Michigan’s Harbor Shores adds to its reputation as a tournament venue

When Harbor Shores hosted the Senior PGA Championship in 2012 it had no tournament history. That won’t be the case when the tourney returns to the Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 2014. The May 22-25 event will mark the tournament’s 75th anniversary.

While the Senior PGA is rich in tournament history, Harbor Shores is not. In a sense the course’s history in that regard began when the first ball was struck at the 2012 Senior PGA.

Harbor Shores only opened on July 1, 2010. The Champions for Change — a skins game-style exhibition that featured golf legends Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Johnny Miller — created a memorable grand opening as well as an appropriate lead-in to the first big tournament, but the 2012 Senior PGA was noteworthy for the history it produced more than for the arrival of big-name players.

The victory by England’s Roger Chapman, who had won only one tournament in 16 full seasons on the European PGA Tour and none as a senior player, was a Cinderella story. He was the Senior PGA’s first wire-to-wire winner since Hale Irwin in 2004, and his breathrough win has been one of the most shocking developments in golf this decade.

Even with Kenny Perry shooting a tournament record 62 in the final round, Chapman dominated a field filled with the Champions Tour’s best players. He led by nine shots with 10 holes left before winning by two over John Cook. Chapman, who won the U.S. Senior Open later in 2012, posted a 13-under-par 271 and called his Harbor Shores victory “the greatest thing I’ve ever done.’’

That win may have been the best feel-good story in golf in 2012, but it wasn’t nearly the feel-good story that Harbor Shores has become as a focal point in the revival of Benton Harbor – a community that had undergone very difficult economic times. The building of Harbor Shores was a big part of that revival.

At one point one-fifth of the city’s 11,000 residents were unemployed and the 530 acres on which Harbor Shores was built was an abused, forgotten piece of property – basically a garbage dump. Some of it had been a slag pit for a company that made automobile brakes, Another spot was occupied by a company that used radium and mercury to manufacture components for fighter jets. It took a complicated financial deal that involved acquiring federal and state grant money to get the construction started.

Construction wasn’t easy, either. Some 117 tons of trash and 20,000 tons of contaminated soil had to be removed. At one time or another Nicklaus had to deal with empty buildings, roads, power lines, a railroad track, two rivers, a lake and a public park. He had to change the routing of the holes nearly two dozen times.

But that was then, and this is now.

Harbor Shores was barely open when the PGA of America, supported by an enthusiastic local sponsor in KitchenAid – a premium brand of Whirlpool Corporation, named Harbor Shores the venue for two Senior PGA Championships.

A quick look at the place tells you why. The 6,861-yard par-71 course has three holes on Lake Michigan and 10 other holes offer views of the Paw Paw River or Ox Creek. Plus, it had a visionary architect in Nicklaus, whose design included a three-tiered monster green at the No. 10 hole. At 10,500 square feet, it’s the biggest putting surface Nicklaus has ever designed – and that’s saying something, since the Golden Bear’s portfolio includes about 275 courses world-wide.

“We set out, really, to change a community,’’ Nicklaus said. “This wasn’t just about a golf course. This was a non-profit project. That’s the important part of it.’’

Harbor Shores has become one of the most beautiful spots in Southwestern Michigan in part because it has some other special touches. Each hole was named after a plant indigenous to the area. Each hole also features a metal sculpture with at least one piece of hand-blown glass holding a plaque describing one of Nicklaus’ 18 major championship victories.

The First Tee of Benton Harbor learning center is also part of the complex and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor also use the facility for their daily activities, adding significantly to the feel-good atmosphere so prevalent at Harbor Shores.

Not only has Harbor Shores established itself as one of the most attractive beach resorts on Lake Michigan, its creation has also stimulated home-building and community development. The renaissance envisioned by city and county leaders when construction started just five years ago is materializing.