamed The Torch.  Matthews also designed the courses at Charlevoix Country Club and Antrim Dells.  They’re the other courses in spread out resort.

The 36-hole A-Ga-Ming is in Kewadin.  Antrim Dells is 12 miles away, in Ellsworth, and Charlevoix Country Club is 28 miles from A-Ga-Ming.  For vacationers, though, it’s a resort on the shore of Torch Lake and Lake Michigan that makes for a destination for golf trips as well as membership and daily-fee play. There is also the possibilities for a variety of other social attractions.

A-Ga-Ming has the bulk of the lodging with three on-site accommodation options – Maplewood Ridge, Cedar Hollow and Vista Townhomes.

The Brown-Lavely team purchased Antrim Dells in 2010 and Charlevoix Country Club in 2017.

“The three places are pretty easy to get to,’’ said Brown, “and to do a golf package you need three-four courses.  Everybody stays at A-Ga-Ming.  It’s worked out really well. ‘’

Charlevoix was a private club at one point but, after suffering damage in a fire, it was on the brink of closing when Brown and Lavely picked it up.  Now, in addition to a particularly well-conditioned golf course with four of the toughest finishing holes in Michigan, it has such amenities as a fitness center, swimming pool and pickleball courts.

Antrim Dells opened in 1971 and was the 36-hole qualifying site for the Michigan Amateur throughout the 1980s before the finalists moved on to the match play portion of the tourney at Belvidere. It’s still a tough course with its hill terrain but not the toughie that it had been.

David Hill is the managing partner of Antrim Dells now.  After working at the Boyne Resort and several other Michigan courses Hill calls Antrim Dells “my retirement gig, and I love it.’’

Managing partner David Hill has given some special touches to the Antrim Dells clubhouse.

Working with Boyne veteran Bernie Friedrich, Hill had been involved in the opening of The Heather and the Donald Ross Memorial courses at The Highlands (formerly Boyne Highlands).

After taking on the operation at Antrim Dells in 2017 he had over 500 trees removed to make the course more user-friendly.  He also used bird houses and yardage signs (made from redwoods on the original course) and unique décor in the Sunset Bar & Grill to give special touches to the facility.

Antrim is a county in Ireland, and the clubhouse décor underscores that. A view of Grand Traverse Bay as well as six holes of the course is possible from the patio at the elevated clubhouse.

While Hill declares “We’re a family here and have four courses that can stand with anybody,’’ the heart of the resort operation is at Ag-A-Ming.

The Torch is a challenging shot-maker’s course with water coming into play on 11 holes.  Sundance was a delight for our round there. It’s challenging, too, but the wide fairways, windswept bunkers and heather-clad mounding make for a more fun experience.

 

 

 

 

Boyne will give its Donald Ross Memorial course a fine tuning

The par-5 eleventh hole at Highland Park’s Bob O’Link is No. 9 on the Donald Ross Memorial.

HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. – I’ll admit it.  I’m a sucker for golf tribute courses because they provide a look back in history.

There are only a handful of such courses nation-wide, and the best may be at The Highlands of Harbor Springs (formerly Boyne Highlands Resort) in Michigan. It has the ideal honoree in Donald Ross because 2022 happens to be the 150th anniversary of the legendary architect’s birth.

Ross died in 1948, but his courses remain relevant.  Two of his designs were used for U.S. Golf Association national championships this year.  That brought the number of such championships played on Ross designs over the years to 174.

Everett Kircher, the Boyne Resorts founder who is  perhaps better known for his pioneering efforts in the skiing industry, also had a passion for golf and Ross in particular. Prior to his death in 1985, Kircher wrote of Ross: “He was the greatest golf course designer and most prolific architect who ever lived.  Unquestionably he was the Father of Golf Course Architecture in America.’’

Kircher wanted a course at his resort to honor Ross, and work began on the Donald Ross Memorial in the early 1980s. It opened in 1989 and was Golf Digest’s Best New Resort Course of 1990.

Architect Ray Hearn is now reconstructiing No. 15 at the Ross course — originally No. 11 at Aronimink.

The planning alone took four years, and most of the holes chosen were from private clubs because the selectors wanted holes that most of the golfing public wouldn’t be able to play.

A select panel of Boyne Golf leaders, among them Kircher, his son Steve, noted PGA instructor Jim Flick and other Boyne golf professionals, participated in the selection process. They came up with holes from such legendary layouts as Pinehurst No. 2 (North Carolina) Oakland Hills and Detroit Golf Club (Michigan), Inverness and Scioto (Ohio), Seminole (Florida), Aronimink (Pennsylvania) and Oak Hill (New York).

