The club continues to meet the challenges of a changing economy and membership through innovation that makes the most of its spectacular setting.
Michigan is in the spotlight as a key “battleground state” during this presidential election year. But clubs in the state have been battling challenging conditions for nearly a decade—and scoring impressive wins.
Michigan’s largest city was hit harder than any other by the recession, yet the Detroit Athletic Club has continued to grow and thrive as one of the country’s most exemplary city-club operations. Throughout Detroit’s suburbs, several country clubs have made significant investments to improve their golf courses and facilities and expand their memberships, even as the area’s long-time reliance on the fate of the auto industry has posed unique threats to their traditional business models.
Some 275 miles away from Detroit, at the top of the state, an abundance of northern Michigan golf courses and clubs continues to not only exist, but prosper, despite the added challenges that come with their distant location and condensed seasons. Foremost among this group is Birchwood Farms Golf & Country Club, which was founded in 1972 on 1,600 pristine acres of former farmland along the northeastern tip of Lake Michigan, on the edge of the picturesque resort town of Harbor Springs, Mich. While much has changed from when the Birchwood Farms club and community was first created primarily to appeal to Detroit-area auto-industry executives as a weekend-getaway and second-home/retirement attraction, the club has continued to find ways to expand its vast array of activities and amenities and to broaden its appeal and relevance, both demographically and geographically.
Worth the Trip
One thing that hasn’t changed for Birchwood Farms G&CC over its 40-plus years is the enduring impact that its natural setting has not only on first-time visitors, but also those who make their way to northern Michigan year after year. The town of Harbor Springs has carefully preserved its postcard appeal, and development of the real-estate and club components of the Birchwood Farms property itself has always been executed around the priority of sustaining its north-woods setting and unspoiled views of Lake Michigan.
“All my wife and I ever knew about Michigan was Detroit,” says the club’s current President, Ray Wieckert, a Chicago native who then relocated his business to Houston, Texas. “We were invited [to come to Harbor Springs] by friends, and it was a long-enough trip to have a point where we wondered if it would be worth it. But when we got here, all we could say was, ‘Wow.’
“And our story is not unique,” adds Wieckert, who has now been a Birchwood Farms property owner (a requirement for club membership) for seven years. “Everyone who finds their way here immediately falls in love with the place, and wants to get involved to help do whatever they can to keep it going.”
For golfers, that affection—and connection—is first established through the lasting appeal of the unending variety provided by Birchwood Farms’ three distinctly different nine-hole courses. The first two, The Birches and The Farms, were part of the club’s original 18-hole layout. The third, The Woods, was built in 1999 by designer Jerry Matthews on the west side of the property, where it takes full advantage from the first tee of dramatic elevations and panoramic vistas.
“A big majority of our members can play golf anywhere in the world, but for three to five months, they pretty much choose to only play here, sunup to sundown—and sundown comes pretty late up here so far north in the summer,” notes Cris Cavitt, PGA, Birchwood Farms’ Director of Golf.
Cavitt has been at Birchwood Farms 19 years, and jokes that his longevity may in large part come simply from where his job is located. “If I do nothing correct…they’re still in Harbor Springs,” he laughs.
But the club’s golf staff knows that even in such picturesque surroundings, ensuring memorable experiences requires more than just keeping the scorecard pencils sharp. This awareness intensified as the current decade began, when Birchwood Farms began to register the same drop in annual rounds that hit many clubs. Recognizing that the falloff could become especially severe because of the club’s combination of challenging courses and a more-senior membership, Cavitt and staff set to work instituting a series of important changes that have already helped to reverse the trend (while still short of the more-than-18,000 rounds played at the property in peak years, Cavitt says that 2016 is on track for 15,000, representing a significant boost from 2015 and previous years).
Keys to generating more play have included building and promoting the use of more forward tees, ramping up golf instruction and junior programs, and repositioning The Farms as an executive course where play by beginners, families and others seeking shorter, more relaxed rounds is encouraged through an innovative program that reserves the course for that purpose during allotted time periods (“A Brilliant Solution,” C&RB, August 2015).
Birchwood Farms went all-in on committing to a tee-it-forward push five years ago, Cavitt says, ahead of when much of the industry began to embrace or even explore it. It was a particularly bold move for a club with courses that had holes built into terrain where finding spots for additional tees, and then building them, would not be easy. But in coordination with Golf Course Superintendent Tom Brogger, Cavitt and others on the Birchwood team found ways to adapt all of the club’s courses so seven permanent tees are now offered on every hole.
