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Not Your Father's Country Club

Grand Rapids area country clubs offer much more than golf and male bonding. Family, fitness and fun are also par for these courses.

By Drew Avery
Photography by Michael Buck

If a country club calls to mind images of old money, extravagance and a somewhat stuffy atmosphere, well, you’re not entirely wrong. But you’re not entirely right, either. If your idea of these institutions is locked into tweed jackets, rooms filled with pipe smoke and men-only golf courses, you need an update.

Country clubs have been and always will be status symbols. Part of their appeal is the traditional luxury associated with them. The fact that country clubs are, for the most part, private adds a sense of community for the members. And as anyone on the right side of the velvet rope can attest, you can’t beat the rush you get from being part of something exclusive.

Such exclusivity comes with a wide-ranging price tag, depending on the club and the level of membership. There are two main membership levels at most clubs: social (the “I-just-want-to-eat-there” membership), and golf (the “distract-our-kids-with-swimming-and-tennis-while-we-play-18” choice).

The centerpiece to every country club is its golf course. It used to be that if you wanted to golf on a well designed, well kept course in West Michigan, you almost had to join a country club. As Watermark Country Club’s assistant golf professional Jeff Williamson said, “There was no middle ground in golf courses here. It was either a mom-and-pop-run facility or a private course.”

Lately, public golf courses around Grand Rapids have been sprouting like — well, like immaculately groomed grass. This has prompted many people in the golf business to believe that the market is saturated, while it has caused most golfers to rejoice and reconsider plopping down the big bucks for a membership to just one golf course.

Len Ferguson, general manager of Centennial Country Club, said he believes the benefits of a club membership are clear: “Being able to play when you want,” he said plainly. “The majority of our members show up and play whenever they want.”

Private clubs also offer a sense of community. With membership numbers rarely exceeding 500, chances are good you’ll get to know the people with whom you share the club.

“ A country club is like an extended family,” said Steve Pastoor, general manager at Egypt Valley Country Club. “People are joining for social interaction.”

While the basics will be present at every country club — golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and fine dining — there is much variety among private clubs in the Grand Rapids area.

Where It Began
You can’t talk about Grand Rapids country clubs without first talking about the “granddaddy”: Kent Country Club. Established in 1896, Kent is not only the oldest club in West Michigan, but one of the oldest in the state. The city has grown up around Kent, giving the club a more urban feel. Kent CC’s longevity is reflected in its membership list.

“ Our membership roster is a ‘who’s who’ of Grand Rapids,” general manager Russell Kingsland said.

Where the Pros Play
During the past 11 years, when the Professional Golf Association Champions Tour has visited West Michigan it has stopped at one place: Egypt Valley Country Club. While playing the two 18-hole courses designed by architect Arthur Hills, it’s hard not to feel like the pros who have wandered the same fairway stretches.

Egypt Valley boasts a “progressive and young” membership, with a median age of 48. The club is relatively new, changing from Green Ridge to Egypt Valley in 1990.

Where You Would Like to Play
Blythefield Country Club prides itself on offering a beautiful course that is enjoyable no matter what your level of play.

“ We’ve got the best course in Grand Rapids,” said general manager Kevin Kennebeck. “It’s playable for all ages.”

Kennebeck’s bias for Blythefield’s professional, yet playable, course is supported by its designation as host for the 2005 Western Junior Golf Tournament.

Where There Is a Wait
While many country clubs are seeing more competition from public courses, Cascade Hills Country Club hasn’t felt the squeeze. As of this writing, Cascade Hills is the only club with a membership waiting list.

General manager Dana Carlson said the club’s focus is on social aspects and family activities. Twenty-seven holes of golf and the club’s location in the rapidly growing Forest Hills area hasn’t hurt membership interest either.

Where You Can Relax
“ You want a place to relax and be comfortable, where if you don’t want to wear a jacket to dinner you don’t have to.”

That’s how assistant golf professional Jeff Williamson describes Watermark Country Club, which opens its restaurant to the public. For people who want to enjoy the benefits of a country club without an uptight environment, he may be speaking their language.

“ We are selling a product to a father and mother and the whole family unit,” Williamson said.

Where You Can Get a Taste
Centennial Country Club also goes for a more laid-back approach. The dining area and lounge are open to the public, and the golf course is available for some public outings.

The additional amenities for members — tanning beds, indoor golf simulator, sand volleyball, cross country ski trails and a variety of social events — attract those who have already enjoyed the sampling Centennial offers.

Where You Can Play All Year
Crystal Springs Country Club is the only club in the Grand Rapids area to have fitness, exercise and recreation services all on site, said marketing director Ann Hultman, adding that Crystal Springs focuses on paying personal attention to the family.

“ It’s like a year-long vacation,” Hultman said. “Basically for the same price (as renting a cabin up north) you have a place to go year-round.”

And that may be the best selling point for all country clubs. Yes, they can be considered an expensive luxury. But they’re a luxury your whole family can enjoy any time of the year. GR

Blythefield Country Club 5801 Northland Drive, Belmont, 616-361-2661
Cascade Hills Country Club 3725 Cascade Road SE, 616-949-0810
Centennial Country Club 3361 Charlevoix Drive SE, 616-954-0444
Crystal Springs Country Club 7175 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Caledonia, 616-698-9096
Egypt Valley Country Club 7333 Knapp Road NE, Ada, 616-676-2626
Elks Lodge (The Highlands) 2715 Leonard St. NW, Grand Rapids, 616-453-2451
Kent Country Club 1600 College Ave. NE, 616-363-6811
Railside Golf Club

2500 76th St. SW, Byron Center, 616-878-0202

Watermark Country Club

1600 Galbraith SE, 616-949-0570



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