Geeked on Golf


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FROM CHRISTMAS TREES TO GREEN FEES AT CHAMPION HILL

The story of the Stone family’s Northern Michigan journey into golf course construction and ownership at Pinecroft and Champion Hill

“Are you going to play Champion Hill this time?” My golf buddy Ben knew that I was making trips to Northern Michigan and he would text me this question every time I posted a photo of Kingsley Club, Arcadia Bluffs or Crystal Downs. “It’s on my list,” I would reply. Not a lie, but a truth lacking in any sense of urgency. I was busy getting intimate with three of the best courses in the state, the region, and perhaps even America (depending on who you ask). What need did I have of seeing a country course, even if it was a favorite of the locals? After years of this exchange, I finally made the short trip, and by the time I reached the fourth tee it was clear why Ben was so insistent. Champion Hill is a joy of a course with hand-crafted architectural feel on a piece of land that is as good as The Downs—all at a green fee that makes you feel like you’re taking advantage of the family who owns it.

Do You Think We Might Have Something?

The Stones have been a farming family for generations, growing cherries and other fruit, along with Christmas trees. City folk might not give much thought to where those firs, pines and spruce come from. Thank growers like the Stones. By the late ‘80s, tree farming had become a grind as big box stores squeezed producers and pushed out independent tree lots. The family was getting by but feeling the pressure, prompting Lee Stone to begin contemplating other uses for the land.

In college, Stone had taken a golf class and then played with his father at the courses around Benzie County throughout his twenties and thirties. To call him an avid golfer would be a stretch, and he certainly didn’t have any experience in designing or building courses. He was, however, on the lookout for opportunity, which materialized in the morning queue at the Signal Hill Golf Course in Panama City Beach, FL. Stone shared the story of inspiration hitting while on a family vacation with NewClub’s Matt Considine on the Bag Drop Podcast. “Standing there with a bunch of guys and it wasn’t even light yet,” he recounted. “I thought, maybe that’s what we do with the farm up north. That was the start of it.”

The Stones might not have had a golf pedigree, but they did have land in what has come to be seen as one of the ideal places in America to build a golf course. Northern Michigan’s trademark sandy soil and glacier-made topography characterized their property. Lee connected with Jim Cole, who left turf school at Ohio State to work on construction of the courses at Agaming and Crystal Mountain. Cole had a landscaping company at the time, but agreed to take a look at the land that would become the family’s first course, Pinecroft. “What do you say Jim, do you think we might have something here?” The answer came back strongly in the affirmative. Testing from Michigan State confirmed that the soil was perfect for golf, requiring only stripping, screening and seeding. Cole and the Stones set to work clearing, shaping, and installing irrigation, doing nearly everything in-house. Pinecroft opened for play in 1992 and the tee sheet filled up immediately.

The magnificent lake view from the 16th green at Pinecroft

Let’s Do Another

Pinecroft was a resounding success with locals and golf tourists alike. Lee Stone was pleased with the result, and upon reflection found the process of building the course to be highly enjoyable and satisfying. He proposed to Cole that they create a second course on another site owned by the family. The 350 acres that became Champion Hill sits on the highest point in Benzie County with views of Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan in the distance. A setting that rivals its much more famous neighbor in Frankfort.

By the time clearing began in 1995, Stone and Cole had augmented their hands-on experience with study of the subjects of architecture, construction and agronomy. The pair agreed to a simple set of timeless design principles for their second offering: an open, airy feeling with wide fairways; no trees or water hazards in play; natural, sand-pit style bunkering; big, contoured greens. In rural Michigan, they had organically settled on the formula that would also captivate golfers in the sand hills of Nebraska, along the coast of Oregon, and beyond.

Stone hopped on the family’s new bulldozer and did most of the shaping himself between 1996 and 1998. He likes to tell the story of meeting an up-and-coming architect named Mike DeVries, who stopped by to see the project and offer his services. Stone politely turned DeVries down because he was having too much fun doing it himself. What was born of necessity came to be permeated with a joy that players still feel twenty years later.

The Course

Champion Hill is a course that achieves the holy grail of playability. Interesting, challenging and fun for players of all ages and abilities. With holes working up, along and over a primary ridge, the hilly terrain makes for a tough but doable walk. Stone and Cole stayed largely true to their design principles. Trees are part of the scenery, but with the exception of a few nods to the orchard heritage of the land, they are not on the stage. There is enough strategy baked into the design to satisfy geeks and sticks alike, and enough quirk to charm even the well-traveled.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The round begins with three consecutive par-4s that work up to the high ground. The 1st is straightaway, the 2nd banks left around a large set of bunkers, and the 3rd is an up-and-over to a green set at the base of a hill. This opening stretch introducers players to the naturalized aesthetic and the wonderful contours to come. It culminates with a green-back view of both lakes that is worthy of a brief pause to absorb.

The 4th is a bunkerless par-4 that runs along the base of the dune, providing plenty of challenge in spite of its lack of a hazard. The par-5 5th features a dramatic downhill tee shot to a sharp dogleg right. Deciding how aggressive to be with that corner gets tricky at elevation. The first one-shotter on the course, the 6th plays over a valley to a green benched into the hillside.

The short par-5 7th is a stunning example of lay-of-the-land architecture. The tee shot is downhill into a valley. Players are then faced with an uphill approach to a lay-up area and green that are defended by sneaky tough bunkers. The putting surface is large and can be held with longer clubs, but is contoured to make lag putting no bargain.

After the 7th, the course comes up over the ridge to begin the descent to the turn. The 8th is a picturesque par-3 with a shelf green and expansive views. The 9th once again asks players to choose a line down to a fairway set at an angle along the foot of the hill. Upon making the turn, the 10th is a simple but tough four-par with a very deep green.

