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Fenton Farms Evolves From Its Colorful Past
by Jeff Harrington

From its beginning as a farmer's three-hole golf course in the 1920s until its most recent ownership change six years ago, Fenton Farms Golf Club survived the highs and lows of an intriguing past to become a quality public golf facility today.

Along the way, this rolling, 18-hole layout along US-23 north of Fenton had several owners of some fame or notoriety, some whose plans for the property were never fully realized, others whose antics or agendas sound too absurd to imagine now.

Specific accounts of the club's colorful history are rare ... understandably so, in some cases. Still, general manager and chief oficer Richard Funk has heard most if not all the popular legend - the stories still told among local duffers - and confirms their apparent validity.

Yes, it's true that the course, originally called Shore Acres and later renamed Torrey Pines, was sold in the early to mid-1960s to a group of investors headed by former Detroit Lions member and TV sit-com star Alex Karras. Also that many of the Lions' players of that era were regulars here, some of whom might also have had financial interests.

Yes, it's also true another member of that same ownership group was a controversial Flint cemetery operator, whose primary objective for the site was buried by local opposition.

And yes, it is a wild but apparently true story that Karras and his cronies hosted tournaments here that became so outrageous they brought in live elephants (yes, elephants!) which are said to have served as "caddies?" Legend also has it that a group of undoubtedly well-refreshed participants in one of the tournaments became so emphatically convinced the holes in several greens "weren't big enough" they took it upon themselves to enlarge a couple of them ... with dynamite.

When Karras and company were done with the place, they sold what was left to Walter Burkemo, a PGA touring pro whose career had been highlighted by his victory in the 1953 PGA Championship. By some accounts, actor and comedian George Gobel spent a considerable amount of time at the course during the Burkemo era and may also have had some ownership interest.

Apparently unable to turn the tide on the years of neglect, Burkemo eventually sold to golf architect George Fazio, who reportedly planned major renovations for Torrey Pines until he became stricken with illness and died.

Fenton Farms Developments Inc., a group of investors headed by golf course consultant and builder Paul Clute and retired automotive entrepreneur Jack Bott, who also owns Marsh Ridge Resort at Gaylord, acquired the course from Fazio's widow in January 1993. Clute convinced long-time friend Rich Funk, a Chicago area native with a lifelong interest in golf, to leave a career with a West Coast law firm and come to Michigan to join the project.

Coincidentally, Funk's passion for the game had been fostered at an early age by another tour pro, Felice Torza, the man who finished second to Burkemo in the '53 PGA Championship. Funk recalls how Torza, nicknamed the 'Toy Tiger,' offered to teach him the game after watching him knock balls around a make-shift course of empty cans at his grandparents' home.

Funk went on to play competitively throughout high school and college. Even as a lawyer, he says, his primary role in the firm became entertaining clients on the golf course, so the invitation to take on the challenge at Fenton Farms was a move he eagerly accepted and has never regretted.

While Funk took charge of day-to-day operations, long-time superintendent Paul Woodward, who began working at the course under Burkemo, remained on board. Funk's wife, Susasn, and son, Jim, soon joined the team, Susan as office and banquet manager, and Jim as director of golf. Daughter Christina Funk also works in the office while still attending college.

With new owners and management in place, reversing decades of decline became the first order of business. "The course was pretty run down and sadly in need of a lot of work," Funk recalls.

Fariways that had not seen fertilizer or weed killer in years had become a virtual sea of dandelions, and the equipment was archaic at best, according to Woodward. Watering had previously been possible only on the tees and greens by use of garden hose.

A complete watering system was installed, several holes were redesigned and rebuilt, and a practice range was added. In 1995, as part of a land sale for a very successful condominium project, two new holes were created and two "awful" ones from the old course were abandoned.

The transformation also saw the addition of more than 50 new bunkers, three ponds and the planting of some 500 new trees, resulting in a completely new look to what Funk characterizes as a classic rolling design of the 20s and 30s.

The best part, Funk adds, is that the course is still evolving. "In ten years," he says, "this will be a totally different golf course from the one you see today."

The track is not a long one, measuring just under 6,600 yards from the blue tees. The length is a bit deceptive, though, considering there are five par-threes. Par is 72/70 with a rating of 71.7 and 74.3. Slope is 125 for men, 128 for women.

While both nines start out with three relatively harmless holes, Nos. 4 through 7 and 13 through 18 can be quite challenging, requiring well-place approaches to avoid nearly impossible up-and-downs around small, well-sloped greens. "Holes 4 through 7, especially will tax you," Funk promises. No. 13, one of the two new holes, is the signature hole - a 184-yard par-three that requires a tee shot of at least 160 yards to carry a wetland.

Notable also is the fact that many holes on the 160-acres are cut through or bordered by areas posted as "environmentally sensitive," where the grasses, wetlands and woodlots are undisturbed natural habitat areas. Carts are prohibited in these areas by local rule.

Now in its seventh season as Fenton Farms, the course has seen play increase substantially each year, according to Funk, drawing players from Flint, Lansing, Ann Arbor, even Pontiac and Detroit on weekends. "We even get a fair number of people who come in just because they've seen the course while traveling the highway," Funk said, adding that tee times generally are required, although staff tries to work walk-ups in whenever possible.

Fees are affordably priced at $23 to $30 weekdays for 18 holes with cart, $35 on weekends. The course also offers one free 18-hole round for each five paid rounds played.

Fenton Farms is located at 12312 Torrey Road, a half-mile south of Thompson Road, US-23 exit 84. For tee times, call (810) 629-1212.

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