Alabama’s RTJ Trail offers lots of golf — and much more


ALL OVER, Alabama – There’s a handful of golf trails across the country – and then there’s the Robert Trent Jones Trail that stretches over about 400 miles in Alabama, from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf Coast.

This collection of courses is like no other. It includes 26 courses — or 468 holes — spread around 11 locations.  Eight of the locations have upscale lodging available. The scenery is beautiful throughout.

Every serious golfer should visit the RTJ Trail at some point. They’ll find courses that reflect the best golf in the U.S. and offer challenges for players of all abilities. Course conditions are uniformly good and the greens fees are fairly priced. One warning, though: Be prepared for significant elevation changes on most every hole, not just every course.  Flat courses don’t fit the RTJ style.

We’ve made three visits to the Trail.  Two were over-night stops spread over several years.  The last was extensive – seven courses over six days with no hotel stay longer than one night.  We were on the move to experience everything the Trail has to offer, on and off the courses.

We made stops at seven of the 11 Trail destinations and, while the golf certainly didn’t disappoint, we were taken almost as much by the non-golf attractions along the way.  The RTJ Trail isn’t all about golf.

A little history first. Dr. David Bronner, the chief executive officer of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, is the visionary credited with getting the Trail launched in 1992. It gave a big boost to Alabama’s tourism. With millions of dollars worth of television commercials provided at no cost by the state pension fund each year the Alabama tourism industry has grown from $1.8 billion in 1992 to over $24 billion.   That’s according to Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

In promoting the Trail, the media attention also benefitted many other attractions – and we were happy to check them out in between our rounds.

For instance:

A tour of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio gave us an interesting glimpse into the state’s rich musical history.  The Studio was in its heyday from 1969-78.  The Rolling Stones called it “rock and roll heaven.’’  Cher was the first artist to use the Studio, but among those who followed her there included Lynryd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart and Willie Nelson.

Huntsville is called `Rocket City’ for good reason.  The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is there.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center, in Huntsville, could command a full day to experience everything there.  Space travel evolved after German engineers hooked up with American scientists there in 1950. Now the Center includes a Space Camp where youngsters from all over the world come to learn how to become astronauts, and many have already made it.

Much more recently the Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center has opened at Auburn University.  It features an upscale teaching restaurant – the only one in the world – where students learn about all aspects of hospitality management.

While the Auburn facility, which opened less than a year ago, tells you what’s coming in the hospitality business, the Grand Hotel Resort & Spa, in Point Clear, tells you what it was like in the good old days. The hotel opened in 1847, was used as a miliary hotel during the Civil War, overcame fires, hurricanes and ownership changes and emerged as a place that includes spas, tennis courts, Bucky’s Lawn (which serves great Mint Juleps by its fire pits) and facilities for all sorts of yard games. It’s a charming place all around.

The Grand Hotel, in Point Clear, has been the Queen of Southern Resorts for over 175 years.

Dining?  No problem here.  There are all kinds of restaurants around the Trail.  The most memorable was 360 Grille at Marriott Shoals. It’s located at the top of a tower and the restaurant slowly moves in a circle while you’re eating. Straight to Ale Brewery at Campus 805, in Huntsville, took over what had been a high school and remnants of the school days were still there. Back Forty Beer, in Gadsden, was a friendly place with an Astroturf play area where kids of all ages could toss a football. The Hound, in Auburn, is a hopping place with 28 craft beers on tap and a menu that includes wild-game sausage and claims to focus on “bacon, bourbon, community and family.’’

And now for golf on the Trail.

None of the courses are easy,  but Silver Lakes, in Gadsden, has three nines that are aptly named Heartbreaker, Backbreaker and Mindbreaker. Yes, they’re tough.

Lakewood Club, in Point Clear, has the only Trail course not designed by Robert Trent Jones.  The club opened in 1947 and Perry Maxwell designed its Dogwood course, with Jones eventually renovating it. Dogwood recently hosted the 59th U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur.

Fighting Joe, at The Shoals, opened in 2004 as the first course on the trail to exceed 8,000 yards from the back tees.  It 8,097 from the back – but that was no place we wanted to go.

