Kircher of Boyne, Golf Pioneer and Legend
Let's get one thing straight about Everett Kircher right up front - there is no off position on the Kircher switch. At 84 years of age he may walk a bit slower, but he still shows up at his Boyne Mountain office every day, and when he passes through the door the Boyne machine begins to hum. No resort operation in Michigan (and maybe the country) is so driven by the spirit of one person. Simply put, Everett Kircher is Boyne and Boyne is Everett Kircher, they are one in the same. Most people know that the Kircher name is synonymous with the sport of skiing, but what many do not know is that the name is also etched into the cornerstone of Michigan golf.
On a sunny December day just prior to Christmas I sat in Mr. Kircher's corner office overlooking Boyne Mountain's ski runs and the two of us began talking about skiing, something we've done countless times for articles I've written about Kircher and Boyne for various ski publications. For those who don't know, from his Boyne Mountain base Everett Kircher has had a bigger impact on the development of the sport of skiing than any Olympic champion you can name. Boyne Mountain had the first chairlift in the Midwest (1947), and Kircher is credited with inventing the first three-passenger chairlift (1963) and four-passenger chairlift (1965). In 1992, Boyne Mountain debuted America's first six-place chair, a design based on a Kircher concept. And Kircher holds several patents for snowmaking and snow grooming equipment.
During our December meeting Kircher was in vintage form, grousing about the natural snow that had fallen the night before. "It falls where you don't need it, on sidewalks and in the parking lot, and it's not as durable to ski on as man-made snow," he bristled. "About all it's good for is to look at." It's an opinion I've heard many times before, offered with an impish gleam in the eye. He also received a call from old friend Othmar Schneider, 1952 Olympic Slalom Gold Medalist, phoning from Austria to talk about elk hunting. Then he put the finishing touches on a duck hunting trip to Louisiana and told me about the new house he was building at Boyne South in Florida so he could be closer to the bass fishing there. Later, we took a ride with son Stephen, who's in charge of Boyne's Michigan operations, during which Everett analyzed how the parking lots should be plowed and predicted where bottlenecks might occur. Other conversational tangents took in everything from interest rates on resort investments to an agronomy lesson on how divots vary in depth according to the type of grass growing on a fairway. This was all before lunch; the brain gears were finely tuned and operating with the precision of a Swiss watch.
By now the Everett Kircher/Boyne USA history is well known. You can read the entire saga in an entertaining 1998 biography entitled Everett Kircher, Michigan's Resort Pioneer. The high-tech version, a movie chronicling the key events, is running on the Boyne USA website at www.boyne.com.
For golfers, the key point of interest is how the ascendance of Boyne USA's skiing has impacted the development of its golf courses. "Boyne USA is a ski resort company that offers golf," says Kircher. "It's pure economics. On a ski Saturday Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands can sell up to 8,000 lift tickets (at $41 a ticket). The most rounds you can do on a golf course in a day is around 200. Skiing is where we make our money."
In 1947 Kircher "bought" the original 40 acres of Boyne Mountain for one dollar from a man named William Pierson of Boyne City. Pierson thought so little of the land that he told Kircher, "Anybody damn fool enough to want to build a ski hill, well...I'll give you the property."
From that beginning the Boyne USA ski holdings now stretch all across the country. Boyne ski resorts include: Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands in Michigan, Big Sky in Montana, Brighton Ski Bowl in Utah, and Crystal Mountain in Washington. Last year, the Boyne ski resorts hosted 1.5 million skiers.
While the ski resorts are the star income producers for Boyne USA, a lesser-known catalyst has been almost equally as important. In 1953, Kircher received an inquiry from an innkeeper in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, wondering if Kircher might be interested in building a scenic chairlift as a tourist attraction for the inn. Kircher agreed to build the chair, but only if it was a Boyne owned enterprise. He then acquired a 99-year lease on the needed property and installed the lift, which has been running eleven months per year (weather permitting) ever since. Today, Gatlinburg is a tourist Mecca, with Dollywood nearby. The Boyne triple chair sits in the center of Gatlinburg and is a veritable "money machine" according to Kircher. "We've been able to develop a lot of Boyne properties without ever having to borrow a dime because of that chairlift."
The revenue streams coming in from the ski operation and the Gatlinburg chairlift allowed Kircher to venture into a love affair with golf. "One day in the mid-50's a friend named Bill Harbor turned to me and said ‘what we need at Boyne Mountain is a golf course'," chuckles Kircher. "He was a good golfer, so what he meant by "we" was that I should put in a course. I liked the idea because our rooms were mostly empty in the summer months and I couldn't keep a staff employed year round. He offered to help with the design, so we'd put a stake in the ground to mark a green and pace back 150-200 yards and that would be the tee. I had an old bulldozer and an ancient Ford tractor with a blade, so I started moving dirt around and wound up with one par 4 and eight par 3's. That little course got me interested in golf course design and convinced me that golf was the way to go for summer business." Called the Executive course, and situated in front of the Boyne Mountain Lodge, Kircher's original layout remained unchanged until this past fall when the course closed to make way for construction of a new hotel and village.
