GRAND TRAVERSE: Michigan mainstay takes season approach

ACME, Mich. – It’s not easy operating a golf resort in Michigan. There’s just so much competition. This golf-rich state has more public courses — over 700 — than any other state.

The best ones, though, are able to survive in the long term. Perhaps the best example is Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, six miles outside of Traverse City in a beautiful 900-acre setting on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay.

This facility opened in 1980 as the Grand Traverse Hilton and was an immediate hit. Jack Nicklaus designed The Bear course, which opened amidst much fanfare the day after Andy North won the U.S. Open at another Michigan course, Oakland Hills in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. Grand Traverse’s operators took the extraordinary step of inviting the sizeable golf media contingent at Oakland Hills to come for a visit, and many accepted. They passed on glowing reports about the challenging layout.

A year later the resort opened a 17-story tower that overlooks The Bear and two other courses – The Wolverine, a Gary Player design that opened in 1999, and Spruce Run, a more sporty layout that pre-dates the resort. Designed by William Newcomb, it opened in 1979. The three courses operate out of one clubhouse and it’ll be Spruce Run that gets special attention next.

“We’re always trying to make improvements,’’ said Mike DeAgostino, the resort’s public relations manager since 1992, “and we’re about to start repaving the cart paths on Spruce Run. In the large scope of golf that’s not a big deal, but it is a several hundred thousand dollars project, and we’ll do it in three stages.’’

The Bear remains the resort’s crowned jewel. It was the Michigan Golf Course Owners Course of the Year in 2012 and among Golf Digest’s 10 Greatest Public Courses in 2013-14 – and those are just a few of the honors it has won over the years.

Even with such a great course Grand Traverse wasn’t exempt from financial struggles and ownership changes. It’s had four owners, the current one being the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. That group took over in 2003, made the place better and broadened its options.

Grand Traverse now has about 600 rooms, 86,000 square-feet of meeting space, an indoor water playground, a 100,000 square-foot health club, a private beach club, a variety of shops and boutiques and three full-service dining options. The most interesting of those, The Aerie Restaurant and Lounge, is located on the 16th floor of the hotel and isn’t to be missed. Its menu is intriguing as well as tasty, and the views spectacular.

Sweetwater American Bistro and Jack’s Sports Bar offer more casual dining and the Clubhouse Grille and Marketplace coffee shop are other possibilities.

In the winter there’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sleigh rides available on the property. The state-of-the-art spa is inviting with its hydrotherapy, body wraps, massages, facials, manicures and pedicures. There are also two casinos nearby.

The Turtle Creek Casino, four miles away, is within sight of Grand Traverse and complimentary shuttles are available. Turtle Creek has a 54,000 square-foot gaming floor with more than 40 gaming tables, a poker room, 1,300 slots and a newly-opened high limit area. The Leelanau Sands Casino, 25 miles away, is also an option.

There isn’t an “off season’’ for golfers at Grand Traverse, though. Golf remains a year-around activity because its 2,000 square-foot Golf Academy can be transformed into a Winter Golf Center that has three heated, indoor-outdoor hitting bays equipped with mirrors and motion-capture technology for swing analysis.

It also has a notable man in charge. Scott Hebert, head professional and director of instruction at the resort, won both the Michigan Open and Michigan PGA title six times and was the 2008 PGA Professional National champion. He doesn’t take the winter off.

“If you think about it, (the winter) is the best time of the year to make a swing change,’’ said Hebert. “You can make a lasting change. Do it in the winter. Work on it, and you don’t have that pressure of the next matches where you want to win and you slip back to what you were doing wrong in the first place.’’

Junior golf instruction is a big thing year-around at Grand Traverse, but all sorts of adult groups can also find the Winter Golf Center a worthwhile stopover. Clinics, practice sessions, lessons, club-fitting seminars, equipment demonstrations, long drive contests and indoor league competition are all possible on the GC2-powered Golf Simulator by Foresight Sports.

“A great amenity to have,’’ said Hebert. “It’s not just a video game. It’s a great simulator where you can work on almost every aspect of your game.’’

The simulator also offers options on the social side.

“A group can come in for a little team building, have a closest-to-the-pin contest on the simulator, have a little clinic or even a meeting in a different kind of atmosphere than a conference room,’’ said Hebert. “We have a lot of events here. I see who the winners are, and they’re the same people who have come through in the winter. They have a jump on everybody when the courses open.’’

Hebert expanded his teaching staff this year, adding Randy Ernst and Adam Roades to his lead instructor, Terry Crick. Ernst’s background includes experience as a caddie on the pro tours. Crick had been general manager at a course in Florida before deciding that the golf climate in Michigan was preferable.

Tom McGee is the director of golf and Paul Galligan the director of golf and grounds. Hebert, McGee and Galligan combined have over 70 years of golf management experience.

Traverse City has been labeled “the Taj Mahal of Michigan Golf’’ and “the Pebble Beach of the Midwest,’’ with Grand Traverse’s courses among 17 championship layouts in a 60-mile radius that includes four resorts.

The Bear, still the toughest course in the area, was strangely bypassed as a site for pro tour events. A Senior PGA Tour event, the now defunct Ameritech Senior Open, was played there in 1990 before moving to Chicago. The Michigan Open was played on The Bear for 28 years, but left in 2008.

Perhaps the most popular event at Grand Traverse now comes every September, when hockey’s Detroit Red Wings mix in a golf fundraiser with their preseason training.

Otherwise, Grand Traverse is interested in holding a big pro event – but only if it makes good business sense.

“There’s no longer any big tournaments in Michigan,’’ admitted DeAgostino. “The economic downturn a few years ago caused the pro tours to turn away from Michigan.’’

The PGA Tour’s Buick Open ended a long run at Warwick Hills in the Detroit area and two Champions Tour stops no longer call Michigan home. The Senior PGA Championship, though, was held at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor in 2012 and will return in 2014.

“We’d welcome the Michigan PGA looking at us for another tournament,’’ said DeAgostino, but he admits Grand Traverse may be located too far away from major population centers to attract the PGA Tour.