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Interview: Designer Jerry Matthews

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

EAST LANSING, MI - The name Matthews has been recognized in the golf course design business for over 75 years. Jerry Matthews, whose courses literally blanket Michigan, has faithfully carried on the traditions and craft of golf course design passed down to him by his father, the late W. Bruce Matthews. Today, Jerry Matthews Natural Course Design consistently garners national attention with the firm's designs as well as its philosophy of "natural design." Both the senior and junior Matthews committed themselves to environmental stewardship in their designs long before environmentally friendly golf courses became fashionable.

Jerry Matthews's courses are concentrated in Michigan, though he has also designed layouts in Virginia, Indiana, and Alaska. In all, his firm has completed close to 100 new golf courses, and is responsible for nearly 150 course renovations. Despite the concentration of his work in Michigan, Matthews's designs are nationally recognized, as is Matthews himself, who served as President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects from 1993-4.

The following are just a select few among the long list of awards that Matthews's designs have earned over the last dozen years alone:

Elk Ridge Golf Course, Atlanta, MI:
Runner-up, "Best New Public Golf Course" 1991 Golf Digest
Hole No. 16, one of "The Greatest 18 Holes You can Play in America" Golf Digest

St. Ives Golf Club, Stanwood, MI:
"6th Best Course in America for Women" 1999 Golf for Women
5th "Best New Affordable Public Golf Course" 1997 Golf Digest

The Lakes Course at Michaywe', Gaylord, MI:
3rd "Best New Public Golf Course" 1988 Golf Digest

Timber Ridge Golf Course, E. Lansing, MI
"Top 75 Most Affordable Golf Courses" 1996 Golf Digest
"Top 75 in the Country" 1991 Golf Digest
4th "Best New Public Golf Course" 1990 Golf Digest

TimberStone Golf Course, Iron Mountain, MI:
3rd "Best New Upscale Public Course" 1998 Golf Digest Jerry Matthews was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to sit down in his East Lansing, Michigan, offices with TravelGolf.com Senior Writer Kiel Christianson to talk about his life's work, the current golf course construction boom, and the state of the art in course design.

KC: How long have you been designing golf courses?

JM: I joined my father in 1959.

KC: And was that something that you always wanted to do, or was it a forced recruitment, as so often happens in the case of family businesses?

JM: I luckily fell into it. My dad was introduced to the nine-hole Hastings Country Club by a member there when he was twelve or fourteen. He was taken with the game, and eventually went to Michigan Agricultural College [now Michigan State University]. He actually got a degree - even though there wasn't officially a program in it - in landscape architecture with the intent of becoming a golf course designer, which was unheard of at the time. This was during the boom of golf course design in the 1920s. Through his contacts [at college], he went with the Boston firm of Stiles and Van Kleek, joining them in 1925. And he worked on courses in Massachusetts, Florida, and Georgia. Then, like a lot of young men do, he went on his own and came back to Grand Rapids and started his own business as a designer. He started a few projects, including the nine-hole addition at Manistee Country Club. But the Depression hit quite suddenly and quickly, and he actually had to give [the golf course workers] their last paychecks, because that was the end of the money. Several projects just failed. […] He eventually became manager/superintendent at the Masonic Country Club on three or four hundred acres north of Grand Rapids and kept it alive during the Depression, going around collecting 25-cents apiece from 2,000 members. It eventually became Green Ridge Country Club, and that's where I was born and raised. And I worked there on the course.

KC: And his design career?
JM: Well, during that time he moonlighted doing golf course design for hardly any money. He got paid a little, but not much. He just loved to design golf courses. Then in 1959 when he left Green Ridge, he started his own design firm. I finished my four years at Michigan State with a landscape architecture degree, went into the military for two years, and when I returned I got a Master's degree in urban planning - I was going to revitalize the cities of America.

KC: You and a lot of other young people at the time.