That first course was more significant than even Kircher could realize at the time. With its construction, Boyne Mountain became the first ski resort in the Midwest to offer golf in the summer, thus making it the region's first year-round resort. In essence, Kircher had invented the prototype for today's "full service" ski/golf resorts, a concept which has become the lynchpin of northern Michigan's tourism economy and has made the area "America's Summer Capital of Golf." And if you think about it, even in today's Michigan golf market, Boyne sets the standard to which other resorts aspire.
Beginning with that initial course Boyne USA has amassed an impressive roster of world class courses. At Boyne Mountain are the Alpine and the Monument. Boyne Highlands has the Moor, the (Robert Trent Jones designed) Heather, the Donald Ross Memorial, and the Arthur Hills. Near Petoskey is the stunning Bay Harbor course, along with Crooked Tree. Big Sky, MT has an Arnold Palmer course, and the Boyne South course is in Naples, Florida.
"This summer we'll be starting construction on a new course at Boyne Mountain designed by Pete Dye," says Kircher. "He's already laid it out and he says it's going to be mostly downhill, and how we're going to go mostly downhill when we start at the bottom has me confused a bit. He thinks he can design us a golf course that you can walk and still be downhill, and he's one of the top course designers in the world, so I'll be interested in how he does that. He's a bit of a non-conformist, and I like that. His course is going to be fun to play."
There's a good chance that Dye will be closely watched by Kircher, because Everett is admittedly a student of golf course design. He's had a hand in the design of many of Boyne's courses, each of which have a distinct personality. The Monument at Boyne Mountain, for example, honors a golf hero (legend) at every hole. The Donald Ross Memorial at Boyne Highlands replicates eighteen of Ross' most famous holes. Kircher's personal favorite is the Alpine course at Boyne Mountain. "Mostly because it's a true test of golf with no gimmicks to it; the terrain dictated the design and you only play uphill on one hole."
As for his favorite designer, Kircher will diplomatically tell you about the strengths of several people. But his eyes light up when he starts talking about Donald Ross, and he'll invariably start sketching holes illustrating the Ross philosophy. Says Kircher: "Ross would design par 4 holes with a bunker placed 30 yards short of the green to confuse the players. Then they'd come up short with their second shot and have to chip close and sink a putt to make par. Ross courses weren't penal or heroic, they were strategic yet fair."
Kircher's influence can be seen on Boyne's courses, "All Boyne courses end up over water," he notes. "That's somewhat accidental because our finishing holes tend to be at the bottom of our mountains and that's where our ponds are. Still, I consider water to be the ultimate penalty in golf, so I like to see water on our courses."
With everything that Everett Kircher has accomplished, there always seems to be something more to do. Two years ago he told me he'd like to see a new hotel at Boyne Mountain some day. On September 23rd, Kircher and his family broke ground for a $150 million Boyne Mountain renaissance aimed at transforming the resort into a four-season recreation village. The project will be anchored by a new 222-room condominium hotel called "The Mountain Grand Lodge & Spa."
The $50 million Bavarian-themed structure, scheduled to open in 2002, will offer a spa and fitness center, specialty shops, and a teen activity center. Another $100 million will be spent on a revamped Boyne Mountain Village with retail shops, restaurants and attractions, and expanded convention facilities. Linked to the plan are several residential developments and two golf courses, the first of which will be the Pete Dye course. The entire project is expected to be completed by 2004.
Even more gratifying for Kircher is the knowledge that his entire family is involved with the Boyne USA organization, and that everyone shares a vision for Boyne's future. John Kircher is the GM of Boyne West (Brighton and Crystal Mountain), Stephen Kircher is the GM of Boyne East (Michigan and Montana operations), Amy Kircher is GM of Boyne South, and Kathryn Kircher is Head of the Boyne Design Group.
"I'm happy with what I've taught my children to do, and they do it well. They work with the same spirit that I did; they just don't want to quit and they can accomplish just about anything they want to."
Although Everett no longer skis, he does get out and enjoy his golf courses. "I still play some golf, although I hit it a little shorter and more often than I used to, but I own the courses so I get to play from the forward tees now," he chuckles. But if you really want to know what's in Everett Kircher's future, just look in the window as you pass by his corner office at Boyne Mountain. Chances are you'll see the master at work; it's what he does best.
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