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.

Big things are happening on the Citrus Golf Trail

It’s official. James Cramer (left) begins the introduction process leading into the announcement that the Citrus Golf Trail Open will make its debut in 2021.

SEBRING, Florida — The Citrus Golf Trail has – most justifiably —  promoted itself as “The Value Golf Capital of America.’’

Joe Staffieri, the  manager at Pinecrest on Loleta in Avon Park, created the Trail in 2012 and it’s flourishing like never before now.

“Golf can be expensive, but if you want to make a golf trip without breaking the bank you can come here and play for $20 — $60 in peak season,’’ said Andy Kesling, head professional at Sun ‘N Lake Golf Club and a Trail official.  “We’re very excited about what the future holes.  We have a lot to offer here.’’

The Sebring area isn’t just an economical place to play good golf. Big things are happening at the six golf facilities that comprise the Trail.  Two have recently gotten new owners and collectively the group has put together a big new amateur event that will debut in December of 2021.

The biggest splash made most recently has been at what had been the Spring Lake Golf Resort, a facility that had opened in the 1970s. Signature H Property Group purchased the 352-acre property in November of 2019, renamed it the Sebring International Golf Resort and went on a major rebranding mission.

“It had 45 holes in its heyday,’’ said Helmut Wyzisk III, president and chief executive officer of Signature H.  “Then it fell on hard times.  My business is re-positioning and re-developing golf courses.  We come in with a vision. Play had been coming down but it had a great footprint for us to bring in other amenities and save 27 championship holes.’’

Those 45 holes have been whittled to 39. The 18-hole Cougar, a 5,500-yard par-70 course, and the nine-hole Panther nine are being renovated. The nine-hole Bobcat has been closed and will become the gathering point for fishermen. And, within that mix, is The 12 –  a creation of Steve Smyers, a Florida architect who has designed courses across the U.S.

The 12 is a course that ties in golf and auto racing — a good combination in Sebring.

The 12 is so named because of the famous auto race, 12 Hours of Sebring, that is staged annually within earshot of Sebring International. Smyers’ course consists of 12 par-3 holes, some of them very much on the short side but all of them fun. A group of media played the initial round there on a Dec. 8 riding tour, but the course is perfect for walkers.

Meanwhile, the Panther nine is undergoing a major renovation.  What had been the longest hole in Florida golf – No. 4, a par-6 that measured 800 yards from the back tees – is no more. Wyzisk, his father Helmut Wyzisk Jr. and head professional Craig Bendall are creating a re-routing that will make the new par-3 on that part of the property a signature hole. A tee box with three elevation changes is being constructed.

A recreation center, 44 new cabins and some new golf villas are in the works and amenities like a member’s pool, bocce ball and sports courts are also in the future plans.

“We’re here to create something different, and we’re lucky to still have this property,’’ said Wyzisk. “We came in at the perfect time.’’

Here’s what’s left of the 800-yard par-6 hole at Sebring International. Once the longest hole in Florida golf, it’ll soon become an elevated tee box for a signature par-3 on the Panther nine.

Golf enthusiasm has been in abundance in the Sebring area, which is 60 miles south of Disney World.  That was evident with the announcement of the upcoming Citrus Golf Trail Open.  It was made at Pinecrest, one of six courses on the Trail, and a club that had been a big tournament site years ago.  One of the early televised match play elimination tournaments was played there in 1959 as part of the World Championship Golf series on NBC. It offered what was then one of the biggest purses in golf — $171,000.

The following year Pinecrest hosted the best men and women players in the world at the Haig & Haig Scotch Foursome tournament, which remained in the Sebring area until 1964. Arnold Palmer, Tommy Bolt, Julius Boros, Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Joanne Carner all played there and Al Balding and Fred Hawkins were regulars at Pinecrest after their retirements as tour players.

Guest players were pretty high profiles, too – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Grover Cleveland, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the comedy team of Burns & Allen.

Only amateurs – an expected 350 of them, men and women – will participate in the new Citrus Golf Trail Open, which will make its debut Dec. 2-5, 2021, and be a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Highland County. Its projected to become an annual event.

“It’s a wonderful time to announce this exciting new tournament that will shine a light on the great courses that make up the Citrus Golf Trail,’’ said Kesling. More details are to be announced on the Trail website (www.citrusgolftrail.com).

In addition to Pinecrest and Sebring International, the courses on the Trail include River Greens, Sebring Municipal and Sun ‘N Lakes’ two 18-holers — Deer Run and Turtle Run.

This fallen pine went down in a hurricane two years ago at Sebring Municipal. Reflecting the powers of nature, it’s become a popular photo shoot for golfers.

