Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

Pilgram's Run
by Terry Moore

Many times people ask me how our magazine learns about all the new courses in Michigan. Well, as they say in our nation's capitol, we have our sources. More often than not, courses or their agents (none foreign) will contact us and let us know of their pending opening. But for still others, we have to seek them out, sometimes after a great tip or suggestion from a fellow golfer. That's the case of the superb Pilgrim's Run GC. Jim Hegarty from Grand Rapids must be thanked for giving me a call last summer and insisting I play nine holes with him at this new but little known golf course near Pierson. Hegarty was ecstatic in his praise for Pilgrim's Run and compared it to some of the top courses in the state. Being both an engineer and a fine amateur player, Hegarty's estimation carried weight with me. He's played all over the country and he knows the difference between a tract and a track.

Pilgrim's Run is a track. Last summer, the course opened the front nine to no fanfare and let word-of-mouth create a nice buzz about the course. This summer, the back nine_equally impressive_will open. But before I machine-gun you with some glowing adjectives about the course, let me back up and explain how this superb golf course ended up in Pierson, thirty minutes north of Grand Rapids.

The prime mover behind Pilgrim's Run is Robert Van Kampen, a financial maven who made a fortune with the Van Kampen Mutual Fund in Chicago. He now summers near Grand Haven in a sumptious home overlooking Lake Michigan while also keeping an office nearby. Over the last several years, he and his business associates_including then superintendent designee Kris Shumaker_looked into building a course in Grand Haven. That didn't happen because the right property just wasn't found.

Then one day, Shumaker discovered over 800 acres of ideally suited golf course property in Pierson, not far from Whitefish Lake, in Newaygo County. A former super at Clearbrook CC in Saugatuck, Shumaker was introduced to Van Kampen by a Clearbrook member. He jumped in feet-first into the project once he learned of Van Kampen's lofty goals for the course. He knew when he saw it, the acreage in Pierson was perfect. "This parcel was ideal_not too severe and it had little or no wetlands," says Shumaker. And speaking like a true-blue, dirt-underneath-the-fingernails- superintendent, he added "And the soil was just right_nice, dry, sandy loam."

Once the land was secured, the layout and feel of the course had to be calculated. For this phase, Shumaker went back to school_literally. "Yes, I went to Michigan State and read all the golf books I could find on architecture," said Shumaker. He quickly found an answer to the question: what type of course should be built inside pristine 800 acres? "All the renowned architects_Mackenzie, Ross and Thomas_echoed the same sentiments: leave the land as natural as possible," said Shumaker.

So with this minimalist philosophy in hand, the Van Kampen group embarked on a unique design approach. Six individuals were each given three holes to conceptualize and design. That's right, there are six amateur designers responsible for the coming success of Pilgrim's Run. One of them is Glenn Karsten, a vice-president of the Van Kampen Group, who also serves as general manager for the course. "At first, we were leery about publicizing the design-by-committee aspect of Pilgrim's Run," said Karsten. "We thought golfers might dismiss us if they thought a committee frivolously made up a golf course." (For the record, the "gang of six" are Karsten, Bill Duhm, Scott Pierre, Jerry Trannel, David Wisen and Fred Croft.)

Golfers surely won't dismiss this golf course. And in truth, the committee slant may be overstated due to professional work done by Shumaker and Mike DeVries, the consulting architect-designer-shaper for Pilgrim's Run. As Karsten readily admits, "All 18 holes submitted by the six individuals had to be filtered through the good sense and practical know-how of DeVries and Schumaker." Certainly, DeVries was uniquely qualified to carry out the minimalist design philosphy that Schumaker and others desired.

DeVries grew up around fabled Crystal Downs CC and, in fact, worked at the course for head pro Fred Muller and superintendents Tom Mead and Mike Morris. You could say DeVries was weaned on the genius of Mackenize and Perry Maxwell, the architects of the Frankfort layout. After graduating from Lake Forest College, DeVries cut his teeth by working for Tom Doak as a design assistant as well as for Tom Fazio at Treetops and for Bill Newcomb. In '94, DeVries earned a MA in Landscape Architecture from the University of Michigan. His masters practicum was entitled: "A Plan for Sustainable Management of Native Roughs at Crystal Downs."

But back to Pilgrim's Run. DeVries joined the group about six months into the project. Shumaker had the routing done and had cleared the front nine. "When I walked the front nine with Kris and talked concepts, we were immediately on the same wave length," said DeVries. "How the course should respond to the land was paramount. Everyone wanted a good, traditional golf course suitable for a wide range of players."

Pilgrim's Run is not just good, it's terrific. It's fun, exciting, picturesque and challenging without being penal. You'll find no moguls or overshaped green complexes here. Fairways are generous, water hazards are few, and green sites are generally open-fronted and low profile to afford chipping. There is a reachable, risk-reward par five, exciting short four pars and a loads of solid par fours. Best yet, one's entire golf experience is wonderfully isolated and tranquil. On the entire course, there was only one tee (a back one at that) where I saw any sign of outside civilization. And the conditioning-- due to a double dose of seed--is the equal to most private clubs.

Oh yes, one more thing: this place schedules tee-times at 12 and 15 minute intervals. Maybe the course is aptly named. Once golfers learn all these pluses about this west Michigan gem, they'll run not walk to this golf course. Call 616-937-7505.

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