Greens aren’t the only recreational surfaces that must be consistent at Gull Lake Country Club.
Attracting members and revenue to the western Michigan club, where a prolonged golf season might last seven months, requires offering winter and nighttime activities.
Start storing the mowers in November. And tune-up the snowmobile?
The evolution of private clubs means employees such as Gull Lake superintendent Jesse Shaver, assistant superintendents Drew Boike and Craig Veeder, and equipment manager Sam Holysz must resemble fellow Michiganite Tim “The Toolman” Taylor. Since becoming Gull Lake’s superintendent in 2010, Shaver has overseen the construction and maintenance of an ice rink, intermediate and advance cross-country ski trails, and a bocce ball court. The non-golf recreational areas complement an 18-hole golf course supporting 12,000 annual rounds in a condensed season.
Snow or Poa, Shaver’s team, which includes five year-round employees and swells to 15 in the summer, finds ways to help Gull Lake expand its amenities, bringing multiple generations to the club’s 110-acre grounds. “To me, that’s the fun part of the job,” Shaver says. “I’m not just taking care of the golf course every day. I get to do a bunch of different things and learn a lot more about different areas of life and what it takes to make a club viable and successful.”
Shaver knew Gull Lake planned to expand its offerings when he applied for the head superintendent position, and turf concerns partially sparked his first non-golf recreational project. Gull Lake lacked formal cross-country ski trails, so members unknowingly crossed greens and fairways during winter workouts. Shaver studied how other Michigan clubs handled skiing and presented members with a plan in 2011 to route maintained trails away from key golf course features.
“I talked to a bunch of different people, researched what we needed, gave them a price and they said, ‘Do it,’” Shaver says. “Then we had to do it.” The result is two trails, one hillier than the other, consisting of 2 ½ miles of skiable surface. Shaver laughs when describing how a tractor pulled the groomer during the first winter of trail maintenance. “That was a pain because we got stuck all the time,” he says. The club purchased a snowmobile the following winter, and Shaver says during an average week – snowfall totals quickly fluctuate – his team spends “four to five” hours maintaining the trails. Snow is packed in layers at the beginning of each winter, creating the necessary base to handle the wear produced by skiers.
Trial, error, ingenuity and a sense of humor allowed Shaver’s team to handle its next winter project: the construction of a 50’ by 70’ ice rink. Members had previously skated on Gull Lake, but erratic winter temperatures raised safety concerns. The club decided to build a rink in a section of the parking lot bordering the platform tennis courts with easy bathroom and hot drink access. Constructing the rink is akin to using an erector set, with frames and boards labeled and arranged in an orderly fashion, although creating a flat surface represented a dilemma because the parking lot falls 18 inches where the rink sits. Freezing additional water on the lower side is a tricky task and offered no guarantee of yielding a consistent surface. The solution, coincidentally, originates from a golf course maintenance staple. Dispersing 90 tons of compacted topdressing sand on the lower end of the parking lot produces an even skating surface. The sand purchased for the rink is used on the golf course the following spring.
The rink is collapsible and a member who owns a trucking company donated a trailer for storage. Course accessories are stored in the trailer during the winter. The rink opens in mid-December. The average winter week, Shaver says, includes six hours of rink maintenance, and Gull Lake’s version of a Zamboni is a handheld unit using a hose. An operator walks around the ice to smooth the surface.
The crew first constructed the rink in 2012, a year before bocce ball arrived at Gull Lake. A patio renovation emphasizing gathering areas made bocce ball a fit for the club, again turning Shaver into a recreational detective. Shaver studied the one court he could find in the area and he worked closely with the landscape contractor who installed the patio. Golf course renovations force a superintendent to spend hours researching grass varieties before recommending a surface to a committee or ownership. Bocce ball court construction propels a manager into the Har-Tru clay vs. oyster shell debate. Shaver selected Har-Tru clay which needs groomed, rolled and even watered to limit dust during dry stretches. Maintaining the court requires around four hours per week, with Boike and Veeder using their baseball experience to produce a splendid surface.
“They are really hungry to perfect it and make it better, and they understand how the weather is going to affect it,” says Shaver, who frequently demonstrates progress to members and exchanges ideas with industry peers via Twitter. “It’s been a learning curve for all of us. How do you take care of a bocce ball court? We didn’t even know what one looked like, so taking care of it was a trial and error, talking to people and finding how they take care of their tennis courts, how some of their tips and tricks can help us with our bocce ball court. It’s the same thing with ski trails and ice rink. I kind of figured it out, trained one of my assistants and he trained another guy. It just trickled down the line.”
The bocce ball court and ice rink are lit, expanding nighttime revenue opportunities. Add placing Christmas decorations around the club, constructing a Halloween house, and maintaining beach and yacht areas, and Shaver’s team has provided entertainment for every grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, daughter, son and guest Gull Lake services.
“It’s an evolution of the superintendent’s job,” Shaver says. “And it’s the evolution that country clubs specifically need to make or have been making over the years. The days of dad spending five days a week at the club are over. Those days were a great time, but you have to really appeal to the families and younger generations and have something for the kids to do and have something for the mothers to do or a lot of these families aren’t going to be members anymore, or won’t be members to begin with.”