Michigan's Own Course Architects/Designers
By Jim Heil
Long before Pilgrim's Run became a proving ground for Mike DeVries, his destiny as a golf course architect took root on one of Michigan's most revered golf courses.
DeVries spent the summers of his youth mowing grass and raking bunkers at Crystal Downs in Frankfort, where his grandfather was a member. The classic Alister Mackenzie design, with its holes overlooking the majesty of Lake Michigan, nurtured a passion that DeVries would parlay into a profession years later.
By studying masterpieces like Crystal Downs on his own, DeVries reasoned he could learn more about golf course architecture than what anyone could teach him.
"The amazing thing about Crystal Downs is every time I'm out there, I always learn something new," said DeVries, of Traverse City. "When you spend every day on something that's that good, that has an influence on you."
DeVries is just one of a growing number of Michiganders who have crafted their talents into successful careers in golf course architecture.
Names like Matthews and Newcomb have left their imprint on the state's golf industry for decades. But bringing their own designs to the scene is a newer homegrown cast that includes golf professionals like Mike Husby and Larry Mancour, and multi-dimensional architects/designers like Ray Hearn, Harry Bowers and Mark DeVries (no relation to Mike).
All etched their signature into Michigan's landscape in the 1990s as the public's infatuation with golf, coupled with a strong economy, spawned an ongoing boom in course construction.
William Newcomb, an Ann Arbor architect who cut his teeth with Boyne Mountain's Alpine course more than 30 years ago and whose recent works include Thornapple Pointe and The Links at Bowen Lake, finds that good golf design is both a trained skill and an innate gift.
"I came out of the vision that you had to learn about design before you could really execute a design," said Newcomb, who holds a masters degree in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan. "On the design side of it, I think it is a learned trade, a learned profession.
"Having said all that, I will tell you I was an associate with Pete Dye for two and a half, three years. And Pete Dye never attended a design class in his life. But he had a fine-tuned layman's knack to recognize, at least in golf, what was pleasing to the eye and what made for a good golf course."
An early exposure to golf helped shape the career path of architects like Hearn. He started caddying at the Country Club of Detroit in grade school, and would become the club's assistant superintendent in between working on degrees at Michigan State University.
For Hearn, ascending to the highest level of course architecture meant apprenticing under the likes of Robert Trent Jones and traveling overseas in search of "the holy grail."
Hearn, of Plymouth, remembers Dye instructing him to study golf's ancestry to gain an appreciation for links golf, the game's evolution before the advent of heavy earth-moving machinery and the shot values created by nature alone.
"He said I tell you what: if you really want to consider yourself a golf course architect, you've got to get over to Ireland and Scotland. It's as good as it gets," said Hearn, whose minimalist philosophy in design seems to hail from the British Isles.
While Mike DeVries earned accolades for bringing uniformity to Pilgrim's Run in Pierson, Hearn compiled a global portfolio that includes three Michigan works: Quail Ridge in Ada, Island Hills in Centreville and Millennium Golf Club in Ludington.
Expertise may help differentiate designers, but all can empathize with the playing public.
Like many of his peers, Ann Arbor's Bob O'Reilly sensed a calling to the profession in his youth, when he would doodle imaginary holes in his notebook at school. Then one day, as a teen-ager, he played a new course by a name architect.
"Although it was an enjoyable course, very different from what I had ever seen, it had a particularly confusing crossover routing that at one point you felt as if you were
standing in the middle of an intersection trying to tee off!" O'Reilly recalled. "It was then that I realized that not only did I enjoy designing imaginary holes, but that I could problem-solve the functionality of golf courses."
Most every foursome seems to have someone offering up ideas on a how to build a better golf hole. Perhaps a fairways routing doesn't agree with a wayward drive, or a sloping green cant hold the softest of approach shots.
All the critic needs is an understanding of the game, the imagination of Donald Ross and a topography laced with fertile soil to present a superior design. Right?
Not so fast, say some accomplished architects.
To W. Bruce Matthews III, one of only three Michigan designers belonging to the American Society of Golf Course Architects, golf course architecture is a multidisciplinary profession that requires years of study and apprenticeship to master.
Envisioning holes and designing them, Matthews argues, are two different things.
"Golf courses don't go in every day, and each site has a different set of parameters," said Matthews, a third-generation architect based in East Lansing.
"There's a lot of disciplines involved. But with golf's popularity in the state of Michigan, the architect wanna-bes are finding people out there to work for. Half the golf courses being built in this state are going in with unqualified personnel doing the work.
"You don't want to have brain surgery with a first-year medical student."
Golf's explosion is rife with arguments over the definition of great golf course architecture. Membership in the American Society of Golf Course Architects distinguishes Matthews, his uncle, Jerry Matthews of Lansing, and Hearn as part of an elite fraternity.
