Jon Scott is likely the only golf course owner in the world to compare metal music with golf course design.
“When I listen to a band like Tool, the music is really complicated — there’s a lot of different time signatures, crescendos and decrescendos. It’s just complex and beautiful. I imagine designing golf courses is a little like orchestrating this music,” says Scott, a third-generation owner and president of the Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort.
“It needs to be challenging but not beat you to death. Anyone can make a good golf hole, but it’s difficult to make a great golf course, because the whole thing has to fit together. I consider golf courses to be art on one of the biggest scales you can imagine.”
It’s easy to see how Scott learned to love large-scale landscape art. Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort — located south of Gull Lake and just east of Richland, his childhood home — is huge. The resort encompasses 1,500 acres, with five championship courses (and soon a sixth), lodging and dining, event facilities, houses and condos.
Since the club’s first 18-hole course was built in 1962 by Jon’s grandparents, Darl and Litha Scott, golf courses have experienced a rollercoaster of popularity. To keep one step ahead of the market, the family has valued customer service and unique course design, coming at challenges as a community-oriented family business, says Bill Johnson, vice president of the company and veteran golf pro.
“It started with Grandpa Darl and his wife, Litha, who built the business model of success, knowing what the customer wants and to keep expanding, adding special amenities every year — something visitors can remember,” Johnson says, warmly referring to his employer’s family as his own.
Six courses by spring
In the spring Gull Lake View will open its sixth course — Stoatin Brae, Gaelic for “Big Hill.”
“It has a real Scottish feel to it — a lot of humps and bumps and a lot of movement. The course sits high up on a bluff, “ says Johnson of the links-style course. (The term “links” is derived from the Old English word “hlinc,” meaning rising ground or ridge, and is used to refer not only to a golf course in general but to a certain style of course like the ones built near the shores of Scotland, according to the website DearSportsFan.com.)
“All of our other courses are tree-lined, like most Michigan golf courses. This one has no trees. If the wind lays down, it’ll be fun and a bit easier to get a good score. If it’s really blowing, you’ll have to think a little harder about what you’re doing.”
Gull Lake View’s development of a new course is a bit of a surprise in the face of a national golf industry recession. The United States is experiencing a gradual decline in the number of golf courses to correct an oversupply of golf clubs built between the 1960s and the early 2000s, according to a 2015 report published by the National Golf Foundation. The U.S. currently has 15,372 courses, down from a peak of 16,052.
Gull Lake View has avoided becoming part of the “correction” by marketing itself as a golfing destination with variety, pulling customers from larger cities across the Midwest and Canada by offering the opportunity to play 18 holes a day for five days without ever playing the same hole twice. Last year Gull Lake View’s resort villas hosted more than 15,000 overnight guests.
Additionally, the golf course and resort is a hub for the local golf community, hosting golf teams from Gull Lake High School, Olivet College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College for practice and tournaments alike as well as offering 18 weekly leagues and a Wednesday-night five-hole Happy Hour event. During golf season, the resort is home to six or more themed tournaments per month.
Family tradition lives on
Golf is in the Scott family’s blood. Darl Scott was the superintendent of Gull Lake Country Club when “he decided to leave and build his own golf course,” says grandson Jon Scott. Jon Scott’s father, Charlie Scott, worked as a golf course construction superintendent through the 1970s at Wadsworth Golf Construction, building a dozen courses throughout the Midwest.
Charlie’s brother Jim Scott also worked in the industry, as the director of golf at Gull Lake View for about 40 years, according to Jon Scott. His final title was president when he retired in 2010.
“There’s a tradition in our family to wake up each day and work and look after the business,” Jon Scott says. “I think that makes our courses a lot different than most others.”
The family tradition has continued with Jon’s 20-year-old son, Alex, who has taken a year off from his college studies to work as a grounds intern at Castle Stuart Golf Links, in Aberdeen, Scotland, a world-famous venue and host of the 2016 Scottish Open. Jon visited his son shortly after that tournament in July.
Alex already knows he wants to be the fourth generation in his family to work in the golf business, but his father had no idea he would oversee the courses he was raised on. “I started to study pre-med at Michigan State, but I got so bored with all the biology and chemistry,” Jon Scott says, so he switched his major to landscape architecture and also got a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science from MSU. “I guess you could define me as a dirt guy,” he jokes. Scott also received a Master of Business Administration degree from Western Michigan University and a law degree from Cooley Law School.
After years of being a “professional student,” Scott ended up coming back to the family business in 1993. “I’ve always loved being on golf courses. At some point I realized the fact that what we’re really doing here (at Gull Lake View) is giving people the opportunity to have a really good time and detach from reality and enjoy themselves. I think that’s the biggest part of our business that resonates with me.”
Scott contrasts the family-owned and — managed Gull Lake View with golf courses that outsource management to national companies like Troon, Clubcorp and Kempersports. These companies, he says, “treat courses like a franchise.”
“Management companies don’t really have any skin in the game,” Scott says. “If I don’t do my best, I don’t eat. That’s a pretty great incentive for me to work my butt off, really care what’s going on and really know my customers.”
Customers have responded to this attentiveness by returning year after year. Johnson estimates there are several dozen families who have been coming to Gull Lake View for two decades or more and a handful of families who have visited consistently for three or four decades. This past spring, in honor of longtime customers who died this year, Scott planted two crab-apple trees among dogwoods on the West Course.
“They and their families felt so strongly about this golf course they wanted to memorialize their lost ones out here,” Scott says. “I can’t tell you what kind of emotional impact that has on me.”