February 28th, 2017 10:59AM
Northern Michigan lumber town enjoys economic impact from golf travelers
Gaylord, MI – Things changed dramatically in 1987 for what had been predominantly a Northern Michigan lumber town since the 19th century.
Gaylord, known as the Alpine Village, found economic growth with the golf industry, and this summer the Gaylord Golf Mecca, one of the premier summer golf destinations in the country, celebrates its 30th anniversary.
In 1987 Harry Melling, a flamboyant auto industry supplier and NASCAR team owner who had earlier purchased the dated Sylvan ski resort on the edge of town, unveiled the Masterpiece, the last major golf course design by the legendary architect, Robert Trent Jones Sr.
The award-winning Jones creation attracted golfers to what became known as Treetops Resort, but also quickly put Gaylord in the national golf conversation as a must-stop in the Midwest.
It was also Jones who came up with the name Treetops. During construction he had observed the stunning view over the Pigeon River Valley from the ridge and tee 180-plus feet above the green of the course’s iconic signature Par 3 sixth hole. It’s treetops for miles.
The Masterpiece was the first of five top-flight and award-winning golf courses Melling would go on to build at the resort, including the only Tom Fazio designed course in Michigan.
Gaylord and golf are now often used in the same sentence. Golf Channel launched its popular “Big Break” series in Gaylord and ESPN’s “Par 3 Shootout” at Treetops. Both productions helped spread the Mecca message across America.
The then Treetops head golf professional Rick Smith, these days a nationally known instructor to PGA Tour players, was the perfect idea man for Melling. He helped develop both the Big Break and Par 3 Shootout on Threetops, the resort’s award winning short course designed that he designed as well.
The Shootout featured such superstars as Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Jack Nicklaus over the years and scored its biggest ESPN national replays when Lee Trevino aced the seventh hole in 2007. It’s regarded the richest payday ever for a single shot, $1 million.
The name Treetops soon resonated with golf fans everywhere and the resort remains the lynchpin of the game in Gaylord.
During that same year of 1987, another new Gaylord institution that would boost the fortunes of the local economy came on line. The Gaylord Tourism Bureau formed and in turn spawned the Gaylord Golf Mecca – a coordinated marketing effort and label officials hoped would draw attention to the original six Mecca member golf courses – Treetops, Otsego Club/Hidden Valley, Gaylord Country Club, Michawye-Pines, Wilderness Valley and Lakes of the North.
Fast forward three decades, and the Gaylord Golf Mecca is celebrating a wildly successful 30-year run, and the mecca tagline – America’s Summer Golf Mecca – has become one of the state’s best-known promotional campaigns.
“The first budget for the Mecca was $15,000, the tourism bureau contributed $7,500 and we had a formula for the golf courses to put in $1,500 each to make up the rest,” said Paul Beachnau, one of the original founders of the Golf Mecca, who serves as the executive director of the Gaylord Convention and Tourism Bureau, as well as general manager of the Gaylord Golf Mecca.
A few years later a new State of Michigan matching grant program for local efforts like the Mecca also boosted the golf efforts.
“As this thing moved along in a couple of years we were able to leverage that $15,000 with the state’s match of another $15,000 and we were off and running,” Beachnau said. “The initial tourism bureau budget for Gaylord was just over $100,000, and is now $893,000 with $150,000 budgeted for the Golf Mecca marketing and advertising.”
Correspondingly, the first year of the Mecca saw courses record 60,000 rounds of golf, with revenues of $2 million. Over the years, membership grew to as many as 22 courses before settling at the current 14. High water marks for that group include a record of annual rounds played at 300,000 with revenues as high as $17 million.
Beachnau said he and the early founders of the Mecca were comfortable in the golf product they were selling, but he is amazed by the level of success now being experienced.
“If you had asked me if I ever envisioned the growth in the number of quality golf courses I would have to say no,” he said. “I imagined us to be reasonably successful in developing a cool niche of the golf market, but what it has led to in terms of the number of golf courses in Northern Michigan, the quality, and the number of world class designers that have found us, is just amazing.”
Treetops General Manager Barry Owens, like Beachnau, a Golf Mecca founder, also marvels at the progress. He credits the members who have stayed united with Beachnau as the glue to the successful effort.
“Through thick and thin this group has stayed together,” Owens said. “The Gaylord region is great, as is the location, just off I-75. The courses are within a short drive of the freeway. Even at Treetops, we’re 10 minutes from I-75 but we’re a world away from I-75. But besides that, with all the things we have to offer, the real story is how we’ve stuck together and continue to be a cooperative force for golf in Northern Michigan.”
The force remains with the Gaylord Golf Mecca as another dream by the members is coming true this season. After four years of wooing Dallas tourism and travel officials and American Airlines, the Mecca and its partner, Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport, are making it easier for more golfers to visit.
Starting June 2 the airline will begin direct service to and from Dallas and Traverse City. Beachnau and Owens envision great numbers of golfers fleeing the stifling Texas heat and humidity to check out the Gaylord Golf Mecca and the beauty, climate, and courses in Northern Michigan.
For 30 years, the Gaylord Golf Mecca has offered something for everyone — award winning resorts, high-quality public courses, fine and casual dining, and quaint inns. It’s an experience visitors of all golf skill levels, tastes and from locales as far as Texas and beyond continue to enjoy.
For more information, visit www.gaylordgolfmecca.com or call (800) 345-8621.
*Professional photography is available upon request.
Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau
Paul Beachnau – Executive Director