Also in the 18 was No. 9 at Bob O’Link, the all-male club in Highland Park, IL., along with replicas from lesser known Ross layouts like Salem (Massachusetts), Wannamoisett (Rhode Island), Plainfield (New Jersey) and Charlotte (North Carolina).

Indiana architect Bill Newcomb headed the design team for the original Ross Memorial. Now Michigan architect Ray Hearn is working with the present staff to make the Ross Memorial better.

“It’s been so much fun,’’ said Hearn.  “What’s nice is that some members of the Donald Ross Society have been very supportive.’’

That’s not Donald Ross’ old home off the second hole at  Pinehurst No. 2, but it is No. 14 at Ross Memorial.

The original replica holes have been determined as not good enough. The committee did the best it could,  traveling the world to look at Ross courses with engineers and using photographs to make the duplicated holes as close to the original as possible.

The present Boyne leadership felt it could do better.  Work on No. 1, a copy of No. 6 from Seminole, started last year and was just completed. More of a Florida feel was needed, and the work to provide it also spilled over to the No. 16 of the Ross Memorial.

Now the Ross course is again down to being just 17 holes. No. 15, which was the 11th at Aronimink, is closed for a remaking and more holes will get similar attention. After the Aronimink hole is revised Hearn will address No. 13, which is the 15th at Seminole.

“We’re not changing the holes,’’ said Ken Griffin, the resort’s director of golf sales and marketing.  “We are doing a better job with the technology now available to us.’’

“Today, though technology and Google Earth, we are able to gather photos and dimensions to create an even more accurate reproduction,’’ said 47-year Boyne staffer Bernie Friedrich, the resort’s senior vice president of golf operations who was also among the original selectors.

Hearn, meanwhile, will begin work on a new par-3 course next year. The ground-breaking is scheduled for next spring and Hearn says each green will have “a little flavor’’ of the greens he’s recently checked out overseas. He’s already made improvements on The Moor at The Highlands, making the course that was the least favorite of higher handicappers at the resort into a more user friendly version.

Work on the courses is only part of the plans for what Griffin calls “a transformation of Boyne Highlands.’’  Rooms have been renovated at the lodge, and they’re dramatically different from what they had been.  A new welcome center is in operation, a water spa and shops will replace a segment of the current lodge and a sushi restaurant will be built near the 18th green of The Heather course. Plans also call for a three-story convention center five years down the road.

“The Highlands was the first resort golf in Michigan in 1966 when The Heather opened,’’ said Griffin.  “After 50 years it’s time to refresh this.’’

Nearby Boyne Mountain is getting attention, too, and that will be underscored on Labor Day when an 1,100-foot walking bridge is scheduled to open.

This finishing hole at the Ross Memorial is a replica of No. 16 at Oakland Hills.

 

 

 

Stoatin Brae has taken Michigan’s Gull Lake View to a higher level

 

High fescue separates the fairways at Stoatin Brae, and makes searches for lost balls difficult.

AUGUSTA, Mich. – Gull Lake View is not only a pioneer destination among American golf resorts, it is also one of the biggest.

The resort near Kalamazoo, Mich., can boast of being “the sixth largest golf resort in the world’’ with its 108 holes spread across more than 2,000 acres. Within the U.S. only North Carolina’s Pinehurst (171), Michigan’s Boyne (162) and Georgia’s Reynolds Lake Oconee (117) have more holes than Gull Lake View.

It’s long been a popular destination for group outings with its on-site lodging accompanied by the Charles and Darls restaurant. Charles Scott designed three of the resort’s six 18-holers and all were built by the Darl Scott family, which is in its fourth generation owning the facility..

Course building started in 1963 with the creation of the front nine of Gull Lake View West. The back nine opened in 1965. Then, through 1995, expansion was almost non-stop. The front nine of the East course was built in 1975 and the back in 1976. Fairway Villas opened a year later, then it was back to adding courses.

Stoatin’s unusual halfway house is called The Bunker, and it’s built into the side of a hill.

Stonehedge South was completed in 1988, the same year that the family purchased Bedford Valley, a frequent site of tournament play for Michigan’s strongest players.  Stonehedge North was added in 1995 and a new clubhouse in 2008.  The family also created two golf communities – The Woods at Stonehedge in 2002 and Cranes Pond in 2005 – to attract golfers who preferred to be residents rather than visitors to the area.

