Indiana’s Swan Lake lands U.S. finals, ING gathering

By Len Ziehm

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Swan Lake, the Indiana resort that has operated  relatively low-key since its opening in 1969, is about to elevate its profile.

Located in Plymouth, near the Notre Dame campus, Swan Lake hosted the National Junior College Championships last week and will host that event again in 2014. Of even more note, it’ll be the site of the U.S. finals of the World Golfers Championship this September and the International Network of Golf spring meeting in 2013.

The announcements of both came at this year’s 22nd ING spring gathering, conducted at Embassy Suites Greenville Golf Resort and Conference Center and its accompanying golf course, The Preserve at Verdae.

“These are pretty big things,’’ said Andy Mears, director of sales and marketing at Swan Lake and an ING executive committee member. “We’re planning to hold a lot of events like this to showcase the resort.’’

Swan Lake didn’t always take that approach, even after Richard Klingler took over ownership 12 years ago. Mears came on board in November, 2011, as a key mover in changing the resort.

“There’s been a complete transformation of management there,’’ said Mears. “The owners decided to go in an entirely new direction.  We’ve opened up to outings and have a whole new staff at the (teaching) academy.  We’ve got 70 pros on staff, and they’ve been incredibly busy.’’

Klingler, an Indiana native who founded the Holiday Rambler RV Co. and later sold it,  wasn’t even a golfer when he took over Swan Lake in 2000. In addition to taking on the big events, Swan Lake has attracted outings, notably a big one from Wal-Mart, which moved from a course in Valparaiso to Swan Lake. The resort used to average eight weddings a year; this year it’ll host 25.

The teaching operation is a high priority as well, under head professional Chad Hutsell. He had held that job at Plymouth Country Club for 12 years and returned to the area at Swan Lake after a stint at Aberdeen in Valparaiso.

“We’ll turn the golf operation into a learning center for PGA apprentices,’’ said Mears. “We want to be the Triple-A farm club for the PGA of America.’’

Swan Lake, spread over 600 acres, has 92 hotel rooms  plus cabins and cottages and a 20m000 square-foot convention center.

The biggest event of this year, the U.S. finals of the World Golfers Championship, will be held Sept. 20-22. The leaders in five flights based on handicap will qualify for the finals in Durban, South Africa. Billed as “the world’s largest amateur tournament,’’ this is a growing competition started 17 years ago by legendary late Swedish athlete Sven Tumba, a hockey great who turned to golf later in life and designed the first course in Moscow.

Tumba’s first events were invitationals, but he eventually switched to a qualifying format and now eliminations are held in 40 countries. Florida-based Anders Bengtson is the majority owner of the U.S.. portion of the competition, which involves about 200 elimination events held year-around.

“We’re now in eight states and looking for tournament directors all over the country,’’ said Bengtson, a fellow ING member. “We’ll have in the thousands try to qualify (for the U.S. finals) and expect 80-100 to play at Swan Lake.’’

John Downey is the tournament director for Illinois, and a former Chicago area judge, Eddie Stephens, was a qualifier for the World finals last year at the U.S. event held in San Antonio, Tex.

The World Golfers Championship is unique, in that men and women of all ages compete together. There’s no breakdowns for age or sex, only by handicaps (0-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20 and 21-25). Different tees, though, are used according to sex , age and handicap differences.

“We feel we’re a true amateur tournament,’’ said Bengtson. “We’ve established camaraderie with people, some of whom can’t even communicate because of their language differences. But they’ve still become friends.’’

Bengtson took next year’s finals to Swan Lake because “it’s very charming and we need at least two courses…I don’t want the players playing one course over and over because they play four in the finals.’’

The World finals were held at PGA National in Florida the first three years but  had a more international flavor after that. The finals will be held in South Africa for the second straight year but were held in Spain in 2009 and Thailand in 2010. Arnold Palmer has endorsed the competition and the late Seve Ballesteros was honorary chairman of the advisory committee last year.

Swan Lake has two 18-holers for the 72-hole competition, and the finals include two practice rounds and four tournament rounds, to be played on four different high-quality layouts.

As for the four-day ING event, it’ll bring golf leaders from management, resort, equipment and media together next May 19–23. Executive director Mike Jamison has taken the event around the country, with this year’s golf portion played on a challenging layout designed by Willard Byrd in the 1990s. It had hosted a Nike Tour event for nine years.

