Palm Aire’s Champions Course re-opens on Dec. 1

The par-5 eleventh hole of The Champions Course at Sarasota’s Palm Aire Country Club has come a long way in the construction process. (Mike Benkusky Photos)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SARASOTA, FL. – The Champions Course at Palm Aire Country Club was one of the more difficult courses in Florida, and it may still be. It will, however, have a much different look when it re-opens following an extensive $2 million  renovation on December 1.

The original version, created by architect Dick Wilson, opened in 1957 when the club was named DeSoto Lakes. The club added a second 18-holer, The Lakes – a Joe Lee design, in 1984 when the Palm Aire name went into effect.

In its early years the Champion layout was known as the Green Monster and was the site of PGA and LPGA Tour events as well as the National Lefthanders Championship and the LPGA Legends Tour’s Handa Cup. Tour events won’t likely return because the practice range is on the short side, but new features will stir conversation once the club’s members and their guests have crack at it.

Illinois-based architect Mike Benkusky, who had worked almost entirely in the Midwest before landing the Palm Aire project, calls the renovation “a re-imagining’’ of the course that the respected Wilson brought to life.  Wilson’s work also included Bay Hill and Doral’s Blue Monster in Florida and the Dubsdread course at Cog Hill in the Chicago area.

The Champion’s  “re-imagining’’ will feature runway tees, two of them measuring about 100 yards; the use of 15 acres of crushed shells that will benefit cart traffic but will come into play as well; and a vastly different scorecard. There’ll be eight – yes, eight – sets of rated tee markers for the men and five for the women and they’ll be designated by numbers, not the colors used in the past. Tee markers will range from 4,466 yards on the short end to 7,126 at the tips – that’s 125 yards longer than the pre-imagining layout.

“Using tee numbers instead of colors will change peoples’ mindsets,’’ said Palm Aire director of golf Jay Seymour, who has been at the club for 11 years.  “Instead of playing the white tees, players may decide to play the 4-tees or the 5-tees. It comes down to what yardage do you want to play, not what color.’’

The flagsticks will all have white flags, so they won’t designate a pin placement in the front, middle or back of the green.

“That’s not always the best way to utilize the greens surface,’’ said Seymour. “We’ll be taking advantage of technology to do that.’’

Palm Aire has been a test site for Easy Locater’s state of the art app that provides a more detailed description of the pin locations.

While most of the concrete cart paths will remain, the crushed shells will combine with the runway tees to create a more modern day look for the course overall. The long tee boxes not only provide an updated appearance but will  also  enhance maintenance procedures.

Sixty-five oak trees were removed in the “re-imagining’’ and lots of collection areas were created around the greens.  A history wall was erected around the No. 1 tee. Greens were expanded to their original size and bunkers were given a more severe look while the new BillyBunker system will improve drainage in them. And, the sand is now white instead of tan.

While overall yardage hasn’t changed dramatically, the way it has been distributed will be noticeable.

“For those who preferred the White tees the yardage stayed the same, about 6,000 to 6,100 yards,’’ said Seymour, “but the par-5s will now be on the shorter side and the par-3s will be on the longer side.  There’ll be a nice mix of par-4s.’’

The original target date for the re-opening was Nov. 1, then the greens committee pushed it back to Nov. 13 and finally to the recently announced Dec. 1.

“They’re not rushing it – and that’s good,’’ said Benkusky.“Everything’s looking good.  The greens look very good. We’re right on schedule.’’.

Seymour said some college events and USGA qualifiers would like be held on the Champion Course.  That’s in contrast to when Wilson did his work. The PGA Tour conducted the DeSoto Open there in 1960, Sam Snead winning the title. A year later another Hall of Famer, Louise Suggs, won Golden Circle of Golf Festival, an LPGA event, on the course. That was one of Suggs’ five wins that season.

 

 

Ray Hearn takes on some big golf projects at Boyne resorts

 

The first hole of Boyne Highlands’ Donald Ross Memorial course is in the process of getting a new look.

HARBOR SPRINGS, Michigan – Michigan-based architect Ray Hearn has worked on courses across the country for 25 years, but the projects he has recently  taken on close to home may have a more far-reaching impact.

Stephen  Kircher, Boyne’s president and chief executive officer, and  Bernie Friedrich, senior vice president of golf,  brought in Hearn, who has headquarters in Holland, Mich., to tackle a variety of projects. One of the most interesting is on the Donald Ross Memorial course at Boyne Highlands Resort.

This course was already something special. Bill Newcomb was the original architect of the Ross course and each of its 18 holes created a composite of classic holes that Ross designed in the early part of the century.

The Ross Memorial course opened in 1989 and Golf Digest tabbed it the Best New Resort Course in the U.S. in 1990. Its replica holes have been used in 14 U.S. Opens, 11 PGA Championships, eight U.S Amateurs and three Ryder Cups.