All that was well and good, but the resort needed something more, and Stoatin Brae has filled the bill.  The sixth Gull Lake View course sits on the highest point in Kalamazoo County, and course’s name in Gaelic means “Grand Hill.’’  The hill certainly provides some grand views and its Blue Stem restaurant only adds to that attraction. (A native grass, called Blue Stem, is plentiful on the course).

Shaggy face bunkers are a trademark of the Stoatin Brae course.

Though Stoatin Brae is located in the town of Augusta, that’s the only similarity with Augusta National, the Georgia home of the Masters.  Stoatin Brae is a links course with trees rarely coming into play. The course, which opened in 2017, has been well decorated.  It was in GolfWeek’s Top 100 in 2019, the Michigan Course of the Year in 2020 and the National Course of the Year in 2021.

Despite all the accolades, Stoatin Brae isn’t particularly long (only 6,742 yards from the back tees) and it’s not all that tough.  At least we felt Stonehedge South, the only other Gull Lake View course we played on our visit, was more challenging with its narrow fairways and similarly steep elevation changes.

Stoatin Brae wasn’t meant to be brutal, as many new courses are at multi-course facilities.  It was meant to be different – and that’s a good thing.

The distinctive tee markers contrast will with this bed of wildflowers at Stoatin Brae.

It wasn’t quite as different as the reversible course that Michigan architect Tom Doak designed at Forest Dunes in Roscommon in recent years but there is – not surprisingly – a similar feel.  Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, based in Traverse City, created Stoatin Brae but Doak wasn’t involved in it.  His senior associates – Eric Iverson, Brian Schneider, Brian Slawnik and Don Placek – were.

The well-respected and innovative Doak was reportedly uncomfortable with designing two courses in his home state at the same time, but Stoatin Brae has the same wide open, wind-swept look so evident in his unusual design, called The Loop, at Forest Dunes. We played Stoatin Brae on a 91-degree day but we agreed with what the locals told us.  There’s always wind at Stoatin Brae, and that made for a comfortable day weather-wise.

A trademark of Stoatin Brae is its shaggy-face bunkers with wispy fescue around the edges. The halfway house is unique, too.  It’s called The Bunker and was built into the side of in a hill.

The rough was thick, and getting out of it was never easy.  Finding your ball in it was frequently difficult, too.  More directional signs in a few places would have helped pace of play, but ours was a most memorable, enjoyable round.

Stoatin Brae’s clubhouse, which includes the Blue Stem restaurant, enhance the viewing exprience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tornado fails to stop the fun at Michigan’s Gaylord Golf Mecca

The welcoming sign at venerable Otsego Resort reflects the spirit of this Michigan community.


GAYLORD, Michigan – This might well turn out to be the best feel good story in golf in 2022.

Gaylord, a town of 4,200 residents, and the small towns surrounding it have long been on the cutting edge of golf marketing.  Led by executive director Paul Beachnau, the Gaylord Golf Mecca was created in 1987 to showcase all the great courses in that area of northern Michigan.

By the start of 2022 the Mecca had grown to 17 golf course members and 21 lodging partners.  Only the Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday has been in business longer as a cooperative marketing effort in golf and, most noteworthy, there are no major cities included in the Mecca.  It’s all small towns working together to bring in golfers.

They did that quite well, and we’re expecting a banner year with the town of Gaylord preparing to celebrate its Centennial this summer. Then came May 20, 2022 – a frightful day, to put it mildly.

In mid-afternoon, with little advance warning, a tornado attacked Gaylord.  It wasn’t a little one, either. This one had the width of two football fields, maximum wind speeds of 150 miles per hour and was on the ground for 20 minutes.  Two residents died and 44 were injured. Some were without power for three days.

Here’s just one indication that the tornado that struck Gaylord meant serious business.

Meteorologists said it was the strongest twister to hit Michigan in 10 years and the first in the Gaylord area since 2014.  For at least three days the town of Gaylord was prominent in national news reports. That didn’t bode well with the town’s golfing visitors starting to arrive.

“A lot of media made it look like our town was levelled,’’ said Beachnau.  “It wasn’t.’’

The TV and print news coverage showed damage in the downtown area, though.  It was hard to ignore those images, but Beachnau insisted that “none of our hotels were affected and virtually no damage was done on any of our golf courses. It missed all of our tourism aspects.’’

