Contrarian Course

At a time when the game of golf is still trying to stabilize its economic footing, why is Gull Lake View, near Battle Creek, opening a new resort-style course?
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Gull Lake View East Photograph courtesy of Gull Lake View Golf Club and Resort

In the 1980s, during the glory days of Michigan golf  — when more courses were built and opened here than anywhere in the country — layouts designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Robert Trent Jones, Tom Weiskopf, and Tom Fazio transformed northern Michigan into a golfing mecca.

That was then. Today’s reality, statewide and around the country, is much different. Waning interest in the game, longer workdays, and poor business practices by some golf club operators have curtailed memberships and green fees, along with food and beverage receipts.

One such postscript is the High Pointe Golf Club on the outskirts of Traverse City, once ranked among the best in the country. The 225-acre facility is now a hops farm, supporting the state’s burgeoning craft beer industry. Never mind that High Pointe was the first course designed by architect Tom Doak at the start of a notable career that has seen him produce some of the most significant courses built in America and around the globe over the past two decades.

In post-recession Michigan, as the golf industry continues to recalibrate and regain its economic footing, one of the state’s best resort success stories has been unfolding with little fanfare in the tiny village of Augusta, halfway between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo on the state’s west side.

At the Gull Lake View Golf Club and Resort, three generations — grandfather, Darl Scott; his son, Charles; and Charles’ son, Jon — have quietly been developing their own field of dreams. With four courses they designed and built themselves, starting with the first course in 1963, and a highly regarded nearby fifth one they acquired in 1988, the Scotts this season are taking the wraps off the resort’s sixth course, Stoatin Brae (Gaelic for Grand Hill), one of only two new golf courses to open in Michigan this year.

In both instances, Doak and his team are playing a major role. In a departure from their previous history, the family decided not to build the new course themselves. Instead, they entrusted a team from Renaissance Golf Design in Traverse City to produce the 18-hole, 6,800-yard course atop a 200-foot-high plateau, on the highest elevation of their property. The site commands a spectacular 10-mile view over the Kalamazoo River Valley, with downtown Battle Creek visible in the distance.

Renaissance Golf Design is the company Doak founded more than 25 years ago and built into one of the most sought-after golf design firms in the world. But Doak wasn’t personally involved in the Gull Lake project. Instead, he suggested to the family that they hire his longtime associates Brian Schneider, Eric Iverson, Don Placek, and Brian Slawik to oversee the development.

Bedford Valley

Ironically, the group is also involved with the other new course opening in Michigan this year. That project, The Loop, at the Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, near Gaylord, is one of the most anticipated courses in modern times — a unique reversible layout that plays in a circular pattern using the same 18 greens. A foursome can head out in one direction and play 18 holes, and on the following day they play a completely different layout by reversing their direction.

While The Loop and Stoatin Brae will get their fair share of play from golfers eager to try a new layout, the latter course adds to the lore of Gull Lake View. With the addition of a sixth course, the resort now ranks second to northern Michigan’s Boyne Resorts in the number and variety of courses under the same management umbrella. “We’re certainly flying under the radar a little bit,” Jon Scott says. “With six courses, we compete very well as a destination golf resort. Other than Boyne, we’re the biggest and oldest (golf resort) in the state.”

Jon Scott says he spent four years thinking about and developing the concept of a new layout. “I’m very excited about the course and I think it’s even better than I imagined it could be,” he says. “There were only five or six new golf courses built in the United States in 2015, the least amount of golf courses being built in the country from the time they started building golf courses.”

 

Schneider, lead associate at Renaissance Golf Design, says while Stoatin Brae is different from the other Gull Lake View tracks, it retains the same playing characteristics of competition and dramatic vistas the Scotts infused in their own designs. Charles and Jon Scott, as well as Gull Lake View superintendent Rick Fogarsi, provided invaluable input in the course’s development, Schneider says.

“The setting is where Stoatin Brae really differs from what the Scotts have done in the past, as our site was a largely treeless, elevated plateau that offers long-range views that most area courses can’t match,” Schneider says. “The topography is close to ideal and we came up with a routing that required minimal earthwork, allowing us to focus on the contouring of the green complexes. Our putting surfaces contain a bit more contour than you’ll find on the other Gull Lake View courses, and we made an effort to limit bunkering to keep the focus on contour.”

While the golf courses have long enjoyed favorable reviews from the playing public, the lodging facilities, some of which were built by Darl Scott in the 1970s, were dated and in need of renovation. Over the last two years, the Scotts have spent more than $1 million rectifying the shortcomings. There are two new cottages, each designed to comfortably accommodate four golfers. They also offer two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and are appointed with plush leather and wood furniture, flat-screen televisions in all of the rooms, a large kitchen, a bar, and a fireplace, says Bill Johnson, vice president of the resort, who is overseeing the new development. A PGA professional for 25 years, Johnson says most of the 67 existing villas received new siding, new floors, carpeting, new bathrooms, sliding glass doors, furniture, appliances, and new outside grills. The new course isn’t the only new offering to greet players at Gull Lake View this year. Nearly every phase of the operation has seen significant upgrades, from lodging to entertainment to dining options.

