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By Don VanderVeen

Nature may be the best designer that ever was, but in Michigan, Jerry Matthews is second to none.

Like seeds of grass that germinate and take root — bringing so many of the courses he has designed into fruition — Jerry Matthews grew up in the golf business.

Golf in Michigan is better off because of it.

Although he may not have the notoriety of companies run by Arnold Palmer, Rees Jones and other well-known industry icons, Jerry Matthews Natural Course Design has quietly established a reputation as one of the state’s most respected golf course architectural firms.

Matthews Natural Course Design isn’t about flash and neon. It’s more like grass growing. Quiet and nondescript.

But when it comes right down to it, grass — green, bold and beautiful — is the most important element on a golf course.

Many of the courses Matthews has designed have received national honors right alongside those created by some of the biggest names in the business.

The list of award winning golf course designs by Matthews includes St. Ives in Stanwood, Elk Ridge in Atlanta, Hawk Hollow near Lansing, Timber Ridge in East Lansing and TimberStone in Iron Mountain.
For more than 50 years, the 65-year-old Matthews has been involved in the golf business in some way, shape or form. Since 1983, Jerry Matthews has been president and chief architect of his own firm based in Lansing.

In his teen-age days, he worked for the maintenance crew at the former Green Ridge Country Club. Later, he became a partner in his father’s golf course design firm, W.B. Matthews & Son. His father, Bruce Matthews, had been in the golf course design business since 1925 when Jerry went to work for him.

“ I literally grew up in the business,” Matthews says.

Matthews’ work in concert with the Department of Natural Resources is well documented. His reputation is predicated on the ability to successfully work through wetlands issues with federal, state and local codes while creating aesthetically pleasing venues for golf.

“ The more challenges a site gives you, the more you have to work with and the more rewarding it is when you get it done,” he says.

Matthews — who went to work for his father in 1959 — said he doesn’t count the number of courses he has worked on. But the firm started by his father has been involved in the design or remodeling of nearly 200 golf courses.

“ I did a lot with my dad and a few he did before I started working with him,” Matthews said. “We did a lot of them together.”

To put it into perspective, if the golf courses designed or remodeled by the Matthews’ firm were stacked end to end, the holes would stretch from the southernmost point of Michigan to the northernmost point of the Upper Peninsula — and then some. Matthews’ far-reaching endeavors have included projects in Alaska, Ohio and Virginia.

In the Grand Rapids area, the firm has left its imprint on golf courses such as L.E. Kaufmann, Scott Lake, Candlestone, Grand Haven, Railside and Wallinwood Springs, among others.

Matthews’ Northern Michigan work has included Charlevoix Country Club, Buck’s Run in Mt. Pleasant, A-Ga-Ming in Kewadin, Cutter’s Ridge at Manistee National Golf & Resort and The Natural in Gaylord.
His remodel work helped shape private clubs at, among others, Blythefield, Cascade Hills, Mt. Pleasant and Walnut Hills in East Lansing, where the LPGA Oldsmobile Classic is played.

“ Golf course design is like putting a puzzle together and combining all the elements in a project and taking the pieces of the puzzle — the terrain, the vegetation, the wetlands, the building restrictions and zoning restrictions, to just scrape the surface — and bringing it all together,” Matthews said. “It’s far more complicated than counting to 18 and putting 18 holes on a piece of paper.”

Jerry Matthews also has helped spawn some outstanding Michigan golf course architects. His nephew, Bruce III, worked with him for four or five years before starting his own firm. So did Ray Hearn, who has designed outstanding courses at Quail Ridge and Island Hills.

Following is a one-on-one interview with Matthews and some of his philosophies about golf course design.

MG: What is the most unique project you have undertaken?
Matthews: “There have been a number of them, but one would have to be a redesign project at the Grand Hotel Golf Course on Mackinac Island. The land makes it unique. In terms of size on that island, to find land for golf, and the difficulties of building a golf course on that island made it a unique experience.

MG: What was the most challenging?
Matthews: “A project in Alaska offered another challenge. The permafrost did not prove to be the biggest obstacle. It was the challenge of getting supplies and equipment up there. It is different, and we were working in extremely cold weather. But the sun doesn’t set for about six weeks in the summer and grass grows 24 hours a day at that time. Having six weeks like that here every year would be great.”

MG: What was the most fascinating?
“One of them would definitely have to be Elk Ridge, where the developer gave us 2,400 acres in Northern Michigan to work with. Most modern golf courses take up between 300 and 400 acres of land, and we were given carte blanche to create a golf course to fit the land. There were oak ridges, maple ridges, a big lake and just about every form of topographic change. To get that big of a piece of land and be able to pick where everything goes is one of those experiences you don’t get every day.”

