Hockey was Aldridge's first love
Hockey's loss is golf's gain in the case of Kevin Aldridge, the designer and builder of two of the most distinctive courses in Michigan, the award-winning links-style Gailes and certain award-contender Pine Valley-flavored Blackshire which just opened on May 31.
Both are at the Aldridge family-owned Lakewood Shores Resort in Oscoda, which includes the resort's original course, Seradella. The Aldridges also own Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake Orion.
But hockey was the first love for Stan Aldridge and his sons, Kirk, Kevin and Keith. After the senior Aldridge was outbid for the Detroit Red Wings by Mike Illitch -- "It's a good thing I didn't get it. I would've made George Steinbrenner look like a weenie" -- non-golfer Aldridge purchased Indianwood, a run-down old classic which he has turned into a showplace and twice hosted the United States Women's Open Championship.
Before golf, though, it was hockey. "Kirk is a year older than me and he was in a clinic at the Detroit Skating Club. I was six years old and went along with my mother (Sue). I begged her for two hours to let me play," Kevin said. "I wanted to be a goalie. I thought it would be neat to wear all that equipment."
Kevin finally wore down his mother and got into hockey, but she put her foot down on position -- he didn't get to play goalie. "I played through high school (Brother Rice) but I quit when I went to Michigan State and just played club hockey. I have asthma and I couldn't keep up with the other guys. I couldn't stickhandle either but I was smart. I had good puck sense and I knew where to go."
Kirk went on to play at Kent State and was the team's leading point-getter but after graduation turned down Tampa Bay in favor of going into the family's importing business. Keith, the youngest brother, was a three-time All-America defenseman at Lake Superior State, helped the Lakers win the NCAA championship and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist (college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy) and still has NHL hopes.
Kevin, 36 this September, opted for a Caterpillar -- as in bulldozers and tractors. "When I was a kid I was the one in the sandbox with the Tonka toys." Then he laughed. "Blackshire was one huge sandbox for me. "The ultimate for me is to design the course and push dirt at the same time. Nothing's better than sitting on a bulldozer at 10 o'clock at night with no one else there. Building bunkers is the high point. I try to get the bulldozer stuck and then I know I've got a good one," Aldridge said, laughing again. "Some are deep, some are shallow, some are tight, some are for esthetics. You have to have a good variety."
He's got some good ones at Blackshire, huge sand pits and the one that's 100 yards short of the first green, a sandy crater that stretches about 60 yards and seems half that deep, sets up the entire round. It gets your attention immediately and tells you this is going to be a special experience.
Some people call them "waste bunkers" and others call them "untended areas." Either way, they're not raked and unlike regular bunkers, you can ground your club without penalty. Untended sandy areas are the trademark of Pine Valley, the very private club in New Jersey that has been ranked the best course in America by Golf Digest magazine although it rarely has been seen by, and never been played by, the public. Its only public exposure was for the 1985 Walker Cup matches.
Besides hockey as a youngster, Kevin liked "art stuff" and took art classes at Cranbrook when he was 12 and among his electives at Brother Rice High School were art and drafting classes. That artistic flair is evident in Blackshire and The Gailes.
"Blackshire is the outgrowth of The Gailes," Aldridge said. "We had to top it or try to top it."
Amazingly, Kevin never has been to Pine Valley. He's seen photographs and a Shell Wonderful World of Golf video and he's had very little experience in Scotland. He leaned on Chuck Kocsis, Michigan's greatest amateur golfer who has played extensively at Pine Valley over the years, for ideas on Blackshire and he got first-hand experience for the Gailes by visiting St. Andrews and Turnberry.
The senior Aldridge is an Anglophile of the first order. He turned the Indianwood clubhouse into something that looks as though it was plucked out of the United Kingdom. And when he decided to add a second course, he named the original, designed by Englishman Wilfrid Reid, the Old Course, as in the Old Course at St. Andrews. And the new course became the New Course, just as there is a New Course at St. Andrews.
The British flavor has carried on with the Gailes, named after a course in western Scotland, and now with Blackheath, a public course in Rochester Hills, and Blackshire at Lakewood Shores.
"My dad kept saying he wanted a links course and I told him he already had one, the Old Course at Indianwood," Kevin said. "He loved to go to the British Open and just walk the courses. He kept telling me I had to go over there too and I resisted. At the time we were doing a lot of construction work for Bob Cupp and Bob is very detailed with his plans and I thought I could do a detailed plan for a course."
Cupp was lead architect for Jack Nicklaus until he went on his own and one of his first efforts was restoring Indianwood's Old Course for the 1989 United States Women's Open. Then Cupp and Jerry Pate designed Indianwood's New Course and Kevin Aldridge worked on the construction crew for both courses.