Not only is Fighting Joe, at The Shoals, the first RTJ Trail course to stretch over 8,000 yards, it also has a most picturesque par-3 finishing hole on the Tennessee River.

Hampton Cove, in Owens Cross Roads, has a course without a single bunker.  It’s no pushover, though.  It’s called The River for a reason – lots of water holes.

Capitol Hill has three courses.  The Senator, a links course, has 140 pothole bunkers and lots of blind shots — but no trees and water on only No. 17. The LPGA has used it for tournament play and Lexi Thompson got her first victory there.

Grand National, in Auburn/Opelika, has two 18-holers, one of which is called The Links. It has wide, roaming fairways but they have lots of slopes – the most of any course we played. Never an easy shot to the green there. It also has the strongest finishing hole on the Trail.

Oxmoor, in Birmingham, has a par-3 course called The Back Yard.  It has nine holes that can play as short as 59 yards and the course’s longest hole is 132.

The best course? Fighting Joe was my favorite but you can’t choose the best without playing them all. It may take some time, but we’re looking forward to doing just that.



An emerging rainbow, viewed from our balcony at the Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center, added to our enjoyment of The Senator at Capitol Hill. (Joy Sarver Photos).
Windy cart paths are part of the ambience at the River Course at Hampton Cove.
Edible flowers and herbs are grown in the rooftop garden at Auburn University’s innovative Culinary Science Center,




Alabama’s FarmLinks fulfills a Pursell dream

FarmLinks is known for its spectacular downhill par-3s, and No. 5 is the obvious signature hole.

SYLACAUGA, Alabama – Alabama is a golf-rich state, with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail dominating the lists of top courses there.  There’s only one thing missing from the Trail’s 26 courses spread around 11 destination sites. All of those layouts don’t include the best one – at least according to GolfWeek, one of the best-known rating publications.

GolfWeek gave the nod to the FarmLinks course at Pursell Farms as the No. 1 public course in Alabama for the first time in 2011. Then the Michael Hurdzan-Dana Fry design regained the top spot on those GolfWeek rankings in 2013 and has held it right through 2023.

“We’re No. 1 and they (the RTJ Trail courses) are our competition,’’ said David Pursell, the visionary who spurred FarmLinks’ creation. “They have all the breaks in the world, and five of the Trail courses are in short distance to us.’’

David Pursell’s vision led to the transformation of Pursell Farms into a boutique resort.

FarmLinks, though, is as challenging as any Trail course from the back tees and more user-friendly from the shorter markers. That’s a good combination, and Pursell also has a good story to tell on his course’s history.

His family had been involved in the fertilizer business since 1904, being first called the Sylacauga Fertilizer Company. Working with his father Jimmy, David Pursell devised a marketing strategy to attract golf superintendents to visit the property in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains near Birmingham.

They got 10,000 of them from all parts of the country to come for three-day visits to what had been Jimmy Pursell’s cattle farm. Choosing Fry and Hurdzan to do the course design work was a wise one, as their later creations included Wisconsin’s Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open.

FarmLinks, however, wasn’t built to host tournaments. It was originally built to stimulate fertilizer sales, and — after three years of superintendent visits — it worked.

“We built trust with the golf course superintendents and taught them a lot about the fertilizer business,’’ said David Pursell. In those days the course included 28 varieties of grasses and conducted chemical treatments on the fairways to educate their visitors. Fertilizer sales took off, and offers to buy the company started coming in.  One from a Canadian company was accepted.

“In that one transition we made more money than the company had in 102 years.  My Dad was really happy about that,’’ said Pursell.

The sale came in 2006. Then, with David taking on an increasingly bigger role, the family decided to switch from fertilizer to the hospitality industry.

“The American dream is to build something up,’’ said Pursell.  “I was in my 40s, and I wanted to do something here.  The family decided to re-invest and do something different.’’

Pursell and his wife have lived on the property since 1981 and have six children and 10 grandchildren.  Most have worked at the Farm at one time or another.

After being visitors in the fertilizer days in 2012, we were stunned by the massive changes the Pursells have made to turn the property into a boutique resort, a transformation that took off following Jimmy Pursell’s death at age 84 on Father’s Day, 2020.