Courses represented include Seminole, in Florida;   Oakland Hills and Detroit Golf Club, in Michigan;  Pinehurst and Charlotte Country Club, in North Carolina; Oak Hill, in New York; Plainfield, in New Jersey; Scioto and Inverness, in Ohio;  Oak Hill in New York; Bob O’Link, in Illinois; Royal Dornoch, in Scotland; Salem Country Club, in Massachusetts; Aronimink, in Pennsylvania; and Wannamoisett, in Rhode Island.

That’s quite a collection of holes, and Hearn is revising two of them.

Golf course architect Ray Hearn has taken on his first projects at Boyne resorts.

Nos. 1 and 16 of the Ross Memorial are getting touched up by Hearns.  No. 1 is from the sixth hole at Seminole  and No. 16 is from the tenth hole at Pinehurst No. 2. Most of the work is being down on Ross Memorial’s No. 1, but the work there spills over into No. 16 as well.

“We’re capturing the flavor a little more than the first time through, when Bill Newcomb did it,’’ said Hearn.  “There’s so much more information available for architects to work with now.’’

In the case of Seminole, that course was restored by the architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw two years ago.  Now Hearn is restoring a hole from a hole that was already restored once.

“We’re looking only at the original drawings of this hole,’’ Hearn said. “The bunkers were originally a lot larger, and Seminole is obviously in a different climate in Florida than we have in Michigan..  We took out quite a few trees to open up the hole like the original one.  Now there’s massive waste areas on both sides of the hole.’’

Tinkering with a Donald Ross design can be dangerous. Hearn is aware of that.

“There’s a small percentage of Ross aficionados who question the idea of the Ross Memorial, but I think it’s good,’’ said Hearn.  “A lot of players would never get the chance to play those other holes, so getting to play them is fun. But, for those who take them too seriously, I respect that, too.’’

The Ross Memorial course already has a beautiful finishing hole, patterned after No. 18 at Oakland Hills.

Despite his firm’s 25-year history and its proximity to the resorts, this is the first time that Boyne Golf and Hearn have joined forces and his work there will extend far beyond the Ross Memorial.

His biggest project there may be a redo of the Moor course, which opened in 1974.

“We’re in Phase 1 of that,’’ said Hearn.  “We’ve begun tree removal and adjustments of the grass lines of the fairways and greens.  It could be highly controversial, too.’’

The bunkers will be addressed next.  In the end, the work on the Moor will be extensive.  Hearn wants to create more angles and options for shots and adjust the course for changes in hitting distance .  There’ll be new cupping areas on the greens and new run-up areas to the putting surfaces.

Ken Griffin, Boyne’s director of  golf sales and marketing, calls the changes “subtle but significant.”

Sounds like a new course might be in the making, but Hearn says that’s not the case.

“I just like great golf.  I’m not trying to put the Ray Hearn stamp on this,’’ he said.  “I’m trying to create a throwback to a golden age look and feel – a tribute to that era.’’

Hearn will be creating a new par-3 course as part of the more long-range plans. He’ll be putting a new course in place and eliminate the modest one that’s there now.  In short, Boyne is joining the country-wide trend of building new short courses. Ground-breaking on this one is not expected until early 2023.

“I’m creating my favorite nine greens from overseas, from Scotland, Ireland and England,’’ said Hearn.  “This course will be visually stunning and interesting to play.  It won’t have formal tees and it’ll have fairway levels everywhere.  I want golfers to have the opportunity to put tees anywhere they want so they can practice options from different lies and angles.’’

Finally, The Monument course will also get some attention.

“It’s a very nice, enjoyable course,’’ said Hearn, “but the trees on it have gotten bigger and bigger and have started to infringe on the fairways.’’

That’ll be corrected, allowing Hearn to open more angles and options from the tees.

Boyne, with  10 course spread over three Michigan resorts, has long been a leader in golf while maintaining its similar role among ski resorts.

“They’re always looking forward, always thinking of improving.  They’re visionaries,’’ said Hearn.

That vision extends beyond these golf course projects.  The Main Lodge at Boyne Highlands has already undergone some upgrades and more are coming.  The first phase involved the transformation of the Main Lodge, with 87 guestrooms remodeled and renamed with Scottish and English heritage.

The next phase, to begin in the spring of 2022, involves construction of a  new multi-level European spa and the redesign of the Tower lobbies. Eventually a steak and sushi restaurant and a new convention center will be added as well.

The Main Lodge at Boyne Highlands has already received a room upgrade, but more things are coming.

This resort has one of Michigan’s best courses — and one of the most different

The rugged look is a trademark of Michigan’s Sage Run course.

BARK RIVER/HARRIS, Michigan – Island Resort and Casino has two golf courses.  They’re eight miles apart and have a much bigger difference in course architecture, even though Paul Albanese designed them both.

Sweetgrass, which opened in 2008, is one of the best courses in Michigan – perhaps in the whole Midwest.  Sage Run, which opened 10 years later, has its own unique style. I prefer Sweetgrass by a wide margin, but Sage Run certain catches your attention – and it should.