That was in keeping with the type of layouts Jamison had previously used. It was held at Florida’s Innisbrook layout, site of the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship, in 2010.

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French Lick Adds A Fourth Course, Sultan’s Run

By Len Ziehm

FRENCH LICK, Ind. – If ever there was a comeback story in the golf business, it is the one unfolding at French Lick Resort.

This little town of the same name in southern Indiana, near Louisville, was  the home to one of the popular vacation retreats in the United States in the early 1900s and its two stately hotels reflect that. The French Lick Hotel (now with a 24-hour casino added) has 443 rooms and suits and dates back to 1845. The West Baden Hotel, with 243 rooms and suites, was built in 1902.

French Lick went through a lengthy economic downturn after its heyday years, with its only claim to fame was being  the boyhood home of basketball great Larry Bird. Now that’s all changed.

The original French Lick had an 18-hole course designed by one of the architectural greats, Donald Ross. He opened it in 1917 as The Hill Course, and the 1924 PGA Championship (won by no less a legend than Walter Hagen) was staged there. The course also hosted LPGA and Senior PGA Tour events before a $5 million renovation. In 2005 it re-opened as The Donald Ross Course.

The original French Lick also had an 18-holer designed by Tom Bendelow, perhaps the most prolific architect in golf’s early years in the United States. Bendelow did his creating in 1907, when The Valley Course opened. It also went into disarray and was renovated in partnership with US Kids Golf as a nine-holer. It’s now called the Valley Links course.

Then came the arrival of Pete Dye, arguably the most famous architect of this generation. His most famous creations include TPC Sawgrass in Florida, Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort in South Carolina, Oak Tree in Oklahoma and Honors Course in Tennessee.

Dye, by now in his 80s, created a spectacular course to further spur the French Lick revival. That layout opened in 2009 and hosted a PGA event – the Professional Players National Championship – a year later. It hosted the Big Ten men’s event this year, and will also host it in 2013 and 2014 while The Ross hosts the Big Ten women’s championship at the same time.

Though he’s designed or co-designed about 300 courses world-wide, Dye said his namesake course at French Lick is “probably the biggest construction job I have ever had. This is the most interesting inland site I have built on.’’

Still, the French Lick experience continues to grow. This year the resort took over the management of Sultan’s Run in nearby Jasper. It’s an 18-holer designed by one-time Dye protégé Tim Liddy and has a memorable waterfall on its closing hole.

“That’s one of the most talked-about holes in Indiana,’’ said Dave Harner, French Lick’s director of golf. “But there’s not a bad hole, and that course is a contrast to both of ours. While (the Dye and Ross layouts) are more links style, this is a parkland course with tree-lined fairways and a far amount of elevation.’’

Sultan’s Run, built in the 1990s, is a challenging 7,100 yards and increases the options available to French Lick’s golf-playing guests. It’s about 20 miles from the resort, but transportation can be provided.

Harner is every bit as enthusiastic about the good things happening on the Valley Links. Upon its re-opening the resort offered a junior certification program for residents that allowed youngsters 12 and under to play free if accompanied by an adult who played a half-price.

That plan was  more recently stretched to include resort guests. Valley Links has six sets of tees, the shortest providing a layout of 1,100 yards to even 5- and 6-years can play it.

“Our junior program is noteworthy,’’ said Harner, “and it’s been starting to get attention lately. For years we thought the juniors were more of a nuisance, and now we realize we should have taken better care of them.’’

The entire golf world is realizing that in these tough economic times, but French Lick is doing something about it.

My “Remarkable Days” in DuPage

May 2-4, 2012
By Cheryl Justak, President and Publisher
Golf Club Masters, Inc., Publishers of Golf Now! Chicago

Golf Club Masters, Inc. not only publishes Golf Now! Chicago, a high-quality Chicagoland Golf Destination Guide that is used by local golfers, visitors, concierges and meeting planners, we also provide an array of resources to help those charged with planning the company golf outing, coordinating the corporate retreat, or just personally looking to get away for a weekend of golf, great food and lots of things to do! Our Golf Now! Event Planning Services are unique in that we carefully source our recommendations and personally experience what we recommend to our subscribers, clients and customers. We can also plan your getaway from beginning to end!

