Elk Rapids Returning to Original, Historic Glory

Posted on June 6th, 2018


By Vartan Kupelian/

There is no shortage of stories about small towns rallying to save a golf course. This is a story about a golf course that saved a small northern Michigan town.

It dates back to the golden age of golf course architecture in the 1920s and Elk Rapids, 15 miles north of Traverse City along the much-traveled M-31 corridor. In 1910, the population of Elk Rapids was 1,673. Over the next decade, the town lost nearly 1,000 residents because its principal employer, Elk Rapids Iron Works, shut down.

That’s when the town decided to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Made sense but something was missing. A vacation spot needs a golf course, especially in 1922, when golf was making a dent in the consciousness of the American public.

Some 400 residents approved a $9,000 bond to fund and build the Elk Rapids Golf Club.

Here’s where it gets fun. They didn’t ask the mayor or the police commissioner to lay out a golf course. Elk Rapids applied the adage Go Big or Go Home. They hired Donald Ross and convinced him to fast track the project, according to Brian Taylor, history and greens committee chairman at Elk Rapids GC. Ross dispatched his aide, J. B. McGovern, who selected a dairy farm on roughly 3,000 feet of Elk Lake shoreline for the nine-hole course.

“The land cost was $6700 and Ross’ design fee was likely around $2000,” Taylor said. “McGovern returned in 1923 and made sure the course was laid out as Ross designed it. But with the limited funds remaining, most of Ross’ strategic course features – specifically his bunkering – were too costly for our fledgling club.

“Back in 2009 when our newly-formed historical committee was getting started, most of the story that led to our Michigan Historic Site designation (in 2014) was hiding in plain sight in board minutes dating back to our founding, dusty and forgotten.”

The Tufts Archives in Pinehurst, North Carolina, had a document not in the club’s archives – the Ross illustration. Also discovered were file photos in the Elk Rapids Historical Society. The revelations were intriguing and it was now time for the city to do something for its golf course.

“It’s a fascinating story,” said Bruce Hepner, whose Hepner Golf Design, based in Traverse City, was hired for the retro-fitting which began two weeks ago.

Jerry Deemer of Country Golf Inc., one of the nation’s leading experts in course construction, joined Hepner in the project. Deemer, also based in Traverse City, did the reconstruction of the field at Fenway Park a few years ago.

“Jerry is well-known on the east coast,” Hepner said. “He’s done a lot of Ross courses in the east, so do I. We’re both Traverse City resident who don’t work here much but were able to team up back here. I’m able to drive to work for the first time. It’s worked out really well.”

“It’s an old-school community club. (The project) has kind of the same spirit of original thought for this golf course. It is a springboard for Elk Rapids.”

Hepner and Gene Davis, superintendent and general manager of the member-owned course who has also been instrumental in the project, opened up the views of Elk Lake.

“They are spectacular,” Hepner said. “Some of the best views of any course I’ve ever seen in Michigan. Beautiful blue water lake views, pretty much four, five holes looking at the water. Total fun to play and perfect, and total hidden gem.

“Reminds me of Scotland where the golf courses are an integral part of the community. People walk their dogs on the course. There is more sense of community than any club I’ve been on in America. Quality golf, the routing is Ross. The land is used really well.”

Hepner played in a hickory clubs league at Elk Rapids and while he knew it was a Ross course, he didn’t see much of it.

“The routing was good but I figured he just sent in a drawing or something like that,” Hepner said. “Once the original Donald Ross drawing was found, I basically superimposed that over the existing golf course. Over the last 20 years a handful of bunkers were built here and there that didn’t match the Ross plan. We’ve been modifying those greenside bunkers to match up. The fairway bunkers we’ve been able to match up really well, restored to exact size and location, trying to bring back the strategic design.”

There are 23 bunkers. The putting greens will remain untouched.

“They’re small, with a lot of little character (traits) to them, similar to what Ross would have built,” Hepner said.

Michigan Golf Course Superintendents Association
Member of GCSAA