Sage Run was built on a drumlin. That’s not unusual in golf course architecture. Just after unveiling his latest course Albanese told me that a drumlin is “a geological formation created by a glacier….A  large ridge is a drumlin.’’

Sage Run certainly has plenty of those. The course has big, dramatic elevation changes. It also has a lot of rocks and thick – though not really deep – rough. It’s hard to find your ball in it sometimes.   Those things make this course difficult, and yet it still can be a lot of fun. It’s just one of those layouts that playing from the proper set of tees for your skill level is tantamount to enjoying the experience.

It seems as though Sage Run gets more attention than Sweetgrass just because it is so different. Even the tees are out of the ordinary.  There’s only one marker per set on each whole.  Pick the appropriate marker and you can move as far left or right as you want. That matters, too, as you’ll want to find a flat area to stick your tee in the ground, and that isn’t always easy at Sage Run.

Anyway, Sage Run isn’t built for low scoring but it’s not an overload of Albanese’s fertile imagination, either. A partner of Pete Dye disciple Chris Lutzke, Albanese also designed Tatanka, in rural Nebraska.  It was named Golf Digest’s Best New Resort Course  In 2015.  That proof that Albanese knows his stuff.

As for Sweetgrass, its conditioning is excellent.  While Sage Run has benefitted from three years of seasoning, Sweetgrass has made gigantic strides in that department.  If truth be told, I like Sweetgrass more know than I did on our first visit.

One thing you should know about both courses.  They are part of the Island Resort which has a unique location.  It’s on the border of the Eastern and Central time zones. That’s a factor you should be aware of when you make your tee times.

Sweetgrass’ pro shop Is on the grounds of the resort, but those who enjoy gambling adventures will find visits to either course a nice outdoor diversion to what the casino offers.

Sweetgrass is a beautiful layout that features this island green.

 

 

 

The Baths is making a big splash with golfers at Blackwolf Run

Can you imagine golfers interrupting their round for a dip in this “bath?”

KOHLER, Wis. – Whoever heard of allowing golfers to go swimming in the middle of their round?

Well, probably nobody – until now.

The Baths of Blackwolf Run is allowing players to enjoy a swim on its new 10-hole par-3 course that is built on 27 acres between the Nos. 1 and 11 holes of its Meadow Valleys course. Chris Lutzke, the course designer, and Dirk Willis, vice president of golf for Kohler Co., took a running leap into one of the ponds when The Baths opened in early June.

Not many have since then, but swimming remains an available option.  Herb Kohler, the 82-year old executive chairman of Kohler Co. and co-designer of the course, wanted it that way, and he’s done wonders for the golf industry in Wisconsin.

The PGA Championships of 2004, 2010 and 2015 were played at Kohler’s Whistling Straits course, which will be the site of this year’s Ryder Cup matches later this month. Blackwolf Run, which opened the first of its 36 holes in 1988, hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and 2012. Staging such big events have boosted Wisconsin’s image as a golf state and other courses have benefitted as well.

There’s warnings for potential swimmers on the water holes at The Baths.

Kohler’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.  He’s been inducted into the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame, and The Baths is his latest special project. The other courses were designed by the late, legendary Pete Dye, but Kohler took a more hands-on approach with The Baths though Lutzke, a Dye disciple for 30 years, was the project architect.

Novel short courses are the trend these days.  So are expanded putting courses, and The Baths has one of those, too – a two-acre version that can be played in 18 or 27-hole loops.  Kohler sees both as a way to attract new players to the game.

The course measures 1,362 yards from the back tees with holes ranging from 62 to 171 yards.. Staffers will provide use of a power cart or a shuttle to get you to the first tee, but after that it’s walking only. Push carts and carry bags are available, and we found that bags were the more efficient. Like Whistling Straits the course has some steep hills adorned with thick rough.  Push carts don’t work so well in that setting.

Sod-wall bunkers are prevalent throughout The Baths, and the greens have some steep elevations, so putting is always a challenge. It’s best to laugh off putts that roll off the green and down hills into the fairway.  No sense getting frustrated. The Baths is made for fun, not frustration.

The Baths is also beautifully manicured and is the prettiest of the new, novel short courses that have sprung up in the last few years – and we’ve played most of them.

Whether the swimming option takes off remains to be seen. There’s four water features of “Baths.’’ They pay homage to Kohler Company’s 128-year history of bathing design excellence. The baths have sand-line bottoms and are all very shallow. There are no drop-offs, so there’s no problem for bathing golfers who want to walk back to dry land after taking a dip.

Our only problem was following the routing.  The first six holes go out from the 125-year old log cabin that was imported from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to serve as a food and beverage station at the first tee. The final six bring you back to that log cabin. Signage was lacking in a few spots on the early holes, and holes from the Meadow Valleys 18-holer come close to The Baths’ holes to further confuse things.

