"We'll see you next summer." To Wally Matthews, those words have been pure music to the ears. As the only General Manager Grand Haven GC has ever had, Matthews, 66, still receives enormous satisfaction from hearing those words from the many summer cottage residents who loyally make Grand Haven their "home course away from home."
"You know you're doing a good job when you hear your customers at the end of the season tell you that," said Wally. "We've always aimed here at providing something that golfers will enjoy and want to come back."
And coming back they have for over 30 years now. Originally, the 234 acres of woodsy and sandy terrain was earmarked for the Elks Lakeshore Country Club. But when the Elks were unable to pay the first year construction costs for the $125,000 course, course architect W. Bruce Matthews (Wally's famed father) took over the project. With the financial support of several local businessmen, Bruce salvaged the venture by astutely developing the Timberdunes subdivision on the site. In all, 79 residential lots were put up for sale. "The first phase of selling actually paid for the clubhouse and the access road," recalled Bruce recently, now a spry 92 year old legend.
The course officially opened on Memorial Day 1965. Immediately, it was a success with local and visiting golfers. "This area was ripe for a public golf course," said Wally who was lured away from a club manager's job in Flint to oversee his father's prized creation. What golfers found was a picturesque tree-lined lay out that demanded accuracy throughout the round. "I always favored how well trees define a hole," said Bruce, a Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member for his illustrious career in golf course design.
But what really got the ball rolling at Grand Haven was the sudden announcement in 1981 that the course was ranked in Golf Digest's inaugural Top 50 Best Public Golf Courses in America.
"We had no idea it was coming," said Wally. "It caught us completely by surprise." In fact, Wally remembers getting phone inquiries from curious golfers around the country about the ranking even before the magazine was released. "The ranking has been invaluable to us over the years-it certainly increased our number of rounds," said Wally. Up until this year, Grand Haven had made Golf Digest's bi-annual list each time. Due to the boom in golf course construction across the U.S., the competition among quality and upscale public facilities has been keen. Once unique, the Grand Haven "model" is now bein replicated across the country.
To its credit, Grand Haven is undergoing an impressive transformation to stay abreast of its competitors. For starters, more than 1000 trees have been trimmed and removed since last fall from the lay out once dubbed, said Wally, "as the tightest in the state."
"To be honest, it was long overdue," said Wally. "Over the past 30 years, the trees lining the fairways had grown inward making the course tighter and less playable. We needed to enhance our playability."
Along with the extensive tree removal project, led by new Head Superintendent Charles Tazelaar, numerous other changes are in the making and should be completed by this year. Most notable is the re-design of the par three 5th hole. Noted architect and Bruce's son, Jerry, has deftly added a pond near the green, subtle mounding behind it, and a new tee complex at the 5th. "Dad had to be convinced that the changes proposed actually improved the hole," said Wally with a wry grin. "We all agree that they have. It's a true signature hole now."
Other changes have been made to several tee complexes on both nines, adding or enlarging the men's and/or women's tees. Certainly one of the most popular improvements this year will be the different look on the third hole, the 522-yard dogleg par five. A huge wedge of trees have been cleared from the right side of the fairway 150 yards or so from the tee, allowing for a much improved and wider driving area. Still more pesky, overhanging trees were removed near the tee on Grand Haven's excellent 9th hole, a 477 yard par five that once was featured as a "Great hole" by the USGA's GolfJournal.
Given a personal tour on a windy, cold afternoon, I can attest that the changes both made and in the making will be well-received and endorsed by golfers playing Grand Haven. I've been a fan of this layout ever since I played it as a junior and prep golfer in the 60's. Yes, Golf Digest got it right back in '81 and I'm sure it'll get it right once again in some future ranking. But for now, Wally, let me just say: "We'll see you this summer."