Returning from an impressive and non-stop whirlwind of activities, I decided to write about my journey on this two-day familiarization tour that was graciously hosted and every detail planned by the DuPage County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s team of executives. I was extended an invite to attend the “One Remarkable Day in DuPage” as we bring group business to the DuPage communities on a regular basis. I was also encouraged to stay the night before and the night ending the event so I could enjoy a relaxing evening. Primarily focusing on golf, dining and accommodations for our groups, I thought it would be a great experience to learn more about the role of the DuPage County CVB and to experience first-hand the various venues we would be visiting on the evening of May 2 and the entire day of May 3. Joined by a diverse group of 35+ meeting and event planners, along with the dynamic executive team of DuPage County CVB for the entire event, including the sales team from the Hyatt Lisle Hotel, we were wined, dined and treated as VIPs as we visited and toured many fabulous venues in the DuPage County.

I want to preface my experience with the fact that DuPage County is close to both Midway and O’Hare airports, roughly 20 minutes from downtown Chicago, and offers more than 16,000 guest rooms in 100+ hotels and resorts scattered throughout 38 communities. As a visitor, you have access to countless area attractions, premier championship golf courses, restaurants, entertainment and nearby world-class shopping centers.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
My trip began with checking into the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lombard, IL on the afternoon of May 2. I was graciously greeted by Irene Chavez, one of the hotel’s sales managers and was invited to join her and other meeting planners staying at the property for the manager’s cocktail reception. We then boarded the hotel’s shuttle that took us to our dinner destination in the Yorktown Shopping Center. We arrived at the D.O.C. Wine Bar & Restaurant and were escorted into their private living room area off to the side of the main dining room. It was the perfect venue for our group of 35 which afforded us the opportunity to sit on comfy couches, relax and mingle with a glass of wine at the cozy bar, or sit and enjoy the wonderful dinner items at the casual tables and seating areas. We were offered an array of wonderful fresh vegetable appetizers, delectable flatbreads, grilled chicken, filet mignon, along with super-crunchy homemade potato pancakes that were unbelievable for our dinner. Our dessert of homemade “carrot cake” muffins topped with cream cheese icing served with freshly brewed coffee was definitely the “icing on the cake” so to speak … for a wonderful end to a great evening of fun. I was impressed how the team from the DuPage County CVB engaged in conversation with all, taking time to make everyone feel welcome and at home.

Thursday, May 3, 2012
Our “One Remarkable Day in DuPage” started with a visit to Hyatt Lodge, located in the heart of McDonald’s Hamburger University in Oak Brook, IL. Nestled within a peaceful, rustic forest setting, yet minutes away from Oak Brook’s prestigious shopping destination, our day began with a wonderful hearty breakfast and a tour of the newly renovated 218 room hotel with 47,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The dining areas offer breakfast, lunch and dinner with options of dining by the indoor fireplace with beautiful outdoor views, or dining on the stone patio overlooking the water. This location would be a perfect venue for golf groups of all types as I made notes on this stop as such.

Boarding a spacious and elegant Windy City Limo “Coach Bus”, our transportation for the day, we were whisked away in comfort and air conditioning, driven by Joe, our coach driver. Our next stops took us to the Doubletree Oak Brook and then to the Hilton Suites Oak Brook Terrace — both in the heart of Oak Brook. We were greeted in the lobby by the sales teams who were energized, excited and proud to tell us about the amenities their hotels offered. I particularly was impressed with Anton Demetrius (first and second name) who had been with Doubletree for 7 years — one of the “newer” staff members. He toured us through brightly colored, spacious rooms and meeting space as he entertained us with his wit and jokes. What I remembered most about what he told us was that the employees at the hotel averaged 22 years employment. I thought that was remarkable in itself as the hotel industry is not an easy one to work in by no means. As a seasoned hotelier with 15 years experience at Sheraton hotels in the earlier part of my career, this is a direct reflection on the atmosphere of the hotel and the management staff to have a team of such long-time staff members. The Hilton Suites was equally impressive and offers visitors the famous Drury Lane Theatre to enjoy top name entertainment and shows.

