Stoatin Brae, a new golf course with a Scottish influence at a southwestern Michigan resort, was built on a prime piece of property with sustainability and turf maintenance in mind.
Sometimes it’s best to just take what nature gives you. That’s what Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort in Augusta, Mich., did with the newest of its six golf courses, Stoatin Brae, which opened in May. Instead of enlisting architects to design a golf course and then try to make it fit the land, the Gull Lake View team hired Renaissance Golf Design to do the polar opposite.
“We let the land sit there and do what it wanted to do,” says Jon Scott, President of Gull Lake View. “We moved hardly any dirt at all because of the talent of the designers and the land itself. We left a lot of the natural shape there. It makes the golf course really cool.”
Set on one of the highest points in Kalamazoo County, Stoatin Brae (Gaelic for “grand hill”) offers sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Built on a former apple orchard, the property was replanted with native grasses and flowers. With only five trees in areas that are in play on the golf course, Stoatin Brae and its Scottish influence offer a stark contrast to the other five tree-lined, parkland golf courses at Gull Lake View.
Location: Augusta, Mich. (as one of six courses at Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort)
“One of the things that is really special about the property is the big bluff on one edge,” notes Scott. “You can see for eight to ten miles.”
Native Grasses and Untouched Meadows
Scott took the long view with the construction of Stoatin Brae as well. Of course, that was only natural because he, like his father and grandfather before him, has a background in turf science.
“We tried to build a golf course that we could maintain cost-effectively,” reports Scott, who earned degrees in landscape architecture and crop and soil science from Michigan State University. “We spent a lot of time looking at the grasses. We looked at building a golf course that would be a dry course. It’s not green from edge to edge.”
The fairways were planted with low-mow Kentucky bluegrass, so they could play more like a links course. “We looked at fescues and Colonial bentgrass, but they wouldn’t have been able to handle golf cart traffic,” says Scott. The property has fescue in the roughs and bentgrass on the greens and tees.
The southwest Michigan property tried to preserve as much native vegetation as possible for Stoatin Brae. Native grasses on the golf course include big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass and side oats grama.
“We planted grasses that will grow there with the fewest inputs, to yield the best results,” Scott says.
In addition to the native grasses, 50 to 60 acres of untouched meadows that are full of natural wildflowers wind through the golf course. Wildflower varieties include lupine; coneflower; milkweed, which is important for bees and butterflies; spiderwort; cup plants; and bee balm, or monarda.
“This is one of the best wildflower grass meadows in Michigan,” says Scott. “There are not many open meadows in [the state].”
A Firm Grasp on Water
The Stoatin Brae golf course was also constructed to minimize irrigation inputs as much as possible.
“Water management has been a big key,” says Golf Course Superintendent Paul Hallock. “I believe a firmer, drier surface is always going to be better for golf, so it’s a truer links-style golf course. You get a lot of crazy bounces because it is firm. It’s better to play short of the green.”
Stoatin Brae has a double-row irrigation system, but the rough and outer edges of the golf course are not irrigated.
In addition to requiring little water, notes Hallock, the drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, low-mow bluegrass on the fairways requires few pesticides. This turf can be sprayed three to four times less than bentgrass, he explains.
The Stoatin Brae grounds crew has 50 acres of fairway to maintain. “There’s a lot of air movement,” notes Hallock. “The ground is harder because it is up so high. When it gets wet, it dries instantly. The soil is tight and compact.”
Because the golf course has some slopes and hills, the maintenance staff uses small rough mowers and smaller, lightweight fairway mowers to maintain the turf.
“Large mowers would have a hard time holding their spots,” Hallock explains.
Building on Experience
The Stoatin Brae project was four-and-a-half to five years in the making from start to finish, Scott says. His family had known about the land for a long time before purchasing it, and construction began in April 2015. The $3 million construction process was completed in early June 2016, and a limited 12-hole loop opened in the fall of last year. The full 18 holes opened in May.