One course, we were told, had golfers back on the course an hour after the tornado left the sheltered areas.

Three weeks later we visited as part of the annual Gaylord Golf Mecca media event, a popular gathering of writers and broadcasters covering the golf industry.  Playing 117 holes at eight courses over a six-day span that included lots of fine dining with the area’s governmental and golf industry leaders, we found that Beachnau’s report was accurate.

There was very minor damage from the tornado at the Otsego Resort’s Tribute course, arguably the toughest 18-holer in the Mecca, and more visual issues at the Rick Smith Tradition layout at the Treetops Resort. That had nothing to do with the tornado, however.

“This is the 25th anniversary of that course,’’ said Barry Owens, the Treetops general manager.  “During the winter we took out a tremendous amount of trees, pushing 1,000.’’

The Tradition is being converted to a links-style course, and the cleanup effort was still in progress.

“The Tradition doesn’t have the elevation changes our other courses do,’’ said Owens, “so when this project is completed it won’t have to be compared to its brothers and sisters.  We’re very excited about it.’’

Black Lake is just one Mecca course filled with lots interesting of holes.

In reality the tornado was dealt with aggressively by the entire Mecca community.

“We had 1,500 volunteers come on the Sunday after the tornado,’’ said Beachnau, “and we raised a half-million dollars. That’s what can happen when people come together and work together.  Our message is `We’re open for business.’’’

There’s no question about that.

Long-time attendees at the Gaylord Golf Mecca found all the courses most playable, and were highly impressed by some that had not been on the event playing itinerary in previous visits.  Heading that list was the Gaylord Golf Club, one of the oldest clubs in northern Michigan. It was established in 1924 and moved to its present location in 1975.

This is a classic parkland design that was in top condition and, most important, is fun to play. There is no one style that fits all in the Gaylord Golf Mecca’s list of courses, though.

The Black Lake Golf Club was No. 2 on my list. It’s a Rees Jones design in Onaway that opened in 2000 and is owned by the United Auto Workers.  While Jones is known as the “Open Doctor’’ for his restoration work on already tough courses preparing to host U.S. Opens, Black Lake will entice golfers of all skill levels.

Indian River, my No. 3, is – like Gaylord Golf Club – another layout with deep historical roots.  Founded in 1921 and known then as the Burt Lake Golf Club, Indian River started as a private club.  In 1924 the club hired English architect Wilfrid E. Reid to design a nine-hole course while he was in Michigan to build Gaylord, which was then a country club.  In 1984 the nine-holer was re-routed, additional land was required and architect Warner Bowen converted it into an 18-holer.

Steep downhill par-3 holes like this one are a trademark at Threetops.

Our media contingent didn’t play all of the Mecca’s courses, and one round on Treetops’ Rick Smith Signature course was cut short by day-long rain.  That was a shame because it’s always been a favorite of mine. Treetops has lots of everything in its 81 holes that comprise five distinct courses.

The one that’s gotten the most national attention is Threetops,  which the resort bills as “America’s No. 1-Rated Par-3 Course.’’ A lot of golf’s best players have tested it, and Lee Trevino won $1,090,000 for making a hole-in-one in a nationally-televised event held there 20 years ago. The only problem with Threetops is its steep, windy cartpaths.  When they’re wet they can be dangerous. So, I found, were the ones at the Rick Smith Signature course. Caution is essential.

Though we didn’t play all the courses on this visit we did find the views at Treetops stunning, the elevation changes on the ski hills of Otsego’s Tribute breath-taking and The Natural a short but tricky Jerry Matthews creation at Beaver Creek Resort.

Garland Golf Club, a destination since 1924 with four courses, and The Pines at Michaywe, celebrating its 50th anniversary, are long-time favorites for Mecca visitors and the Robert Trent Jones Sr. Masterpiece at Treetops has one of the highest slope ratings (143) in the Midwest.

Matthews, long a leading designer of Michigan courses, was also involved in the creation of Lakes of the North which dates back to 1968.

This area, though, is not just about golf.  Skiing takes over in the winter and that has broadened the base as a tourist destination. Gaylord has, in fact, created a new mantra in its marketing.  It now bills itself as “Gaylord, Michigan USA, All Outdoors.” Rafting, fishing, hunting, paddling, biking, wildlife viewing, hiking — they all are a good fit in the Gaylord area.

Totally renovated chalets, which will open soon, are the latest upgrade at Treetops.