Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

“What now?”

That was the question that faced members of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, owners and operators of the Little River Casino, after purchasing the Bear Lake Highlands Golf Course in early 2018. The course had been in bankruptcy prior, and spent at least 3 years as a bank-owned property, so the purchase was a low barrier to entry into golf for the tribe. Upon acquiring the property, however, casino management faced the collective question of what to do with the course. With no experience in golf course management, the owners turned to Steven Biehl (@stevenbiehl), their newly hired Golf Course Manager, to chart a path forward for the property.

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

Together, Biehl and the Little River Casino embarked on an ambitious renovation project, ultimately rebranding the course as Wolf River Golf Park, paying homage to the apple orchard that once occupied the property. The renovation, which was reintroduced to the public in May, includes updates to tees, bunkers, greens, and a full re-grassing of the course, among other changes. While the project was not a foregone conclusion when the course was purchased, its path to completion was as unlikely as it is inspiring, not only for golf architecture enthusiasts, but also for any golfer who enjoys affordable public golf in Michigan.

When Steven Biehl took over the day-to-day operations at Bear Lake Highlands, it was “dilapidated”, in his words, and suffered from years of neglect. A lot of duct tape and band-aid fixes had been implemented through the years, addressing surface issues but never coming to grips with underlying infrastructure issues. Rather than diving into fixes right away, however, Steven, who works directly with the GM of the casino, decided the best course of action was to live with the course for a few years, “catching up and learning about the property and the golfers who played it”.

It took less than a year, however, for Biehl to come to grips with an outdated and inadequate irrigation system. Even though a new system had been installed at Bear Lake Highlands only a decade prior, crucial updates were never made to the outdated pump station. As a result, there was rarely enough pressure to operate the new irrigation system. With a less than satisfactory mix of different types of fairway grasses throughout the course, the irrigation faults caused a series of cascading issues that resulted in poor and inconsistent conditions, detracting from the playing experience. The course was, in Steven’s words, “a disaster”.

Conversations began about implementing long-term fixes, and Biehl was insistent that better conditions and a better playing experience started with better grasses in the fairways. As discussions progressed and he worked with the casino to price out what such an improvement would cost, things “started to snowball”, as he put it, and it became apparent that no lasting improvements could be made without a full course shutdown. Rather than immediately backing away from such a commitment, casino management started asking questions. “What does closing down look like? For how long? What would your plan be?” Not one to pass on an opportunity when he sees one, Steven took a chance. “If you are willing to shut down,” he said, “let’s do some additional work.”

Management was onboard. “Ok,” they said, “build us a plan.”

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

So who is Steven Biehl, and how did he become the driving force behind the upgrade and renovation of a golf course? Like many of us, he’s a self-proclaimed golf architecture nut, picking up the bug in high school and heading off to college with aspirations to become a golf course architect. His interest in golf design took him to West Lafayette, where he studied landscape architecture and turfgrass management at Purdue University. However, with the tech bubble burst in 2000, Biehl foresaw a potential scarcity of golf course construction jobs, prompting him to shift his focus solely to turfgrass management and a career in golf course maintenance.

Following his studies, Biehl’s career path led him to Chicago, where he gained valuable experience in golf course maintenance at “several stops on the private club scene,” as he put it, “before I got tired of it”. Seeking a change of environment, he ventured to Northern Michigan, where his journey connected him with Little River Casino and their recent acquisition of Bear Lake Highlands. In a different situation, with more experienced owners, perhaps Biehl’s role might have been confined to the tasks in his job description – overseeing course maintenance and clubhouse operations. With the casino’s hands-off approach and trust in Steven, however, they gave him plenty of autonomy and an opportunity to showcase his skills in developing a plan for the course’s transformation.

Photos by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

Determining how to position the course in the market was crucial, and the first step in the plan. Under previous ownership as Bear Lake Highlands, the course “wasn’t a place to seek out,” according to Steven. Several facilities nearby offer stay and play packages, and one of the top destinations in the state, Arcadia Bluffs, is just down the road, so outside of locals, no one was going out of their way to play the course. “The question I had to ask myself,” says Biehl, “is ‘how do we make the course different from other courses in the area?’ Not only in look and feel, but operationally, as well.”

For Steven, the checklist of needed items went like this:

It needs to be a place for the locals to come out and enjoy golf. So it has to be affordable, and it has to be fun to play. It must support local play on the weekdays, and attract vacation play on weekends.

It has to stand out from other courses. What do those courses look like? Steven: “Round greens. Bunker left. Bunker right. Circle tees.”

After changes are made, we need to be able to maintain it. Everything about the maintenance needs to be efficient.

