Golf Advisor senior writer Tim Gavrich recently spent some time in southwestern Michigan. Often overlooked in favor of points north - Traverse City, Harbor Springs, Boyne, Mackinac Island and others - the southwestern part of the state offers its own slate of interesting golf destinations. This is the second in a three-part exploration of this region. Read part 1 here.
AUGUSTA, Mich. - Where might you expect to meet the owner of an expansive golf resort where you were staying?
A boardroom or executive offices? The bar of the nicest restaurant, perhaps?
How about beside the 11th tee of one of the resort’s six golf courses, wearing overalls and a Michigan State Spartans-logoed green polo shirt, holding a shovel, smoothing freshly-laid cart path asphalt?
That’s what Gull Lake View Golf Club and Resort owner Charlie Scott was up to when we met. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Scott," I said.
"Call me Charlie," he responded. "Mr. Scott is buried at Fort Custer."
That told me all I needed to know about the character of Gull Lake View Resort. The Scotts - Charlie, his son John and many longtime employees who comprise a professional extended family - like to do things themselves.
The resort’s homegrown ingenuity doesn't stop there. Charlie designed three of Gull Lake View’s six golf courses, taking after his aforementioned father Darl, who laid out the resort’s original West course in 1966.
And while the self-starter attitude is admirable, so too is the ability to take a step back and seek expertise from outside.
That was the genesis of Gull Lake View's sixth and far-and-away best course, Stoatin Brae.
While Gull Lake's existing golf product - the original West (Darl Scott) and East (Charlie) courses at Gull Lake View; the Stonehedge South and North courses (both Charlie) three miles east; the William Mitchell-designed Bedford Valley, a former private club acquired by the resort in 1988 - was solid, their collective value-golfer orientation made the resort a strong one on a local and regional scale.
But Stoatin Brae has brought a bucket-list-type course to a hilltop meadow between the small cities of Kalamazoo and Battle Creek that should putt Gull Lake View on more golfers' radars.
Not-too-stout Stoatin Brae
Not only did the Scotts - Jon Scott, Charlie's son, in particular - recruit outside talent to design their newest course, they did so in a way that extracted incredible value from the endeavor. Because Renaissance Golf Design founder Tom Doak was focused on building the reversible Loop at Forest Dunes in Northern Michigan, his associates Eric Iverson, Don Placek, Brian Slawnik and Brian Schneider took full control of the job. Because Doak himself was not personally involved in the job, the family saved a considerable sum in design fees while receiving the full attention of not one but four talented architects. Pretty shrewd, if you ask me.
The four Renaissance men received an elliptical 130-acre plot of land oriented on a northeast-southwest axis and occupying the highest ground in Kalamazoo County. Across it, they draped a charming, walkable course that reminds not of the great links of the British Isles, but rather a trio of American heartland originals: Sand Hills in Nebraska, Prairie Dunes in Kansas and Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
Long waving grasses, broad fairways and unfussy, rough-edged bunkers form Stoatin Brae's friendly, down-home aesthetic. The front nine has a gentle rise and fall, with a terrific mix of convex (1, 8) and concave (2, 9) greens that demand a range of approaches. Every single one is open in front, permitting run-up shots on the typically firm, turf. The two par 3s are long and semi-blind, with the 2nd tilting downhill and left-to-right into a large half-punchbowl green and the 7th gliding uphill, with two flash-faced bunkers obscuring the view to a lay-of-the-land green.
After a brief pause at a halfway house appropriately named The Bunker, because it's built underground into a hillside, the land gets a bit more exciting, a bit choppier. This is where the course most resembles the Kettle Moraine-bound Erin Hills. Holes 10 through 15 include five consecutive changes of direction, with several attractive down-then-up tee shots to tackle the terrain. Two shortish par 4s (10 and 15) and two shortish par 3s (11 and 14) represent some of the course's best birdie opportunities in spite of the choppier ground, before a three-hole sprint to the clubhouse - two par fives sandwiched around a par 3 - to finish. Around every turn is a pretty vista and/or a compelling golf shot, be it for a bogey player or scratch handicapper.
