Article by Tom Lang (Detroit Free Press)
High atop the Kalamazoo River Valley is a special piece of ground being designed to draw in golfers of all skill levels seeking a fun but challenging day on the links.
In an era where many golf courses are surrendering and shutting down, or going into bankruptcy to try living another day, Gull Lake View Resort is building its sixth golf course to add to its already popular inventory. The planned opening is mid-summer 2016.
Stoatin Brae — translated from Gaelic meaning Grand Hill — has the elements to become a destination course, which is what the Scott family hopes for as they continue to attract golfers from across the upper Midwest to the scenic, rolling countryside between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
“We’re always trying to increase our scope,” said third-generation family owner and president Jon Scott, regarding reasons to build a new course during Michigan’s still-recovering economy. “We do a lot of business out of Chicago and Detroit, but we’ve been successful looking at markets like Columbus, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Toronto. So we’re trying to give them another reason to drive a little bit farther; raise our flag saying why they should come here. To some, this is their Up North.”
The geographic area does have a northern Michigan feel, but the goal with Stoatin Brae is the opposite — think Scotland but surrounded by forest-covered hills Scott says.
The main entrance will give a heads up to any first-time visitor. The driveway off East Augusta Drive has about a 200 foot climb to the future clubhouse and first tee, overlooking the Kalamazoo River Valley with a south-facing lookout with downtown Battle Creek in the distance to the east. The property runs along one the highest elevated ridges in the region.
“It’s a tremendous piece of land, and that was one of the attractions, just seeing what the possibilities were — and we look for projects where there’s a lot of really good golf just lying on the ground, and this certainly had it,” said Eric Iverson, one of a four-man team from Renaissance Golf Design who are senior associates for the firm’s founder and world-renowned designer, Tom Doak. While the latter may offer suggestions, this design and joint building crew with Gull Lake View staff, is in the very capable hands of Iverson, Brian Schneider, Brian Slawnik and Don Placek.
“I think the golf course is going to be — elegant comes to mind sometimes,” Iverson added. “It’s just a gently rolling, nice piece of ground with fantastic native grasses to work with. We really just tried to not do too much, and I think we’re accomplishing that.”
Iverson was transfixed by the plateau location along the river valley. Previous land owners tended to an apple orchard, then sold it to home developers who stripped it clear of all those trees, before eventually selling it to the Scott family when the residential development didn’t transpire.
“You can see a lot of holes in a lot of directions and there’s just beautiful views everywhere,” he said.
The basic elements golfers will want to know is the fact there are no water hazards, understandable for being on such highly-elevated ground. Protecting par will be its challenging green complexes, smartly-placed bunkers requiring golfers to not always take a straight line, and the wind — oh boy the wind.
“It’s a strategic golf course and it’s going to hold its own, but the wind is a big part of it (protecting par),” Iverson said. “Even on a relatively calm day in the region, there is always a little bit of a breeze up here. A great golf breeze, 10 miles an hour or so, a half club here and half club there. You just have to pay attention to it; it’s a great asset for the course.”
Many times, however, the wind will be much more brisk than a club or two.
“The greens are pretty interesting,” Iverson said. “There’s a lot of strategic bunkering, and you’re going to be encouraged to tack your way around the hazards to get the best angles, and there’s enough width to do that. There will be very little ‘going down the middle.’ We’ve made room to hedge to one side or the other (of fairways) to get the better angle.”
It’s not Augusta, but it is
Scott has made it clear from inception he wants Stoatin Brae to be fun — not necessarily meaning easy — but fun. He relates that to how golf courses used to be built, in the 1930s and prior.
“Look at Augusta National (Golf Club) for instance,” Scott said, as a 25-m.p.h. wind swirled up some light dust around us in late September on the property located in Augusta, Mich. “That course was designed where there weren’t any roughs, it’s basically fairway to fairway (think Amen Corner). It’s meant to be wide open, so if you were a good player it was a challenge, but if you were a bad player you could still find your ball and hit it again.
“That course is still like that today. So in many ways, Stoatin Brae is a return to some of the basic philosophies of the ‘30s and earlier that were more focused on the average golfer instead of on the pro golfer. Pro golf has sort of led the charge in course design since the 1960s.”
Scott continued his soliloquy as to why golfers should love his latest effort of the heart.
“We always want people to have a fun and enjoyable experience,” he said. “This new course is not meant to kill people. We’re not trying to put a stake in the ground and say this is where the pros will come. We’re a resort and we want people to be able to enjoy themselves here.
“We do want it to be challenging. We want good golfers to play it and say we had to play a good game to make it work. But if you’re not a good golfer and you’re just hitting the ball around, we still want it to be fun for everybody. That fun factor is way too underplayed in the golf business today, and it’s a big issue.
“The fairways are wide,” Scott continued. “It’s different from our other courses in the stylistic and the visual – wide open, grassy top of the hill, windswept, broad shouldered, open skies.
Another visual that excites Scott is the fact after the apple trees were removed by the prior owners they planted a wide variety of native grasses and wild flowers. Scott claims that a golfer could play once a month and each time see a different course per color changes throughout the grass and flower growing seasons.
“So much of golf in the United States is fields that have grown up into forests (providing tree-lined fairways), which is great too,” he said. “But this course is meant to be an open field – forever. And it works because the topography is outstanding.”