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

“This was the fun part”, Steven fondly recalls, as he dove headfirst into the process of designing a course that would fulfill each item on the checklist. Understanding the importance of seamlessly blending the course with the surrounding “Up North” environment of Bear Lake, he aimed for a natural and unpretentious appearance rather than an overly manicured one. Kingsley Club and Champion Hill, two relatively nearby neighbors on opposite ends of the private-public spectrum, do an admirable job of achieving this natural look, in Steven’s estimation. But his greatest inspiration came from an unlikely and decidedly non-local source. “The Heathland courses in England,” Biehl says, “with their rolling terrain, trees, and long, native grass species, really caught my eye. No other courses around here have that appearance, and it would be unique if we could mimic that experience in Northern Michigan.”

Kingsley Club (Photo by Lukas Michel)

One heathland course that particularly captured Steven’s imagination was Liphook, located south of London. “Just the coolest bunkers you’ve ever seen,” he says. Knowing that bunker renovation would be a significant aspect of the Bear Lake transformation plan, he drew inspiration from the rugged hazards at Liphook. Although he knew he couldn’t grow heather on the faces of bunkers in Northern Michigan, he decided that native grasses could be used for creating hazards that seamlessly blended into the natural surroundings.

Liphook Golf Club (Photo: liphookgolfclub.com)

This collection of looks and ideas formed an integral part of Steven’s presentation to casino management in 2020. As he laid out his vision, “they started to perk up,” he says. “We can do this?” they asked. “Sure,” he said, “if we’re closed, we absolutely can.” Biehl’s pitch highlighted that Bear Lake Highlands was already a nice course, it had tremendous land, and was routed quite well, in his opinion. But the course was overtreed, with the wrong species of trees, and with unnecessary flower beds added throughout the course. “It distracted from the beauty of the land,” he told them. Steven urged them to cut back on the excess and concentrate on showcasing the best aspect of the property – its unique terrain.

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

Talks progressed, with an idea to bring in an architect and shaper to lead the project, until a pivotal moment arose when someone in the casino management asked Biehl, “Can you build a bunker?” Without hesitation, he replied, “Sure, I’ve built a bunker before.” Once again, the autonomy and hands-off approach of the casino worked in Biehl’s favor, as they concluded, “Ok, you build it.” Steven got to work on the very first new bunker, a small hazard built into the front of the par-3 7th hole, part of a transformation of the hole into a Lion’s Mouth template, and from there he led the rest of the renovation project going forward. Approval of the plan came in late 2020, and the course closed after Labor Day of 2021 to begin its transformation into Wolf River Golf Park.

It is important to note, as Steven points out, that while he was the driving force behind the renovation plan, the course’s construction was handled completely in-house by a team of five, all of whom still remain with the club to this day. “This project certainly could not have gotten to where it is at now without them,” Biehl says. “That staff remains, and continues to progress the course forward each day.”

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

From the beginning of the project, Biehl knew that a prominent feature of the new course would be a single cut from tee to green. This distinctive approach eliminated any intermediate rough, leaving only the greens and tees, alongside broad stretches of fairways and long native grasses. I asked Steven if his inspiration for the single cut idea came from Diamond Springs, another Michigan course utilizing the feature, and he agreed that that was part of the idea. “I played Diamond Springs in 2003,” he says, “and I loved it. It was so much fun to play. Later, I played The Loop, and again, it was a ton of fun. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a single cut.”

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

When I asked Steven what the benefits of single cut were, he had no shortage of ideas. It’s different, he says. You spend less time searching for balls. High handicappers who spray the ball off the tee have more fun, as normally a cut of rough would chew the ball up and stop it. It fits the local clientele, who are coming out to have fun and enjoy hitting more fairways. Operationally, it makes even more sense. One height of cut decreases the mowing lines and reduces the different types of equipment needed. You can use a bigger mower, reducing mowing time. And once you play single cut, Steven notes, you start looking at other courses and thinking about how a single cut could make those tracks better. Limiting width limits options, in his opinion, and adding stuff takes away options for how to play. So fewer hazards and more options make a round more interesting, as long as it’s done on a contoured piece of property, which Wolf River has in abundance.

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

Since the new Wolf River layout opened around mid-May, the first round of player reviews have been trickling in, and Biehl couldn’t be happier with the response so far. “Golfers love it,” he says of the new course’s reception. “The number one response has been that it’s so fun to play, and I think the reason is no rough.” In addition to implementing the single cut concept, several trees obstructing play were strategically removed, creating a more player-friendly and scenic environment. Since 2018, about 140 trees have been removed from the course, or, “about 8-9 trees per hole,” says Steven. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but imagine a hole, and then imagine 9 more trees on that hole. It would be way too many.” There are still plenty of trees out there, he says, but the ones that remain are native varieties. They are healthy, with room to grow, and the bad trees no longer block out the views of the good trees. As a bonus, with fewer trees, they are not sending out two people per day to pick up fallen branches so that they can continue mowing.

For a project that began with the creation of a single new bunker, it’s fitting that reworking all of the bunkers around the course became a major initiative to improve playability and maintenance. In total, 25 bunkers were either rebuilt, filled in, or added. What used to be 21 total bunkers on the course is now 18, but more importantly, the area occupied by bunkers has decreased by half. The objective, says Biehl, was to make them small but impactful. For the high handicap player, there is plenty of room to play around any of the bunkers. For the low handicap players, the bunkers are enough to make them think, asking them to play the right shot to score. Perhaps most importantly, one person can handrake all of the bunkers in about 90 minutes.