We wound up playing one hole twice, but that was all right.The Baths can be played in three- or six-hole loopes, and playing extra holes is encouraged. Like the immediately popular Cradle at North Carolina’s  Pinehurst, golfers pay a daily fee  to use The Baths. You can play all day for $75.

Mix in some time on the massive putting course with multiple rounds on The Baths and you’ll have a good day – with or without squeezing a dip in the water along the way.

Steep bunkers are prominent on most holes at The Baths.

Don’t sell golf short in the Wisconsin Dells

The entry to 12North opens the way to a whole new golf experience.

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – The Wisconsin Dells area never grew much in population.  Its namesake city has never had more than 3,000 residents.  Still, the Dells has been one of the Midwest’s most popular travel destinations since its founding in 1856.

Boats trips brought tourists in first because they liked the scenery.  A wide variety of attractions followed, probably the best known being the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show, which arrived in 1952 and just closed in 2020. Now the area justifiably bills itself as “The Waterpark Capital of the World” also has — among other things —  a casino, fishing, wineries, go-kart tracks, zipline tours and horseback riding.

Oh, yes.  There’s golf, too.  There are 12 different golf experiences available, and don’t sell them short – literally.

There’s a nationwide trend to make courses more accessible, more appealing and less time-consuming, and the Dells is up front in shifting the focus from “traditional’’ play into a new direction.

The first course in the Dells was a nine-holer, Cold Water Canyon, at the Chula Vista Resort. It opened in 1923 and was later expanded to 18 holes. Despite its longevity Cold Water Canyon has become up to date thanks to shifts in the game. Short courses are the new in thing.

General manager Patrick Steffes spent the pandemic helping to create a new course at Trappers Turn.

J.C. Wilson, who designed the front nine at Cold Water Canyon, and Dan Fleck, who created the back, put together a course that measures 6,027 yards from the back tees. That would be an extremely short course by any standards today, but the layout has tight driving holes and tricky greens. It’s no pushover.

The newest course isn’t, either, but it much better reflects the sign of the times.  Trappers Turn, which already had three nine-holers, just opened 12North – the latest in the national movement towards the unusual.  It doesn’t have nine or 18 holes; it has 12, and by next year it won’t even have any tees.

Trappers Turn’s nine-holers were designed by two-time U.S. Open champion and long-time Wisconsin native Andy North and the late Roger Packard.  North was brought back to work with Craig Haltom in creating 12North. Haltom, owner of Oliphant Golf, found the site for Sand Valley, another Wisconsin facility that became a big hit after Chicago entrepreneur Mike Keiser became an investor.

A $1 million project, 12North was constructed during the heart of the pandemic.

“We were all going through Covid and had a whole lot of time,’’ said Patrick Steffes, general manager and director of golf at Trappers Turn.  “We had a lot of fun with it.  It gave us something to do when there wasn’t anything to do at all.’’

Could there be more colorful landscaping in golf than this one at Trappers Turn?

Land from one of the holes of the original 18 was used in the construction of 12North. The longest hole is No. 12 – a 114-yard finisher.  The shortest is No. 10 at 54 yards. There were seven holes-in-one made in the first six weeks the course was open.

All the tees have mats now, but Steffes says they’ll be gone in the spring. Then the 12North will play like the tee-less H-O-R-S-E Course in Nebraska, where each player decides where to tee off.

“We travel a lot and steal some things,’’ said Steffes.  “I don’t know if we copied from there or not, but we want golfers to play where they want.  If they want to hit from 120 yards to these crazy greens, so be it.’’

Originally the plan was for a walking course.  While some players do walk 12North cart paths have been installed and will remain, as the footing can be tricky on some points of the hilly property.

Trappers Turn, marked by some beautiful landscaping on and near the courses, also will soon open a one-acre lighted putting green and adding  lodging is a strong consideration for down the road. Trappers Turn  is the most complete golf facility in the Dells and has the longest hole – the 600-yard third on its Lake Course, but the best 18  holes may be at Wild Rock at Wilderness Resort, an early work of architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. They later teamed up to created 2017 U.S. Open site Erin Hills, another Wisconsin gem.

Wild Rock also has a nine-hole short course, The Woods, that features an island green. Overall, the Dells has 142 holes of golf, and short is the byword.  Christmas Mountain Village has a challenging par-3 course that measures 2,881 yards to supplement its championship 18-holer.

Fairfield Hills, in Baraboo, is owned by Barrington, Ill., resident Jim Tracy. Its 12-hole course can be played in three, six, nine, 12 or 18 hole loops and its practice range is the largest in the Dells area. Fairfield Hills also offers disc golf on a limited play basis.

“A very playable course,” said Tracy, who bought the place eight years ago.  It depends on your interest in golf and the time you have available.”

Pinecrest, located  near the downtown area of the Dells, has a par-3 course mixed in with an archery course with multiple shooting stations. Longest hole on the Pinecrest links is only 150 yards.  Another nine-holer, Spring Brook, is situated amidst tall pines and can be more challenging.

