be the best designer that ever was, but
in Michigan, Jerry Matthews is second to
of grass that germinate and take root — bringing
so many of the courses he has designed
into fruition — Jerry Matthews grew
up in the golf business.
Golf in Michigan
is better off because of it.
Although he may not have the
notoriety of companies run by Arnold Palmer,
Rees Jones and other well-known industry icons,
Jerry Matthews Natural Course Design has quietly
established a reputation as one of the state’s
most respected golf course architectural firms.
Matthews Natural Course Design
isn’t about flash and neon. It’s
more like grass growing. Quiet and nondescript.
But when it comes right down
to it, grass — green, bold and beautiful — is
the most important element on a golf course.
Many of the courses Matthews
has designed have received national honors right
alongside those created by some of the biggest
names in the business.
The list of award winning golf
course designs by Matthews includes St. Ives
in Stanwood, Elk Ridge in Atlanta, Hawk Hollow
near Lansing, Timber Ridge in East Lansing and
TimberStone in Iron Mountain.
For more than 50 years, the 65-year-old Matthews has been involved
in the golf business in some way, shape or form. Since 1983, Jerry
Matthews has been president and chief architect of his own firm
based in Lansing.
In his teen-age days, he worked
for the maintenance crew at the former Green
Ridge Country Club. Later, he became a partner
in his father’s golf course design firm,
W.B. Matthews & Son. His father, Bruce Matthews,
had been in the golf course design business since
1925 when Jerry went to work for him.
“ I literally grew up in
the business,” Matthews says.
Matthews’ work in concert
with the Department of Natural Resources is well
documented. His reputation is predicated on the
ability to successfully work through wetlands
issues with federal, state and local codes while
creating aesthetically pleasing venues for golf.
“ The more challenges a
site gives you, the more you have to work with
and the more rewarding it is when you get it
done,” he says.
Matthews — who went to
work for his father in 1959 — said he doesn’t
count the number of courses he has worked on.
But the firm started by his father has been involved
in the design or remodeling of nearly 200 golf
“ I did a lot with my dad
and a few he did before I started working with
him,” Matthews said. “We did a lot
of them together.”
To put it into perspective, if
the golf courses designed or remodeled by the
Matthews’ firm were stacked end to end,
the holes would stretch from the southernmost
point of Michigan to the northernmost point of
the Upper Peninsula — and then some. Matthews’ far-reaching
endeavors have included projects in Alaska, Ohio
In the Grand Rapids area, the
firm has left its imprint on golf courses such
as L.E. Kaufmann, Scott Lake, Candlestone, Grand
Haven, Railside and Wallinwood Springs, among
Matthews’ Northern Michigan
work has included Charlevoix Country Club, Buck’s
Run in Mt. Pleasant, A-Ga-Ming in Kewadin, Cutter’s
Ridge at Manistee National Golf & Resort
and The Natural in Gaylord.
His remodel work helped shape private clubs at, among others, Blythefield,
Cascade Hills, Mt. Pleasant and Walnut Hills in East Lansing, where
the LPGA Oldsmobile Classic is played.
“ Golf course design is
like putting a puzzle together and combining
all the elements in a project and taking the
pieces of the puzzle — the terrain, the
vegetation, the wetlands, the building restrictions
and zoning restrictions, to just scrape the surface — and
bringing it all together,” Matthews said. “It’s
far more complicated than counting to 18 and
putting 18 holes on a piece of paper.”
Jerry Matthews also has helped
spawn some outstanding Michigan golf course architects.
His nephew, Bruce III, worked with him for four
or five years before starting his own firm. So
did Ray Hearn, who has designed outstanding courses
at Quail Ridge and Island Hills.
Following is a one-on-one interview
with Matthews and some of his philosophies about
golf course design.
is the most unique project you have undertaken?
have been a number of them, but one would have
to be a redesign project at the Grand Hotel Golf
Course on Mackinac Island. The land makes it
unique. In terms of size on that island, to find
land for golf, and the difficulties of building
a golf course on that island made it a unique
was the most challenging?
project in Alaska offered another challenge.
The permafrost did not prove to be the biggest
obstacle. It was the challenge of getting supplies
and equipment up there. It is different, and
we were working in extremely cold weather. But
the sun doesn’t set for about six weeks
in the summer and grass grows 24 hours a day
at that time. Having six weeks like that here
every year would be great.”
was the most fascinating?
Matthews: “One of them would definitely have to be
Elk Ridge, where the developer gave us 2,400 acres in Northern
Michigan to work with. Most modern golf courses take up between
300 and 400 acres of land, and we were given carte blanche to create
a golf course to fit the land. There were oak ridges, maple ridges,
a big lake and just about every form of topographic change. To
get that big of a piece of land and be able to pick where everything
goes is one of those experiences you don’t get every day.”
