Otsego Club -- Something Old, Something New
Describing the Otsego Club as the "stadium sky box of its time," second generation owner Keith Gornick, was talking about the club's start in 1938. It was the first private ski club in North America, and one of the first clubs to add a golf course for its members and guests with the opening of the Classic in 1957.
"It was described as an 'elegant warming house' when steel magnate Don McLouth first opened the Otsego Club near Vanderbilt at a hunting and fishing camp he owned there," Gornick said with a hearty laugh. "Though some disputed that." The club really took off when, during the late 1940s, it moved to its present location in Gaylord. The skiing was much better and the Tyrolean Alpine motif the club is known for was adopted for all of its architecture at that time. It proved so popular that the city of Gaylord adopted the same theme for its buildings in 1963, and today is known as the "Alpine Village" of Michigan. The history of the resort and the community in which it finally settled are like delicate fabrics intricately woven together.
In 1955 Alan Gornick, Keith's father, bought the club from McLouth's estate. The senior Gornick, a former general counsel and one of the "Whiz Kids" for Ford Motor Company, turned it into a year-round resort by adding the golf course two years later. "My father did some soul searching, but he loved the club and saw the potential for its growth. After deciding to buy it, he immediately brought in William H. Diddle, a well known golf course architect for his time, to create the Classic and the resort was on its way," said Gornick. "It became a retreat for some of the most prominent people in the Midwest; a place where they could come with their families to enjoy some privacy and let their hair down."
Keith, who purchased the club from his father in 1981, has lovingly tweaked the old resort over the last 20 years. The resort has kept pace with the addition of modern facilities, but managed to retain the feel and tradition of a more gentle time and slower paced life. Although both father and son proclaimed it a hobby, under the Gornicks, Otsego Club has grown from 60 rooms situated on 500 acres to almost double that number of rooms and today is spread out over 4,000 acres. The skiing has expanded with more runs and lifts, two other golf courses were added in the early 1990s and a fourth course, golf pro Gary Koch's first Michigan design, is slated to open this summer. A couple of years ago a 10,000 square-foot Special Events Conference Center was also added.
"It's still a labor of love for me. I don't see it as a hobby even though I love it as one," said the former oil and gas company executive. "I view the hotel and the property in the European manner. It's a second home for my friends, their friends and their families. People still enjoy the simple ambiance of having a hot pot of coffee and a morning paper waiting for them at the door when they rise in the morning."
Along with the growth of Otsego Club came the Gaylord Golf Mecca. "It was 1978 and my dad and I saw that it was time we started coming together as a group to promote golf, Keith Gornick said. "At the time we didn't have the number of golf courses we do today, but we called all of the owners together for a meeting at the Club," said Gornick, smiling as he recalled the details. "We actually hired Pinkerton detectives, put the bartender on extra duty and said 'we're not leaving until we work out a plan to promote this area together.' We did start working together, promoting each other's courses, after that meeting."
The Gaylord Golf Mecca actually came later, as more courses were built, but that was the start of the cooperative effort in northern Michigan to promote the region as a golf destination. That was a major move in helping to establish Gaylord as a national golf destination. As more courses opened in the area, the Gaylord Golf Mecca became a reality and a model for other northern Michigan regional golf markets, according to Paul Beachnau executive director for the Gaylord Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Since adding a golf course in the mid-1950s Otsego Club has been a private ski club in the winter and a public resort known as Hidden Valley in the summer. A few years ago, to avoid confusion over the two names, it became the Otsego Club year-round. "One morning I was having breakfast at a restaurant down state and overheard these two couples at the next table discussing the Otsego Club and Hidden Valley," Gornick said, again with a hearty laugh. "All of a sudden I realized they were both trying to describe the same club to each other, but they didn't realize it was the same place. I knew than that we needed to be marketing just one name. Nothing changes with the operation. It's still a private ski club in the winter, and we are open to the public the other three seasons."
In 1996 Gornick added a couple of nearby courses -- The Lake and The Loon -- to the Otsego stable. Located just a few miles south of town it became in essence like an Otsego Club South. "I was at a cocktail party when I met Mario Trescone, owner of the Loon course and suggested we market our courses together. We needed more holes at the club for our guests, and I thought that might be an option," Gornick recalled. "And, he says, 'Would you like to buy the golf course?' At the same time Michaywe's Lake course, which is located almost across the road from the Loon, became available. It made sense to add both courses to our operation, which would really offer our guests some nice options. They had two good golf courses to play and both had a nice clubhouse."
The Lake, a Jerry Mathews-designed course, has gained a cult following since joining Otsego Club. Measuring only 6,300 yards from the tip, it makes up for lack of length in its challenging and interesting design. Three course styles in one: six of the holes are alpine in nature, traversing up and around some old ski slopes; six are Scottish links style, and the other six are all along and over water. It was built in 1989. The Loon, a Mike Husby design, was built in 1993. A true championship course, it quickly became the signature course for the Otsego collection. Measuring over 6,700 yards from the tips, it offers a plethora of woods, water and wildlife, and it appeals to all golfers. It was recently selected as a Golf for Women magazine's top 100 Woman-Friendly Golf Courses.
This summer Otsego Club's newest signature course, The Tribute, makes its debut. The name of the course came as a tribute to Keith's father Alan, who passed away in 1998, and Koch's father who passed away about the same time.
"It's named The Tribute in honor of our fathers," Gornick said proudly. "I can't think of a better memorial for my father than dedicating the club's marquee course to his honor. It's a fitting reminder of what he meant to Otsego Club."
The course is also a reminder of what you can accomplish when your vision isn't limited to your surroundings. "The Tribute will quite literally take you to the horizon and back," exclaimed Gornick. "It's our own private Green Mile."
With over 1,100 acres to work with, Koch spent a lot of time simply walking the land to get a feel for where the golf would "naturally" fit. Gornick wanted nothing disturbed that would affect the environment. Extreme elevation changes, a natural forest and the Sturgeon River only added to the intrigue of building a golf course in such an environment. The new course will play over 7,300 yards from the championship tees, but will feature four sets of tees on every hole. Only twice on the entire course will you encounter an adjacent hole. Located on high bluffs, many of the holes offer panoramic views of the majestic Sturgeon River valley.
Today, the Otsego Club is a four-season resort -- one of the first in the Midwest -- and the only full facility golf and ski club in the United States. It's membership roster includes second-, third- and even fourth-generation families. Members and guests love it for its golf, skiing and fine dining, but more than that, they love it for its family atmosphere, according to Gornick, and "It's something that we've fostered."
Like his father before him, the younger Gornick treats the resort as a labor of love.
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