A YEAR OF CELEBRATION FOR THE GAYLORD GOLF MECCA
Celebrating 25 Years!
America’s Summer Golf Mecca celebrates its 25th birthday in 2012, twenty-five years of Gaylord hosting more than 3,600,000 golfers at Northern Michigan’s collection of outstanding courses, according to the Gaylord Convention and Visitors Bureau. Currently, that’s 265,000 in khakis, plaids, shorts and spikes annually.
It’s the true “Up North” experience with forests of white pine, aspen, birch, cedar, fir, oak and maple trees, lakes and wetlands, 1,100 elk, the largest free-ranging herd east of the Mississippi River, whitetail deer, wild turkeys and occasionally a black bear. Scenic rivers flow through the properties, the Au Sable, Pigeon and Sturgeon, with world class fly fishing in the 100,000-acre Pigeon River State Forest.
Golf is the big draw and America’s Summer Golf Mecca embraces 17 courses with five resorts and 21 hotel properties for Stay and Play packages.
The courses were designed by the best in that green art – Robert Trent Jones, Rees Jones, Tom Fazio, Rick Smith, Tom Doak, Gary Koch and partner Rick Robins, Don Childs, Jerry Matthews, Michigan’s most prolific designer, and the oldest course, the Classic at the Otsego Club was designed by William Diddel. There are wide fairways, drop shots galore and views that stretch to the horizon.
Golf Channel’s popular “Big Break” and ESPN’s “Par 3 Shootout” helped spread the Mecca name across America. Treetops head professional Rick Smith, nationally-known instructor to PGA Tour players and never without an idea, came up with both the Big Break and Par 3 Shootout on Threetops, the resort’s unique short course designed by Smith.
The Shootout featured superstars Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Jack Nicklaus over the years and scored its biggest ESPN national replays when Lee Trevino aced the seventh hole in 2007. It’s regarded the richest payday ever for a single shot, $1 million plus $9,000 for skins and closest to the hole. Trevino donated $500,000 to St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.
Smith also designed two courses, the Rick Smith Signature and Tradition, after the Jones and Fazio courses were built. Treetops now offers 81 holes of golf.
Tom Doak, recognized as one of the top designers in the world, laid out his second course, aptly named Black Forest, at Wilderness Valley where its first course was designed by longtime Oakland Hills professional and Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member Al Watrous.
PGA Tour alumnus and NBC-TV analyst Gary Koch came north with partner Rick Robins to the Otsego Club’s spectacular site of hills and the Sturgeon River to design the Tribute with see-forever hilltop tees.
Robert Trent Jones gave Sylvan Ski Resort owner Harry Melling the name that captures northern Michigan golf. “Treetops” Jones said when he looked out from the tee site of his par 3 sixth hole and saw nothing but green tree tops as far as the eye could see. Melling renamed the resort Treetops and named the course the Jones Masterpiece.
Jones’s son Rees, who designed Black Lake, and Tom Fazio, whose name is on his design at Treetops, are the gold standard of designers and they gloried in the north’s sandy soils, hilly terrain and woodlands.
Fazio didn’t like to travel far from his Carolinas home to design courses but Smith was persistent and convinced him to fly to northern Michigan. Fazio loved what he saw – hills, valleys and sandy soil. Fazio turned out a player friendly course with U-shaped fairways that gathered in tee shots.
Rees Jones, famed as the “Open Doctor” for his updating of classic courses for the U.S. Open, echoed Fazio in his delight with the sandy soil and his work at Black Lake was ranked No. 2 Best New Public Course by Golf Digest and is in the top 100 annually. The signature hole is the Sahara, with a 185-yard bunker stretched along the right side with curves like a snake. There are nine tees and it measures 235 to 145 yards. A shot from the back tee must carry the length of the sand but as players picked one of the shorter tees on the left there is less carry.
Black Lake is the farthest north of the Mecca’s 17 courses and Elk Ridge on the east side is aptly named – elk are prevalent in the area. But a smaller animal, a pig, is on the dropshot par 3 10th. Elk Ridge is owned by the Schmidt family, proprietors of the Honey-Baked Ham Co. so course designer Jerry Matthews designed a bunker guarding the right side of the green that is the outline of a pig. Not surprisingly ham sandwiches are available at the turn.