 

 

 

 

GOLF TRAVEL NOTES: Two long-time favorites are changing course

 

 

First of all, HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all of our traveling golfers from our place in Florida’s PGA Village.

We are now in the heart of the holiday season and we hope that all our friends will enjoy these days to the fullest. Golf travel wasn’t so easy in this pandemic year, but we’re sure that better days are ahead. Len Ziehm on Golf wanted to remain on your radar when it came to providing the latest from travel destinations. To do that we have made three driving trips in 2020, visiting seven states after the pandemic clicked in big-time on March 12.  Spending 37 days on the road for those jaunts isn’t much, compared what we’ve done in our previous 10 years driving around the country to report on golf travel. We have one trip, albeit a short one, remaining in 2020.  Next week we’ll be going to Sebring, Florida — a great place for golfers who want to play a lot and still enjoy the many benefits that a small town offers.

IN THE MEANTIME, here’s updates from some of our favorite places that we visited recently.

California’s LaCosta Resort, the scene of lots of big tournaments in the past, has been named the site of the NCAA Championships three years in a row.

DESPITE THE problems caused by the pandemic there were three big stories in the world of golf travel in 2020.  Two involved long-famous destinations, the other a Texas town that is certain to become one.

Back in the day Ohio’s Firestone and California’s LaCosta were among the very best PGA Tour stops.  Firestone, a long-time private club, hosted big tournaments since the 1950s and LaCosta was on the pro tour calendar from 1968 through 2007 before focusing on resort play.

Now things have changed.

Firestone, now open to non-members, is offering stay-and-play packages, and LaCosta, with its 36 holes, is back in the tournament business – or at least it will be soon.  Following a renovation of its Champions Course by Gil Hanse – the game’s hottest architect at the moment, the resort will host the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s championships from 2024 to 2026.

We’ve been to both places, but not in recent years.  I’ve played the Firestone courses and reported on tournaments there.  LaCosta was a key part of a five-week driving trip through western states in 2015 that included stops at prominent destinations in California, Washington and Arizona.

LaCosta was a name from the past even back then.  It had hosted 25 PGA Tour events and two LPGA tournaments in those more high-profile times.

From 1968-98 it was the site of the Mercedes Championship – also known as the Tournament of Champions. Tournament rounds consisted of nine holes on the Champions Course and nine of the Legends Course, and a great list of champions included Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Then that event moved to Hawaii.

LaCosta wasn’t tournament-starved for long. A year later the Accenture Match Play Championship, a World Golf Championship event, moved in and was staged there until 2006 (minus one year when the event was played in Australia in 2001). Then it moved to Arizona.

In came the LPGA with its Kia Classic, in 2011 and 2012, but then it switched to Aviara, another  course in the Carlsbad, Calif., area.

Losing those big ones was a blow to the resort, which had been taken over by the Omni hotel chain. LaCosta celebrated its 50th anniversary while we were there and Champions, originally designed by Dick Wilson, was notable for its steep bunkers (78 had been put in during a redesign for the WGC arrival).  Now Hanse and partner Jim Wagner will begin another upgrading with the NCAA Championships in mind.

As for Firestone, it was the site of such biggies as the World Series of Golf, three PGA Championships, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and – most recently – the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship. Its underdoing a renovation, too, with 18 bunkers being removed from the Fazio (formerly West) Course and the remaining 51 being reshaped and enhanced by the Better Billy Bunker system to improve drainage.

There’s also been a management change. Jay Walkinshaw, who held management positions at –among others – California hotspots Olympic Club and  Pebble Beach, is now the general manager and Tommy Moore is the new director of golf.

A potentially bigger splash  is being made in Frisco, Tex.  The PGA of America announced it was moving much of its headquarters there from its long-time home in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. The PGA is making big plans for the facility in Texas, and the first two of its courses there – the East, designed by Hanse, and the West, designed by Beau Welling — are almost finished.  They won’t be open for a while, however, as the PGA wants to a full year for the courses to grow in  and maintenance practices established.

The projected opening for the courses is June of 2022 and the first tournament scheduled in Frisco is the Senior PGA Championship in 2023.