Run is a land reclamation project near Mt.
Pleasant. What are the pros and cons of working
on a project like that?
Matthews: “Instead of raw land, when you’re
reclaiming mining sites, you get really unusual land forms. You
get rolling valleys of the mining operations when they’re
done and it leaves a body of water and piles of soil left by machinery.
It’s a different sort of a challenge. On the plus side, we’ve
converted an eyesore into something beautiful.”
is the feeling like when a course you have
designed is completed?
Matthews: “The highlight of my doing a golf course
is the phase when we get seeded and turn the sprinklers on. That
part of turning a piece of land and turning it into something and
watching it grow in is an indescribable feeling. I like to do a
lot of my design work in the field and that’s the excitement.
“ I like to see a job come to fruition and watch the grass grow even when
it germinates. You don’t know truly what you have until the grass grows.
Then you truly see what you have. The gratifying part of it is when the golfers
come out and play it.”
has your design philosophy evolved over the
past 40 years?
Matthews: “My basic design philosophy has remained
constant, and that is golf should be fun, it should be challenging
and fair, but enjoyable for everybody. I use that premise as a
backbone for whatever else we do.”
there been any change in your approach?
Matthews: “The quality of design and construction
and money became available to do more, and we can do so much more
nowadays. We can move more soil, put in more bunkering, move soil
to create berms and dredge for more water. But you can never give
up on the fact that nature is that best designer that ever was.
We’ve always tried to maximize the site without tearing it
is the best lesson you’ve learned in
golf course design?
Matthews: “The best lesson I’ve learned is to
listen to the golfers. After 40 years, even after 20 years, you
listen to what people say about your work. I like to ask what people
DIDN’T like about my work as much as I like to hear what
they liked about it. You don’t have to like all 18 holes
to like my golf course, but tell me where it can be improved and
I’ll listen. In the analysis of remodeling work, you learn
what not to do.”
is the key to your success toward working with
Matthews: “I was in it a long time before the Wetlands
Act was passed and I had to start working with it when the act
was brand new. Being a fisherman and hunter, I love nature so I’m
pretty much in tune to what wetlands are and how they relate, so
it was a pretty easy transition for me to protect these things.
I worked with the DNR closely, and the more you work with them,
the more you know and the more success you have dealing with them.
We try to avoid wetlands if we can and try to work with them if
we have to. There are some truly great golf holes around the state
because of the wetlands around them. Not only are they good golf
holes, but they’re beautiful too.”
is the best advice you would give to a client
about golf course design?
Matthews: “It’s a very competitive market out
there. My basic premise is creating a golf course that people enjoy
playing, will tell their friends about and come back and play repeatedly.”
traits do you try to incorporate in your golf
Matthews: “People who know my work have a good idea
that I did it when they look at the green structure and the green
complexes. I try to make them part of the natural element. The
contours, ridges and natural elements blend into that green to
become part of that project and that’s still very true.”
do you try to avoid?
Matthews: “We try to make a golf course as safe as
we can make it. In terms of avoiding things, we don’t set
up gimpy fairways 150 yards out and then dogleg 90 degrees to the
left. Those kind of things just don’t work.”
trends do you see shaping golf course design?
Matthews: “The trend I see is that golf becomes a
much more visual thing. I see a trend toward design for designers
themselves, and not golfers. That bothers me.”
are great golf course designers judged?
Matthews: “Greatness is only determined over a long
period of time. History is the only thing that can tell which courses
are great. Look at the work of Donald Ross. Over the years, his
work stands the test of time. You don’t remodel or do a lot
to do with his courses, because they are so great to start with.
Over the years, if people walk out of there and say what a great
golf course it is and the general public plays it year after year
after year and enjoys it, then you’ve done your job well.
You don’t want to play a course where you lose a dozen golf
balls. You want one you can enjoy playing, find it visually stimulating
and challenging. To me, courses like that are great golf courses.”
often do you play yourself?
Matthews: “I try to golf a little, but we’re
pretty busy and after working pretty steady for five or six days
a week. At that time, it’s time for my real passion, which
is fly fishing. There’s that certain element of being outdoors,
throwing a fly line that puts one at ease.”
happens after the golf course boom subsides?
Matthews: “At some point, it has to certainly slow
down. I don’t think it will end completely, but it will slow
down. If you’re convinced that you have a solid program with
good product and good design services it will work. This firm will
survive, because of really solid foundation. It might be in remodeling
work and we’ll spread ourselves in a slightly different direction.”