by Jack Berry
Ray Hearn is a young man with a mission: "Design courses the masses can play, something unique that fits the market, and the owners can make a profit within two to three years."
Judging from his work as senior designer for prolific Jerry Matthews and now on his own as head of Raymond Hearn Golf Design, Inc., the 36-year-old former Country Club of Detroit caddie, Evans Scholar and Michigan State University graduate (with two bachelor degrees, in Turfgrass Science and Landscape Architecture) is right on target.
Hearn's Twin Lakes Golf Club, just north of Rochester Hills in Oakland County, was selected one of the Top Ten You Can Play in the February issue of GOLF Magazine. That put Hearn in the upper crust company of Tom Fazio (PGA Golf Club at The Reserve, South Course, and Pinehurst No. 8), Rees Jones (Poppy Ridge, Livermore, CA and The Currituck Club, NC), Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Eagle Point, OR), and Mark McCumber (Tournament Players Club at Heron Bay, FL).
If the name Hearn isn't familiar to you, try The Majestic, on US-23 between Brighton and Fenton; Mistwood at Lake Ann, near Traverse City; Eagle Glen in Farwell, The Natural in Gaylord and the Woodlands of Van Buren in Wayne County, near Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Hearn was senior designer and project architect on all of them and they've all met favor with Midwest golfers, fun to play, and they've done very well for their owners.
It was just a matter of time before Hearn struck out on his own. He is deeply grateful to Matthews for hiring him initially and then moving him up the ladder to senior designer.
"Jerry is my mentor and my friend," Hearn said. "I appreciated his confidence in me -- Jerry has the frying pan method, he just throws you into it. But he always watches from a distance to make sure you're on the right path. He's a great mentor. It just got to a point where we had differences in design philosophy. Everyone wants to hang their own shingle, flap their own wings and it was time for me."
Hearn emphasized that award-winning Twin Lakes is a "co-design" with Matthews and they're also together on Twin Lakes developer Sam Cottone's public course in Romulus, just north of Metropolitan Airport.
Hearn is eagerness personified and that started early. He was 11 years old when he started caddying -- the age minimum was 13 -- "but I was tall for my age," Hearn said. He caddied for seven years and then started working on the grounds crew.
He caddied for Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford -- "I was 12 then and I asked him about the Lions. He said he was there to play golf, not talk about the Lions," Hearn said, laughing. And he caddied for Peter Stroh who was impressed with Hearn and offered him a summer job at the brewery.
Hearn knew in high school that he wanted to design golf courses. A counselor got him the telephone number of Pete Dye, Arthur Hills and Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Hearn was unsuccessful reaching Dye and Hills but he kept after Jones and on the 13th call, Jones's secretary said his persistence had worn her down and she put him on to America's most famous golf course architect.
"My voice was trembling when I talked to him," Hearn said. "Mr. Jones said he got hundreds of resumes from people wanting to get into the business. He told me to get multiple degrees and that Michigan State was a good school, to work on a golf course and to work for a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
"I followed his advice to a 'T'," Hearn said. "I got two degrees at Michigan State and I worked as Assistant Golf Course Superintendent at Country Club of Detroit for three seasons."
Hearn also developed a friendship with Matthews while he was in school and got some part-time work with Michigan's No. 1 golf design firm. Heard started full-time with Matthews in 1989.
Hearn got good advice from co-worker Judy Gutormson who told him to stretch his imagination, but at some point get his feet back on the ground. The translation: think big thoughts but be realistic about budget and land constraints.
"Since then, on every project, I've done all of the 'What ifs'," Hearn said.
The stretched imagination and what ifs were fully realized after Hearn and Paul Albanese, then also with Matthews and now with Hearn, went to Scotland in the spring of 1995 to play the classic links courses.
It was pleasure and pain. Hearn bought a new pair of golf shoes for the trip which the salesman guaranteed would fit like slippers with no break-in period.
"We went for 13 days and played 36 holes a day and after the first round, I had a blister on each heel. The rest of the trip it was change the gauze and play. (In case you didn't know, they don't have golf cars -- everyone walks.)
"Pete Dye recommended that I go over and he said you're not an architect until you do. I came back wild-eyed and bushy-tailed with great ideas. St. Andrews was like the Holy Grail. The Old Course is fun for everyone. You can hit the ball anywhere (it's treeless) and you've got 3-4 ways to get to the green and you've got to get to the right place on the green."
The trip, especially St. Andrews, heavily influenced Hearn's design of Twin Lakes. It was big, open, flat farm land with high tension wires running along one end of the property.
"I felt I had to do something to make the players concentrate on the ground and not be aware of the wires," Hearn said.
"I wanted a clean-cut country club look," said developer Sam Cottone. "I wasn't interested in golf. I just thought of the golf as an amenity to the housing. Ray showed me for a few more dollars he could make a great golf course. The Top Ten rating in GOLF Magazine proved him right.
"Ray is very easy to work with, very attentive and he spent more time on the project than I thought he was going to. He gave me 110 percent. The course is magnificent," Cottone said.
Hearn's solution to turning the open farm land into a memorable golf course included a wide variety of grasses that changed color and texture, native fescues, native prairie mix and bluegrass primary rough.
And three par 3s are highlighted by wildflower plantings that change colors during the various months of the season. There's plenty of room to roam but the greens are big, many are tiered and they're thoughtfully bunkered. The greens average 12,000 square feet and Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf Digest and Golf World magazines, said they're the biggest he's heard of. There's one double green, serving the first and 15th holes and it's 38,500 square feet.
Hearn got that idea from St. Andrews where there are seven double greens. Obviously that permits a lot of cupping areas, which eliminates the problem of wear, and the cup locations permit a wide degree of difficulty, from easy to tournament tough.
"Big, friendly and fun" is Twin Lakes' catch phrase and developer Cottone said, "You could play it with a putter." Better have a titanium shaft, though. Golf professional Doug Grove, who opened three of the most highly-regarded courses in the state in the last dozen years -- the Jack Nicklaus-designed Bear at Grand Traverse Resort, Tom Doak's High Pointe, just east of the Bear, and Robert Trent Jones Junior's Orchards in north Macomb County -- calls Twin Lakes "challenging and fun.
"Ray has gone back to the kind of course Donald Ross and Alister Mackenzie designed," Grove said, "and there haven't been enough of those lately. We played a few thousand rounds last fall and people were getting around in four hours, four hours and 10 minutes. I had a big hitter out and I told him it was a big hitter's paradise and a high handicapper with him said it was a high handicapper's paradise too -- it's as wide as it is long."
Chicagoan Sherm Baarstad liked Hearn's work so much at Mistwood, just west of Traverse City, that he hired him to do a third nine, which officially opens this spring, and to do another course in the southwest Chicago suburb of Romeoville. Work on that -- also to be called Mistwood -- was scheduled to start this spring with a 1998 course opening.
"Ray is great to work with," Baarstad said. He's open to other ideas but stands by his own ideas quite firmly. He allows you to come in with your ideas as owner and operator and it's the same thing with the Illinois Mistwood. He incorporates ideas that we've had through the experience of operating a course. He makes it really fun. You feel like you're a real part of it.
"From a technical standpoint, he's really strong in visualizing what the hole is going to look like. That's a real talent, the subtle placement of bunkers. One of the areas we get the most compliments on is green design and way they're constructed. Some real thinking has gone into them," Baarstad said.
That fits the Hearn credo: courses the masses can play, challenge and fun and a profit for the owner.
A friend who works for another architect told Hearn he was crazy to leave the security of Matthews. But Hearn's phone in Haslett hasn't stopped ringing, especially since Twin Lakes copped the top ten.
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