The strongest indicator of Stoatin Brae's fun-factor can be found on the scorecard in the form of extremely low Slope figures, a general measure of a course's difficulty for higher-handicap players. Look at any top-ranked course - especially one built in the last half-century - and you will see Slopes in the 130s, 140s and, occasionally, 150s. From the tips, Stoatin Brae's Slope is 122, which means that it has relatively few spots that cause scores to skyrocket. Many golfers will get around the course with one golf ball (wayward drives can find thick fescue and be tough to find), and greenside recovery is generally quite manageable. It is a superb golf course for anyone, and its dynamic green fee scale is such that rounds seldom cost more than $75 to $90, with later-afternoon times in the sub-$60 range. At that figure, it is an outrageous value.
The rest of the resort
- The rest of Gull Lake View's golf is nice enough, but Stoatin Brae is the best course by far and worthy of multiple rounds while on property.
- The two Stonehedge courses have their charms, with the South being a hilly, tree-lined affair while the North is more open, somewhat between the South and Stoatin Brae in feel. The North is that rare par-72 course with six par 3s, six par 4s and six par 5s.
- A mix of significant elevation changes and wet, low-lying areas make the original East and West courses best for late-afternoon cart-and-beer loops, but make sure to pack your bug spray, as on still evenings the mosquitoes come out in force. Each course has a couple strange holes that are worth seeing, including the 12th hole on the West course, where the cart path runs straight up the middle of the perpetually damp fairway before an approach to a green atop a 50-foot plateau. You have to see it to believe it.
- About 8 miles east of the main resort, Bedford Valley is a solid mid-60s parkland design; if at some point there is a desire for another upgrade on the golf front, I could see the Renaissance team having a field day with the gently rolling property, either by totally redesigning the course or bringing their sensibilities to bear on the existing routing. With the proper treatment, it could be Stoatin Brae's equal, or at least a very close second-best.
Another cool thing about Bedford Valley: it hosts tons of junior, high school, amateur and senior tournaments every year. If you're a competitive golfer in Michigan, chances are you've played it.
- Accommodations at Gull Lake View are group-oriented and affordable. It has just under 70 units in its Gull Lake Villas group, all of which are two-bedroom condo-type spaces with full kitchens and hangout-ready living rooms with flat-screen TVs. Suffice it to say that the place is set up perfectly for budget-conscious buddy trips. Nightly rates are less than $150 on a double-occupancy basis, and that often includes unlimited golf all days on property. In the summer, that could easily be 54 holes a day for the seriously obsessed).
- Even non-Scotts are in on the family feel at Gull Lake View. Director of Golf Dean Kolstad came to the resort after a professional hockey career and has worked there for 26 years. Bill Johnson, Gull Lake View's Vice President, has spent more than 30 years working alongside the Scotts. Consistency and staff longevity are underrated aspects of successful hospitality operations, especially in golf. Gull Lake View takes good care of its people, and that filters down to the guest experience.
- On-campus F&B options are solid and, again, affordable. Charles & Darl's is the barbecue joint located at the main Gull Lake View clubhouse, with a nice sports-bar/19th-hole feel. Blue Stem is Stoatin Brae's restaurant, a little more upscale but plenty comfortable. It's the place to get into some steak and red wine at the resort. Finally, a couple miles west of Gull Lake View is Kitchen House, which is not resort-affiliated, despite drawing a strong crowd of resort guests. I really enjoyed the chicken liver pate appetizer and the shrimp pasta entree I ordered.
- Even though every other article about golf seems to mention how it's "dying" and that younger people aren't playing, much less traveling for it, Gull Lake View hasn't gotten the memo. During my end-of-week visit, seemingly every group I saw seemed to consist mainly of golfers under 50, with plenty of my fellow Millennials mixed in. I chatted at the bar one night with a pair of Chicagoans, who were in town not just to play golf but party on boats on the eponymous Lake, and who were no older than 35. I chalk this popularity up to the value proposition, the low-fuss feel of the resort and the ready availability of craft beer at the courses.
Gull Lake View resort is about 20 minutes east of Kalamazoo, putting it a little under two and a half hours from Detroit, just over two and a half hours from Chicago and four hours by car from Indianapolis. It has historically been a regional resort, but Stoatin Brae makes it a worthy stop on a fly-then-drive Michigan road trip. The family-run atmosphere and inexpensive golf make it a pleasure to visit.