MORE TIDBITS, FROM HERE AND THERE

We’ve hit lots of shots on lots of courses in Myrtle Beach, but this was one time a free drop was mandatory,

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – As always, lots is going on in this golf mecca. The Myrtle Beach Preseason Classic, a two-man 54-hole team event, will tee off on six courses from Feb. 1-3.  The 150-team field is already full…..The March Championship has a new name.  It’s now the World Amateur Q School….Three-time World Long Drive champion Sean Fister is now on the staff of the Dustin Johnson Junior Golf Academy….Mystical Golf, which has three courses (Man-O-War, The Witch and The Wizard), has overseeded its layouts with Ryegrass and that means wall to wall emerald green fairways, rough and putting surfaces as opposed to the usual dormant brown conditions found on most courses during the cold weather months.

STREAMSONG – KemperSports has expanded its role at this three-course central Florida destination. The Chicago-based group has been involved with the Streamsong golf operation since the resort was launched in 2012. Now Kemper will manage all resort operations.

PINEHURST, N.C. – The U.S. Golf Association and Kids Golf Foundation both announced they’re setting up headquarters in this golf hotbed, but there’s more. The Dormie Club is getting a 16,600-foot clubhouse, a stand-alone pro shop and 15 cottages to enhance its Bill Coore-Ben Creshaw designed course. Improvements have been made to the course, too.  All the projects are to be completed by June, 2021.

BANDON DUNES – Oregon’s very special facility has announced its championship events for 2021.  The Bandon Dunes Cup is May 2-5, the Golf Digest Open June 6-9, the Links Championship June 27-30 and the Fall Match Play Oct. 20-23.

BARTON CREEK – This Omni resort and spa in Austin, Tex., will host the PGA Professional Championship – the world’s largest all-professional event – on its Fazio Foothills and Coore-Crenshaw courses in April of 2022.

EAGLE RIDGE – Illinois’ premier resort has won the Stella Award from North Star Meeting Group for the second year in a row.  Its Gold award  in the regional hotel category honors the “Best Golf Resort in the Midwest.’’ Eagle Ridge has four courses, headed by The General.  The resort’s attractions also include the new Highlands Restaurant and Lounge 289.

 

 

 

 

These trying times didn’t faze Myrtle Beach’s Founders Group

 

King’s North, at Myrtle Beach National, has a par-5 that’s hard to play — and hard to forget.

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina — Believe it or not, there are some good things coming out of this horrible pandemic that has negatively impacted the U.S. for the last nine months. It created a bigger demand for golf nation-wide — play is up over 20 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation —  and the pandemic resulted in some positive changes to the game as well.

Justin Binke, director of marketing for Founders Group International, has witnessed it first hand, as Myrtle Beach has retained its title as “Golf Capital of the World’’ and FGI has the area’s most established group of courses, loyalty programs and reservation services.

FGI has acquired 21 courses in the area since 2014.  They include TPC Myrtle Beach and Grande Dunes, both former honorees as Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association,  and Pine Lakes Country Club, where the MB golf boom began. Pine Lakes was the first club to open there, in 1927, and its founder was Robert White, the first president of the PGA of America.

All the good years, though, were threatened by the pandemic.

“Granted these have been unfortunate times,’’ said Binke, “but golf has been an out for people who want to get out of the house, get some exercise and play the game that we all love.  They feel safe coming to a golf course, and we’ve seen a rise in local golf.’’

Binke also oversees two of the area’s most popular package companies – MyrtleBeachGolfTrips.com and MBN.com. They’ve been key to keeping golf strong in an area where it’s always been that way.

“We’ve made sure our websites are up to date,’’ said Binke.  “We have everything golfers are looking to do.  We have specials, lodging and great golf courses all there for people to come to see, and we’ve taken the proper protocols to keep everyone safe. We’ve also tried to be the resource for not only golf packages, but for all things golf in Myrtle Beach.’’

No. 3 at King’s North has an island green and — if you get an aerial view — bunkers that honor South Carolina.

On the playing side, there have been two big positives. FGI was quick to point out that walking would be allowed at all its courses.  Not many golf destinations allow that, but the declaration was helpful at the FGI facilities.

“We’ve seen a rise in people wanting to walk, be outside and enjoy great weather this summer,’’ said Binke.  “We’ll continue to allow walking if people choose to do so.’’

Most players continue to ride, and the MB walkers must provide their own push-carts or carry their own bags. Still, walking is an option that should be offered at more destinations. The argument that it slows down play is bogus.

Actually, some  protocols put in place because of the pandemic have speeded up play – like not allowing rakes in bunkers, keeping flagsticks inserted in raised cups (so golfers don’t have to reach in to retrieve their balls) and dispensing with sand bottles in carts to repair divots. Those are measures that could be retained once the pandemic restrictions are lifted. At least they’re worth considering.

Grande Dune’s clubhouse provides a welcoming finish from the 18th fairway.