"It's not just a club," Hearn said. "These are the greatest minds in this industry nationwide. When you sit down and listen to these individuals, a lot of these men and women are brilliant. And I tell you, this is their passion and their life."
Those who aspire to become one of the 140 or so members of the ASGCA must demonstrate functional and aesthetic excellence in their work. Qualifications include no fewer than six years on the job and responsibility for at least five finished designs.
Yet the society may come across as exclusive and cliquish to outsiders, including those who have toiled in the trenches in becoming adept designers.
Mike DeVries, whose current project is the private Kingsley Club near Traverse City, has some of the tools: a masters degree in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan and tutelages under Tom Doak and Tom Fazio.
"There's a lot of debate about that and what actually qualifies you," DeVries said of defining golf course architecture. "I jump on a bulldozer and build things in the field. There's a lot of fine-tuning and tweakage that you get in the field."
The layout and scenic beauty of Crystal Downs also had a profound influence on O'Reilly, who was formerly affiliated with Newcomb.
"After all, golf architects are really land sculptors that by leaving their impression on the landscape, the golf course becomes a living legacy," O'Reilly said.
Unlike most contractors, golf course designers aren't required to wade through the bureaucratic morass of certification. Some might call themselves architects after designing a few conceptual holes, or acting as a consultant to the original architect.
Silversmiths and plumbers must spend years of apprenticing before mastering their trade, and the same should hold true for golf course architects, Matthews argues.
"With the proliferation of golf, we can't handle all the golf courses going in," he said. "Some of it's very good, very nice work ... some of it is not so good. It's just guaranteeing me some work 10 years down the road. It's better to have it done correctly."
Hearn, who holds bachelor's degrees in turfgrass management and landscape architecture at Michigan State University, thinks too many fledgling designers fall short.
"A number of these people are trying to hang a shingle and say, 'Now I am a golf course architect,' " Hearn said. "No, you're really a consultant. You have a handle on a couple of the disciplines, but not all of them."
The list of disciplines, as outlined by the ASCGA, includes agronomy (turf culture), agrostology (soil fertility and drainability) and chemisty (fertilizers, fungicides and weed killers), on top of engineering and an understanding of the game of golf.
Bowers, an Ann Arbor architect, merged degrees in park planning and turfgrass science from Michigan State. He also schooled under Robert Trent Jones en route to designing Michigan works like The Rock on Drummond Island and Crooked Tree near Petoskey.
A few golf pros have parlayed their playing experiences into designs in their own backyard. Mancour, a PGA Seniors veteran who summers in Harbor Springs, eased up with Chestnut Valley after designing Dunmaglas. Husby, of Gaylord, is a three-time Northern Michigan PGA Player of the Year who designed Marsh Ridge and The Loon, both in Gaylord, and the celebrated Wild Bluff in Brimley.
The list of proven Michigan course designers also includes Gary Pulsipher (Matheson Greens, The Crown, The Leelanau Club at Bahle Farms), Lorrie Viola (The Timbers) and Greg and Harley Hodges (Pine View, Whiteford Valley).
While the profession is considered intensely competitive, Sylvan Lake designer Don Childs believes it falls short in providing designs that don't cost players a bundle.
"Many people can't afford to play golf a couple times a week, even once a week," Childs said. "We're in danger with a lot of these upscale courses with segregating golf like it was in its beginning, where only the rich could afford to play golf."
If a high-end design is planned for an area that already has a number of upscale courses, Childs, whose current projects include a 27-hole facility in Genesee Township, said he brings that point to his client's attention.
Hearn agrees on the need for more affordable golf courses to draw more players into the game, "and what that entails is working with the land," he said. Mark DeVries, of Grand Rapids, added that golf course operators shouldn't kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
"How many times can a family guy go out and play?" DeVries asked. "And then if he's going to take his wife or a couple of kids, it's going to be just out of sight."
Mark DeVries, whose recent works include Boulder Creek near Grand Rapids and Pigeon Creek in West Olive (set to open this spring), argued that it's not within an architect's realm to dictate to owners the cost of course construction and the resulting green fees. But making courses affordable and player-friendly, he added, can mean repeat business.
"It depends on what the people are looking for," he said. "If you're working for a private club or with a housing development and the owner wants a statement to be made, that's a different story than someone who's building a public-fee golf course. If you've made it too tough, they're not going to come back and play."
Michigan's boom in course construction may start leveling off in the new millennium. But so long as the economy remains strong, O'Reilly sees plenty of design work to go around.
"As development occurs, especially in the housing market, it seems a need is created for more golf courses," he said. " And as long as there is a work demand, interest will continue. Let's face it, it is a great job, and everyone likes to play architect!"
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