"I learned everything from Bob whether he knows it or not, either directly or by walking around and seeing what he did. I'd always ask ‘Why?' Why did he place a bunker here or there, why did he move the fairway this way or that. His strategic mind is excellent. And I'd study his plans, they were like reading a book on architecture."
While the Aldridge children grew up in one of the largest homes in Bloomfield Hills, they weren't silver-spooned by their parents. They've all had to work.
"My dad always taught me you have to work hard to get what you're after," Kevin said and he started at the handle end of a shovel on the Indianwood courses and then on other courses Cupp designed around the country.
But it was a 1991 trip to Scotland that lit the designer fire for Aldridge. "I'd looked at a video of Scottish courses and had pictures and I sketched holes. I did a blueprint for a links course and I took it with me. Turnberry was the first course I went to. I walked out to the first tee and looked at the course. There was a trash barrel near the tee and I took my blueprints and threw them in it. "I saw stuff there that just blew me away, the way the mounds blew into each other, the subtle things."
That trip resulted in The Gailes and it was named Best New Resort Course in America in 1993 by Golf Digest, a stunning achievement for a brand new designer. The biggest names in the business -- Robert Trent Jones and his sons, Bob Jr., and Rees; Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Arthur Hills, Tom Weiskopf, Rick Smith and Tom Doak -- haven't pulled a No. 1 for a Michigan course.
Cupp did the routing but Aldridge designed the holes and built the course.
When it came time for another course at Lakewood Shores, Kevin said it was between something like the meticulously manicured Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters Tournament, and Pine Valley. Since there was only eight feet of elevation change and Augusta has some big hills, the choice was easy. Pine Valley. "We moved 100,000 to 150,000 yards of dirt and I don't consider that a lot," Kevin said. "We moved 700,000 for the Gailes and 450,000 for Blackheath (a public course north of Rochester Hills). I love moving the dirt -- five scrapers, 10 bulldozers, dirt flying and at the end of the day, see what you've done. "I love being in the field. I do all the greens in the field, seeing the way they fit into the land. It keeps you from being repetitive. There aren't any rules. You take what nature gives you. Pete Dye came along and shattered everyone's ideas just like Robert Trent Jones did before him.
"Dye was the rebel of the golf industry and I think some architects resented him but some of the architects get into a rhythm and don't change. They do 50 a year and their courses come out like they're on an assembly line, like rubber stamps.
"Routing is the most difficult part of designing and the only part you do on paper. If courses only had 16 holes it would be a piece of cake," Aldridge said, laughing. "You do a design and you say ‘Perfect!' Then you count again and you've only got 17 holes."
Blackshire has the prescribed 18 and there's a Scottish and Indianwood flavor as well as Pine Valley. Aldridge likes squared off tees, a common sight at British and Irish links courses, and many of the links courses have huge greens, so Blackshire's 18th green is a monster, 36 yards wide and 46 yards deep, 16,500 square feet.
The 18th on Indianwood's Old Course, which opened in 1928 is 21,000 square feet. No one forgets that green. So when Stan Aldridge hired Cupp and Pate to design the New Course, he asked for, and got, another 20,000 foot 18th. Kevin Aldridge kept it going with monster 18s at The Gailes and Blackheath and now Blackshire. It definitely provides a lot of pin positions and makes the player think about club selection.
Kevin describes himself as "a terrible player" and said he builds "for a guy like myself. I know how to play the game. I know where to hit shots, the angles, the thought that goes into designing, whether mounds kick the ball back into the fairway or into the rough.
"I love short par-4s. I think that's one of the lost strategies of the game, and long par-3s they used to call 3-1/2s. And I think the game is missing chipping, all the subtle things."
Aldridge has been trying to restore the old flavor, the old values and Blackshire is a perfect example, a 194-yard (from the back) par-3 over a waste area and Hell's Bunker, a 315-yard par-4 (from the back) threaded between 20 bunkers with the green guarded by four more, the Four Sisters.
And five tees on each hole let the player pick his or her poison.
"I make my greens a little more severe than some people but that allows the superintendent to keep the grass a little higher. If they roll 10 on the stimpmeter, that's plenty," Aldridge said.
What's next for Aldridge?
"Blackshire isn't the last course we're going to build there. We could build four or five more courses at Lakewood, make it like Pinehurst, a destination."
The No. 1 question among golf operators when they get together, though, is: Do we have too many courses?
"Is golf overbuilt in some areas of the state? Definitely," Aldridge said. "You have to be smart about where you do it. It isn't a no-brainer. And you've got to run it right."
Like a bulldozer.
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