Hearn looks to make a move onto national scene

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- There's no questioning that Ray Hearn has dominated the Michigan golf scene in the past three years, opening one award-winning design after another.

The Grande Golf Club in Jackson and the Hemlock Golf Club in Ludington each earned their way unto the Golf Digest list of "Best New Affordable Courses" in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

And his unique Strategic Fox design, an outstanding 18-hole executive course, helped the nearby 63-hole Fox Hills Golf Club win the 2002 course of the year award from the National Golf Course Owners Association.

But where does the talented architect go from here?

Even Hearn admits his home state is overrun with quality courses. He is attempting to make a leap few architects can, moving from a name recognized in Michigan and throughout the Midwest to a national commodity, one that attracts clients from around the world.

Hearn, who founded his own business in Plymouth in 1996 after years of working with another Michigan architect, Jerry Matthews, is beginning his quest to bridge that gap. His current projects include Egg Island Golf & Yacht Club in North Eleuthera, Bahamas, Mill Creek Golf Club in Rochester, N.Y., and Franklin Golf Club in Franklin, Conn.

"You can put a fork in (Michigan), it's done," Hearn said this summer. "There aren't too many opportunities in Michigan. What is different now than five or 10 years ago, is when owners come to us they have to have a business plan in place. Before it was the emotion of building a new course. We would start designing it and figure out a business plan later. That's why we have moved onto the East Coast, building a private and semiprivate course. The (Egg Island course) is on the cliffs of two islands in the Caribbean. It's a mega yacht community."

In the ultra-competitive world of course design, Hearn, 42, and new partner Paul Albanese, who moved up to principle partner from senior designer in 2002, have an edge on most of their competition. They've won a reputation as being able to get more bang for the buck, building outstanding courses for budgets under $3 million.

Most new courses come with budgets anywhere from $5-8 million, a scary thought to most prospective owners in this tough economy.

"When people ask why should we hire you, we always say we are creating these award-winning projects with low budgets," Hearn said.

Hearn's belief in minimalism helps to keep costs down. He doesn't overuse bunkers or move dirt like he's building a sandcastle at the beach. He lets the land dictate his strategy.

"I'm very pure with this (belief)," he said. "A lot of the designs in the past 20 years have been by ego, either by the architect or the owner. Bigger is better. Let's move more earth and build more waterfalls. Let's try to outdo the next guy.

"My movement is called minimalism. If you know your Ps and Qs, you can maximize your site attributes and give the owner a chance to succeed and make it economical to construct and maintain a course."

Hearn loves to travel the British Isles, drawing inspiration from the classical designs there. He marvels at how some were built more a century ago, with none of the elaborate machines used today.

"This is the thing that goes to my soul -- the courses there are ingrained in the fabric of the community," he said. "The golf courses are so economical to maintain, but yet they have this phenomenal beauty. Golf continues to grow over there because everyone can afford it."

Hearn has certainly made good golf affordable in Michigan. The 7,044-yard Hemlock, which cost $2 million to build, had greens fees of just $35 for 18 holes with $25 midweek specials in 2003. The Grande cost just over $3 million and runs around $50 for 18 holes. And both rival the best courses in their respective regions.

The Hemlock's rolling terrain meanders through Lake Michigan sand dunes, which were incorporated in the design, creating rugged bunkers and bold waste areas. Hearn isn't afraid to break the rules once in a while, either.

He created back-to-back par-5s on No. 11 and 12. No. 12 features two fairways, split by a large waste area, and a green surrounded by sand.

The 7,156-yard Grande is even more dynamic, with expansive wetlands and elevation changes that span 100 feet. Distinct personalities pop up nearly every hole, as grassy meadows, forests, lakes and rock outcroppings cause the scenery to change frequently.

Hearn praised his latest Michigan effort, the 7,005-yard Yarrow Golf Club in Augusta, as possibly his best work, but I still marvel his par-71, 6,892-yard Moose Ridge creation in Green Oak Township because it's the most stunning piece of land in southeast Michigan.

Of his 11 designs to date, the 6,745-yard, par-71 Twin Lakes Golf & Swim Club in Rochester - created during Hearn's tenure with Matthews -- probably gets the most play, but it's his most expensive track, mainly due to its locale in the heart of ritzy Oakland County. Moose Ridge (fifth) and Twin Lakes (seventh) both rank among metro Detroit's best public courses.

Hearn has shown a penchant for massive greens to keep scores honest. The sizable greens at the Grande (average size 10,000 square feet), Twin Lakes (average size 12,000 square feet), Island Hills in Centreville (average size 9,000 square feet) and Yarrow border on treacherous.

But for the most part, Hearn designs playable, interesting layouts without massive forced carries because he understands golfers. Growing up, he was a recipient of the prestigious Evans Scholarship caddie program and earned two degrees in turf grass and landscape architecture from Michigan State University. In 1985, he joined the firm of Matthews and Associates and served as its senior course designer.

Hearn isn't a big name yet like Fazio or Jones or Nicklaus, but Golf Digest has called him "one to watch." He's already expanded his small home office in Plymouth, Mich., adding a satellite office in Florida. Michigan golfers can take solace in the fact he hasn't gone fully national yet. His website lists future in-state projects in Holland, Oxford and Romulus.

"We've had a tremendous run (of awards lately)," he said. "I'm very proud of what we've accomplished."

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment