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.’’
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.