By Pat Stinson
If you haven’t already heard, the King’s Challenge golf course near Sugar Loaf Mountain in Cedar has new owners — and one of them is Bob Kuras, president of The Homestead in Glen Arbor, the largest resort on Lake Michigan in Leelanau County.
And, as reported previously, the group of investors has no interest in Sugar Loaf, itself. According to The Homestead’s Senior Manager Jamie Jewell, their “one, single purpose” is to change the existing Arnold Palmer-designed signature course into a top golf destination, one that the owners hope, as stated in their press release last month, will compete nationally and “… serve to boost tourism in Leelanau County, employment opportunities for local residents, and increase revenue for local businesses.”
That would be good economic news for Leelanau County, which has already lost two courses. (Matheson Greens was put into a conservation easement, and Veronica Valley became a county park.) It is also good news for nervous King’s Challenge golfers who have been keeping tabs on the course since the previous owners went into foreclosure in 2007.
“How does that affect the local economy? It’s not another failed business in Leelanau County or northern Michigan,” said Jewell. “The changes that are being made to the clubhouse and course will improve the quality of the experience for guests.”
Why save golf?
Though the number of U.S. golfers fell three percent from 2007 to 2008, and the number of golf rounds played dropped 1.8 percent in the same period, the passion for the sport remains strong among “core” golfers, defined as those ages six years and older who play eight or more rounds per year. (Statistics were compiled from National Golf Foundation (NGF) surveys.)
Closer to home, the Golf Association of Michigan boasts 60,000 plus members and celebrated its 90th anniversary last month. NGF reports our state ranked fourth in the nation last year with 829 golf facilities. As number four, Michigan’s piece of the $75.9 billion U.S. “golf economy,” (including equipment and supplies, as reported by the nonprofit research firm SRI International for GOLF 20/20 in 2005) is nothing to shake a club at.
According to NGF, 11.4 million business and vacation travelers in 2007 played 68 million rounds of golf while “on the road” in the United States. This is the market segment that The Homestead has sought for over 20 years. Extensively-planned improvements began with a proposed 18-hole course on property along the Crystal River (never realized), followed by a golf academy, an 18-hole putting course on The Homestead’s ski hill, a Dave Pelz Scoring Game school, and golf packages at King’s Challenge. In increments, the resort has tried to provide guests who play with an increasingly satisfying golf experience.
Now, the upgraded King’s Challenge course (to be renamed in a contest later this season), will be marketed to The Homestead’s past guests and current property owners, as well as area residents. A redesigned golf course website will advertise the course and offer updates, and a DVD will document the progress of improvements and to “tell more of the story of what is to come.”
“The course provides the opportunity for guests to experience championship style golf in a setting that is, once the upgrades are completed, indicative of the natural beauty of our region,” Jewell said.
Arnold Palmer Design Company and Wadsworth Golf Construction Company, both venerated names in the golf industry, are helping with the improvements, and Brent Wadsworth is an investor, as well as advisor. (To read a full release, visit www.kingschallenge.com.)
Arcadia Bluffs (south of Frankfort), a course which offers natural beauty and something for novice and experienced golfers, is their model.
“Everyone knows it’s top notch,” Jewell explained. “It’s in wonderful, pristine condition. Of course we don’t have the dunes or the water, but we’d like to emulate that feeling here, to see the golf and get really excited about being here.”
According to Jewell, Bob Kuras was always a golfer, though he became more serious about the game in the early ‘90s, when he began taking his resort managers on golf outings to Pinehurst in North Carolina, Disney’s Grand Floridian, Bay Harbor and Arcadia Bluffs, among others. The goal was to define top-notch service in golf, hotel and resort settings. (Kuras’ favorite course is Pine Barrens at World Woods Florida Golf Resort north of Tampa.)
“He’s most interested in playable, interesting courses,” Jewell said, “not penalizing, but challenging and still playable for novice golfers.”
As the leader on this project, Kuras has hired contractors with whom he has worked previously. Paul Maurer General Contracting, Inc. is remodeling the clubhouse, and Jerry Pearson of Peridian International is coordinating the plantings.
“All materials that could be reused are being used, as well as trees that are being cleared,” Jewell said. The owners are applying for membership in Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses, which seeks to preserve or enhance natural areas and wildlife habitats while minimizing those golf operations with a potentially harmful impact. Application will also be made for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for existing buildings and operations.
Since the golf course sale was announced on May 1, a drive and parking area in front of the clubhouse have been moved to improve golf views and to separate foot and vehicular traffic. Aggregate walkways lead from parking areas to the clubhouse entrance and from a side exit to the new cart pavilion area. The rear of the clubhouse has been redesigned to include new double doors which will open to outdoor terraced gardens overlooking the 18th hole. Defined spaces and improved flow within the clubhouse will keep diners and socializers from impeding golfers with tee times who are ready to check in at the pro shop and head out to play. New bar seating and grill-type menus designed with input from The Homestead’s chef are also on tap.
“The focus is to get it (the course) open, to take advantage of as much of the season as possible,” Jewell said. At press time, a mid- to late-June opening was expected.
For a vision of a sustainable golf course read the excellent article, “The Golf Course of the Future,” by Tom Mead (golf course consultant and former superintendent of Crystal Downs Country Club) in the March/April edition of Michigan Links available online at www.gam.org/magazine.aspx. Click on the blue View March/April 2009 Issue link, midway down the page on the right.