Lake Christine, named after three generations of Pursell women, adds to the beauty of the resort.

Golf remained the key part of the operation, and the course gained a more detailed appreciation. Nos. 5, 8 and 17 became recognized as great downhill par-3s. No. 5 may be the most notable of those. It has a 170-foot drop from the back tees to the green, and golfers are offered watermelon slices when they head from tee to green.

Pursell recalls how that memorable hole came about.

“Dana Fry got me out of my office to look at it,’’ he said. “Dana, who had worked for Tom Fazio, had me look down to the green.  Then he said `we can have one of the most dramatic holes in the Southeast, but the cost will be seven times what it was going to cost.’  I said `let’s do it.’’’

That was a good decision; so was the decision to name the holes – particularly No. 4, a downhill par-5.  A plaque there stirs memories of Andrew Jackson, a former U.S. President and war hero. In 1814 he led his militia, the Tennessee Volunteers, against against the Red Stick Creek Indians in what became known as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

At No. 5 there’s a plaque recounting a not-so-pleasant part of course history.  It’s called “Jimmy’s Fall” because Jimmy Pursell made a visit by himself during course construction to see how the elevated tee was progressing.  He took a tumble, fell 40 feet and suffered several broken ribs and fingers and a punctured lung. His recovery started with 10 days in a Birmingham hospital.

David Pursell also designed the resort logo, a combination of legendary Bobby Jones and longhorn steers.  It looked good, until Pursell realized there were no steers on the property.  He had a herd brought in before the grand opening and they have grazed peacefully at the resort entrance ever since.

“I’m creative.  I had no agronomic skills at all,’’ said Pursell.   “I’m in between P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney, but on a much smaller scale.’’

David Pursell first designed the FarmLinks logo, then needed to bring in longhorns to support it.

It’s not all golf at Pursell Farms now. The Orvis Shooting Ground is a strong second attraction that attracts hunters and fishermen.  There’s also 30 miles of hiking trails. Hamilton Place, built in 1852, has become a popular wedding venue and spa.  Cottages, cabins and an Inn have swelled the lodging options to 81 guest rooms.

Old Tom’s Pub, The Grille and the Arrington Restaurant are all  well-received dining options and the resort also offers high-tech office meeting space, an outdoor pool and fitness facilities. Indeed Pursell Farms has become a very special place.

So, what’s next on the FarmLinks golf scene? It seems like a big tournament could be an option, since Escalante Golf – one of the resort’s partners – has hosted at some of the LIV Tour events.

“We can’t shut the whole property down for something like that,’’ said Pursell, “but we have identified the perfect spot for what would be a private club.’’

With 3,200 acres to work with, there’s plenty of room for Pursell Farms to expand in other directions when the time is right.  While the place has come a long way, its final chapter is a long way from being written.


No. 17 is the most picturesque of FarmLinks par-3s holes. (All Photos by Joy Sarver)










No state has benefitted more from the golf boom than Mississippi

Dancing Rabbit in Choctaw is a Mississippi facility with two popular courses and new lodging.

It’s no secret that the horrible pandemic gave a boost to the golf industry nation-wide, and that is most evident in Mississippi. The sport has really taken off there in the last few years.

That was evident when a small group of golf media members from all parts of the country spent a week getting a thorough look at the state’s best courses, be they private, resort or public.

While I don’t take any of the major course rating polls as gospel, our group played seven of Mississippi’s top 10 in the Golf Digest rankings. That gave us a good feel for what golf has done for the state since the pandemic.

“We were the No. 1 state in the country for recovery,’’ said Craig Ray, director of tourism for Visit Mississippi.  “That’s according to the U.S. Travel Association.  We got our casinos open early and encouraged our golf and other outdoor activities (to do the same). That’s why we came back quicker, with a smaller percentage of losses than any other state.’’

The casinos were important, of course, but golf was also a big key to recovery.

“We wanted to get people to the casinos, see a show, get a great dinner,’’ said Ray. “We wanted the golfers to see everything else we have to offer – the hunting and fishing, the culinary tours. We have the largest music trail system in the world.  We wanted to show them the whole state.’’