JM. Right. When I finished my studies, he asked what I was going to do for the summer, and I said I didn't know. So I took a job with him doing the second nine at the Flint Elks, and said, "This is pretty cool," and I've never done anything else. So he probably was guiding me with unseen hands, but never, ever pressured me or said a word.

"Natural Golf Course Design"

KC: And your design philosophy - Natural Golf Course Design - has been constant throughout your career?

JM: For me, it's about working with nature, working with forms, working with what nature gives you - the land that's given you. I'm not a bulldozer guy. I'm not knocking that, but I just like to take what's there and see what I can do.

KC: And your father had the same approach?

JM: He believed very strongly that a golf course had to fit the land. It shouldn't just look like it was plunked down there. In the 20s, Donald Ross was doing this too, and Allistair MacKenzie - not to drop names. But there was a lot of mediocre work done then, too.

KC: Was that for aesthetic reasons?

JM: No. It was purely functional. We did no fairway bunkers, no [mounding] along the fairways. You didn't need it to play golf. And when I go back today and look at those courses, they are still really sound designs.

KC: And how does your philosophy differ from othe r architects who also advertise their work as ecologically friendly "natural course design", of which there are a lot these days?

JM: I have to be careful, and I won't mention any names. But I think it gets more discussion than actual practice.

KC: I just read the other day the statistic that more than two new golf courses have opened per month in Michigan alone over the last three years. So we're in a boom like the one your father experienced in the 1920s. Do you foresee an impending slowdown?

JM: I'm leery of answering that one, too. A reporter asked me that six or eight years ago, and I said, "Well, it can't go on forever." And of course as you know, it got better. But there already has been slowdown. We're not as busy as we were. There are only so many golfers to play these courses.

KC: So as a true "natural" designer, have you ever gone to a piece of land and said, "Sorry, I can't do anything with it"?

JM: Well, it's not a perfect world. You can't have elevated tee boxes and greens every time - which people like because they like to be up in the air, watching their ball fly out over the hole. If it's a flat piece of land, you just have to work with it. But the only feature that would disqualify a piece of land would be lack of acreage to build 18 holes. I won't build 18 holes on 80 acres, or twelve, as someone called in the other day to ask about.

KC: What is the minimum acreage required for 18 holes?

JM: We like to say 120 acres, 140 is even better. We've done two on just 100 acres, but then you don't get a practice range.

KC: And what's the average cost of a course to build?

JM: In the Midwest, 2.4 to 4 million for just the land work and irrigation, no buildings, parking lots, etc. Just the golf course.

KC: Without playing favorites, have you ever walked onto a site and just been blown away by the perfection of the land for building a course?

JM: The property up at Birchwood Farms in Harbor Springs and Elk Ridge in Atlanta. Plus the Woods Course at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. And the property at Buck's Run in Mount Pleasant. Those properties just cried out for golf holes.

KC: I've reviewed Buck's Run. All of those elevated tee boxes and elaborate green complexes - all of them are "natural"?

JM: Well, some of it was there. Do you remember the par-3 8th hole over water? The 8th hole was indeed three piles of spoils [left from the days when the land was a rock quarry] for the tees, and a flat spot over the water for the green.

The famous Elk Ridge Pig Bunker

KC: The owner of Elk Ridge is Lou Schmidt, CEO of Honey Baked Ham. Who's idea was the pig-shaped bunker on No. 10?

JM: It was mine, but I'll give you the whole story because I like that story. My intent was to build the irrigation pond in the shape of a pig, so that when you flew over it, you'd see a pig. I put it on the plan that way - just drew it as a pig - and nobody noticed it. I staked it on the ground as a pig, and nobody noticed it. We began to construct the pond and found water-sand just four feet down, so we couldn't get any shape with that soil type. I thought to myself that I couldn't give up, so the last green I did was the 10th green, and I drew in the bunker as a joke. And nobody saw it then, either.

KC: They still didn't see it?

JM: Nope. So, not till we were ready to build it did the superintendent say, "My God, Jerry. That bunker looks like a pig!" And I said, "Really?" And I was ready to end the joke, but the owner loved it, and they built it and maintained it.