MG: Buck’s Run is a land reclamation project near Mt. Pleasant. What are the pros and cons of working on a project like that?
“Instead of raw land, when you’re reclaiming mining sites, you get really unusual land forms. You get rolling valleys of the mining operations when they’re done and it leaves a body of water and piles of soil left by machinery. It’s a different sort of a challenge. On the plus side, we’ve converted an eyesore into something beautiful.”

MG: What is the feeling like when a course you have designed is completed?
“The highlight of my doing a golf course is the phase when we get seeded and turn the sprinklers on. That part of turning a piece of land and turning it into something and watching it grow in is an indescribable feeling. I like to do a lot of my design work in the field and that’s the excitement.
“ I like to see a job come to fruition and watch the grass grow even when it germinates. You don’t know truly what you have until the grass grows. Then you truly see what you have. The gratifying part of it is when the golfers come out and play it.”

MG: How has your design philosophy evolved over the past 40 years?
“My basic design philosophy has remained constant, and that is golf should be fun, it should be challenging and fair, but enjoyable for everybody. I use that premise as a backbone for whatever else we do.”

MG: Has there been any change in your approach?
“The quality of design and construction and money became available to do more, and we can do so much more nowadays. We can move more soil, put in more bunkering, move soil to create berms and dredge for more water. But you can never give up on the fact that nature is that best designer that ever was. We’ve always tried to maximize the site without tearing it up.”

MG: What is the best lesson you’ve learned in golf course design?
“The best lesson I’ve learned is to listen to the golfers. After 40 years, even after 20 years, you listen to what people say about your work. I like to ask what people DIDN’T like about my work as much as I like to hear what they liked about it. You don’t have to like all 18 holes to like my golf course, but tell me where it can be improved and I’ll listen. In the analysis of remodeling work, you learn what not to do.”

MG: What is the key to your success toward working with wetlands?
“I was in it a long time before the Wetlands Act was passed and I had to start working with it when the act was brand new. Being a fisherman and hunter, I love nature so I’m pretty much in tune to what wetlands are and how they relate, so it was a pretty easy transition for me to protect these things. I worked with the DNR closely, and the more you work with them, the more you know and the more success you have dealing with them. We try to avoid wetlands if we can and try to work with them if we have to. There are some truly great golf holes around the state because of the wetlands around them. Not only are they good golf holes, but they’re beautiful too.”

MG: What is the best advice you would give to a client about golf course design?
“It’s a very competitive market out there. My basic premise is creating a golf course that people enjoy playing, will tell their friends about and come back and play repeatedly.”

MG: Which traits do you try to incorporate in your golf courses?
“People who know my work have a good idea that I did it when they look at the green structure and the green complexes. I try to make them part of the natural element. The contours, ridges and natural elements blend into that green to become part of that project and that’s still very true.”

MG: What do you try to avoid?
“We try to make a golf course as safe as we can make it. In terms of avoiding things, we don’t set up gimpy fairways 150 yards out and then dogleg 90 degrees to the left. Those kind of things just don’t work.”

MG: What trends do you see shaping golf course design?
“The trend I see is that golf becomes a much more visual thing. I see a trend toward design for designers themselves, and not golfers. That bothers me.”

MG: How are great golf course designers judged?
“Greatness is only determined over a long period of time. History is the only thing that can tell which courses are great. Look at the work of Donald Ross. Over the years, his work stands the test of time. You don’t remodel or do a lot to do with his courses, because they are so great to start with. Over the years, if people walk out of there and say what a great golf course it is and the general public plays it year after year after year and enjoys it, then you’ve done your job well. You don’t want to play a course where you lose a dozen golf balls. You want one you can enjoy playing, find it visually stimulating and challenging. To me, courses like that are great golf courses.”

MG: How often do you play yourself?
“I try to golf a little, but we’re pretty busy and after working pretty steady for five or six days a week. At that time, it’s time for my real passion, which is fly fishing. There’s that certain element of being outdoors, throwing a fly line that puts one at ease.”

MG: What happens after the golf course boom subsides?
“At some point, it has to certainly slow down. I don’t think it will end completely, but it will slow down. If you’re convinced that you have a solid program with good product and good design services it will work. This firm will survive, because of really solid foundation. It might be in remodeling work and we’ll spread ourselves in a slightly different direction.”

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