The colorful lobby at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino offers a splash of Las Vegas.

On our trip the group took in a couple of the casinos, Beau Rivage in Biloxi and Pearl River Resort & Casino in Choctaw. We enjoyed some fine dining at Field’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, Jia (featuring Pan-Asian cuisine), Phillip M’s Steakhouse, Mama ‘N’ Ems and Cameron’s at Old Waverly Country Club.

The good golf, though, was spread around the state. Using the Golf Digest rankings, we hit No. 1 Fallen Oak, No. 2 Mossy Oak, No. 3 Old Waverly, No. 5 the Azalea course at Dancing Rabbit, No. 6 Grand Bear, No. 8 Dancing Rabbit’s Oaks course and No. 10 Shell Landing.

While that was a good sampling of what Mississippi has to offer golf-wise, our visits did not include three others in the top 10 – No. 4 Annandale in Madison, No. 7 Reunion in Madison and No. 9 The Preserve in Vancleave – or Country Club of Jackson, site of the state’s only PGA Tour stop — October’s Sanderson Farms Championship.

What we did see, though, was plentiful and impressive.  Our stops were roughly divided into three sections.

Mississippi’s No. 1 golf course is Fallen Oak, and this tree on the 18th hole underscores its name.

COASTAL – Beau Rivage’s 32-story MGM-owned resort is Mississippi’s tallest building and offers spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico and Biloxi’s Back Bay. Its Fallen Oak course has long been the consensus No. 1 among the state’s courses.  A Tom Fazio design,  it hosted PGA Tour Champions tournament  from 2010 to 2021. (The pandemic forced cancelation of the event in 2020). Fazio has long been one of the premier designers of his era, and Fallen Oak is considered one of his best creations.

Beau Rivage recently completed nearly $100 million in property enhancements including a $55 million remodeling of each of its 1,645 hotel rooms. The resort offers live entertainment in its 1,550-seat theater, an upscale shopping promenade with 12 retail shops, the Black Clover Lounge and Topgolf Swing Suite and a world-class spa. It also has 12 restaurants in addition to an 85,000 -square foot gaming area.

Clearly it’s Mississippi’s full-service sports betting and entertainment destination.

As for Fallen Oak, the course opened in 2006 and has consistently been ranked as the No. 2 casino course in the U.S., trailing only Shadow Creek – its MGM sister course in Las Vegas. Probably because only Beau Rivage members and resort guests can play Fallen Oak the course doesn’t get heavy play and is the best-conditioned of the layouts our group played.

When Fallen Oak asked out of hosting the PGA Tour Champions in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic the tourney switched sites to Grand Bear, a Jack Nicklaus design in Saucier, in 2022 – the last time the tourney was held. Grand Bear, a public course, opened in 1999 and – for the record – our media tour group considered it very much on par with Fallen Oak.

Nicklaus courses are generally very demanding and this one is literally “a Bear” from each tee placement. The front tees are called Teddy Bear, then they go back to the Black Bear, the Brown Bear, the Golden Bear and the Grizzly Bear from the tips.

The course measures 7,204 from the back tees, but this Nicklaus creation, built along the Biloxi River, is more user friendly than many of his others. Grand Bear hit the national spotlight as the site of the Rapiscan Systems Classic in 2022.  Steven Alker was the lone senior star in command that week.  Finishing 62-65 he finished at 18-under-par in the 54-hole test and enjoyed a six-stroke advantage on Padraig Harrington and Alex Cejka.

Shell Landing, a heavily-played public course in Gautier, gives Coastal Mississippi a third course in the state’s top 10. Shell Landing, designed by Davis Love III, was immediately well-received by national golf publications when it opened in 2002. In addition to its popular 18 holes Shell Landing has a 15-acre practice facility.

Choctaw boasts of its two exciting hotel/casinos as well as two fine golf courses.

DANCING RABBIT – The Pearl River Resort is operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and its Dancing Rabbit Golf Club is one of its biggest attractions. The facility opened in 1997.