A key to generating widespread acceptance and use of the new tee options, Cavitt notes, was positioning them as “combos” that are designated not by gender, but as variations on existing colors (for example, “Blue/White” as a new combo tee that is set up between the existing Blue and White tees).
“[Adding the tees] was a big plus, both for people who had never played, and those who were phasing out of the game because there just weren’t any good options on a lot of holes that could still fit with how they were able to play,” says Cavitt. “It just helped to make things more fun overall, and you could really see a difference as people got more comfortable with the idea of moving forward to where they thought they could play the best.”
Combined with momentum gained through the on-site instruction that has now been provided at the club for over 10 years on a full-time, in-season basis by Lloyd Johnson (who shifts to Michigan for the summer from Grey Oaks CC in Naples, Fla.), and with how Cavitt says the executive-course option has been “well-received as family-friendly and beginner-friendly,” promoting tee-it-forward has helped Birchwood Farms continue to bolster its standing as a desired golf destination in a northern Michigan region that has a full and thriving complement of premium courses. Innovative landscaping touches that Brogger and his course maintenance staff continue to add to the courses to keep them fresh has also helped. One particularly inspired feature, built in 2011, became so beloved by the membership that it is now named “Brogger’s Brook” and is commemorated as such with a permanent plaque affixed to one of the feature’s rocks that reads “Tom, thank you from all of Birchwood!”
Making a Splash
With golf staying on solid footing, the Birchwood Farms leadership has been able to confidently pursue facility improvements and the development of needed amenities and activities in other areas of the club’s operation that are also critical for marketing the property’s special appeal.
The club’s latest success was the rollout for this season of a new pool complex, as part of a $1.9 million renovation project that also included locker-room updates, renovation of the tennis pro shop, addition of a playground area, and a new “Three Way House” snack bar designed to be accessed by golfers and those using the tennis-court area, in addition to pool-goers.
The new main pool, which replaced one built when the club was founded, includes features such as LED lighting and an in-pool volleyball net structure, and has periods set aside for lap swimming. There is also a separate family pool with splash-pad, bubbler and waterfall features.
The club’s management has also been proactive about finding new uses for existing space to broaden its offerings. Its tennis-court complex now includes dedicated space for pickleball and bocce (see photos, pg. 24), both of which were added within three years and have quickly gained strong participation, reports Tennis Professional Denny Green.
And tennis isn’t being neglected, with a state-of-the-art ball machine recently purchased that can be programmed, including through an app on a player’s smartphone, to randomly fire a variety of types of shots that can help to provide a more realistic and productive lesson or individual practice session.
“I don’t think you’ll find a nicer facility where three popular activities are all together in one space,” says Green, who has been with the club for six years. “Pickleball and bocce each brought out different people and added new excitement and fun atmospheres to this part of the club, and it hasn’t hurt tennis at all.”
It’s also only a matter of time, Green expects, before platform tennis is added to the mix, which he thinks can be particularly appealing for shoulder-season play. “It will happen eventually, and it will be another win-win, especially as we continue to see a younger membership,” he says.
From Snacks to Potlucks to Fortnights of Fun
The opening of the new pool complex also marked the debut of a new food-and-beverage outlet for Birchwood Farms, which has an especially deep and talented culinary team that is led by Executive Chef John Clements, who came north to the club in 2011 from Oakland Hills Country Club outside of Detroit, where he worked during the 2008 PGA Championship. (Clements’ major-tournament experience now also includes four straight years as part of the all-star lineup of chefs who are invited to Augusta National Golf Club to help that club with its cooking and foodservice needs during Masters week.)
In addition, Patrick Whittaker, who became Clubhouse Manager last year, has a background that includes Executive Chef positions at Midland (Mich.) Country Club and the Detroit Yacht Club, and five years as a Sous Chef at Oakland Hills (Whittaker has also gone to Augusta to work as a Sous Chef at the Masters for the past 12 years).
This year, Clements and Whittaker were joined by Ken Willoughby as Birchwood Farms’ new Food & Beverage Manager. Willoughby trained as a chef before going into club management, and also brought experience in public-restaurant operation to his new position at the club.
Beyond rolling out the menu for the new Three Way House, Birchwood’s F&B team has continued to focus on elevating the food offerings and service provided in the various dining venues within the club’s 35,000-sq. ft., lodge-style clubhouse, which received a $5 million renovation in 2008 that included the addition of a fitness center.