During construction, Scott was on site every day. While he took a hands-on approach to the building process, he says, “You’ve got to pick your spots. You’ve got to let the people who are working for you do their jobs, too.”
He consulted regularly with the Renaissance Golf Design team of Eric Iverson, Don Placek, Brian Schneider, and Brian Slawnik.
“They would show me the shape of a green, and I would tell them if I liked it or not,” Scott states. “Shaping was a key component. There is a lot of good natural formation on the land.”
The terrain also helped to dictate the layout of the golf course. For instance, Stoatin Brae has three par 3s on the back nine, and the 18th hole is a par 5.
Scott, the third-generation owner of the family business, drew on prior experience for the Stoatin Brae project. He worked in golf course construction during his college years, and he and his father, Charles, designed Gull Lake View’s fifth golf course, Stonehedge North, which opened in 1995. “You learn something every time you build a golf course,” Scott notes.
Hallock came from the El Conquistador Golf & Tennis resort in Tucson, Ariz., to start working at Stoatin Brae in June 2016, after 85 percent of the construction and 70 percent of the grow-in was complete. During the building process, he helped with some of the bunker construction and drainage work.
After Hallock arrived, the golf-course grass was kept at a higher height of cut and not maintained for golf. Those circumstances soon changed, however. “I had to begin to maintain it as a golf course,” Hallock reports.
A number of things attracted Hallock to the position at Stoatin Brae, including the opportunity to work on the construction and grow-in of a new course, the chance to work in a family business, and the area’s quality of life. “The whole thing was really appealing,” he says.
‘Doing the Right Thing’
The people who work and play at the property aren’t the only ones who find it appealing. In addition to showcasing the geographic features of its landscape, Stoatin Brae provides habitat for wildlife ranging from ospreys and eagles to turkeys and coyotes. “We had eight baby coyotes on the golf course this spring,” notes Hallock.
Gull Lake View also has a beekeeping initiative underway at Stoatin Brae. With its open fields of flowers and grasses, reports Scott, the property offers the perfect setting for the pilot program. “We have had a nest box program for 20 years at our courses, and we have more than 15,000 birds,” he says.
The five other five Gull Lake View golf courses—Gull Lake View West, Gull Lake View East, Stonehedge South, Stonehedge North, and Bedford Valley—are Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ASCP) properties. Hallock plans to work toward ACSP certification at Stoatin Brae as well. While he has no concrete timetable to achieve certification, he hopes to accomplish it within the next two years.
Clearly, maintaining a small carbon footprint is important at Gull Lake View, and the benefits extend beyond the environment. Scott cites other advantages, such as economic savings, the reputation of the golf industry, and worker safety.
The more expensive it is to maintain a golf course, Scott adds, the higher the cost for the golfer. In addition, costly maintenance practices lead to lower profits.
Scott also wants to enhance the industry’s reputation for environmental stewardship, to stymie the prospect of more regulations and cost structures.
As the son of a superintendent, he is aware of the detrimental effects that chemicals can have on employees as well. “We don’t want to endanger our employees,” he says. “We don’t want to inadvertently cause problems at the golf course.”
Hallock agrees. “At the end of the day, this is about doing the right thing,” he says. “We’re all stewards of the environment in this business. I’m only going to be in this business and on this Earth for so long. I’d like to think I didn’t make it worse.”
However, Scott cautions that properties can take the idea of minimalism too far.
“The term ‘minimalist’ means different things to different people,” he explains. “From a design standpoint, it means moving as little dirt as possible. From a maintenance standpoint, it means using the fewest inputs possible, but that can be misconstrued. A property is not ‘minimalist’ if it is poorly maintained or lacks vision or monetary investment.”
Gull Lake View maximizes its ability to share maintenance resources among its six golf courses. With four superintendents, along with the experience and expertise of Scott and his father, Gull Lake View has six people with agronomic backgrounds on site.
“A lot of people can pitch in to solve problems,” says Scott. “It’s the same with the golf pros. We also can leverage equipment needs with suppliers.”