Dancing Rabbit has two 18-holers, The Azaleas and The Oaks.  Both were designed by Fazio in conjunction with Jerry Pate, a Floridian who won the U.S. Open in 1976. Both are well-received public courses with more elevation changes and tighter fairways than were offered at the Coastal courses.

Aa major renovation was recently completed at Dancing Rabbit Inn and the Geyser Falls Water Theme Park is also an available attraction.

With more than 6,000 employees, the Choctaw Tribe is one of the top five private employers in Mississippi and the Pearl River Resort is one of its biggest properties. It encompasses the Silver Star and Golden Moon hotel/casinos.

The Silver Star has a spa and salon where guests can enjoy a full complement of skin and body treatments, soothing steam baths, a whirlpool, sauna and outdoor pool. Its fitness center is filled with state of the art equipment.

Golden Moon is a bit different. Its amenities include The Whiskey Bean (for coffee, sandwiches and pastries), Bistro 24 (for a broader menu that includes mouth-watering steak), Timeout Lounge (for easy TV viewing while enjoying a variety of drink selections) and the excellent restaurant, Mama `n’ Em, with particularly interesting menu offerings.

A one-acre bunker on the No. 8 hole is a prominent feature of the Mossy Oak course.

MOSSY’S ARRIVAL – West Point has been a Mississippi golf hotbed once George Bryan’s Old Waverly Country Club opened in 1988.  Bryan passed on in January but left the place in great shape as a unique two-course complex.

Old Waverly is a prominent name, especially in women’s golf.  The U.S. Women’s Open was played there in 1999. The Handa Cup, a team event for senior women stars, followed in 2014 and the U.S. Women’s Amateur came in 2019.

That was all well and good, but Bryan and Toxie Haas, a long-time business associate and West Point resident, wanted more. They rallied some friends to add a second course and there’s no other course in Mississippi like Mossy Oak.  It’s a sporty but challenging layout that also is the home of the Mississippi State University men’s and women’s teams.

“Our whole goal with that course was to develop a different atmosphere,’’ said Greg Flannagan, the director of golf who is in his 23rd year at Old Waverly. “We didn’t want golfers to get bored with the stay-and-play option.’’

The courses are very different.  Old Waverly is private, yet can be played by those staying at either the Mossy Oak Cottages or the lodging option right at Old Waverly, while Mossy Oak is comparatively new and, well….different. While it’s officially public, most all of its play comes from stay-and-play visitors.

Mississippi State holds its annual men’s tournament at Mossy Oak while the women’s team conducts its big event at Old Waverly. Both courses have accompanying cottages that make for most pleasant stay-and-play visits.

Flannagan says the goal for the year is to get over 22,000 rounds played on Old Waverly and reach 13,800 on Mossy Oak. The newer layout still has some rough spots and could use signage in a couple places to facilitate play, but it was without question the most fun course that our media contingent played during our most memorable tour of Mississippi.

Old Waverly’s scenic 18th hole has been the site of some dramatic moments in tournament play. (All photos by Joy Sarver)








GOLF TRAVEL NOTEBOOK: New courses will soon be the norm

ISLAND RESORT & Casino, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, opens on May 5. Its featured course is Sweetgrass, which opened 15 years ago and was selected National Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Assn. in 2022. Sweetgrasss will host the Epspon Tour from June 23-25. It’ll mark the 12th staging of what is now the longest-standing tour event in Michigan. Island Resort also includes the Sage Run, Greywalls and Timberstone courses.

It’s time to hit the road again.  Our visits to golf travel destinations will take us to Mississippi, Alabama and Pennsylvania over the next few weeks, but there’s plenty going on at other places that golf travelers should know about.

For instance:

REYNOLDS LAKE OCONEE – Famed architect Tom Fazio is returning to this beautiful resort in Greensboro, Ga.  He’s completed plans for nine holes that will join with his existing Bluffs nine on The National Course, the eventual result being a new 18-hole layout.

Fazio designed the 18-hole National course, which opened in 1997 with two nines – The Ridge and The Bluffs.  An additional nine, called The Cove, was added in 2000 to allow for more playing options.