Wild Rock, a Mike Hurdzan/Dana Fry design, may be the best 18-holer in the Wisconsin Dells.

 

Ownership change triggers big changes at Illinois’ Eagle Ridge

The Highlands Restaurant welcomes visitors to Eagle Ridge, and now it’s bigger and better.

GALENA, IL. – I love Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa.  There, I’ve said it.

Actually, it’s not that earth-shaking a statement.  I’ve had good vibes about this place since my first visit, probably in the early 1970s.  There have been a lot since then, the highlights being an invitee to the Grand Opening of the South Course in 1984 and The General in 1997.

Eagle Ridge is, for all intents, Illinois’ only golf resort – and, with its 63 holes, it’s a good one. More recently, however, it’s undergone some significant changes.  All were triggered by an ownership change.

The resort has had a few of those over the years, but now – for the first time – it has an owner who lives on site.  Mark Klausner and wife Kathy have resided in the Galena Territory for over 20 years.

Klausner lived in the Chicago suburb of Aurora for 30 years and lived in Galenaa part-time.  He became a full-timer in Galena upon his retirement in 2016.   That’s when Eagle Ridge became available for purchase and Klausner stepped to the plate.  He doesn’t like the term “owner,’’ however.

The Klausners prefer to look on themselves as “stewards’’ of the resort.

“I always loved the Territory and feel privileged to be part of this,’’ said Klausner.  “When the opportunity presented itself I said I wanted to be part of it.  Who wouldn’t?’’

Mark and Kathy Klausner, savoring the new decor at The Highlands, have had a long attachment to Eagle Ridge.

Once committed, Klausner put his own game plan into effect. A $2.5 million clubhouse renovation has been the most eye-catching but $800,000 was also targeted for course upgrades.

“My first reaction was, I wanted this to be a world-class, first-class place and when it came time to do this transaction I was a little surprised at the lack of maintenance,’’ said Klausner.

To correct that problem he brought in Marty Johnson.  He’s a local, too.

“We hired the best architect.  He was born and raised in Galena.  Everybody knows and loves him, and he knows all the contractors,’’ said Klausner.  “We’re very fortunate to have him on our team.’’

The “team,’’ most specifically general manager Thomas Ruhs and director of golf  Mike Weiler, were also heavy contributors since Klausner took over but none were more impactful than Johnson.  He designed the original clubhouse for The General, the resort’s premier course and one of the best anywhere.  Twenty years earlier Johnson had designed Klausner’s home near that course.

Views from the new outdoor dining deck at The Highlands are stunning.

This time the Klausner-Johnson combo took on the clubhouse at The Highlands, the headquarters for The General and the first thing you see when you enter the long, winding road to the Eagle Ridge Inn. The Highlands is a lot more impressive now.

Johnson incorporated the General Store into the building. It had been located closer to the Inn.  The Pro Shop was moved from the second floor to the first.  Johnson found some 110-year old beams to highlight a new lounge.  The best part, though, was the creation of a new outdoor dining deck.  Garage doors lead to it and can be open when the weather permits.

The outdoor dining deck has magnificent views that stretch to three states (Illinois and neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin) and include several holes of The General. One is a new No. 18. In the old rotation it was the ninth hole of The General. Many players —  myself included – long felt the nines designed by the late Roger Packard – should be been switched, and they were shortly have Klausner took over.

Under the old rotation the finishing hole could not be seen from the clubhouse. That par-5 is now No. 9. The new rotation coupled with Johnson’s new clubhouse deck has created a much more intimate connection between players on the course and the diners watching them.

The course remains a rarity in the basically flat state of Illinois.  The hills make it special, especially on the tee shots that are now at No. 2, a par-3, and No. 5 – a par-4 that has long been my favorite driving hole in all of golf with its 180-foot elevation change from tee to green.

Klausner said the changes to the resort are only about half done.

“The Spa will get our undivided attention next, then the Inn,’’ he said. “We’re also going to expand the driving range with two more simulators (one is already in operation).’’

And don’t bet on that being the last upgrade at Eagle Ridge.  There’s sure to be more to come.

This used to be the tee shot on No. 10 on The General. Now its at No. 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GOLF/TRAVEL NOTEBOOK: World’s Largest 19th Hole is back at World Am

 

The World’s Largest 19th Hole always packs the house during the Myrtle Beach World Amateur

The Myrtle Beach World Amateur – always one of my favorite tournaments of any year – is adding three new divisions for its 38th staging this year. There’ll also be 70 flights and $100,000 in prize money, and Southwest Airlines has added 10 new non-stop destinations to help players get there.

That’s not the best news, though.

The best news is that the World’s Largest 19th Hole will be back.  It’s one of the best parties in all of golf – four evenings at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center that’s open to all of the anticipated 3,200 participants. Last year, while the five-day tournament was held, the big party had to be canceled because of pandemic concerns.