In addition, the golf courses can share staff and equipment as needed.
“Being part of six golf courses makes me feel comfortable,” says Stoatin Brae’s Head Golf Professional, Todd Gilley, who previously worked at private properties. “It relieves traffic on Stoatin Brae and on the other golf courses, too.”
Hallock, who has lived in nine different states during his career, also appreciates the opportunity to work with other superintendents who have been in the area for a long time. “We can bounce ideas off of each other,” he notes.
To keep operations running smoothly, communication is just as important as maximizing resources. Scott meets with Hallock once or twice a week, and he holds a joint meeting with all of the Gull Lake View superintendents at least once every other week.
Bill Johnson, Vice President of Operations for Gull Lake View and a PGA Professional with more than 30 years of experience in the golf business, believes it is important to understand both sides of the industry. He strives to balance the maintenance staffs’ needs to create the best possible course conditions with the needs of the customers who play the golf courses and visit the resort. He also recognizes the differences between the various Gull Lake View properties.
“The other golf courses are hilly, tree-lined, parkland courses, but Stoatin Brae is the exact opposite,” notes Johnson, who came up with the name for the new course after visiting Scotland. “It is wide open with spectacular views. From some spots on the course, you can see 12 flags.”
Johnson goes out on the golf courses weekly and also meets every week with all of the superintendents and golf pros to keep communication lines open. “The superintendents and pros are constantly working together,” he says. “Paul has a strong background in northern grasses [Hallock’s experience includes work at Portsmouth Country Club in New Hampshire]. He is a personable superintendent who works well with the golf pro and the staff.”
In turn, Hallock appreciates that Scott and Johnson are hands-on managers who run operations with an open-door policy. And because Scott has a turf background, he notes, it is easier to approach him with maintenance issues or concerns.
The superintendent talks to Scott and Gilley every day. He stops by the pro shop, and Scott comes to the golf course. Hallock also has Internet access to the tee sheets, and even on days that he or Gilley are off work, they still might text each other back and forth.
“We’re in constant contact about how the golf course is coming along,” says Gilley, who has been at Stoatin Brae since the 12-hole loop opened last fall. “We both want to see the golf course succeed.”
While the golf course is more challenging for casual players, Gilley reveals, “Traditional golfers that know a lot about the game really love it.”
After the end of Stoatin Brae’s first golf season, Gilley says, the Gull Lake team may take a look at the spots where players have landed their tee shots or second shots to consider needed adjustments. The property might also cut back some of the native grasses to make the golf course more fun and playable, if necessary.
Otherwise, because the golf course is new, Hallock and Gilley haven’t yet had to coordinate operations around any major maintenance projects. However, they still need to be ready for anything—such as what they encountered in July, when the maintenance crew had to remove 12 hot air balloons from the property. Swirling winds had forced the balloons, which were part a festival in nearby Battle Creek, Mich., to land on the golf course, and the Stoatin Brae crew members picked up the baskets with their work vehicles.
Wayward hot-air balloons aside, Gull Lake View offers its villa guests plenty of golfing options for entertainment. Golfers can play six different courses in six days, and according to Johnson, Stoatin Brae appeals to all types of players and challenges them, regardless of their skill levels.
“I want golfers to experience what golf is like traditionally in Scotland or Ireland, without having to fly across the pond,” states Gilley. “The course is hard and fast, and the greens are perfect. It’s a great layout. It’s challenging, but still playable.”
So far, Johnson reports, feedback from golfers has been positive. “There’s nothing like it around,” he says. “It’s going to be one of the top golf courses in Michigan. It’s a golf course that people want to see and play.”
Stoatin Brae has seen a lot of activity, adds Hallock, and it is becoming a “bucket list” course for some golfers. He wants to make the experience at Stoatin Brae one that golfers will never forget, and he plans to keep working to make that goal a reality. He has just one obstacle in his way, however. “There’s never enough time,” he says.