“We have seen an increase in speed of play, and that beneficial to us all,’’ said Binke

Our latest visit to the “Golf Capital of the World’’ enabled us to see how things were working at three of the FGI courses. The answer? Everything was just fine at Grande Dunes, the King’s North course at Myrtle Beach National and TPC Myrtle Beach.

King’s North was really something special. Over the years I’ve played an estimated 30 courses in the Myrtle Beach area and King’s North is now my favorite after playing my first round there. (Of course, I’ll have to play the other 70 or so to provide a definitive answer – and I hope I’ll be able to do that).

Arnold Palmer designed all three of the courses at Myrtle Beach National, with help from Francis Duane. King’s North, which opened in 1973 but was re-designed by Palmer in 1996, has some special touches.  An island green at No. 3 is one. The bunkers on that hole also are a tribute to the state of South Carolina (they form an “SC”) and No. 18 has an astonishing 43 bunkers all by itself. They don’t impact play all that much, though.

The most interesting special feature at King’s North is “The Gambler’’ at the par-5 sixth hole. You’ve got a variety of playing options on this risk-reward hole, and it merits its claim as “The Most Unique Par 5 in All of Golf.’’

King’s North and TPC Myrtle Beach are both good walking courses, Grande Dunes not so much. The TPC layout, a Tom Fazio design with consulting help from Lanny Wadkins, opened in 1999. It includes the Dustin Johnson Golf Academy and many of DJ’s trophies are on display in the clubhouse. Grande Dunes, a Roger Rulewich design, opened in 2001 and offers great views of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The march up the 18th fairway at TPC Myrtle Beach is lined with bunkers all the way to the clubhouse.

 

 

 

 

Kilmarlic’s Cottages provide a big boost to golf on the Outer Banks

 

The home hole at Kilmarlic brings golfers right up to the clubhouse.

POWELLS POINT, N.C. – Golf has been played around the Outer Banks of North Carolina since 1988 but its development was a slow one. Nags Head Links was the first to open,  and The Sound Links, The Pointe, Currituck, Carolina Club, Kilmarlic, The Pines and Scotch Hall Preserve all were taking players by 2008.

Those courses all had their followings among residents and visitors to the area, which divides the Atlantic Ocean from the Currituck Sound. The problem was keeping those players there. There wasn’t enough lodging geared to golfers.

That shortcoming was alleviated only recently when the Kilmarlic Club Cottages were built. There’s 18 of them, all named after former Masters champions. Each has two bedrooms and two baths plus a full kitchen, living room and back deck that includes a gas grill. Thirteen surround a lighted 5,000 square foot putting green and five are set near a small pond.

There’s also a four-hole short course, called The Killie.  Its holes range from 27 to 40 yards.

Bryan Sullivan, co-owner of Kilmarlic Resort and Club, saw a definite uptick in play after the cottages were completed in April of 2019.  The construction of all of them took 14 months. The pandemic forced a slow start to the 2020 season, but Sullivan reports “our best June, July, August and September we’ve ever had’’ since then.

High grass at the start of the tee boxes creates an imposing look for golfers at Kilmarlic.

“(The cottages) were a big investment,’’ said Sullivan, “but I always felt fairly confident we could get the golf rentals.  The big question was whether we could get the summertime family rentals.  As it’s turned out, those rentals have been a big hit and a big surprise.’’

It wasn’t just the golf that made them work. Other attractions – notably a water park within walking distance and the always popular Wright Brothers historic air flight museum and monument in Kitty Hawk – brought in families, too. So did the availability of watersports.

“As I like to tell guests, you can have your toes in the ocean in 10 minutes from here,’’ said Sullivan.  “After the first six cottages were completed and we saw the reaction to them, we knew we had it. It was a home run for us.’’

Bryan Sullivan has taken Outer Banks golf to a new level.

The Kilmarlic course, recognized as one of the best in not only the Outer Banks but state-wide as well, is certainly an attraction. As site of the North Carolina Open in 2004 and 2009, it’s no secret to golfers.  It’s also been the annual site of the OBX Intercollegiate, hosted by Old Dominion. At the 2019 staging of that event Michael O’Brien, of St. Joseph’s of Pennsylvania, shot a course record 61.

Sullivan, who played on both the PGA and Canadian pro tours, had shared the old record of 63, his hot round coming in the North Carolina Open.  He’s been at Kilmarlic from its beginning, when Tom Steele designed the course. Steele, a landscape architect from Virginia, designed only one other course – Nansemond River in Suffolk, VA. It opened in 1999.

Though not well known in golf architecture, Steele created a course that’s not long (6,615 yards from the back tees) and has no real signature hole.

