Look at the roads, the sprawling resorts and even the thriving northern cities and towns themselves.
Art Timko, 68, who has worked with Boyne USA Resorts in some capacity since 1970, said the opening of The Heather by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1966 spurred the growth of local communities by giving people a place to work year-round. Boyne wasn’t just a ski operation anymore.
“(The opening of the Heather) absolutely drew summer traffic five or six times more than (the resort) ever did before,” Timko recalled. “You can look at all the secondary homes built in the 1970s. It has a direct correlation to golf.
“Even tourism officials don’t recognize that the architect and contractors to build golf courses spurred growth like you wouldn’t believe. Irrigation, snow removal, course maintenance — all this created a job factor and created first home opportunities and created a higher living standard.”
Paul Nine, one of the original developers of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, steadfastly believes that without the opening of The Bear by Jack Nicklaus in 1984 — which came on the heels of a Bill Newcomb redesign of the scruffy Acme Public Golf Course into the resort’s first course, Spruce Run Golf Course, in 1979 —Traverse City might not be a thriving waterfront destination packed with so many great boutique shops and restaurants.
“I think the Grand Traverse Resort turned Traverse City around,” said Nine, a lawyer in Bloomfield Hills. “It was the ignition of Traverse City. It started attracting people who wanted to play the best golf in the world.”
Resort golf in Michigan began on Mackinac Island. Grand Hotel Historian Bob Tagatz said the hotel’s first course likely opened around 1910. The Jewel Head Golf Professional Jason Horricks said he has a handwritten letter dated from 1915 written by architect Tom Bendelow. Horricks is not sure if Bendelow did the first routing or some redesign work. Jerry Matthews expanded The Jewel to 18 holes in 1994. “We were probably the grandfather of all the resort golfing business,” Horricks said.
Kircher, founder of Boyne USA Resorts, led the charge for more resort golf in Northern Michigan four decades later, designing his own course with eight par-3s and one par 4. In his biography, “Everett Kircher, Michigan’s Resort Pioneer,” he wrote, “Not only did that little course give me some important experience in golf course design and construction, it got me really interested in the game. It also convinced me that if I wanted summer business to grow, golf was indeed one way to go.”
Boyne now owns or operates nine courses up north. “The spurt of the high-quality public courses was generated by Kircher, and it set the standard for the rest of the state,” Timko said.
Garland Resort, founded by Herman Otto in Lewiston, built another simple nine-holer in the 1950s that would eventually morph into the Monarch, the first of four Garland designs by his son, Ron Otto.
The Gaylord Golf Mecca — a multi-million-dollar marketing alliance of 17 courses and 20 lodging properties — traces its roots to the Hidden Valley Classic course at the Otsego Club & Resort in Gaylord. Resort founder Alan Gornick commissioned architect William H. Diddle to add a golf course to America’s oldest private ski club in 1957. Gaylord didn’t take off as a golf destination, though, until The Masterpiece by RTJ Sr. opened in 1987, the first of five courses at Treetops Resort.
The popularity of Arnold Palmer in the 1960s spurred much of the development in that decade. Suddenly, golf was cool and appealed to the masses.
W. Bruce Matthews jump-started golf at McGuire’s Resort in Cadillac by building the first nine of the Spruce Golf Course in 1961. He later transformed an old potato farm in Oscoda into the Serradella course sometime around 1970, according to Lakewood Shores Resort General Manager Craig Peters. Peters said the Serradella was built as a private country club centered around housing. Stan Aldridge rescued the operation from financial stress in 1986, eventually adding lodging in 1990 and 36 more holes of golf.
“They had sleigh and carriage rides and stables for horses. From stories I hear from the old folks, it was too far ahead of its time for this side of the state,” Peters said.
Charlie Scott considers his father, Darl, a visionary. A superintendent at Gull Lake Country Club for 25 years, Darl Scott bought land in Augusta near Kalamazoo in the 1950s for what would become the West Course at the Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort. He built a 12-unit motel first, then opened nine holes in 1963 with the back nine following in 1965. Gull Lake View, still run by the Scott family, owns four additional courses today.
“He was always thinking,” said Charlie Scott, now 70. “He was a projects kind of guy.”
Roy Deskin, the founder of Shanty Creek, designed the Deskin Golf Course in 1969 that later became The Summit Golf Course at Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire. Shanty Creek is celebrating its 50th anniversary all summer.
Like Boyne, the Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa in Thompsonville was a ski resort looking to expand summer offerings. Bob Meyer, then a partner at the property, used his father’s construction company to complete its first nine holes in 1977 and the second nine two years later.
Michael Call, who started working at the resort in 1974 and recently retired from his position as Vice President of Mountain Operations, recalls that the land used to build the Betsie Valley course was pretty “swampy.” Fill was used to elevate the fairways.
Call said the golf course did well enough that a conference center was soon constructed, another reminder of just how important all these early courses were to the future of golf — and life — in Northern Michigan.
Jason Deegan is a contributing editor for Michigan GOLF Magazine.