Par-3 Shootout is Treetops' ace in the hole

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

GAYLORD, Mich. -- Each year, the made-for-TV skins game called the Tylenol Par-3 Shootout descends on this northern golf Mecca, and the entire ESPN-watching nation can catch a glimpse of the Treetops Resort, the host of the event.

Viewers and members of the galleries alike not only get to experience the roller-coaster ride that is the Threetops course, but also get a more intimate view of the four participants than one would ever get in a larger event. This year's cast of characters -- Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Lee Trevino, and newcomer Fuzzy Zoeller -- wore mics for the viewers at home. And for the folks in attendance, Trevino and Zoeller might as well have been a vaudeville comedy duo. The younger guys could hardly get a word in edgewise.

A Unique Event

The Par-3 Shootout's rules are like those of a normal skins game. First, the event is played over two days on the 9-hole, par-27 Threetops course. This allows stars from yesterday to compete on even footing with those of today because the distance of younger players is neutralized. Second, each hole-in-one is worth $1 million. That means 18 chances for each player to win big. In 2001, Lee Trevino aced the 7th hole, making it the richest single golf hole in history (because he also received $10,000 for closest to the pin). Third, anyone who wins a skin must validate the skin, meaning that in order to keep the dough, the player needs to at least tie the winning score on the next hole.

As usual, the four participants loved the format and the venue. In fact, Trevino came out of a self-imposed summer hiatus to play the event.

"I'm here to tell you," said Trevino, "I'm as surprised as anyone [that I played well on the first day]. For the first time in 38 years, I said I wasn't going to play golf in the summer. I haven't practiced or played in months. I took my clubs out for the first time this Saturday."

But that is precisely the beauty of this family-style event. Trevino brought his son Daniel along with him again this year to caddy. "This is the first time in 38 years I've spent the summer with my kids. If I were more flexible, I'd kick myself [for not doing it earlier]," Trevino quipped.

Trevino went on to praise Phil Mickelson for the way he balances golf and family "I respect what [Phil] does so much. He's a great golfer, one of the best in the world, but golf isn't the main thing in his life. People think you got to be out beating balls 12 hours a day. I did that, and I lost my first family. I was never close to them, and I've apologized to them a million times for it," lamented Trevino.

Fred Couples agreed. "[This event] is a real treat. Oliver [Couples' son] came along this year. Yesterday we fished and played golf. I think we should have a PGA Tour event that's all par-3s," said Couples.

As for the quality of Michigan golf, the pros were likewise complimentary. "I've never seen anything bad [course-wise] in Michigan," commented Trevino. "I can see why there are more rounds played per capita in Michigan than anywhere else. Hell, the sun doesn't go down till 10 o'clock. And they tell me that [Rick Smith-designed] Arcadia Bluffs will rival Pebble Beach someday. I'm eager to get there and see that!"

Fuzzy Zoeller, who pocketed $330,000 as the winner of the event, plugged Treetops in a live cell-phone interview with Indianapolis-based nationally-syndicated radio morning guys Bob & Tom. "This is a gorgeous place," raved Zoeller. "You guys need to get up here. The golf is fantastic."

And the event doesn't come off badly on TV, either. Rick Smith, new owner of Treetops, swing coach to the tour pros, organizer of the event, designer of the Threetops course, and all-around golf golden boy, gushed about the first day's telecast: "That was the best TV golf I've ever seen."

Although Smith may be a tad biased, his assessment of the first day's play wasn't far off. No fewer than three balls hopped close to the hole off the tee, giving fits to the folks at the insurance company that guarantees the hole-in-one money. Mickelson's near ace on the 205-yard 3rd hole called "Devil's Drop" was the most dramatic. His ball landed inches in front of the hole and somehow skittered around to end up a foot directly behind it.

Up Close and Personal

Players are very candid in the close confines of such a small event. Mickelson, when asked about his long-range plans, demonstrated the attitude that Trevino expressed such respect for. "There's a lot of things in life to do," explained Mickelson. "I love to play golf, and I've committed myself to play for another eight to 10 years. But there are some other things I'd like to do." The Champions Tour is not in his future.

Zoeller concurred with Mickelson on the rigors of the tour. "The strain of having to make a living [at golf] is tough," said Zoeller. "Now that that part of the game is over for me, it's a great life. Now I just work on getting up every morning."

Smith was literally bubbling with excitement about the future of his new baby, Treetops. "We are beginning a phenomenal Land Development Plan that is going to create condos, villas, lots and a very exclusive private club component that I think will be a wonderful addition to our already existing 5-1/2 courses," said Smith.

"We've got 4,000 acres in some of the most spectacular land that hasn't even been opened up yet. The private course is going to be very exclusive and they are going to have rights to play the other courses," added Smith. "I am going to take my players that I have worked with over my life and they are going to collaborate with me over the design of the course. I have already done the routing and it is spectacular and very unusual. We are also looking into plans to do equestrian and sporting clays, and we have one of the best trout fishing streams in the state that runs right through our north property."

A paint-ball course recently opened next to the Treetops ski slope is already garnering compliments.

Treetops will get even more national exposure next year when it serves as the setting for another Shootout as well as the Golf Channel's own Survivor-like "reality" program titled "The Big Break," which Rick Smith will host. "The Big Break" will feature 10 scratch golfers all bunking together at Treetops and competing in a series of golf skills challenges. There will be 10 episodes with one golfer being sent home at the end of each episode. The last player standing will win a chance to compete in a handful of pro tournaments (likely Canadian Tour events) televised on the network in 2004.

The appeal of the tournament and the venue were best summed up by Trevino when he was asked if it would be an easy decision to come back next year. "Oh, hell yes," answered Trevino. "I love it here even if I never win a skin. I love it!"

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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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