Grand Haven Golf Club: Opportunity Knocks in Southern Michigan

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

GRAND HAVEN, MI - According to Dr. John R. Rooney, developer of the Database of Golf in America and publisher of the quarterly sports research magazine Sports Place International, "The supply of golf courses now exceeds the demand for their use in most places."

So why would Rooney's own company, Rooney Golf Group, purchase the venerable Grand Haven Golf Club, which has been pushed aside a bit during the recent Michigan golf boom? With no lack of enthusiasm, Rooney replies, "This is a special place. It has excellent design integrity and is in a desirable location. It has tremendous potential."

Rooney knows potential. He's taken part in the development of two of southern Michigan's best courses: Timber Ridge Golf Course in East Lansing, and The Majestic in Howell.

With a number of improvements to the course and facilities already underway, Rooney expects the Grand Haven Golf Club to return to the prominent spot it once held among Michigan courses, having at one time even been counted as one of the top 50 public courses in the nation.

Big Plans for Modernization

Grand Haven Golf Club was designed by Bruce Matthews, one of the pre-eminent course architects of the mid 20th Century and father of one of Michigan's most prominent present-day course architects, Jerry Matthews. The course was opened in 1965, and served as the home course and family business for the Matthews family. "This place kept my father alive for many years, I feel," says the junior Matthews.

When the Matthews family looked around for a buyer for the course, John Rooney was a natural pick. Jerry Matthews had worked with Rooney before (as designer of Timber Ridge and The Majestic, among others). Matthews had long told Rooney what a unique piece of land the course occupies - and Rooney immediately recognized the opportunity.

"It would be very hard, if not impossible, to build a course like this in this area today," estimates Rooney. "It makes much more sense to take something that already exists and make it better."

And make it better they are. On the day of my visit, Rooney and his associates were celebrating the grand opening of the brand new 16,000 sq. ft. clubhouse facility. Encompassing a complete pro shop, grillroom, bar, staff offices, banquet facilities with room to seat 250, and an outdoor pavilion overlooking the first tee and ninth green, the impressive cedar-shingled structure represents a marked improvement over the original pole-barn-style clubhouse.

But this significant addition to the golf club and the $4 million dollars invested since 1998 in upgrades are just the beginning. Rooney has retained Jerry Matthews as "resident course architect," and the two men have crucial, if not dramatic, improvements planned for the course itself.

"I don't like to drop names," confides Matthews, "but I keep going back to Pine Valley. I love the incorporation of the waste areas there with the groomed areas. This course is built on sandy soil, just like Pine Valley. I want to bring the dunes on holes six, seven, eleven, fourteen and fifteen back into their natural state, with clean sand and beach grass."

Golfers familiar with Grand Haven Golf Club might even be surprised to find out the course is built on sand, and filled with natural dune areas. When most players think of the course, they think of trees - seemingly millions of them - more than dunes. So what happened to the dunes?

"My father was a practical man," explains Matthews. "The irrigation system was not available to keep the rough watered around the edges of the dunes, so they didn't stand out as they should have. And since he couldn't keep golfers from driving carts into them and getting stuck, he covered them over."

But the younger Matthews believes that golfers today are ready for more natural designs (and are perhaps more experienced at driving golf carts). "The new irrigation system that we have planned will allow us to define those dune areas, and bring them into view as part of the natural beauty of the layout."

Other renovations will likely include adding a new set of tees to give the course more flexibility. Golfers who are familiar with the course likely - and rightly - consider it one of the tightest, most heavily-wooded in the state. It is hard to believe that 1,113 trees were removed five years ago. While Rooney and Matthews have no plans to alter the majority of the mature vegetation, they plan to widen a few select fairways as well.

A Classic Layout

By and large, however, Bruce Matthews's classic 6,789-yard layout will remain as it has always been: tight and tough, but also scenic and playable. The overall design hearkens back to a day when the club's best players may not have hit it more than 230 yards off the tee, but they kept the ball in play and were able to shape shots around trees and over bunkers.

This same style of game, if you can play it, will serve you well here today, just as it has since 1965. If instead you have the "big, wild drive" type of game so common today, you, like I, will finding yourself punching repeatedly out of the arboreal prisons lining the fairways. (Of the 85 strokes I took this day, it felt like 40 of them were 3-iron punch-shots.) Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of a course that promises a more pleasurable round at such a reasonable rate ($38 during peak times, not including cart).