He had 605 acres have maritime forests and wetlands wo work with and  Sullivan likes the par-5 ninth as his favorite hole.

High grass in front of most of the tees creates the illusion that the holes are longer than they really area. The par-3s are all easy on the eye and present a variety of challenges.  The par-5s all have a risk-reward look.

The course’s name came from a ship from Kilmarnock, Scotland, that sank off the shores of the Outer Banks in the mid-1600s. Apparently the ship was filled with whiskey and the area residents enjoyed a big celebration after confiscating it.

Here are scenes from Kilmarmic’s new Cottages.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:  www.PlayOBXGolf.com

 

 

 

No doubt about it: Michigan’s LochenHeath is back in the swing of things

 

LochenHeath has plenty of memorable holes, and waterfront views only make them better.

WILLIAMSBURG, Michigan – This is one of those golf feel-good stories that you don’t see often enough.

It focuses on LochenHeath Golf Club in northern Michigan, on the outskirts of Traverse City.  LochenHeath is a course that once was closed, but has since been rescued thanks to some extraordinary efforts by a few club members and some dedicated employes. Now they have one of the best public courses in this golf-rich state.

The course, designed by the well-respected Steve Smyers, has a beautiful site above East Grand Traverse Bay. Built on what had been a 300-acre cherry orchard, LochenHeath opened as a public course in 2002, went private in 2004 and then reverted to a daily fee operation in 2008. The end result of those maneuvers led to bankruptcy and a shutdown that lasted over two years

Eleven members brought the club out of foreclosure in the spring of 2011, but they did more than that. Their passion for the project made all the difference.

“Really quite a story,’’ recounted general manager Kevin O’Brien.  “The members didn’t sit by during the shutdown.  They came out and kept the course alive – mowing, weeding bunkers, whatever they could do.’’

At one point the grass in the fairways was knee-high, and one of the bunkers required 65 man-hours of hand labor for it to survive.

Joe Ettawagiac, who had been the assistant superintendent, was brought back as the head man and another former employee, chef Joseph George, was also re-hired.  In May of 2011 those involved held a celebratory reopening.

O’Brien, who joined the effort in 2013, had worked at some other good places in Michigan.  He was in charge at the 36-hole Tullymore Resort, in Stanwood, for 20 years. While O’Brien was there architect Jim Engh created the resort’s  namesake course that was judged America’s Best New Public and Resort Course after its opening in 2002.  St. Ives, the resort’s older course, is considered one of the best for women.

After Tullymore O’Brien went to True North, in Harbor Springs.  It also had a course designed by Engh. O’Brien was there for two years until LochenHeath came calling.

“The members wanted to transition back to private, something I had done at True North,’’ said O’Brien, “but here it’s different.  It’ll take nine or 10 years. We figured it’d be a long process.’’

Architect Steve Smyers gave LochenHeath a Scottish links look.

For now O’Brien  describes LochenHeath as “a private club that invites limited outside play.’’

While the recruitment of more members may take some time, the product doesn’t seem a hard sell. Smyers, once the president of the Golf Course Architects of America, took on a site that had 85 feet of elevation changes.  That was a good start for him to make something good, and he did.

“The conditioning and golf course views are exceptional,” said O’Brien, “and there’s great movement to the land.”

More recently two spatious cottages have been built to attract national members. The outdoor practice area is also state-of-the-art and simulators are available for use indoors.

This is one of those courses that must be played from the proper set of tees to fit a player’s talent level. If that commonsense practice is followed you’ll find LochenHeath challenging, but – more than anything —  a lot of fun. If you don’t follow that guideline you won’t appreciate what LochenHeath offers.

The course measures 7,287 yards from the back tees, where the rating is 77.2 and the slope 150.  LochenHeath measures only 5,031 from the front markers, and there are seven sets of tees.

Best hole may be No. 7, a downhill par-5.  At 579 yards from the tips, it’s the longest  on the course and – with a 70-foot elevation drop – it’s the No. 1 handicap hole.  That finishing stretch, though, can break your heart.

Last of the par-3s is No. 15 which requires an uphill tee shot to a green that slopes sharply back to front. Keeping your ball from running off the front and into a deep ravine is no easy task. Then comes two of the toughest par-4s on the layout and the finisher is a tight par-5 that demands a straight tee shot.  Long hitters might be able to reach the green in two shots if the tee shot is a good one.

A PGA Tour player, Ryan Brehm, holds the course record with a 65 — and he’s also a LochenHeath member.

Pass through the gate into LochenHeath Golf Club, and you’re in for a real treat.