Wilderness Valley is on the south side of the Mecca and two famous names are connected to it. Al Watrous, longtime Oakland Hills professional who let Bobby Jones off the ropes and finished second in the 1926 British Open, designed the first course at Wilderness Valley and Tom Doak, perhaps today’s hottest designer with Bandon Dunes and courses in New Zealand and Tasmania in his resume, did the second. It’s Black Forest and another with a perfect name. Like so many Mecca courses most Black Forest holes are enclosed by tall trees, with some roller-coaster fairways and treacherous greens.
Just outside Gaylord, the Mecca anchor, Michaywe Pines, the Loon and the Lakes are on the east side of I-75 and the Natural, Marsh Ridge and Black Bear are on the west side.
As one of founding members of the Mecca, the Pines Course at Michaywe has hosted two prestigious Michigan Amateur Championships.
Since its debut in 1994, The Loon Golf Resort has evolved from a challenging 18-hole layout to a full service golf resort today. The Loon Golf Resort, which has undergone substantial renovations to the property in recent years, has expanded with new lodging and golf including the acquisition of the nearby Mountain Lakes course giving the Loon 36-holes of championship golf. The Loon is also home to the Butch Harmon Golf School and the annual Natalie Gulbis Showcase Event.
Located just west of town is the popular semi-private Gaylord Country Club, which features a classic parkland style design and some of the best greens found in Northern Michigan.
The Natural incorporates features from the land’s earlier existence as a ski area with challenging wetlands and it’s sister, Marsh Ridge fits its name and also boasts a restaurant overlooking the course and often diners will see deer enjoying the fairways
Black Bear Resort offers some of the most diversified terrain in the state by combining Scottish links style holes with traditional tree lined Northern Michigan hardwood holes.
The Mecca’s 17 courses and Northern Michigan is right out of a starring role in the Pure Michigan commercials seen on Golf Channel and the broadcast networks. It’s all anchored by Gaylord, a lumber town from the late 19th century and now known as the Alpine Village, a nod to the Otsego Club that started as Hidden Valley with Swiss-style buildings and a restaurant with a spectacular view of the Sturgeon River Valley.
When Michigan golf began booming in the 1980s, Gaylord was in the perfect location on Interstate 75, an easy drive from the populous southern part of the state plus Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
The question was how to spread the news. Keith Gornick was the trigger. Gornick was the popular outgoing owner of Hidden Valley, a private resort that drew wealthy families from suburban Detroit and was famous for its skiing, plus an 18 hole golf course. He invited the heads of Michaywe, a residents-owned club and course and Gaylord Country Club to lunch, said he was locking the door, lobster, steak and wine was on him and they wouldn’t get out until there was an agreement.
Gornick said the courses and businesses in town were beating each other up and golfers were going to Traverse City and Petoskey. Gornick convinced his guests that working together was profitable and that 1982 winter meeting resulted in the Gaylord Golf Council. Shortly after, Gornick hired Dick Weber, who was working for Canadian National’s hotels and had a Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Management and marketing background. Weber became head of the new Gaylord Golf Council and recruited the Garland and Treetops resorts.
There still was room to grow and Paul Beachnau, a Michigan State University graduate, was hired and taking a page from Myrtle Beach, SC, the most successful golf marketing program, Gaylord set up a duty free one call operation for Stay and Play hotel and golf reservations. That was 1987.
“Dick Weber came up with the name, Mecca,” Beachnau said. “He was the energy behind the group. He was the founding chairman of the Gaylord Tourism Bureau and felt because we had a large number of courses, we were a Mecca.”
Tragically Weber was killed in an airplane crash in 2000, returning from a downstate business trip and all of Gaylord mourned.
Barry Owens, Treetops general manager who was in on the Mecca from the beginning with his father-in-law, Ron Otto, at Garland Resort, credited Beachnau for the Mecca’s continuing success despite some difficult economic conditions.
“I’ve always believed in cooperative marketing when you have a unified cause,” Owens said. “You make the pie bigger for everyone so you don’t beat up each other. Other organizations have tried it over the years but Paul is the glue who holds it altogether and his leadership style is the big reason for our success.”
“The Mecca marketing is what put Gaylord on the map,” said Larry Bowden, owner of Marsh Ridge and The Natural resorts.”
Bowden said Treetops developer Harry Melling gave him good advice: Build something affordable for the average person.
“I have and it shows that in the Mecca, there’s a course for everyone,” Bowden said.
And the Mecca, which grew from newspaper and magazine stories and advertising, is right with the times, concentrating on social media, Facebook and internet Web sites. Visit www.gaylordgolfmecca.com.