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

I asked Steven what some particular holes were that he enjoyed working on, and what he thinks are some of the more interesting holes on the course now. Here are his thoughts:

3rd Hole:

Photos by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

This one had the biggest change. It plays between two ponds, and the green was flat, with a back to front tilt, and almost no contour. My thoughts were, “How do I make it interesting to play?” So I hit 5 drives, and put a flag in each one where it came to rest, trying to figure out, “Where does a typical drive land?” There was a little contour in the fairway, so I picked a spot in the contour to dig a centerline bunker. Then I added some contour in the green. I wanted a hole from the beginning where the pin position dictated how and where to play a drive, and I decided that the third hole was the best place to do that. A right pin now sets up better playing left of the bunker, and a left pin playing to the right of the bunker. It usually has an East or West wind, so if the wind is out of the West, a drive could carry the bunker. But with an East wind you can’t, so you have to pick a side of bunker to play from. What was once a straight hole with a flat green is now fun to play.

4th Hole:

Photos by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

This had a very large, super flat green. Without any contour, we couldn’t move water off of it, so any heavy rain always affected it. I started by expanding the green out to the irrigation heads, as I did with many of the other greens. Then I just went crazy on the contours on the 4th. I attempted to tie the contours on the green in with the existing contours off of the green. It’s a wild green. It’s still easy to play to the front of the green, but difficult to get to the back if you want to get at a pin. I mostly built it for me, and then thought, “let’s see what the golfers think.” I thought they would hate it, but they love it. You have to hit to a portion of the green if you want to score. Now it has one of the widest fairways, and no bunkers, and yet it’s one of the hardest holes. That just goes to show, how do you make a course difficult for a low handicapper? Let them hit it wherever they want, and put contours around the green. How do you make it playable for high handicappers? Make a wide fairway, and let them have a chip and a putt.

7th Hole:

Photos by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions) and Brendan Aumann

The Lion’s Mouth par-3. It used to be the biggest green. It had a right to left tilt, but without a bunker, nothing was going on. The approach has a valley that runs into the front of green. I knew early on that I wanted to build a bunker there, which was the first bunker built. There is a mound in the middle of the green just behind the bunker. It just adds a little bit.

Most of the major work at Wolf River Golf Park is now finished, but several small projects, in size but perhaps not in impact, still remain. Some changes still remain for the 16th hole, where brush and tree removal continues. An additional bunker is also slated to be added in the layup area for this par 5 hole. “A big hitter can reach it in two,” says Steven, “but the green slopes front to back, so it’s going to be hard to hold. There is nothing in back but fairway, though, so it’s fine. It will be fun to play, it’s a cool hole.” Other small projects include rerouting cart paths to better manage traffic. Time is still needed to allow the grass to mature. Some forward tees still need to be formally built where they currently sit in the fairway, making them level and ensuring they are tied in to the surrounding slopes. A few fairway lines still need to be expanded where trees and brush were cleared.

Photos by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

Long term, the biggest remaining plan is to add a putting course. Steven is currently putting in the work to get supplies. The course will be about 1.5 acres, and will sit between the 7th tee and 2nd green. There is a mound there that was filled with scrub spruce, Biehl described, and it was not in good shape, so the team cleared it and scrubbed the stumps. The vision for the site, to go along with the putting course, is to build a structure for bathrooms, and to add a rooftop bar. The elevated site overlooks the course, and has a fantastic view of the sunset. There will be 18 cups, changed once per week, and the course will have it’s own name, scorecard, and logo. To tie it into the community, the plan is also to allow local organizations to hold events at the course for fundraising. “If I can get it seeded before the end of the year, which is still the plan,” according to Biehl, “we would be doing well.”

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

Last but not least, we should probably discuss the name, Wolf River Golf Park. It is not named after the Wolf River, which is actually in Wisconsin, but after the variety of apples that come from that region, and which once dotted the landscape of the property. It served as an apple orchard from around the 1920s until the 1950s, and Wolf River apples were the main variety grown. In addition to tying the branding of the new course into the apple theme, plans are also in place to bring some of the orchard back by incorporating the trees into the property.

With over 650 public golf courses in Michigan, by some counts, inevitably there are many clubs in the state that face the same uncertainties that Bear Lake Highlands once did. While not every course has the financial backing of a casino to fund major improvements, they all in some way have access to the same innovative thinking that Steven Biehl implemented at Wolf River. With more of a focus on providing a fun golfing experience for all levels of player, while implementing a more efficient maintenance program that puts an emphasis on highlighting the land and the natural surroundings, so many courses have the opportunity to elevate their product among a crowded field. By doing so, they will also be helping the state continue to soar ahead as the best public golf destination in the country.

Photo by Jacob Spurgeon (IG: @jlsdroneproductions)

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