“We want to continue the development of menus that will include more restaurant-style food and modern plating techniques,” says Clements. “While this is a ‘community’ club in a smaller town, there are still plenty of good dining options in the area, and we can’t assume those who are on property will always eat here. We have to keep finding ways to make them think of us first, and to always be able to deliver something different and memorable to those who want a variety of experiences.”
That objective has also extended beyond F&B to member activities and events coordinated under Whittaker’s direction. This year, that included a “Fortnight of Fun” schedule of afternoon programming of crafts and games that ran for two weeks during the peak of the summer season.
“That’s the time when we have the most families here, and with the new pool area it was the perfect time to introduce it,” says Whittaker. “The number-one goal was to bring the generations together to have so much fun that 10 years from now, they’ll still be talking about ‘that time we had at Birchwood.’ We had gutter-boat races, water-balloon fights and beach-ball painting. It all went very well.”
Even when the pace does begin to quiet down a bit at Birchwood Farms (only about 125 of the 750 families in the membership stay year-round, and the club does close in March), plenty of appealing opportunities are provided for those who are around, both in terms of their use of the property (which includes year-round hiking and skiing/snowshoeing trails) and special clubhouse activities. Beyond cooking classes, popular game nights, and a lecture series for which the culinary team prepares specially themed menus, perhaps the most unique of these events are the potluck dinners that routinely attract around 100 people whenever they are held.
“I have to think we’re probably the only country club that has potluck dinners,” says Clements. “But it’s fun, and a chance for members to show off what they can do. We do the main proteins, and they bring the sides or salads or desserts.
“You do have to make sure you have full control over what’s being served, of course, and learn how to think ‘cleverly’ and politely redirect some of the people’s energies for what they bring,” Clements notes. “But it’s been a long-time tradition here, and another thing that makes the club special. I’m actually going to start using some of my cooking classes to help [provide direction] for dishes that the members can make and bring to these dinners in the future.”
Spreading the Word
As Birchwood Farms’ management team and Board have continued to enhance the club’s long-standing traditions and assets while also improving its facilities and expanding its amenity and activity mix, efforts are being undertaken to raise its profile throughout Michigan. In addition to a professionally produced 10-minute video that’s posted as “The Birchwood Story” on the club’s website (www.birchwoodcc.com/birchwoodstory) and packaged as a DVD in membership materials, precisely targeted TV campaigns have been run in several of the state’s larger markets.
“It’s amazing how you can buy [ad time] to reach exactly the type of people you want to reach, at very little cost,” says Wieckert. “It’s been very effective for us, in terms of generating interest, and especially among younger families.”
The results have been encouraging enough that Wieckert sees potential to also extend the effort beyond state lines. “Especially now that we have the new pool, why couldn’t we do the same sort of targeted advertising in markets like Naples or Fort Myers or Tampa, to get people thinking about buying property here as a way to escape the Florida summers and also have access to great golf that‘s completely different from their courses?” he wonders. “The same might be true for markets in Texas and other [warm-weather] states, too.”
Those who are leading Birchwood Farms have confidence that the club will remain well-positioned for the future as word continues to spread about the special charms of northern Michigan in general—and about how Harbor Springs, in particular, still offers the appeal of a Norman Rockwell painting in summer and a Currier & Ives print in winter.
“We’re succeeding in getting people to see us as one of their best options when they start thinking about acquiring property in this area,” Wieckert says. “And I attribute that in large part to the club—we’re really the only one up in this part of the state that has all of these things to offer.”
“All of these things” also extends well beyond just providing club facilities and amenities to those who acquire property and become members, because the club’s management also encompasses a host of community services that normally fall under a separate homeowners-association umbrella. The management team that is directed by Jeff Anderson, who became the club’s Chief Operating Officer/General Manager in February 2014 after previously serving as COO/GM of Traverse City (Mich.) Golf & Country Club, includes a security and architectural compliance force headed by Director of Security Bill Montgomery, and water, road and other infrastructure and facility services managed by General Maintenance Superintendent Rob Taylor.
“My job here really is like being a city manager,” Anderson says. “But the 24/7 security and first-responder services and other things we can provide really add to our selling points. They also make us more of a true community and help us understand our members and provide better service for them, as they use all of the things that come with belonging to a country club.”