The Continuing Saga of Rick Smith
by Jack Berry
When we last left Rick Smith, he was working on a spectacular site overlooking Lake Michigan at Arcadia, north of Manistee, for a high-end daily fee course; was taping his 13-week internationally-seen television show, finishing up his 18 hole walking course at Treetops Resort and a 27 hole casino/resort project for the Oneida Nation Indian tribe near Syracuse, NY, and, of course, working with his pros_Billy Andrade, Lee Janzen and Rocco Mediate.
That was then. Now? Well, Smith also is working with Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Vijay Singh; he's changed his magazine affiliation from the GOLF Magazine instructional staff to top-circulation Golf Digest's; he's working with Ford Motor Land Services to remodel the City of Detroit's tired nine hole golf course and range on Belle Isle and institute a junior golf program; his learning center at a new Taubman mall at the Joslyn Rd. exit of I-75 in Auburn Hills (additional centers are planned for South Lyon and Grand Rapids) and Smith said he will link with students of Ferris State's Professional Golf Management program to work as instructors at the Smith learning centers. Another project is constructing short courses atop landfills.
And there's more. Culminating five years of effort to showcase Treetops and Michigan golf, Smith said he has lined up a prime time skins game next summer for Threetops, the unique par 3 course he designed at Treetops Resort in Gaylord. Smith said it will be on ESPN from 7-9 p.m. on a Monday and Tuesday in August with $25,000 riding on each hole and $1 million for a hole-in-one.
Smith said there will be PGA Tour and Senior Tour players and perhaps someone from the LPGA. There will be a charity connection, corporate tents and a Monday morning pro-am.
Smith added five new back tees to Threetops last fall to make it more challenging for the pros.
"I love challenges," Smith said, "where people say you can't do something because it's too difficult."
Smith never took a course in golf course design but he has a great eye and he had two superb teachers, Robert Trent Jones and Tom Fazio, who designed Treetops' first two courses. Smith took it in like a sponge. Treetops owner Harry Melling commissioned Smith to do the Threetops par 3 as his first effort and then his own 18 hole course right next to the Fazio at Treetops North. Both have drawn rave reviews and led a Grand Rapids group to hire him to design a private club on basically flat land with 80 acres of wetlands along the Pigeon River and West Olive, just north of Holland.
Smith turned it into the Wuskowhan Players Club and it was named in the top 10 of Best New Private Courses by Golf Digest. And not just top 10 but No. 2 on the list, ahead of three Tom Fazio courses and a Jack Nicklaus design. In all, more than 130 new private courses were considered with all of the top names in the design business.
"It was a very difficult site but it's a pristine, peaceful place," Smith said. "With the 80 acres of wetlands I knew there would be carries (from the tee) or else it would have been a 5,400 yard course. But I made up for it with multiple tees, very few fairway bunkers and wide fairways."
The 18 hole walking course_that means no golf cars_at Treetops, named Tradition, will open this year and with an expected $50 greens fee. Smith expects it to go into the Best New Affordable Courses category in the 1998 Golf Digest competition.
Since the Golf Digest award for Wuskowhan came out, Smith's telephone has been even busier than usual. And he already was working on his first real estate development course, St. James, at Port St. Lucie, near his Florida winter office; a private course for winemaker Jess Jackson (Kendall Jackson) in California's Sonoma Valley and the Belle Isle project which he said will require moving 300,000 yards of dirt to the island to lift the course.
How does he do it all?
"Partnering," Smith said. "I try to take all the relationships I've had over the years and the new ones I've built and make partners in all the projects."
Smith's primary "partners" have been Jackson businessman Melling who had a nice little ski resort in Gaylord, decided to add a golf course, hired Smith and has been hanging onto a whirlwind ever since; Ford Motor vice president/Ford Motor Land Services Corp. chairman Wayne Doran and Visteon Automotive Systems (formerly Ford Electronics) president Charles Szuluk.
Ford and Visteon are the engine in the redesign and renovation of Belle Isle. Smith has designed three, six and nine hole loops and placed tees so that beginners won't be intimidated but also tees for more advanced players. The range, which will replace a rock-pile range, will be double-ended and there will be a putting course and short game area.
And Smith said that when it's done, the organizations such as the USGA, which is putting $1 million a year the next three years into the First Tee program, must fund transportation programs to get youngsters to the course and educational programs in the schools.
"All the free lessons in the world won't help if the kids can't get to the course," Smith said. "I'm going to tell all those organizations: Show me the money, USGA! Show me the money, LPGA! Show me the money, Tiger Woods Foundation! Show me the money, all you organizations! The kids are going to need equipment and they're going to need transportation.
"They're going to need 2-3-4 city buses to pick up the kids and get them there. Operational costs will be $500,000 a year and instructional costs will be $100,000. I think it can be made off the public (in greens and range fees) and if it makes $1, that will be great."
Gov. John Engler, who appointed Smith Michigan's Ambassador of Golf in 1996, said "Smith has been a godsend to our state." That was in front of an audience of some of the heaviest hitters in golf_United States Golf Association President Judy Bell, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, Tiger Woods Foundation Chairman Earl Woods and former President George Bush, honorary chairman of The First Tee, the program to make golf accessible to people from all walks of life with an accent on youth.
Golf is a $1 billion business in Michigan and Engler, who only took up the game recently and has had some Smith lessons, has become a big golf supporter because of its importance to the state's economy.
Smith's teaching plan is to have apprentices from the Ferris program work on the tee line with a student. The apprentice would have a head set and be linked to a lead instructor who would have a large TV screen on which he'd be able to see how each lesson was progressing and he would communicate and advise the apprentice. Smith said lessons could cost $10-$15 for 45 minutes "instead of paying $75 to $100."
"I want to work with the PGA and I want to provide quality instruction," Smith said.
Obviously some of the best pros in the world are impressed with his instruction. Mickelson asked him to watch him hit balls the day before the U.S. Open at Congressional and asked Smith what he had to do to reach the next level. Smith later flew to Phoenix and worked with Mickelson, especially on his leg work_"I told him his legs had to be more stable and consistent through the impact area" in order to hit it longer and keep it in the fairway.
Duval asked Smith to watch him on the Buick Open practice tee and wants him to talk with his father, Bob, a former club pro now on the Senior Tour and David's teacher since he was a youngster.
"My goal as a teacher is low maintenance, to help them help themselves," Smith said.
Low maintenance, high energy and boundless talent: that's Rick Smith.
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