The winning golf resort company in Michigan
Scoring top marks and coming out swinging
There are about 16,700 golf courses in America. Florida has the most with 1,250. California comes in second place with over 900. Third place would surprise many. After all, golf is an outdoor sport and is best enjoyed when the weather is relatively mild throughout most of the year. So how is it that Michigan, which has a much shorter playing season than the two leaders, has claimed the bronze medal with around 800 public and private golf courses across the Wolverine State?
Well, if geography is determinative, it is important to remember that during the summertime, the northern latitudes have longer days, with playing times stretching to 9 PM and beyond in the fading sunlight. Another reason that Michigan has become a golf mecca would have to include the beauty and variety of its natural environment, from the shores of Lake Michigan to its inland forests and uplands.
Players are drawn to Michigan because of the exceptionally high quality of its courses — the most famous of which would have to be Boyne Golf, a subsidiary of Boyne Resorts, the ultimate world-class golf destination with ten championship-caliber courses spanning three large and stunning resorts in the northern part of the state’s lower peninsula – the Inn at Bay Harbor, The Highlands, and Boyne Mountain Resort.
Boyne’s ‘course’ to superior quality
John Richter, Senior Vice President of Golf Operations, agrees that what differentiates Boyne Golf is the quality and condition of its courses. “We have a standard in terms of heights of cut and greens speed so that playing is firm and fast, and we maintain that standard throughout our ten courses here in Michigan,” he states. “It’s something that sets us apart; you can count on the excellence of the golf experience no matter which one of the golf courses you play.”
Ken Griffin, Director of Sales and Marketing, concurs. “There’s a very short list of resorts that have ten courses. But, it’s about more than just the quantity. We have award-winning courses; some win awards, and some don’t. But what we want is for the guest to have a similar experience across all ten courses. We don’t change our standards; we hold our superintendents accountable on all the courses to maintain those standards so that you experience the same quality of conditions across the variety of different terrain settings.”
Charting the ‘course’ of golf’s popularity
Today, golf is the fastest-growing sport in America. But that wasn’t always the case. The number of golfers in the U.S. who played at least eight rounds per year has been declining for the past two decades. In 2006, there were about 30 million of them. That number had dropped to 24 million by 2017. In 2022, though, it rose to 25.6 million — with 3.2 million of that cohort playing golf for the first time in 2021. What caused this abrupt turnaround? Oddly enough, it was COVID. While detrimental to many other sectors, the pandemic helped the golf industry. People became desperate for low-risk, outdoor activities after being locked down and stuck inside for months. Golf offered exercise, fun, camaraderie, and fresh air. And people who had never swung a club before needed little persuasion to join in.
Griffin explains the shift in demographics at Boyne. “Traditionally, we were very strong with ‘Buddies Trips,’ and very strong with golfers out of the Midwest, especially Michigan and Canada,” he notes.
“We’re still a great Buddies Trips destination, but no longer just that. We’ve seen a lot of growth over the last few years in couples’ groups, women’s groups, and families playing together. We’re also seeing the age demographics shift; we’re seeing more younger men and women.”
“Over the last few years, the growth has come from those new categories, as well as new markets,” Griffin continues. “And the good news is we didn’t lose any of our traditional markets.”
“It’s been game-changing for us that Traverse City (Airport) now has direct flights from 18 U.S. cities in the summertime. So, now we’re seeing a lot of people coming in from all over the U.S. to play golf on our courses.” “It’s relatively easy to drive here from many places,” Richter adds. “And we’ve reopened our airport at Boyne Mountain this past summer after a four-million-dollar upgrade, so you have the opportunity to fly in privately and be right here.”
Keeping up with the ‘course’
Now that Boyne’s courses have benefitted from the pandemic-fueled growth, the challenge becomes how to maintain those new numbers. “Coming out of the COVID boom, we identified that we needed to do a lot of reinvestment to keep our golf courses improving, to keep guests choosing our resorts and courses and having a great experience,” Richter says.
“For example, we invested in our academy, adding a fourth instructor this past summer. We also added a custom one-day school. We’re finding that this is continuing to fuel that growth in the game.”
Another agenda item that caters to golf’s newcomers, and those returning to the links, is the creation of Boyne’s 11th course in Northern Michigan: a 9-hole short course to open at The Highlands resort property next summer. The new course will be lit for nighttime rounds and is being designed to appeal to all skill levels since fun is paramount to the experience. And as short courses continue to gain in popularity, Richter says that Boyne has plans to build two more of them at its other facilities in upcoming years.
For those whose love of golf is limited, and/or their families, Boyne Golf offers a host of other activities at, and around, its properties. In addition to zip lines and kayak runs, “Boyne Mountain has the largest indoor water park in Michigan,” Griffin reports.