Without the World’s Largest 19th Hole the World Am didn’t seem to many (including me) to be the World Am. Many of Myrtle Beach’s best dining establishments provide food, beverages of all sorts are plentiful, there’s entertainment of all sorts, exhibits and dancing. In short, it’s the most festive of post-round gatherings of any tournament, anywhere.

This World Am will be played Aug. 30 to Sept. 3 on 55 of Myrtle Beach’s best courses. It consists of 72 holes of net stroke play competition followed by an 18-hole playoff pitting all the division winners against each other.

There’ll be three new gross divisions – for women, men’s senior (50 and over) and men’s mid-senior (60 and over). The winners of the men’s open and men’s mid-senior will receive exemptions to the Dixie Amateur the women’s gross winner will get a pass into the amateur division of the South Carolina Women’s Open.

The women will also have two brackets – one for players 59 and under and another for seniors 60 and over.

There’ll also be a new site for the playoff for all group winners.  After eight years at the Barefoot Resort the climax to the competition will be contest at Grande Dunes. For more information check out PlayGolfMyrtleBeach.com

Welcome the Bootlegger — that’s the name for Forest Dunes’ new 10-hole short course.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?  A highlight of last year’s travels was a return to Forest Dunes, one of the very best courses in Michigan and a long-time favorite of ours.

Last year’s visit was planned around the opening of a 10-hole short course designed by Kieth Rhebb and Riley Johns. It measures but 1,135 yards but is a nice supplement to the well-regarded 18-holer designed by Tom Weiskopf, the highly innovative Loop (a Tom Doak design that can be played in two directions) and a big putting course.

Now the new short course has a name.  It’s called the Bootlegger, a nod to the history of the land Forest Dunes was built on.

GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES: Brickyard Crossing isn’t a new course, but it’ll always be a unique one.  The Pete Dye design has four holes inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I was part of a a pre-opening preview arranged by Dye many years ago and have yet to visit a course quite like this one.

Now that course is going to get more of the attention that it has long deserved.  NBC Sports’ GolfNow technology and services is being added “to better manage operations and improve the guest book experience through enhanced tee time management, pricing, payments and marketing.’’

The upgrade isn’t lost on driver Conor Daly of Ed Carpenter Racing.

“Brickyard Cross is a world-class course set against an incredible backdrop.. This partnership with NBC Sports and GolfNow only serves to enhance an already epic experience,’’ Daly said.

A REALLY GRAND OPENING: Any Jack Nicklaus course opening is something special, but at American Dunes it’s even more so.

The Grand Haven, Mich., course, which benefits the Folds of Honor, had some play last fall but the formal opening is coming up on May 2.  The project represents the vision and collaboration of Folds of Honor founder and chief executive officer Dan Rooney and Nicklaus, who donated his design team’s services to support the Folds of Honor mission.

 

Pandemic just postponed the party at Innisbrook; now the good times are back

The flower bed on the Copperhead course sets the tone at Innisbrook Resort.

PALM HARBOUR, Florida – Golf, maybe more than any other sport, likes to celebrate anniversaries.  The pandemic took a toll on those.

The PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic was poised for its 50th anniversary in 2020.  Now it’ll be staged this July, pandemic restrictions permitting.  The International Network of Golf was to mark its 30th anniversary at last year’s Spring Conference.  That event remains in limbo.

None were more affected than the Innisbrook Resort, however.  The Valspar Championship, the PGA Tour’s annual event at Innisbrook, was the first to be called off when the pandemic hit in force.  Not only that, but Innisbrook was to celebrate its own 50th anniversary in 2020. Through it all, the resort had to close its doors for 59 days before re-opening in July.

All’s well now, though.  The Valspar returns in April, with new – and I think better — dates from previous years and managing director Mike Williams says the resort’s anniversary events have been rescheduled for November and December as a 50-plus-one celebration.

Now, speaking almost a year to the day when the dark days hit Innisbrook, Williams can look back on it as a bad memory that won’t be much longer-lasting.

“Last March 11 we learned that the Valspar would be played without fans,’’ recalled Williams.  “The next day we learned the tournament had been canceled.  The entire build-up at the course had been completed.  The entire staff was here.  Even some of the players were on site.  It was just devastating to have the rug pulled out from under us.’’

Icons of Innisbrook: the Coppershead snake and a plaque honoring course designer Larry Packard.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced the bad news during and after the first round of The Players Championship on March 12 and the Tour didn’t resume tournament play until June 11.

Innisbrook tried to make the best of it, scheduling some Playing Where the Pros Play promotions while the tournament stands were still in place.  That didn’t last long.

“Ten days later we had to close the resort,’’ said Williams.  “We completely understood that the Tour did what it had to do, but it was a year we hope we never have to go through again.’’

When golfers could return to Innisbrook they turned out in droves. Corporate business and weddings will take a little more time to return, but Innisbrook was immediately ready to welcome its  golfers back.

The Island course, with a tree in the middle of one green, is a colorful counterpart to Coppershead.