Golfers on Stoatin Brae will also experience a new clubhouse and a restaurant the Scott management team believes will elevate the resort’s dining profile. The full-service restaurant will offer casual fine dining in a space featuring large windows that provide views of the golf course and surrounding countryside. The resort’s main restaurant, East Course Grill, also was renovated, and now has updated kitchen equipment, an expanded bar, and new flat-screen televisions.

Johnson says in the short term, Gull Lake View’s management is leaning toward building more luxury cottages. In the long term, future expansion will be dictated by a master development plan the Scotts have commissioned from land planning experts.

“We have a lot of options, and we have a lot of people researching where and what we do next and why, so we can do the best thing for our customers,” Johnson says. “We have a lot of land near the new course. We also still have useful land here at the resort.” Among the options under consideration are a hotel and a sports bar, he adds.

The improvements and the new course are timely additions as the 2016 season shapes up as a banner year. Johnson says pre-season reservations are up 8 percent over last year. Weekends are already booked, with openings remaining mostly for holiday weekends when many golfers tend to spend time with their families.

While a new hotel or a sports bar may seem more like corporate undertakings to most, the staff at Gull Lake View takes a different view. “We’re just dirt guys. That’s our background — my dad, my grandpa, and me,” Jon Scott says. “I’ve got a kid who is 20 and the first word he could say was ‘tractor.’ He’s going over to Scotland this summer to work on building a golf course at Castle Stuart, up by Inverness. That’s something that’s in our blood. That’s really where our passion is.”

The “dirt guys” saga at Gull Lake View began with the late Darl Scott, Jon Scott’s grandfather. “He was a sergeant in the Army serving in the Pacific in World War II, and he was just one of those guys who knew how to get stuff done,” Scott says.

Darl Scott was a superintendent for a small course before the war, and after his discharge he went to work at Gull Lake Country Club. “He was there for 25 years when he went in one day, asked for a raise, and was turned down,” Scott says. “He quit, and even though he was in his 50s in 1962, he decided to build his own golf course. He built nine holes at first, and by 1965 he completed the full 18, which is now Gull Lake West.”

 

Next in line was Jon Scott’s father, Charles, who went off to work for Wadsworth Construction, one of the country’s most recognized golf construction firms. During his eight years as a construction superintendent with Wadsworth, which is based in Illinois, the golf boom was going full tilt and Charles Scott crisscrossed the country building golf courses.

“He had an opportunity to see some very good design work by some of the best designers in the business and he knew how to put a golf course together,” Jon Scott says. “In 1975, my mom said she didn’t want to spend her life in a trailer, moving every 12 months from one construction site to another, so dad came home and went to work with his father.”

Gull Lake View’s location halfway between Detroit and Chicago was a key factor to surviving downturns in the economy. “We were really big in the Detroit market back in the ’80s and ’90s, and we decided to move our marketing activities into Chicago and started gaining a lot of business from Chicago,” Jon Scott says. “When Detroit got really hit by the economy (starting in 2007), Chicago was still resilient, so we were able to keep that resort play up. There are a lot of out-of-state license plates in our parking lot.”

Using the same game plan, Gull Lake View draws visitors from across the Great Lakes basin, including Cleveland, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Toledo. “We have a built-in advantage that some of the very good Up North courses don’t have,” he says. “It’s another two hours’ travel time to go up there.”

Over the last two years, Gull Lake View has spent more than $1 million to upgrade the cottages and villas throughout the golf resort. The improvements to the two-bedroom, two-bath units included new siding, floors, carpeting, furniture, appliances, and outdoor grills.  The new cottages,above, received plush leather and wood furniture, flat-screen TVs, and other amenities.

What’s more, the resort has had to switch gears to account for changing needs. Today, Jon Scott says 53 percent of Gull Lake View’s business is based on stay-and-play guests, while the rest of the business is from local play, outings, and leagues. Twenty years ago, those percentages were reversed.

Scott says overall revenue has generated “constant linear growth” since the 1980s, although they were relatively flat during the recent recession. Last year, the five courses did almost 100,000 rounds, which translated into some $8 million in revenue, he says.

“We project that over the next couple of years we’ll be at $10 million or $11 million,” he says. “We think we’ll continue to see growth for a long time, quite frankly. Regardless of what others are doing in golf, we see real opportunity for consistent deliverable revenue.”

The Scotts are convinced that Stoatin Brae, with its Doak-related pedigree, will elevate the resort’s profile among discriminating golfers who will travel anywhere and spend generously to play notable courses.

The Scotts initially reached out to Doak to design Stoatin Brae, but the architect was already committed to Forest Dunes so he suggested they hire his associates instead. The idea resonated with the Scotts: They would get the best of Doak while keeping their expenses in line with their business plan.

“All the guys who work for me grew up on affordable public courses and our hearts are with the golfers who play them,” Doak says. “We’re lucky to have worked on some very high-profile projects and to have been paid well for them, but we don’t want to disqualify ourselves from good projects because our fees are too high, or build courses that our friends could never go play.”

Overall, none of the chatter about a slowdown in the industry bothers Jon Scott, who believes the timing for Stoatin Brae is perfect for Gull Lake View and its clientele, especially with demand on the up swing. “We stopped building golf courses in the ’90s when the boom was on, and now we’re building a course when some of them are closing,” he says. “This only means we’re putting a new course into a market that’s starved for a new product.

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