Although allowed to grow a bit longer due to the recent dry conditions, the bent and poa mix greens are in excellent condition. Their design is not flashy - no multiple tiers or dramatic undulations - but any putt from more than five feet will require a careful read and precise speed to negotiate the subtle breaks hiding throughout every putting surface.

Again, control and precision are key to scoring well on both long and short holes. Even the longest hole on the course, the 550-yard No. 3, requires placement more than it does power. This long, looping par 5 is thick with trees on both sides from tee to green. Unless you can hit a fade or draw on command around ball-swatting overhanging limbs, you need to stay in the middle of the short grass to have a shot at the correct section of the large, rolling, elevated green.

The par 3s are all pretty, but not particularly difficult, ranking as the four easiest on the course. A perfect example of the gentle, bucolic short holes is the 198-yard 5th. Club selection is paramount from the elevated tees. Wetlands lie in wait to the left of the green, which is so roomy that imprecise shots can leave putts from 50 feet or more.

The par 4s range from 353 yards all the way up to 462 yards. A personal favorite is the 420-yard 17th, where an overly aggressive driver from the tips (or big 3-wood from the white tees) could roll through the elbow of the dogleg left and into the water hazard lurking among the ever-present foliage. The green is small, though, and undulating, so if you hang too far back, your approach will need to be perfect to hit and hold the putting surface.

Poised for a Return to Greatness

In 1981, Grand Haven Golf Club was ranked by Golf Digest as one of the top 50 public courses in the nation. But with the flood of new, modern facilities built both in Michigan and throughout the country in the 1980s-1990s, the respected venue was drowned in the buzz associated with newer courses. Now, with a new owner, new clubhouse, and new plans for renovation and expansion, Grand Haven Golf Club is generating some buzz of its own.

The saturated Michigan golf market not withstanding, Grand Haven Golf Club has very little local competition. The Thoroughbred Golf Club, a memorable resort course, lies thirty minutes or more to the north. And the Arnold Palmer-designed Ravines is equally far removed to the south in Saugatuck. Really, the throngs of tourists and summer visitors to this portion of the spectacular Lake Michigan shoreline have no other top-notch golfing option.

And with the present and planned improvements, the course will be more likely to draw some of the yacht-owning, beach-loving, wine-tasting types who flock to Grand Haven during the all-too-short summer months. These are the very people who will appreciate the traditional feel of the place, which recalls a time before cell phones and titanium drivers. Indeed, Grand Haven Golf Club embodies all that is good about golf, and particularly, Michigan golf.

Real Estate Development at Grand Haven Golf Club

Jerry Matthews, whose father Bruce Matthews designed, built and operated the Grand Haven Golf Club, has always recognized the property's potential for development. "We drew up plans for real estate development," says the junior Matthews. "But at the time there was no way to connect the lots to the utilities, so we never carried through with them."

These days, however, new owner John R. Rooney and his investors are in a better position to develop the residential lots surrounding the venerable course. At present, 39 lots are either for sale or have already been sold in three separate sections of the property.

According to Mark Gleason, a broker with Greenridge Realty (Spring Lake, MI, 616-847-2880), the home lots are situated along the 9th-11th and the 18th holes, and only six of the lots do not border the course. However, before golfers panic that their beloved (or maybe not so beloved, depending on how many balls they've lost), tree-lined fairways will be sullied with houses, Gleason assures that tree buffers will remain between the yards and the course itself.

Gleason reports that the lots are selling well. Grand Haven is a hot - or should we say cool - summer destination for Chicago-area residents in particular. Downtown Grand Haven is small but packed with bars, eateries, beaches, art galleries, and fabulously expensive luxury yachts, which line the waterfront.

Still, 80 percent of the buyers have been local. People recognize the great investment potential of owning a lot along one of the state's classic golf tracks. Unlike a lot of small cities across America, Grand Haven is not a place people are trying to escape. "This is a great place to raise a family," says Gleason. "People around here are friendly. Lots of people don't even lock their doors."

So even though summers - and golf seasons - are short, Grand Haven remains a haven for those seeking the quiet, good life. And the real estate development at Grand Haven Golf Club, like that at the course itself, is a welcome addition to this postcard-perfect corner of the Great Lakes.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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