The par-3 11th is one of the most heavily bunkered on the course and can be a card wrecker when the wind is howling. Not to be outdone, the green on the two-shot 12th has devilish contours that give players fits. The final par-3 on the course, the 13th requires a stout tee ball while dealing with the distraction of the breathtaking vista from the high point of the property.

The next two par-4s are among the most creative and strategic holes on the course. Anything from a mid-iron to a driver works off the tee on the 14th, with its drivable green perched near the top of the ridge. The 15th requires that players check the hole location as a small tree fronts an offset green that runs away. Angle of approach is critical to set up a birdie chance.

The closing stretch begins with the par-4 16th, which plays over a rise and then down to a deep, well-defended green. Back-to-back par-5s complete the round. The 17th swings right around an orchard and the 18th includes the only water on the course, short left of the home green.

Listening to Lee Stone discuss his creations with Matt Considine, the discomfort he feels being the focal point is evident. Pay close attention and you can also pick up flashes of confidence and pride. He knows that the collaboration with his old friend Jim yielded a gem at Champion Hill. Best of all is the satisfaction that he expresses knowing how much players have enjoyed his courses over the years. Go play Pinecroft or Champion Hill and you will feel like you’re a part of that great, big golfing family.

As is the case with family farms, many family owned golf courses are struggling to survive. If we want the best of these courses, like Champion Hill, to be around for the long haul, we have to seek them out and play them regularly. Don’t do it out of charity, though. Do it because it is a golf experience that is much richer than the shots hit on the course.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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WHAT MY KIDS TAUGHT ME ABOUT ARCHITECTURE

My son Jack is 15 years old and my son Henry is 7 years old.  This season, I officially became one of those lucky golf geek dads whose kids are golf-crazed.  We play most of our golf together at Canal Shores, but we also had outings over the summer at Kingsley Club, Champion Hill, and Arcadia Bluffs.

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Jack and me, sweeping the dew on the opener at Kingsley

I took Jack out for his first “real” round of golf at Kingsley, and we were joined by my buddy Howard.  He had never been on a big course before, and I thought his eyes might pop out of his head when we stepped onto the first tee.  In Jack’s defense, many people who visit are intimidated by Kingsley’s opener, and the 2nd is no picnic either.  Jack struggled on the first two holes, and on the 3rd tee, I gave him a pep talk.  “Ignore what you see on the ground and hit it in the direction I point,” I advised.  He is a quick study and followed the instruction, striping his tee shot.

It was well hit, but on a more aggressive line than intended.  We held our breath wondering if it would clear the right fairway bunker.  It did, and the feeling of exhilaration was palpable, not just from Jack, but throughout our whole group.  In that moment, I realized that my boys were teaching me about golf course architecture.

LESSON #1 – It is fun to hit the ball over obstacles.

Sure, good design provides the opportunity for hazards to be avoided in exchange for strategic advantage, but the truth of our hearts is that we love to knock the ball over things.  The corner of a dogleg.  A creek or crevasse.  A bunker – the bigger and nastier the better.  The successful clear provides a thrilling satisfaction.  It’s in our DNA.

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Henry, after clearing a deep bunker on the 1st at Arcadia Bluffs

My wife and little guy Henry joined Jack and me for a walk and twilight golf at Arcadia Bluffs.  On each hole, I would create a “Henry Tee” in a special spot 100 or so yards from the green.  We found a perfect Henry Tee on the far right of the ridge above the bunkers that cut across the fairway on the 3rd.  He gave his hybrid a lash and we watched expectantly as his ball bounded along the fairway toward the green, peeling off at the last moment and coming to rest on the fringe.

LESSON #2 – It is fun to watch the ball roll over interesting ground toward the target.

There is a reason why “fair” is a four letter word, and in my opinion, it has no place on a golf course.  The game is gloriously unfair, especially on courses with contour, kept in firm and fast conditions.  Hit a good shot, catch a bad bounce.  Hit a bad shot, catch a good bounce.  There is no justice in the rub of the green, and that is the way I want it.  I want to watch my ball tumble along, not knowing exactly where it will end up.  Predictable is boring.

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Jack guessing on a line for the semi-blind tee shot on the 14th at Champion Hill

I do my best to walk the line between patience and teaching my guys a lesson about moving along on the course.  They get more of the former when nobody else is around.  After all, I’m loving every moment I get with them, and what’s the rush?  At times, when I get impatient, I have a habit of giving them long putts.  They don’t like that practice one bit.  They want to get the ball in the hole, and I am robbing them of that pleasure.

LESSON #3 – It is fun to get the ball in the hole.

I love wild green surrounds and undulating greens as much as anyone, and yet I wonder sometimes, has that trend gone a little bit too far?  If the surrounds are so complex that my chances of ever holing a chip or pitch are diminished to the point of dumb luck, is the architect’s creative expression worth it?  If the greens are so severe that every putt over 5 feet is a pure guessing game, is the player cheated of seeing a line clearly and dropping a bomb?  I’m no tour caliber putter, but I’m no slouch either.  I like to see a putt drop into the hole as much as my boys, and it seems that an architect has some responsibility to at least give players a reasonable chance of success.  Restraint is a virtue.

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Jack chasing the summer sun on the 5th at Arcadia Bluffs.

My kids have a way of stripping away complications to help me see what really matters.  Like most golf geeks do, I appreciate strategic options and being encouraged to think.  I also greatly appreciate the natural beauty of the contrast of colors and textures.  Rarely do I encounter quirk and creative flourishes that I don’t dig.  But at my core, I am just like my boys and they remind me of the essence of the game.  If the architect and greenkeeper give me the opportunity to golf my ball over obstacles, to see my ball run along the ground, and to get my ball in the hole with reasonable effort, I will have fun.

Could great architecture be that simple?

 

 

 

Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf