A forestry management plan and renovations to several golf holes opened up the Betsie Valley Course at Crystal Mountain Resort in Michigan—and improved maintenance and playability in the process.
Trees are the hallmark of a parkland golf course, but over time the issues they create can outweigh their aesthetics. With a little foresight and proper planning, however, a property can manage their growth to facilitate golf course maintenance and improve playing conditions.
At the Betsie Valley Course, one of two 18-hole layouts at Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, Mich., course owners initiated a forestry management program as part of a recent renovation, which won a 2021 Environmental Excellence Award from the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), to update and improve the course.
The walker-friendly, tree-lined course on the 1,500-acre property features deciduous trees, hardwoods, maples, and conifers, including red and white pines. Since the project got underway a couple of years ago, however, hundreds of trees have been removed.
“They’re all of interest in this forestry management program,” says Jason Farah, who has headed course maintenance operations at Crystal Mountain for the past eight years and now holds the position of Director of Golf, with responsibility for all of the property’s golf operations.
“Some of trees had already fallen down,” Farah adds. “The dead trees were on the floor from not being managed.”
‘Waiting to Grow and Thrive’
As part of a course improvement master plan, the forestry management effort has mitigated the risk of wildfires; opened up playing corridors, which were being closed in from tree overgrowth; and encouraged healthy tree growth.
“Old trees were becoming a safety issue. It was difficult to grow quality turfgrass in those areas,” says Farah, who has also overseen golf course maintenance on the resort’s Mountain Ridge Course. “The life expectancy of a tree before it becomes problematic or a safety concern is 80 to 100 years. We were concerned about forest fires, so we cleaned up the forest floors.”
Farah, along with another Crystal Mountain manager and the forestry management team, started the process by tagging dangerous trees and determining which ones to keep.
Cleaning up the forest floors has given the forest the opportunity to revitalize and regenerate, and it has alleviated concerns about safety and forest fires. The staff also bought in a mulcher to grind up the potentially problematic dead trees and used the mulch in landscaping beds on the property.
Farah expects the forestry management program to continue for a couple more years through regeneration and continued cleanup of the forest floors, which could result in new bike paths or cross-country trails through the woods.
“Things will develop as we go,” he says. “A lot of young trees and saplings were just waiting to grow and thrive.”
The renovation included other elements as well. Sand waste areas were created to add a visual and strategic element to the course, and several tee complexes were reshaped. In addition, Betsie Valley, which opened in 1977 and is the older of the property’s two courses, simply needed to be upgraded to improve its playability.
While Crystal Mountain started planning for renovations to Betsie Valley Course about a year ago, notes Farah, work started in early June and continued throughout the summer.
The renovations, which were designed by golf course architect John Harvey, included the redesign of Nos. 4 and 5, the tee complexes on the eighth and ninth holes, and the approach to the eighth green.
“As part of the project, we eliminated a two-acre forest on four and five and created waste bunkering,” Farah says.
On the eighth hole, the construction team built a new tee complex with five new tee boxes, expanded the fairway, opened up the third shot into the green, eliminated trees, put in waste bunkering, and installed new short-cut bentgrass.
“The green is extremely close to the ninth tee, and we made the tie-in better,” notes Farah. “The tee boxes were crowning, so we needed to flatten them out.”
The property also expanded the ninth fairway, opening it up on the right side. In addition, the new waste bunkers on the golf course are bordered by fescue grasses.
During construction, a sinkhole developed in the middle of the fairway on No. 12, which became a safety concern. When workers started probing the area, they discovered several tree stumps that had started to rot. The stumps were excavated, and the area was shaped. “It made a better golf hole out of the finished product,” notes Farah.
The installation of a new irrigation system was part of the Betsie Valley renovation as well. A main line was rerouted outside of the construction zone, and the old, single-row, hydraulic irrigation system was replaced with an electric, two-row system to increase coverage. “That’s an integral part of any renovation,” Farah says of the irrigation system.
The construction team members left at the end of August, and as soon as they finished a hole, the Crystal Mountain maintenance staff took over its care and set up the maintenance schedule for it.
“We stayed out of it to continue business as usual,” Farah says of the construction process. “We had to do what we’re good at, which is day-to-day maintenance, but we helped as needed.”
The Crystal Mountain maintenance staff overseeded thin areas and took over the grow-in of the golf course, which is still ongoing.
“We had to fertilize more often and irrigate. We tried not to disrupt play,” reports Farah. “We had to make adjustments since the golf course was still open.”
The new irrigation system was more efficient during the grow-in, he adds. “We couldn’t rely on the old system with that amount of construction,” he says.
Even though the Crystal Mountain maintenance department did not get involved in the project until the construction team had left, Farah was immersed in the renovations from the beginning. And one of the first things he did was seek out the expertise of industry players.
“I knew we needed to get others involved,” he says. “I knew we couldn’t do it ourselves.”
He helped by interviewing architects and organizing Board meetings with the contractors. “The owners entrusted me to interview golf course architects, and I helped to develop the plan from there,” says Farah.
In addition to interviewing and organizing personnel, he supervised the project and managed the budget along the way.
“In a project this size, there’s daily tweaking,” says Farah. “I engaged every day with the contractor. He was on site from beginning to end. The architect was pulled in as needed.”
Because the Betsie Valley course remained open during the renovation process, the staff made some modifications to the course to keep disruptions to a minimum. On the eighth and ninth holes, temporary tees were set up on flat areas of the fairways. A temporary green with a two-putt maximum also was set up on No. 8, and a temporary cart path was created along the wood line from No. 8 to No. 9.
In addition, No. 8 became a par-3 instead of a par-5, and No. 9 because a par-3 instead of a par-4.
“Temporary tees aren’t that big a deal, but when you change the putting surfaces and make it slower, that’s when golfers get a little bit stressed,” notes Farah.
Crystal Mountain also posted signage to explain the renovation process to its golfers.
The resort’s Head Golf Professional, Greg Babinec, PGA, calls himself an “interested observer” of the renovation project. “I was just excited about what was going on,” he says.However, Babinec also acted as a liaison to the membership, staying up-to-date on the construction process so he could answer questions and dispel rumors. For instance, he says, some people thought that houses were being constructed on the golf course. Others were afraid the golf course would be “ruined, but they did a 180” after seeing the finished product.
Crystal Mountain also put up a posterboard with a rendering of the new design, to let people know what was happening on the golf course.
Now that the project has been completed, golfers have had plenty to say about the redesign as well, giving it “rave reviews,” according to Farah. “People enjoy the fact that we’re investing in our golf course and trying to make it better,” he says. “People want to see change. They’re excited about the future.”
And after the golf course was closed for the season, Babinec says golfers were already looking forward to opening day in the spring of 2022. “They’re all excited to have it done and play it next year,” he says.
The forestry management program has opened up views to the natural rolling terrain, changing the aesthetics of the golf course, and has attracted new players to the Betsie Valley. Babinec always asks new golfers how they found out about Crystal Mountain when they call to make tee times, and one person confirmed with an unexpected answer that the new views into the course inadvertently were good advertising for the property.
“One person said, ‘I saw it when I was driving by,’” he reports. “It’s on a well-traveled corridor, but people didn’t know we had a golf course.
“That was a telling comment from a new customer who had never been here before. It’s like a giant billboard. Now that people can see it, we’re hoping that ‘the Betsie’ will be on par with our other golf course.”
Sunlight, Airflow and Aesthetics
Farah also had input into the design of the renovated holes, with the goal of benefitting golfers and maintenance staff members. “I was looking to try to make golf easier and also to make it easier to maintain in the future,” he says.
During the construction process, he altered maintenance routines on the renovated holes. “We had separate planning for these areas,” he explains. “The mowing schedule was different, and we had different heights of cut. We irrigated more frequently and at odd times. We usually water at night, but we had to water during the day every hour on the hour. We had to close off those areas.”
While it’s too early to tell if regular maintenance will be any easier because of the renovations. Farah can already confirm that “the turfgrass quality in these areas is better because of the airflow and sunlight. It’s hard to grow grass without sunlight and water. Areas also are drying out sooner.”
The property installed a new variety of bentgrass in the tee and fairway expansions and new Kentucky bluegrass in the rough. The fine fescue grasses, which are more drought-tolerant, also were installed in non-irrigated areas as well as around the waste bunkers. The long, wispy grass, which has a Scottish-links look, add to the aesthetics of the golf course as well.
“It makes a good backdrop on the holes, and it doesn’t need as much water and fertilizer,” Farah says.
Eco-friendly maintenance practices are also paramount at Crystal Mountain. “We use inputs as needed,” Farah explains. “We spray when needed if there’s a turf disease that develops.”
The waste bunkers have improved pace of play, and the expanded fairways have enhanced playability as well. “It’s easier to find a golf ball in a waste bunker than in the middle of a forest,” says Farah. “Without those trees, golfers can find their balls easier and move around the property faster.”
Adds Babinec: “Betsie Valley is a difficult golf course as it is. It doesn’t need to be so narrow. We opened up the narrowest parts of the course and made golf shots easier. Anything that can make the golf course easier for the average player, I’m all for it.”
Adding More to the Mix
The 24/7/365 family-owned Crystal Mountain resort, which was established in 1956, offers other amenities such as lodging, dining, downhill and cross-country skiing, a spa, wedding facilities, and a conference center. However, the golf courses are integral to its operations as well.
“A big part of our operations and revenues is golf. It brings in guests. We have a lot of overnight stays because of golf,” says Farah. “Food and beverage is enhanced. It’s a big part of what we do.”
Babinec agrees. “It’s a way for us to offer another outing for a meeting or conference group,” he adds. “We rely heavily on our summer activities, and golf is a major player in that.”
While more golf course renovations are in the plans for the future, Farah says the renovations to the Betsie Valley Course parallel the vision, the belief, and the stewardship of the ownership and guests.
“I’m excited about opening so people can see how much better the golf course is,” Babinec says .”I can’t wait to play it, either.”
CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN RESORT
Location: Thompsonville, Mich.
Golf Facility: 36 holes (18-hole Betsie Valley and 18-hole Mountain Ridge golf courses) with a 10-acre practice center
Golf Course Designers: Betsie Valley: Bob Meyer/William Newcomb, with recent renovation by John Harvey; Mountain Ridge: William Newcomb
Year Opened: Betsie Valley, 1977; Mountain Ridge, 1995
Golf Season: April to October
Annual Rounds of Golf: About 41,000
Fairways: Bentgrass/poa annua
Current Position: Director of Golf
Years at Crystal Mountain Resort: 8
Years in Golf Course Maintenance: 33
Previous Employment: Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort
Education and Training: Michigan State University; certificate in Turfgrass Management
Certifications: Class A GCSAA Golf Course Superintendent; Commercial Pesticide Applicator
Honors and Awards: 2021 ASGCA Environmental Excellance Award.
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN RESORT
Annual Budget: $700,000
Staff: 20 to 25
Other Managers: Trevor Mills, 1st Assistant Superintendent; Daniel Heiss, 2nd Assistant Superintendent; Jeff Nordbeck, Equipment Manager
Irrigation System: Toro with Lynx/Osmac Central; 1,157 irrigation heads
Water Source and Usage: Well and storm or reclaimed water
Equipment: Owned; majority Toro equipment
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Aerating is done primarily in the fall (September/October)
Duties and Responsibilities: Oversees maintenance for both golf courses