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Ted Frey: Successful at Golf & More

by Jim Heil

Ted Frey Jr. had no aspirations of triggering a boom in upscale golf course development when he left his native Grand Rapids for Northern Michigan in 1979.

Frey's financial interests at the time revolved around a number of commercial properties he developed in the Grand Rapids area, all unrelated to golf. And his personal interests were far removed from golf, a game he wouldn't take up until settling into the country-club confines of Birchwood Farms near Harbor Springs. But when Frey first walked the future site of Little Traverse Bay Golf Club in 1981, little did he know he would eventually buy the 290-acre property and turn it into what he today calls "one of the prettiest golf courses in the United States."

Before neighboring Bay Harbor and Crooked Tree Golf Club were conceptualized, Frey, now 54 and handicapped at "a dangerous 14," was first to capitalize on the panoramic views of Little Traverse Bay from the perspective of tees and greens. Little Traverse Bay Golf Club opened the first of its 18 holes in 1990, ushering in a decade that would reshape the region's image as a top-flight summer golf destination.

"It was really a fluke - I did not intend to get in the golf business," Frey said in a phone call from his Jupiter Island, Fla., winter home. "The property became available, it had a good value and that's how I got in the golf business."

Frey's knack for investing wisely is apparently a family trait. His father, the late Edward Frey Sr., prospered through his holdings in Foremost Insurance, an industry leader in insuring mobile homes and recreational vehicles. A 1963 Ottawa Hills High School graduate, Ted Frey Jr. found a niche in the construction lending area of the banking industry despite never earning a college degree. He left banking in the late 1970s and developed properties including the Federal Square office building in downtown Grand Rapids and the Thornapple Village Inn in Ada.

Even though his parents were Kent Country Club members, Frey had devoted his summer recreational interests to sailing in his youth, starting off in dinghy races on Reeds Lake at age 12 and moving up to larger regattas like the Port Huron-to-Mackinac. It was during his recovery from a fifth back operation that Frey moved to Harbor Springs, where he developed Emmet Brick and Block among other properties.

He played his first round of golf at the age of 36, and before long was sitting on the Michigan PGA advisory committee.Yet when another developer tried to entice Frey into becoming part of a residential golf project on the highlands northeast of Little Traverse Bay, he balked.

"I did not think the golf course he was thinking about had any great, endearing qualities," Frey said. "I just had no need to get involved at that juncture."

Frey's initial reluctance would bear fruit years later. The property went through a series of developers, and when the property became available through a failed savings and loan, Frey bought it from the federal government on Feb. 28, 1989. "It was a good value - let's put it that way - in today's market," Frey said when asked of the purchase price. "I wrote the check and said let's go."

The timing of the acquisition wasn't ideal for Frey. His father died in 1988, and his mother followed in 1989. Their deaths left Frey involved in the liquidation of his family's stake in Foremost Insurance.Yet Frey insisted all along in being directly involved in the building of Little Traverse Golf Club, of which he would be sole owner. He assembled a team that included course architect Keith Gorney, Michigan State agronomist Charles Menefee and local amateur golfer Phil Harrison. And Frey banked on his own experiences of having played about 75 of the top 100 golf courses in America.

"I think we saved a bunch of money because we were there every day," Frey said. "The only way to control costs is to be there, and it's hard to delegate that."

From the start, Frey the focus of the project to be solely on golf. Unlike so many other course developers of the day, he had no inclination to build plush houses and condos along fairways as a means of attracting investors. "We wanted to build the best golf course we could, on whatever land I owned," he said. The challenge of the first construction season brought a few headaches, most of them precipitated by nature. Frey figures it rained 12 of 16 weekends the summer of 1989. But there was little altering of the natural topography. Aside from the moving of some 200,000 cubic yards of earth on the 15th hole, the property was largely left in its original state, preserving the views that would attract legions of golfers.

The final design of Little Traverse Bay Golf Club provided for generous tee settings - with no out-of-bounds to the right - on holes that especially reward golfers who are proficient on their second shots. "The real hard part of the golf course is the second shot, because of the terrain and the up-and-down hills and a little bit of wind factor," Frey said.

The golf course and its Victorian-style pro shop/restaurant were built in harmony with the nearby resort communities of Wequetonsing and Harbor Point, Frey said. It's little wonder he prefers the older designs to the signature styles of today. If there's a sense of community at the club, it isn't in the form of residency. Frey held to his plan of building a golf course lined by trees, not homes. "The golf course was laid out without ever thinking about potential housing," Frey said. "It's the type of golf course that you don't see other people except on the hole that you're playing."

Away from golf and business, Frey is treasurer of the Grand Rapids-based Frey Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in West Michigan. Created from Edward Frey Sr.'s riches at the time of his wife's death, the Frey Foundation listed assets of $138 million at the end of 1997. Last year it reported gifts of about $6 million.

Frey plays Little Traverse Bay Golf Club only a dozen or so times a year. He's more apt to play at Wequetonsing than on his home course. "When I'm on the golf course (at Little Traverse), I'm working. I'm making mental notes to myself," Frey said. "It's hard to enjoy golf at your own place. If I want to have a fun game of golf, I have to go someplace else."

But Frey said Little Traverse Bay Golf Club offers a great value. "I think the real challenge of golf today would be building mid-priced golf courses, in the $45-50 area," said Frey, who now summers on Crooked Lake north of Petoskey.

"I think golf is a great game . . . let as many people play it as possible."

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