Appeared in July/August 2004 LINKS
Rick Smith is known as one of golf’s leading swing doctors. In addition to engineering Phil Mickelson’s offseason makeover, he also tutors Lee Janzen, Matt Kuchar and Rocco Mediate, to name a few. Turns out, Smith is equally as curious to learn as he is inspired to teach. He acquired a world-class education on golf course design from two of the tops in the business, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Tom Fazio, whose work at Northern Michigan’s Treetops Resort prefaced Smith’s dazzling Signature course there.
“If there’s one thing I love, it’s designing something,” says Smith. “I love the process of building and developing, whether it’s as a teacher working with someone’s swing, or taking a wild piece of land and building it into something special.”
Smith got involved with Treetops in 1986 after bumping into Jones, whose Houston Country Club layout was being renovated while Smith was working at nearby River Oaks. “He told me he was building this gem in Northern Michigan,” Smith recalls. “That was kind of a lure—I knew the land there was very dramatic, very bold.”
Harry Melling, the late Detroit auto executive who developed the four-season resort, asked Smith if he’d like to join the project as director of golf. The Michigan native accepted, enabling him to follow the progress of Jones’ Masterpiece course and later, Fazio’s Premier, which opened in 1992. Impressed by Smith’s involvement during construction of the Fazio course—as well as his simultaneous design of the par-3 Threetops, inspired by Augusta National’s beloved short course—Melling told Smith, “I want you to go pick out the piece of ground where we’ll build next.”
Smith did exactly that; what he found “was just perfect,” a sprawling tract rife with significant elevation changes and soaring views. “It was the kind of ground that would be dramatic off the tee,” he says. “I asked people coming up from the southern part of the state, ‘What are your favorite holes on the Jones course?’ And they were always the ones that had great views [from the tee].”
After studying his favorite courses—Royal County Down, Pine Valley, Merion and Baltusrol among them—Smith opted for the less-is-more, land-dictates-design approach. Not that his minimalist philosophy meant less work: Smith would lead his crew of shapers into the countryside, scouring the land for hours on end, envisioning potential golf holes and detailing his ideas. He ultimately revised the routing a dozen times before settling on one that made best use of the elevation changes.
“I believe the routing is everything,” Smith says. “Yes, you can do anything with money, but I pretend that I don’t have any budget at all. So I have to go and find the holes [rather than move earth to create them]. It’s an interesting approach, but it works because the hardest work is done on the front end.
“If you read the [writings of] Tillinghast, MacKenzie, Colt and Raynor, you learn that you can’t force things,” Smith continues. “If you come up with a concept and it’s opposed to the lay of the land, it’s going to look funny. When you go out in the field, you shouldn’t have preconceived ideas, because you’ll be disappointed and you’ll wind up altering the sequencing of holes. You may wind up sacrificing the overall routing just for a hole or two. You can’t do that; you’ve got to build 18 great holes.”
Smith’s diligence paid off with the 1993 debut of the Signature, which earned a handful of “best new” accolades from major golf publications. The visual appeal is dramatic, beginning with the elevated tee on No. 3, a 467-yard, dogleg-right par-4. The entire hole is displayed before the golfer, with the right side guarded by a pond and the left side bordered by thick stands of hardwoods and pines that seem to extend for miles beyond. Bunkers here, as throughout much of the course, are surrounded by deep fescue, a feature that lends a pleasant Scottish links look but is most un-pleasant to play from.
The fourth hole looks as if it’s straight out of “Lord of the Rings”—large ferns grow thick from tee to green, forming a lush hazard on this 187-yard par-3. In stark contrast is the 199-yard 17th, set along a ridgetop with a massive green divided into three distinct segments, with steep slopes falling away on every side.
A number of holes employ this “greens inside a green” concept. Smith’s goal was to make putting surfaces large enough for the average golfer to find with relative ease, yet still require precise iron approaches in exchange for makeable putts. Other player-friendly characteristics here include generous landing areas in the fairways and, despite the elevation changes, mostly level lies. Still, the par-70 course carries a hefty 140 Slope rating from its 6,653-yard back tees.
“I think the higher handicapper should have the same thrill the better player enjoys when he flies it 275 yards over a bunker,” says Smith. “So I say, ‘Let’s make it great for everybody.’ I have bunkers 100 yards out from the tee. Somebody will hit it past that bunker and say, ‘That felt good. That was a great drive.’ That’s the fun of the game.”
After 17 years at Treetops, Smith has become something of a Renaissance man, at least within the realm of golf. In addition to Signature and Threetops (which draws some of the PGA Tour’s best players to its Par-3 Shootout each June), he also designed the Tradition, a walking-only course that opened in 1997. He operates the Rick Smith Golf Academy at the resort, and two years ago, Smith and a group of Detroit-based investors purchased the 5,000-acre property from the family of Melling, who passed away in 1999.
The long-term master plan includes two more golf courses; Smith has already scouted the property for both 18-hole routings. No doubt they’ll maximize the Pigeon River Valley terrain in which Treetops is located—terrain that bears the new managing partner’s unmistakable Signature.