“You can take horseback trail rides at both Boyne Mountain and The Highlands. You’ve got mountain bike trails. You can take chair lift rides to the top of both resorts; from The Highlands, you get a beautiful view of Little Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan. So, there’s always a ton of activities. And that off-the-course experience is equally important as the on-course experience, even though the on-course experience is what draws them.”
Boyne Resorts also owns the iconic Gatlinburg SkyPark in Tennessee, a major tourist attraction since the 1950s. Five years ago, the company built the Gatlinburg SkyBridge there. At the time, it was the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America.
“Due to the success of it, we brought that here with the SkyBridge Michigan. It’s now the world’s longest and highest timber suspension bridge,” says Griffin. “It’s 1,100 feet long and 120 feet off the ground. Golfers can see it; they drive right past the north tower when they go to the first tees of the Alpine and Monument courses.”
Projects on ‘course’
Meanwhile, the most important work at Boyne Golf continues to go on: upgrading current courses to improve their playability. For example, selected tree removal at certain courses, according to Richter, gets “more of the right light at the right places at the right times. We also spent time and effort on irrigation projects, getting water in the right places so that turf is firm and fast,” he adds.
One particular project is near the heart of Bernie Friedrich, who started as a golf pro at Boyne 47 years ago, and today is Director of Golf Course Renovations and Development. It’s the renewal of the Donald Ross Memorial golf course at The Highlands — a composite re-creation of classic golf holes designed by the legendary architect, Donald Ross, who has an estimated 600 courses to his credit.
“When we built that in the ‘90s, we wanted to pick holes from private clubs east of the Mississippi because the idea was that our guests would never be able to play those particular golf courses and this would allow them to play them,” Friedrich recounts.
“Back then we were taking pictures of holes and asking if this was an original Donald Ross hole. Sometimes what we thought we built really wasn’t the original design. So, we went back into the archives and dug out Donald Ross’ original plans. Now, we can go back and get some of these greens to within an inch of the original drawings. So, we’ve been taking holes that are ‘off’ and rebuilding them to make them much more accurate.”
In attempting to create a better all-around experience for its players, Boyne has also invested in new technology, specifically E-Z-GO’s Pace system, a golf cart GPS and tracking application that allows course administrators to monitor the pace of play in real-time. In fact, E-Z-GO supplies all the Boyne’s golf carts, which have been powered by lithium batteries since 2019, helping the company to reach its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2030.
“We switched many of our utility vehicles to lithium, as well,” says Richter. “And we’re doing some of our beverage carts now in lithium.” The utilization of battery power is part of Boyne Resorts’ Forever Project, formulated in 2021, as the company’s commitment to building a sustainable future throughout all its properties and attractions.
Room upgrades on ‘course’
Boyne Golf is also renovating some of its accommodations. “At the Inn at Bay Harbor, we have always offered a very high-quality lodging experience,” Griffin says. “At Boyne Mountain Resort and The Highlands, the rooms were very nice, but we didn’t have that ‘top of the pyramid’ room. So, during COVID, we took the opportunity at The Highlands’ Main Lodge and at Boyne Mountain’s Chalet Edelweiss to gut them in two-year projects at each resort that raised those standards to some of the highest quality rooms that you would ever stay at a golf resort.”
“Between the three properties, we have over 3,000 beds and 100 different room types. Do you want to be in a condominium, a townhouse, or a hotel on the course, or by a ski slope? Or do you want to be on a lake? So, the top of the pyramid now, in addition to the Inn at Bay Harbor, can be found at the Chalet Edelweiss at Boyne Mountain, as well as The Main Lodge at The Highlands.”
Charting the ‘course’ ahead
Going forward, all of those upgrades, both on and off the courses, speak to Boyne’s agenda of continuing to attract more new players from more new places. “A couple of years ago, we joined a group called the International Association of Golf Tour Operators,” Griffin relays.
“About 50% of them are out of North America, but the other 50% are from the Far East, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and South America. And we were selected, next year, to hold the International Golf Tour Operators’ North American conference at Boyne. So, we’re going to have 350 golf tour operators and vendors coming to Boyne to play our courses for four days next summer. We think that’s an opportunity for expanded growth in North America and maybe the start of international travel.”
Richter maintains that golf is “super healthy” right now, and again, the statistics bear him out. The U.S. golf industry is now worth $84 billion a year, with golf courses making up $26 billion of that total.
“We’re in a really good position and we’re taking advantage of the good times to make our golf courses better, invest in technology, and continue to ask ourselves what we can do better,” he says. “We’re reinvesting in-service programming for our front-of-house team members to deliver that guest experience that can match the quality of the golf course; we’re hiring team members, adding PGA professionals, and GCSAA (Golf Course Superintendents Association of America) superintendents to take better care of our golf courses. And we feel that will set us up to continue to be leaders in the business.”
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Ten championship golf courses at three resort properties
WHERE: Northern Michigan