Harbor Shores – A Feel Good Story

Harbor ShoresBy Len Ziehm

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — Anything Jack Nicklaus is sure to be good in golf, and The Golf Club at Harbor Shores is no exception. It’ll gain immense exposure in this summer of 2012 as the site of the Senior PGA Championship. It’ll also host that event in 2014.

Considering the course didn’t open until July 1, 2010, it has elevated its profile by leaps and bounds in a very short time.  The Nicklaus connection, of course, helped in the course getting instant credibility. It also didn’t hurt that Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool Corp. came on as a sponsor for the Senior PGA. Sponsors of that caliber aren’t as easy to find these days as they once were.

Nicklaus’ design portfolio lists 275 courses world-wide. This Nicklaus creation, however, is something special. Nicklaus created it out of what had been a garbage dump. A factory was located where the first tee is now, and the land was covered with beer bottles and thousands of tires when Nicklaus first had a look at it. Before Nicklaus could go to work on the land 117 tons of trash, including 20,000 tons of contaminated soil, had to be removed.
Mark Hesemann, Harbor Shores’ managing director, remembers the day Nicklaus arrived for the first time. “Where did you find this place?,’’ was his first comment.

Since then, though, Harbor Shores has turned into one of golf’s best feel-good stories. “We set out really to change a community,’’ said Nicklaus. “This wasn’t just about a golf course. This was a non-profit project. That’s the important part of it.’’

The city of Benton Harbor, located about 100 miles from Chicago’s city limits, has undergone difficult times in recent years. About one-fifth of its residents were unemployed when the creation of Harbor Shores began. Now the course is the centerpiece of a resort and golf community that has created jobs and housing, increased the tax base and brought tourists to the city. Many more will be coming when the Senior PGA Championship puts Harbor Shores in the world golf spotlight.

So far, the course has had just one high-profile event. The grand opening celebration was indeed grand. Four of the biggest names in golf — Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Johnny Miller — showed up for an event billed as the Champions for Change.

“Just a joy,’’ was the way Hesemann described the event, which featured a clinic and evening gala that involved the four legendary stars before and after they competed for a $1 million purse in a skins’ game format with rotating two-man teams. About 4,000 spectators walked along during the competition, while about 2,000 watched the clinic and 1,500 attended the gala.

Along the way the players combined to make 15 birdies and one eagle, but the highlight came when Nicklaus rolled in a 100-foot putt on the No. 10 green. That putting surface is highly uncharacteristic of Nicklaus designs — a three-tiered monster that has been controversial since the course opened. Measuring 10,500 square feet, it’s the biggest green that Nicklaus has ever created.

Golfers who take on Harbor Shores will be intrigued by that putting surface and will certainly find some prettier sites as they tour the course. Nos. 7, 8 and 9 are on the shores of Lake Michigan and 10 others provide views of the Paw Paw River or Ox Creek and its wetlands. Longest of the layout’s three par-5s is the 573-yard fifth while the four par-3s range from 144 yards (No. 11) to 210 yards (No. 17).

Joshua Andres, a local artist, has also provided a special touch for all the course’s visitors with his striking metal sculptures that designate each hole. The course has a slope of 143 and rating of 74.7 from the back tees.

Over 20 charity outings were held during the abbreviated 2010 season, and more were held there in 2011 — the resort’s first full season. Hesemann called those numbers  “fantastic for a new golf course in this economy.’’

High school teams have been allowed to use the course for practices and some competitions and an 18,000-square foot facility will be available for the First Tee of Benton Harbor. “We’re all about community service and the area youth,’’ said Hesemann. “That’s something a little different about us.’’

Branson Has A Lot More Than Golf

Golf BransonBy Len Ziehm

BRANSON, Mo. — The golf is quite good in this lively little town in the southwest corner of Missouri. In just the last few years Branson, with about 6,000 full-time residents, has emerged as a golf destination. There are 13 courses in the general area, and they can accommodate all types of players. Eight of them — operating through the website golfbranson.com — encompass the super tough Murder Rock, credited to controversial PGA Tour player John Daly; Branson Creek, designed by the highly-respected architect Tom Fazio; the spiffy Payne Stewart Golf Club, built in honor of the late two-time U.S. Open champion and local resident who died in a plane crash; and LedgeStone, which may be the most beautiful of the lot with its sweeping views.

You don’t have to be an accomplished player to enjoy golf in Branson, though. Most unique of the other layouts is the funky but fun Thousand Hills, a Bob Cupp design that features nine par-3s, eight par-4s and one par-5.

I liked the Payne Stewart layout the best, but the best part of Branson as a golf destination isn’t necessarily the golf itself. It’s the other options. Rarely does any golf destination have the wide variety of other attractions that Branson offers. A golf die-hard doesn’t have to worry about keeping other family members, or less avid golfers in his travel party, from getting bored. There are tons of other things to keep them entertained.

In its early years, Branson was mainly a gathering place for fishermen. Then Marvel Cave, and its tours 500 feet below ground, emerged a tourist attraction and that spawned the creation of Silver Dollar City, one of the largest theme parks in the U.S.