“It was amazing,’’ said Williams. “As we re-opened we were the beneficiary of the interest in golf.  We opened in a very safe manner, and each month we saw gains (in revenue) from the previous year.  Golfers are keeping us going now.  Golfers are our hot hand, and we feed the hot hand. Golf withstood the onslaught and experienced a resurgence.’’

In addition to its four Larry Packard-designed golf courses Innisbrook has 11 tennis courts, six swimming pools and the legendary Packard’s Steakhouse on its 950-acres.

The Valspar – aptly billed “the most  colorful event on the Tour’’ — will be played April 29 to May 2.. The new dates fall three weeks after the Masters and separate the Valspar from the traditional Florida Swing.  The Valspar weren’t part of the weeks when the Honda Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players take their turns in the Sunshine State’s golf spotlight as lead-ins to the year’s first major championship. The Valspar will  have an identity all its own now.

That should get all of Innisbrook’s courses more attention.  The Copperhead course has been the site of a nationally-televised pro event every year since 1989, except for the times when two national   emergencies – 9/11 and the pandemic – got in the way.

Copperhead is a classic shot-maker’s course, and very popular with the PGA Tour stars, but it may not be the best course at the resort. The Island course has its devotees, me among them.  It doesn’t have the space to host a big tournament but, of the four nines encompassing Copperhead and the Island, the Island’s front side is the toughest of the four.

Upon our arrival this year the representive at the guard gate informed us that “the Island is the easiest to find and the toughest to play’’ and the starter at Copperhead said the PGA Tour site wasn’t as difficult as its lesser-known companion course.

Innisbrook also has its North and South layouts, both of which were re-grassed in 2017 and 2018. They’re a nice diversion from the demands at Copperhead and the Island.

PGA Tour stars are big fans of Copperhead, a shotmaker’s delight that is certainly a course that’s easy on the eyes.

 

 

Mission Inn is making good use of both of its courses

No. 15, at 142 yards, is the shortest, and prettiest, hole on Mission Inn’s El Campeon course.

 

HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Florida – Bud Beucher, president of the history-rich Mission Inn Resort & Club, has never been reluctant to host tournaments. Most all were high school, junior or college events.

Until now.

It’s doubtful that any golf facility in the country can match the schedule of professional tour events and U.S. Golf Association qualifiers that Beucher has lined up for 2021. It all starts on March 1 when Canada’s Mackenzie Tour holds its four-day qualifying tournament on Mission’s El Campeon layout. The circuit canceled its 2020 season because of pandemic concerns.

Next up would be the biggest of the year’s events — the Symetra Tour’s $200,000 Mission Inn Resort & Club Championship on May 28-30.  The Symetra, the developmental tour for the Ladies PGA, held a tournament at Mission Inn last October – an event organized late after a tournament in Georgia had to be canceled because of pandemic concerns.

The PGA’s Latinoamerica circuit will also conduct a qualifying session on El Campeon Nov. 1-5.  The Mackenzie, Symetra and Latinoamerica events now have multiyear contracts with Mission Inn.

With six national events scheduled in 2021, Bud Beucher (left), president of Mission Inn Resort & Club, and Roy Schindele, director of marketing and sales, have boosted the place’s profile as a tournament site.

“We’ve had pro tournaments before, but not at this level,’’ said Beucher. The previous pro tournaments were men’s events many years back – a Nike Tour stop and a visit from the Grapefruit Tour in the 1960s or 1970s before construction of the hotel was completed.

In addition to this year’s three big competitions Mission Inn will also host three USGA qualifiers – a men’s local elimination for the U.S. Open on April 29, a U.S. Amateur preliminary on July 1-2 and a lead-in to the U.S. Mid-Amateur on Aug. 30.

“We’ve worked hard to build our presence in the upper end of the golf market, and it’s paying off,’’ said Michael Bowery, in his ninth year as the resort’s director of golf and a former roommate of Beucher’s at the University of Arizona.

All the tournaments and qualifiers will be held on El Campeon, the older of Mission’s two courses.  It was built in 1917 and is one of the oldest – and best – layouts in Florida; The designer was a Chicago architect, George O’Neil.

El Campeon, which means “The Champion,’’ was declared the Florida Golf Course of the Year in 2009 by the National Golf Course Owners Association. Over the years it has also been known as the Howey Golf Club, Chain O’Lakes, Bougainvillea and Floridian.  The course has 85 feet of elevation changes, which is quite a bit for a Florida layout, and water comes into play on 13 of the 18 holes.

Even though the pro events and USGA qualifiers are on the calendar, there’s no plans for Mission Inn to cut back on its amateur events.   It’s been the site of 11 NCAA championship events and eight straight years of Florida high school championships.

Though El Campeon is by far the older of Mission’s courses, it remains the preferred layout.  The newer course, Las Colinas (“The Hills’’), was designed by PGA Tour player turned TV commentator Gary Koch in 1992 and re-designed by Florida architect Ron Garl in 2007.  It’s more user friendly than the challenging El Campeon,  and Las Colinas was given a new look late in the 2019 season.