KC: And every single person who plays the course remembers it. And the rest of Elk Ridge - the elevated tees and greens, the many doglegs - all dictated by the land?

JM: Yes. And the wetlands. The wetlands you can't change, so we incorporated them. The 7th hole is a lay-up hole, which I don't like to do. But balanced against the rest of the holes, it's okay. And we actually took a lot of trees out to widen the course up a bit three years after opening. I'm a bit of a tree-hugger.

KC: It varies widely from architect to architect, but some I know are basically finished with a design once they turn in their blueprints. Others are more involved. How often do you visit the construction site?

JM: I visit the site once a week. I even have a standing offer to go back after the course has been completed - at any time - and correct something if something doesn't come out right. I get called very seldom, but it's a standing offer. I'm a firm believer that a golf course is a living thing, and it grows and changes over time, sometimes in unforeseeable ways. I also believe that the design and construction of a course is about fifty percent technical and fifty percent art. And you simply can't do a design well enough in two dimensions on paper to translate it into three dimensions. Some of my friends in the business do that, and that's okay, but I believe it's not the way to get the best work done.

Fraternal Competition and Evil Creations

KC: You served as President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Is the business of golf course design gentlemanly, like golf itself, or is it more like other businesses, where the metaphor of rugby might be more apt?

JM: That's an interesting question. When the Society gets together - about 140 of us - we have a good time. We talk about our business together, but keep the details to ourselves, usually. Ultimately, it's really all up to the course owners who they select as an architect. If they get bids and plans from two or three or six architects, the choice is theirs.

KC: And I suppose the designs will all be different, even for the same piece of land. So you're not really competing against one another so much as the land.

JM: That's true. Just like the game.

KC: Do you play your courses once they open?

JM: Sure, when I can. I don't get the chance to play too often. Frankly, I'd rather build a course than play one.

KC: Do any of your creations come back to bite you when you do play?

JM: Oh yes. The 5th hole on the third nine at Hawk Hollow kills me every time.

KC: You design your courses to be fun and playable for all skill levels.

JM: Yes. My father believed, as do I, that golf should be fun - challenging, but fair. It's hard enough, and the course doesn't need to purposely make it harder. So I design courses with 70 percent or more of players in mind.

KC: Have you ever built a really hard hole just because the land was so perfect, you didn't want to mess with it in order to make it play easier?

JM: Back to the 8th hole at Buck's Run. It's too difficult for the ladies. I seldom ever do that, but I saw a golf hole just sitting there. When we did Hawk Hollow, I wanted to make it look harder than it is. And I think it worked quite well. I took that same theme to Buck's Run. And that's the way I like it now. I'm not trying to test the pros in my designs.

Advice for Aspiring Architects, and for Average Players

KC: What advice would you give to young people who want to get into this business?

JM: We get a lot of calls about this. I tell them all to get a degree in landscape architecture. Then, as they're doing that, get a job in course maintenance, construction, or, if they're lucky, hook up with a golf course design firm. The key is to get experience. It's not enough to get good grades and be on the golf team.

KC: Do you have any advice for the average golfer on how to better enjoy all that a course has to offer, all the subtleties of design, irrespective of how well she or he plays that day?

JM: Another interesting question. First and foremost, play from the tees that suit their game. That's easier said than done, because everyone wants to play with the big boys. We're all building four or five sets of tee boxes now, for a reason. And a good design offers equally good, different views of the course from each tee box. Look at what's in front of them.

KC: And behind them, back down the fairway from the green.

JM: Right. Visually, that's one of the best views. And read the green - not just the putting surface, but the way it's built. And just play the course: Choose the right club and hit the ball where it should go. Young people are hitting the ball farther than ever - everyone wants to be Tiger.

KC: Will that make courses obsolete?

JM: I don't think so. They'll build tournament courses longer, and some people might score lower. But that's okay. It'll still be a fun game.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


 
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