Our next stop was the 150-acre estate of Oak Brook Hills Marriott Resort, home to Willow Crest Golf Club. This Dick Nugent designed course was recognized in 2008 as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary — the 17th Marriott Golf Managed Property awarded with this prestigious certification. Willow Crest Golf Club features gently rolling bent grass contoured fairways, quick rolling and well-bunkered greens, along with an abundance of water challenges. The par 70 golf course layout is very challenging, yet enjoyable for golfers of every skill level. During our tour of the busy resort with Liz Pudelwitts, Destination Sales Executive, Liz gave us a phenomenal perspective and insight into all that the resort offers. Celebrating 25 years this year, the resort offers a fabulous golf getaway as well as the perfect destination wedding or reunion. The new “permanent tent” was being set up inside for an event and we had a chance to see the convention service team in action. The resort was quite busy at the time with various groups in house, but we managed to see a guest room as well as the meeting space. What makes this resort so unique and special is the proximity to world-class shopping at Oak Brook and York Town Shopping Centers and the many grand eateries just a wedge shot away from the resort. My favorite part of this tour was learning about the “chef’s organic garden” that is planted and harvested on the resort property. The culinary delights prepared at the resort feature many of the fresh in-season vegetables grown locally and harvested from the garden. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!

Our next stop was the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center Hotel — which spanned the horizon of the building landscape and stood majestically against the sky. Opened in 2007, this 5-year old hotel which houses some 500 guest rooms was the location of our wonderful “chef’s choice” luncheon. Adjacent to Harry Caray’s and Holy Mackerel Restaurants, guests can enjoy room service menu options prepared by Harry Caray’s Restaurant. We dined on a delectable luncheon prepared by the Executive Chef, who so graciously came out to greet all of us during our luncheon.

Leaving the Westin, we again boarded the Windy City Limo and headed to the Embassy Suites in Lombard. Each of the meeting planners was housed at the various hotels on our tour. This hotel had been my home during the trip and I thoroughly enjoyed all of the amenities it offered. You can’t beat the wonderful breakfast in the morning that is included in your rate which features made to order eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles, etc. along with an array of fresh fruit, juices, cereals and so much more. Also, cocktails are included nightly at the “happy hour” that is also part of the hotel’s rate and amenities that are offered.

One of my favorite resorts in the Midwest is Eaglewood Resort & Spa, located minutes from O’Hare Airport within an urban setting in the Itasca area. Eaglewood was the host hotel for the 2006 PGA Championship and this year will be a popular destination for the exciting 2012 Ryder Cup being played at Medinah Country Club — just steps away from Eaglewood Resort & Spa. A favorite location of mine for golf groups and outings, we were pleasantly greeted by Eaglewood’s top notch sales team who did a terrific job of showcasing all that the resort has to offer. They were an engaging and very professional group! In all the venues we toured, and all the meeting space we saw, Eaglewood’s state-of-the-art meeting space offers a setting with natural light and breakouts that are conducive to gathering and mingling. The highlight of this stop was our excursion to the nearby Eaglewood Spa, which houses their world-class spa, swimming pool, bowling facility and golf simulator. During our competitive bowling activity we had a choice of sitting with a cold brew in the outdoor dining area or at the cozy lounge area while we dined on homemade “sliders” … what fun!

Now I’ve driven by the Lynfred Winery located in Roselle, IL so many times and had always wanted to stop in to visit. Fred E. Koehler, founder of Lynfred Winery, who just passed away in 2011, was a successful businessman who opened the Lynfred Winery some 32 years ago. On this stop, we were greeted warmly by Christina Anderson-Heller, Director of Marketing for Lynfred Winery and Bed & Breakfast as we entered the tasting area/gift shop and were handed glasses of wine to sample. The outside of the building gives you a glimpse of what you will experience as you enter. Covered in ivy and quietly tucked away this building is also home to Lynfred’s Bed & Breakfast. This is no ordinary bed & breakfast by any means. Each of the 4 custom-designed suites feature items decorated from their respective countries to include: America, Italy, Germany & France. Each suite’s decor costs upward of $250,000 which is more than many homes cost to build. Each suite rents for $350 a night plus taxes. We had the opportunity to tour each of the 4 suites and I was in complete awe at the beautiful, custom items in each suite. What a perfect and unique getaway for a bride and groom, an anniversary couple or anyone celebrating a special occasion. With over 80 wines offered at Lynfred Winery, the wine-making is done on property, but grapes for the wines are brought in from all over the country including California, Washington, Southern Illinois and Michigan … to name a few. I could have spent an entire afternoon enjoying all that Lynfred Winery and their Bed & Breakfast have to offer. Who would guess you could enjoy award winning wines in the heart of Illinois and the Chicagoland area.

Our final stop on this activity-packed day was the new Chicago Marriott Naperville that literally had been open one month and was already sold out when we arrived. Wow! The decor was so unique with contemporary pieces of aircraft, boats and luggage scattered beautifully throughout the spacious and airy lobby area. We were given a tour and then taken to one of the meeting rooms for a closing reception featuring some wonderful appetizers, cocktails and scrumptious desserts.

