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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