Silver Dollar City, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010, in turn stimulated more tourist activity — initially country music venues. Now there’s 49 live theaters offering much more than country stuff. Soji Tabuchi has been a Branson fixture for over two decades with his family-style show in a theater that bears his name, and legendary crooner Andy Williams has his Moon River Theater that brings in other types of music than country.

I especially enjoyed an evening at the Hamner Barber Theater, the showcase for magician Dave Hamner and his long-time partner, ventriloquist Jim Barber. Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is also a popular entertainment option.

Missouri residents call this high-energy community in the heart of the Ozarks mountains “the Las Vegas of the Midwest,’’ and the Oscar-nominated movie “Winter’s Bone’’ was filmed there. Annual visitors numbered over 8 million annually in recent years thanks in part to its family-friendly economical options and its location. One-third of the U.S. population is less than a day’s drive away.

As for evening dining, the Mediterranean-style Bleu Olive and Cantina Laredo, with its Spanish dishes, are good bets in the downtown area. On the outskirts are all the usual chain restaurants along with some more economical places with local flavor like Montana Mike’s, the Rowdy Beaver and MacFarlain’s, where unsuspecting diners might be victimized by a rising table that will add some spice to your meal.

If shopping, live shows, golf, cave tours and dining options aren’t enough, Branson also has cruises and fishing along three lakes; a replica of the Titanic ship disaster (billed as the world’s largest museum attraction), plus museums spotlighting antique toys, dolls, autos, dinosaurs, butterflies and war veterans. There’s also five water parks, circus acts, three outlet malls and the beautiful lakes of Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals.

And more is still to come — especially for golfers. A new golf facility, Top of the Rock, will reportedly offer a nine-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a practice range designed by Arnold Palmer and a putting course designed by Tom Watson.

Golf’s Hall Of Fame Deserves A Profile Boost

World Golf Hall of FameBy Len Ziehm

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The World Golf Hall of Fame doesn’t get the media attention that baseball’s Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y., or football’s counterpart in Canton, Ohio, receive — and that’s a shame. It’s well worth a visit and some who were there in its first years will be quite impressed with what they’d see there now.I’m embarrassed to say that I never made the trek during my 40 years as a golf beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I did make it one of my first stops after that. The World Golf Hall of Fame, located in the World Golf Village resort on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Fla., is a must for the avid golfer and it’ll have some appeal for non-golfers as well.

The Hall opened in 1998, and top stars in the game have been inducted into the Hall since then. Unlike Halls of Fame in other sports, though, this is not simply a shrine honoring the careers of playing greats like Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. This one goes much deeper than that. No one star player, in fact, dominates the presentation.

If there was one individual that could be a focal point during my visit it was the legendary comedian Bob Hope. He was just a duffer — like most of us — but no one loved the game more than Hope did. His name has been on a PGA Tour tournament staged annually in California. That’s his official connection to golf, but he used the sport in various ways as an entertainer and that brought world-wide attention to the game.

Because of that, the Hall established a special exhibit, “Bob Hope: Shanks for the Memories,’’ in 2008. It amounted to a tribute to Hope’s life, not just his affection for golf. The exhibit consisted of more than 400 items, 300 vintage photographs and two hours of videos that stir fond memories of Hope’s career far beyond his forays into golf. The Hope exhibit wasn’t designed to be at the Hall permanently, but it provides an insight into what you’ll see if you go there — in addition to the golf basics. The Hall functions as a museum that tells the rich history of a sport enjoyed around the world.

The clubs and balls used the in the 1800’s start the evolution in equipment that has gotten quite high tech in recent years. Unlike baseball, football, basketball and hockey, golf has roots far beyond North America and the Hall suggests similar games were played around the world as early as the 1500’s.

The sport, as we know it today, dates to Scotland of the mid-1800’s and the exhibits from that era include a life-size picture of Young Tom Morris — generally acknowledged as golf’s first superstar who won all the big tournaments before dying at the extraordinary young age of 24.

No era is short-changed in your walk through the history of golf, but your tour isn’t all about the old days. The participatory offerings are outstanding.

You can putt on an artificial green designed to copy the shaggy surfaces of the 1880’s with wooden clubs and the balls used in that era. You can also putt on a replica of the slick, fast greens used in pro golf today. It’s on one of those that the Hall has — through use of video and special effects — created a fun competition for visitors that simulates the atmosphere on the last hole of big tournaments.

Golf simulators are also available, allowing visitors to experience some of the world’s most famous courses, and everything isn’t just indoors. Move outside and there’s a replica of the most popular hole in American golf — the par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass with its island green. For $5 you can take a swing on that 132-yard hole and win a prize if you can keep your ball on the green. (I almost did).

If you want to stay outdoors there’s an 18-hole putting course that’ll hold your attention throughout and can be enjoyed by those who have never played on a regular course.

You’ll need at least three hours to walk through the Hall and will probably want to allow more time than that. For my group of golf aficionados it was almost a full day’s project.

Other options around the Hall are the diverse restaurants and other attractions of St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and the more modern day amenities in fast-growing Jacksonville.

If you want to play, World Golf Village has two 18-hole courses — The King and the Bear (designed by Palmer and Nicklaus) and the Slammer and Squire (designed by Sam Snead and Sarazen). It you want the ultimate test, TPC Sawgrass with fees in the $300 range depending on the time of your visit, isn’t far away.