Michigan Open full of life, history

By Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Championships are a time-honored and cherished part of sports history. The Americas Cup yacht race, for instance, was first held in 1851. They were racing at Churchill Downs long before, but the first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875. The Stanley Cup was played for in 1893, three years before the first modern day Olympic Games. Strawberries and cream were first enjoyed at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club's Wimbledon Championship in 1877.

In terms of golf, the Royal and Ancient first held the British Open Championship in 1860, and America followed suit by founding its United States Open and United States Amateur Championships in 1895. The Western Golf Association - at the time "USGA west," held its inaugural Western Open in 1899.

It was in 1916 that the Professional Golfers Association of America conducted the first PGA Championship - the same year that the very first Michigan Open was contested.

"The Michigan Open?" you ask. Indeed, the Michigan Open Championship ranks among American golf's original events. It predates both the Ryder Cup Matches (1927) and the Masters Tournament (1932).

The inaugural Michigan Open was won by Leo Diegel, and the list of champions includes the names of many famous and accomplished golfers, including major championship winners and Ryder Cup players. Some of those Michigan Open winners were Walter Hagen, Al Watrous, Chuck Kocsis, Chick Harbert, Walter Burkemo, Horton Smith, Dave Hill, and Mike Souchak, to name a few.

The Michigan PGA, on June 28 through July 1, will conduct the 89th Michigan Open Championship, which will be played for a $110,000 purse, including amateur awards. Open qualifying, for those not exempt into the championship, was held May 24 and 25 at eight of Michigan's rich collection of exciting and historic golf courses, including the acclaimed links at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club, perched along Lake Michigan, and the Donald Ross-designed Western Golf and Country Club near Detroit. Other statewide qualifying sites were: The Orchards, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design in Washington; The Fortress, in Michigan's touristy town of Frankenmuth; Walnut Hills Country Club in the state capital of Lansing; Blythefield Country Club, the home course of Buddy Whitten, who won back-to-back titles in 1982- '83; the R&S Sharf Course at Oakland University; and Bedford Valley Golf Club, a public course near Kalamazoo that hosted the Michigan Open for many years.

Anyone with a handicap of 8.0 or less and the $200 entry fee can take their shot at qualifying. 104 players will advance to the four round, medal play championship. The full field will be 144 golfers, with a midway cut to the low 70 and ties. Among the categories of players exempted into the championship are: past champions; former Michigan Amateur champions (5 years); top-25 from the 2003 Michigan Open; and winners and low-finishers in other Michigan amateur and professional tournaments.

Those that make the field are up against Michigan's toughest players - young and old. But the rest of the field is, at least initially, the least of their worries. The Michigan Open is held on arguably the state's toughest golf course - The Bear, at Grand Traverse Resort, since 1981. When it was built over 20 years ago, Jack Nicklaus was asked to build a bear - the state's toughest course - and he did. With terraced fairways, tiered greens, heavy rough, wetlands, blind shots, pot bunkers with ladders, and severe mounds, The Bear is 7,065-yards of Bentgrass punishment. It has a course rating of 76.8 and a slope of 146. The Bear hosted a Senior Tour event in 1990.

"This is usually the hardest course we see all year," admitted club professional Al Kuhn, who led the Michigan Open in 2003 by holding on to shoot 69 in the opening round. He "held on" because he made two birdies and an eagle on the first three holes and could only manage to play the next 15 holes in one-over-par. "I've never had a start like that, but I've played here long enough to know that you're not done with this course until your last putt is in the hole."

Kuhn did not win the tournament, but local knowledge of The Bear has proven valuable to touring professional Scott Hebert, who won the Michigan Open five times in the last seven years, including a run of four straight from 1999 through '02. Hebert worked as an assistant professional at The Bear early in his career. He is one Michigan Open win away from tying the late Al Watrous for a record six state championships.

Though Hebert is young and presumably will have plenty more chances to take the title, it was 50-year-old Bob Ackerman, a teaching professional from West Bloomfield.

"I'm a dedicated, passionate golfer. I love to play and practice. This is what I've been doing since I was a little boy. It's moments like this that make it all worthwhile," said Ackerman moments after winning a one-hole, sudden death playoff against Detroit Golf Club assistant
professional Bryan Snyder.

Ackerman's win on The Bear was his second Michigan Open win - he won the championship at Bedford Valley in 1975 as a 22-year-old amateur - the last amateur to win the title.

"As an amateur you could fluke a win. But this was no fluke," said Ackerman. "When I showed up to play the Michigan Open as an amateur, I was tournament tough. Now I'm a full time teaching professional with a wife and two kids. I don't have my mom and dad walking the fairways with me taking care of my every need. I'm on the other end of the spectrum."

June of 2003 was something of an "Open Slam" for Ackerman won the Michigan Senior Open at Bedford Valley GC in Battle Creek two weeks before winning the Michigan Open.

While other state opens struggle to survive, such as the Colorado Open, which was cancelled only days before its scheduled date in 2003, the Michigan Open attracts a great deal of media attention and lively, dedicated spectators, and real-time scoring on the Internet at Michigan.PGA.com. Of course, it has a great history behind it.

Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment