Many a new course pounced on the golfer in the roaring ’90s exclaiming “must play” status, only to retreat to the shadows of afterlife. Three such courses and a 1970s vanguard to upscale golf rebooted in 2009/2010, suggesting 72 holes of golf can cure much of what ails us.
When others doubted and gave up, Al Ruggirello believed.
He saw the potential that LochenHeath Golf Club could someday be a destination golf course.
He believed in his neighborhood surrounding the course, a struggling 600-acre real estate development in Acme Township near Traverse City that was seized by the bank.
And that unwavering belief – not to mention hard work on his hands and knees – should pay off this spring when LochenHeath opens as a public golf course more than two years after it closed. Ruggirello and 11 other investors, including new general manager Mike Husby, purchased the Steve Smyers course late last fall.
They tirelessly worked behind the scenes for months to ensure their investment. For the past two summers, Ruggirello led a dedicated group of members, friends and former employees such as superintendant Joe Ettawageshik who kept the 7,239-yard course from being reclaimed by nature. Many in the group dipped into their own pockets to keep the course from falling fallow.
“There was no entity that was going to help us,” said Ruggirello, who has been a member since Day 1. “It was just a handful of individuals who got together and said we can’t let it die. If we do, it will be too much work to get it back.”
LochenHeath opened in 2001 – garnering immediate praise as one of the top 10 courses in Michigan by Golfweek and one of the top 10 new courses in the country by Golf Magazine – yet never quite found its niche. The location, just a mile away from the three-course Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, has always been its biggest blessing and cruelest curse. It’s close to a great golf town but one filled with competition.
Husby does some serious name-dropping when comparing the course to others. LochenHeath wows golfers with one hole directly on East Grand Traverse Bay and 14 others with commanding views of the water.
“LochenHeath doesn’t have the views of Bay Harbor or Arcadia Bluffs, but it’s close,” Husby boasted. “There are courses with more dramatic bunkering but not many. I’d say the bunkering is as good as Crystal Downs.”
Saving the course’s 77 bunkers from Mother Nature was an arduous task. Ruggirello said he organized a group of 25 people who spent one weekend in 2009 pulling weeds out of the bunkers by hand.
Husby, Ettawageshik, assistant superintendant Ted Borysiak and their crew pulled thousands of weeds by hand all over again last season. Husby said each bunker averaged 25 man hours with one taking 65 hours of back-breaking labor.
“A lot of money was spent. Now they are perfect, right back to when the course was in its prime,” Husby said.
To save the grass on the course from withering away in the summer heat, Ruggirello negotiated with a local electric company to restore the power, so the irrigation system could be turned back on. Fairway grass that was once 18 inches long was trimmed to playable heights during the mild weather last fall.
“I played it a number of times (last fall) and I was blown away by the condition of it,” Ruggirello said. “It wasn’t manicured like we will have it for the season, but the greens, tees and fairways were in exceptional condition. The bunkers were in pretty good condition. I think people will be very impressed.”
Golfers who have never been to LochenHeath will revel in the spoils of a private club. A mammoth practice area offers two teeing areas and a handful of practice greens and bunkers. One bunker near the main tee area was specifically made for practicing long fairway bunker shots. All of it overlooks the bay.
“There aren’t any better practice facilities than this,” Husby gushed. “It is truly amazing.”
A leaky clubhouse was renovated and the locker room completely remodeled. The restaurant and outdoor deck can now seat up to 100 people.
LochenHeath isn’t the only high-profile course attempting a comeback under new owners in this sour economy. The theme of resurrection – where new owners invest deeply to save floundering courses, often by renovating them – is a common one throughout Michigan.
Greens fees at LochenHeath will range from $50 during the shoulder seasons to no more than $80 during peak play.
Manitou Passage #18
Manitou Passage Golf Club, Cedar
The former King’s Challenge course debuted its revived Arnold Palmer design last summer. Golfweek rated it No. 37 on its list of “new” courses to open across America in 2010.