That’s when Beucher and superintendent Danny Parks created a course within the course — an executive layout dubbed El Dorado. Though the short course was created just by building new tees, those markers were very strategically placed and the result is a most fun layout that provides a diversion from the two long-established 18-holers.

“From a price structure it doesn’t matter,’’ said Beucher, “but players can switch from the long to the shorter tees as they go along.’’

The Beucher family has been the owner and operator of Mission Inn since 1964.  The family built  first hotel in 1970 and now the resort has 176 rooms, four restaurants, a conference center, a top-level tennis facility and a restored river yacht and marina on Lake Harris.

Just by building new, strategically placed tees, Mission Inn has created an executive course– dubbed El Dorado — that was built within its Las Colinas layout.

Tennis, hockey players have supplemented the golfers at Saddlebrook

Saddlebrook Resort has plenty to offer, be it indoors or outdoors.

WESLEY CHAPEL, Florida – For 40 years now, the Saddlebrook Resort has been well-equipped for golfers. For most of that time it had two Arnold Palmer-designed golf courses.  Enough said.

There’s more to the Saddlebrook story than that, however.

Owner Tom Dempsey, who made his mark in the publishing industry in Cleveland, was a member at Palmer’s Bay Hill Club in Orlando when he took over Saddlebrook.  The facility then had an 18-hole course designed by Dean Refram, who had a stint on the PGA Tour after developing his game at Chicago’s famed Medinah Country Club.

Palmer was hired to remodel the original Saddlebrook Course after Dempsey took over and later designed another course on the property, now known as the Palmer Course. Both are on the short side by today’s standards, Saddlebook measuring 6,510 yards from the back tees and the Palmer checking out at 6,273 from the tips.  They’re great for resort play, though, and many of those enjoying the Saddlebrook golf experience have been prominent in other sports.

In Saddlebrook’s early years, in fact, the highest-profile athletes on the grounds were tennis players.  Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles were among the tennis stars who trained there in the 1980s and 1990s. Legendary coach Harry Hopman was in charge of the tennis side until selling to Dempsey in 1986.

Now it’s the Tampa Tennis Academy.  It has 45 courts and includes surfaces from all four of the Grand Slam tournaments.

“We still do well with that,’’ said Pat Farrell, Saddlebrook’s director of golf sales, “but American tennis isn’t what it used to be.’’

No doubt about that.  The glory years of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Chris Evert are long gone.

Cypress trees, some 100 feet tall, dominate the Saddlebrook course.

As it pertains to Saddlebrook, however, the athletes enjoying the golf courses are now hockey players. That all started in 2018 when USA Hockey chose Saddlebrook to host the U.S. women’s team when it was preparing for the Winter Olympics.

“The team stayed for seven months.  They’d train in the morning, then come back here and play golf in the afternoon,’’ said Farrell.

Oh, yes.  That women’s team also won the gold medal.

Now hockey players are back at Saddlebrook, and at a time when all such facilities can use more heads in their beds.  The pandemic has cut down the number of guests at most resorts, but the arrival of the U.S. Premier Hockey League allieviated the shortage at Saddlebrook.

“It’s the highest level of youth amateur hockey,’’ said Farrell.

About 600 players and 50 teams from around the country have used Saddlebrook as their bubble during the pandemic. On-ice training and games are conducted at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s practice rink each day, then – like the women Olympians – their action shifts to Saddebrook’s courses.

Farrell said about 60 of the youth hockey players play golf every day.  They arrived on Jan. 4 and will stay at Saddlebrook into March. Each team plays a 40-game schedule.

“Of the 540 rooms in our rental pool, they take up 470,’’ said Farrell. “We’re very fortunate because a lot of other (resorts), from a room perspective, are dying on the vine.’’

Saddlebook is not like most other multi-sport resorts. A teaching academy, Saddlebrook Prep, is also on the premises.  It has students from about 20 countries starting at the age of 13. Classes are limited to 12 students and 30 instructors are on the staff.

Saddlebrook isn’t all about sports. It also has an academy on its premises.

There isn’t much driving on the resort grounds.  Guests park their cars upon arrival, then are transported via shuttles to the golf courses, the tennis courts, the restaurants, the centerpiece swimming pool, the spa or whatever other attraction they want to use.

As for the golf, Saddlebook had one star player – India’s Sungjay Im – on the premises once the PGA Tour halted its tournament schedule on March 12.  He remained there, practicing daily until the tournaments resumed in June.

The par-70 Saddlebrook Course, has a stunning 429-yard finishing hole but its trademark is the cypress trees, some of which have grown to nearly 100 feet in height. The par-71 Palmer Course has generous driving areas with lots of humps and bumps to make them more challenging. The greens are firm, fast and undulating with a rare par-3 as its finishing hole. Both courses are undergoing a structured improvement program that started in 2016.

There’s also a 16-acre training center for the golfers that was designed by Mike Angus, the architect for the Phil Mickelson Golf Course Design Co.