The future 18-hole course will utilize the existing Bluff nine with adjacent land that includes a creek, natural boulders and an existing pond.  The land slopes down toward a cove of Lake Oconee with more than 100 feet of elevation change.

When completed the new course will be the only one at the resort to traverse both sides of the peninsula and touch the lake from both Richland Creek and the Oconee River.  The first five holes of the Bluff routing will be followed by nine all-new holes and the final four holes will connect back to The Bluffs.

The new course is scheduled to open in late 2024 and will be private, accessible only to Reynolds Lake Oconee members.  Reynolds Lake Oconee will then have two private courses as well as another 90 holes available for member and resort guest play.

MYRTLE BEACH – The folks at this golf mecca in South Carolina are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the World Amateur Handicap Championship.  It’s rightly billed as the “World’s Largest’’ tournament and registration has already topped 2,400 for an event that runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1.

Usually the tourney draws about 3,200, with players coming from all 50 states and over 25 countries, but this one could be bigger.  Players are flighted by gender, age and handicap and over 50 courses – ranging alphabetically from Abderdeen to World Tour Golf Links – will be used during that big week as golfers compete for over $100,000 in prizes.

CRAGUN’S RESORT – The season is just getting underway at this 36-hole facility in Brainerd, MN. The Lehman 18, created in a multi-million dollar renovation supervised by Minnesota native and PGA Tour Champions player Tom Lehman, will be in the spotlight.

The Dutch 27, three nine-hole layouts dubbed the Red, White and Blue,  will offer a variety of other playing options, though the Red nine is set to undergo a Lehman renovation on July 1 and won’t re-open until 2024.

WALT DISNEY WORLD – The Orlando, FL., resort has four courses operated by the Arnold Palmer Golf Management firm. World Disney World just concluded its 50th anniversary festivities and will begin work towards its centennial with the Magnolia course of immediate interest.

A Joe Lee design, it’s the longest of Disney’s four courses and had hosted a PGA Tour event for several years.  An extensive renovation has limited play to 14 holes but the course will be at full strength before the year is out.  Holes 14-17 are being reconfigured and all 18 greens are being substantially enhanced.

RODEO DUNES – Be on the lookout for this one.  Michael and Chris Keiser, owners of Wisconsin’s Sand Valley, are bringing their Dream Golf vision to the Denver area.  They’re building two courses on property that is an hour from Denver and there’s space for up to six courses there.

AND MORE FOR 2024 – North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort is getting a 10th course, and it could well be a “Perfect Ten.’’ Tom Doak is designing it.

And the Dormie Network is hoping for a “Lucky Seven.’’ The network’s seventh destination will be GrayBull, a David McLay Kidd creation in Maxwell, Neb.


NEW EVENTS – Florida is getting a couple of big pro events that are sure to lure visitors in December.

The Grant Thornton Invitational will bring players from the PGA and LPGA tours together at Tiburon, in Naples, beginning on Dec. 4.  It’ll mark a return of a mixed team event, with 16 PGA and 16 LPGA players competing for a $4 million purse. The last time such an event was held was in 1999 when John Daly and Laura Davies won the final edition of the JCPenney Classic.

Meanwhile, the Concession Club, in Bradenton, will debut the new World Champions Cup – a PGA Tour Champions creation – from Dec. 7-10.  This event will have an unusual Ryder Cup-style format, with three teams doing battle – Team USA, Team Europe and Team International.  There’ll be eight nine-hole matches each day of the competition. Points will be awarded for holes won, not just the overall matches.  Jim Furyk will captain Team US, Darren Clarke will guide Team Europe and Ernie Els directs Team International.  There’ll be a $1.35 million purse, and each player on the winning side gets $100,000.

New owners will boost Mission Inn’s prominence on Epson Tour

Mission Inn, one of Florida’s best golf resorts, has a big tournament coming up on a special course.

HOWEY-in-the-HILLS, Florida – Mission Inn, one of Florida’s oldest golf resorts, is no stranger to hosting tournaments. The fourth playing of the Epson Tour’s Inova Mission Inn Resort & Club Championship is coming up in May, but this time it’ll be different.