Manitou Passage #8
It’s not a stretch to call the 6,668-yard layout designed in 1998 “new.” Since Bob Kuras, the president of the nearby Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor, purchased the property, it has been completely enhanced, all with the blessing of Palmer. New tees and bunkers have been built by Wadsworth Construction Co. Older tees and bunkers have been reshaped. Recently planted native fescue grasses will eventually give the layout a stylish look.
The most noticeable change comes at the signature eighth hole, a par 5 that tumbles downhill from an elevated tee to a green guarded by a pond. The tees have been repositioned and the fairway widened and softened to better accept well-struck tee shots. By clearing trees, the hole is both more playable and more beautiful, offering up vistas of Lake Michigan. It’s this view of the Manitou Passage in the lake that inspired the club’s new name.
With a remodeled clubhouse and a renewed commitment to conditioning, visiting this hidden gem tucked into the Leelanau Peninsula is worth the trip.
“We know it will get even better over time,” Kuras said.
Island Hills Golf Club, Centreville
Original architect Ray Hearn is working to return Island Hills to its glory days when it ranked among the top 25 courses in Michigan by Golf Digest. Hearn’s original routing was gutted when a previous owner converted several of its best holes into real estate lots. New owner Bob Griffioen (pronounced Griffoon) told Hearn to “be creative” in rerouting the course again last summer.
Once the two-year project is completed by the end of 2011, Hearn will have added length with at least 12 new tees, stretching the course to roughly 7,035 yards. He’s optimized strategy with 19 new bunkers and reconfigured green complexes that require more imagination from players. He’s also remodeling older bunkers, added 10 new grass bunkers and torn out and planted trees.
He’s most proud of his two new par 3s – No. 12 and No. 17 – that he believes rival any other pair in the state. The new 170-yard 12th hole features stone ruins of an old farmstead. The new 17th hole (which played as the old 16th hole) has a total of 10 tees, adding variety from a number of angles. It stretches to 202 yards.
“A lot of the changes are pretty significant,” Hearn said. “You have new attack angles to the hole. It answers the dilemma that architects face today. Since Island Hills opened in 1999, Joe and Jane public golfers hit the ball farther. A lot of risk-reward relationships in the 1990s have to be readjusted and recalibrated.”
Candlestone Inn & Golf Resort
Candlestone Inn & Golf Resort, Belding
A battle-tested tournament venue got stronger thanks to Husby, who served as general manager before taking his new role at LochenHeath.
Candlestone, the long-time host of the West Michigan Amateur, has always been able to hold its scores close to the vest. Husby’s efforts to add 31 tees, stretching the layout beyond 7,000 yards, and construct 22 new bunkers has given Candlestone the second highest slope rating (138) from the back tees of any public course in west Michigan, behind only Tullymore.
Thanks to a new 5-tee system, instead of the old way of three per hole, Candlestone attracts a wider range of players, including more seniors and women. The layout maxes out at 7,016 yards to torture top amateurs but is now more flexible and playable from the blue (6,655 yards), white (6,173), yellow (5,483) and red (4,940) tees. The removal of roughly 1,000 trees allows more free swings without taking the challenge out of the tight, tree-lined fairways.
Owner Steve Leach said the design changes transformed how people play the course. “It lets you use a few more clubs out of your bag,” he said. “It was so restrictive before. People were not using driver. Now the big sticks can come out.”
Leach and John Durkee, who bought the beleaguered property in 2008, continue to invest in its improvement. A new fleet of electric carts and a new cart barn came on board last summer. Course conditions are better thanks to new maintenance equipment.
The hotel makeover updated all 24 rooms and refurbished the restaurant and bar. The large deck outside encourages players to stick around after golf.
“Our number OF business outings was up five percent last year,” Leach said. “Daily play was up 17 percent. We grew 30 percent the prior year. We are comfortable that we will add another 15 percent (in 2011). We had a long way to go when we took over, but we feel like we’ve made it.”