Now I know I gained at least 5 lbs. on this trip (even with all the walking and touring) but it was worth it. I was completely blown away by the passion of the staffs, the quality of the facilities and the graciousness of the hosts. There are so many world-class venues, golf courses and dining options in the DuPage communities … and we only scratched the surface of the “east side” of DuPage.

Here’s the main theme I walked away with from the DuPage County Convention and Visitors Bureau. They are there solely to help anyone who is bringing a group to the area or thinking about bringing a group to the area. They can source out a list of RFP’s for you if you just tell them what you are looking for. They also offer your group help if you need it — say with registration or whatever need you may have. I would highly recommend using their services if you are a meeting or event planner looking at the area. Also, if you have any group from 5 to 500, they can assist you! Visit them at www.discoverdupage.com or call 800-232-0502.

Friday, May 4, 2012
I enjoyed my final night at the Embassy Suites in Lombard and spent all day Friday continuing visits on my own and stopping in at some of the area golf courses throughout DuPage County and other neighboring communities.

All in all, it was a great adventure and a wonderful opportunity to experience all that DuPage County has to offer!

Eagle Ridge

By Len Ziehm
GALENA, IL. – I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for the Eagle Ridge Resort. Not only has it been a favorite get-away retreat for about 40 years, it’s also a place where I’ve been on hand for some special events.

In 1984 I played in the grand opening outing for Eagle Ridge’s South course, a Roger Packard design. In 1997 I played in another celebratory round, one to mark the opening of The General — Eagle Ridge’s premier layout, created by Packard and Andy North.

That’s why it was somewhat nostalgic when I returned to Eagle Ridge this spring after a two-year absence to take advantage of one of its very worthwhile spring golf packages. I played the South course on a Tuesday afternoon in April and The General the following morning. Both were in the best spring shape I’d ever seen them. Then I learned the reason why, from director of golf and head professional Michael Stewart.
Eagle Ridge, located on 6,800 acres 150 miles west of Chicago, endured a disastrous summer in 2011, when extraordinary rainfalls did severe damage to all four of its courses. Just how bad was it? Well, 16 inches of rain hit the par-5 second hole on The General, a layout filled with spectacular vistas resulting from 250 feet of elevation changes.

“Welcome to The General,’’ said Stewart. “It’s a different kind of animal.’’ That it is.
Stewart was barely on the job when the rains hit on July 27, leading to one fatality in addition to the damage to the facility. He’d left a job in Fort Myers, FL., to run the golf operation at Illinois’ premier golf resort facility. Immediately he had to cope with rainfall that stopped play altogether.

“We weren’t closed too long – a few weeks,’’ he said. “But when we opened up we had to use temporary tees, and we let people play at reduced rates.’’

The recovery effort led to a $2.3 million renovation, which was needed anyway. Oliphant Companies, a Madison, WI., firm specializing in course development, construction and management, worked with the Eagle Ridge staff in the recovery effort.

“We had to rebuild over 100 bunkers, reshape the creeks and restore the tee boxes on all four courses,’’ said Stewart. The storms, he now believes, were “a blessing in disguise.’’ They forced repair work that left Eagle Ridge with much better courses than it had previously. Several trees were removed to improve play, drainage was improved and some bridges repaired.

When the work was in its final stages the weather also turned extraordinarily good, so Eagle Ridge had 111 rounds played on the North (which was first played in 1977 and is now open year-around) in January.

“That shows what a mild winter we had,’’ said Stewart. “We had an early run because of the wonderful weather .’’

He calls the courses “absolutely pristine and stunning in every sense of the word’’ and likens their spring condition to what they would be like in the summer.

The openings of the other courses were the earliest in the resort’s history, which spans five decades. The South opened on April 6, the East on April 13 and The General on April 20.

While The General took the biggest hit, the rains did damage to the heavily-played North, the sporty South and the nine-hole East (youngest of the layouts with a 1991 opening) as well. These courses all have extreme elevation changes, making for some fun golf.

The 18th hole of the South course might be my favorite hole of the 63. Or, maybe it’s the par-3 second on the East. The General, though, is filled with one great hole after another, the most eye-catching being the short par-4 14th, with a steep drop off an elevated tee. If The General was an easier course to walk, it’d be a great big tournament venue.