On Dec. 9 the resort changed ownership.  The Beucher family, with deep roots in Illinois, had owned the resort for 58 years, before selling it to MMI Hotel Group, a similar family operation based in Jackson, Mississippi.  The Sturdevant family has been part of the ownership group of MMI for 67 years.

The family ownership aspect played a part in the sale. The Beuchers still reside in the area, are members of the club and still own some of the land on which it was built.

MMI used an elaborate media day event as a means of getting involved with the golf side of the Mission Inn operation. Attendees included two of the top international players on the Epson circuit – Sophie Hausemann, from Germany, and Klira Riihijarvi, from Finland — and Mary Mills, winner of three major titles in her career as an LPGA player. Also on hand was Kay McMahon, a member of the LPGA Professionals Hall of Fame.

The Mississippi group, with roots in the Southeast, has had hotels in Florida but its portfolio includes only one golf facility – The King & Prince Beach and Golf Resort in St. Simons Island, Ga.  The company is all in with the golf operation at Mission Inn, however.

“We’re a golf resort, and golf is critical to our success and always will be,’’ said Dominick Buompastore, MMI vice president of operations. “We’re thrilled to be part of this tournament.  These (the Epson Tour) are the next level of players.  That’s really great for us, and we have a contract for future years.”

Buompastore said an investment in technology has been the first order of business in the first three months of MMI’s ownership.  Next comes an analysis of what should be done with the two golf courses – El Campeon, site of the Inova event with roots back to 1917, and Las Colinas, an 18-holer designed by ex-PGA Tour winner turned broadcaster Gary Koch in 1992.

The Epson Tour will visit Mission Inn for the fourth straight year on the historic Ek Campeon layout.

El Campeon is one of the oldest and most challenging courses in Florida.  It was designed by a Chicago architect, George O’Neil, and was brought into prominence after the Beuchers took over the resort in 1964. It’s hosted a variety of high school, college and state professional tournaments, and its steeply-elevated terrain sets it apart from other Florida courses.

“It’s a tough track, a cool track,’’ said Riihijarvi, who played in the tournament last year.  “We don’t see many of these on the Epson Tour.’’

The tournament rounds are May 26-28.  The field will be cut to the low 60 and ties after 36 holes and two scramble pro-ams, on May 24 and 25, will precede the tournament rounds.

Riihijarvi, who recently earned her LPGA membership, will play on the premier women’s circuit when it reaches the Drive On Championship in Phoenix but she was still willing to promote the event a Mission Inn.

Three players who won on the Epson Tour in 2022 – Jillian Hollis, Daniela Iacobelli and Britney Yada – are in this year’s field at Mission Inn as are Cydney Clanton and Silvia Cavalleri, both of whom have won tournaments on the LPGA circuit.

Previous winners are Missi0n Inn were Matilda Castren (2020), Min Lee (2021) and Gina Kim (2022). This year’s 144-player field will compete for $200,000 in prize money, with $30,000 going to the champion.

Michael Bowery (left) and Dominick Buompastore are leaders in Mission Inn’s ownership change.


Golf-wise the ownership change produced a significant staff adjustment.  Michael Bowery, the director of golf at Mission Inn, has turned the golf reins over to Brian Mulry.  Bowery is taking on a sales and marketing role under the new ownership.

“It’ll allow me to go out to bring in things like this,’’ he said of the Inova Championship.  “We’re always looking at those opportunities.  I’d love to have a televised LPGA event on this golf course.  That’s really my goal.’’

The resort is a 35-minute drive northwest of Orlando. Its Spanish Colonial architecture features 176 hotel guest rooms, 131 deluxe rooms, 38 club suites, four one bedroom suites, two two bedroom suites and one penthouse suite with three bedrooms.

In addition to the two golf courses, Mission Inn has four restaurants,  two lounges and a poolside bar. Its amenities include tennis, pickleball, jogging and cycling trails, volleyball courts, a spa, fitness center and a marina offering pontoons, bass boat and kayaks for eco-touring. More than 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space is available for meetings, banquets, holiday parties, weddings and special occasions.

El Campeon, which opened in 1917, has elevation changes that are rare in Florida courses.



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

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.