Otto makes Garland Resort special

Golfweek contributor

It’s 10:30 on a mild summer night at Garland Resort. As the house band launches into “My Way,” an extra microphone moves through the crowded dance floor and into the hands of Garland owner Ron Otto, who ably assists the band in a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s anthem about the maverick spirit that so many have and so few follow.

A more apropos song there could not be for the 69-year-old Otto and his Michigan establishment. The place stands as a testament to this do-it-yourself son of a German immigrant – a man who had the conviction to build a 72-hole golf resort in the isolated countryside, and the courage to stick to that conviction when others questioned his wisdom.

Resort golf has blossomed in northern Michigan over the past three decades. But while other destinations crafted a name for themselves with big-name architects such as Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones and Tom Weiskopf, Otto staked his reputation on an architect he saw every morning in the mirror.

Garland’s four courses are Ron Otto designs. You won’t find them perched in Top 100 lists or lauded by golf’s architectural “experts.” The designs, however, are fundamentally solid, pleasing to the eye and devoid of the gimmickry that often comes from an untrained architect.

Otto, a businessman who invented the insulated garage door, could’ve hired any number of elite architects, yet he chose to do it his way. Four courses later – with another in the works – he’s comfortable with the decision.

“I thought about it,” he says, when asked about retaining a professional architect. “And the last thing I want to sound is egotistical, but what they’re doing, I felt that I could do just as well. Their name is great from a marketing standpoint and it gets everybody there the first time, but it doesn’t get them back the second time.”

If there’s a core philosophy at Garland Resort, it is getting golfers to return. Garland has developed a loyal clientele, and it’s their opinions that Otto values most. He shrugs off criticism for building his own courses, a lot of which he says comes from writers. He is more interested in the opinion of someone else.

“The ultimate guy is the guy that’s laying down the green to play the game,” he says.

And in that regard, reviews are favorable. So favorable, in fact, that Otto says revenues were up 13 percent in 2006 and he projects a similar increase this year.

Otto’s competition views Garland with a sense of wonderment and disbelief. It’s not easy creating a successful resort so deep in the Michigan woods that the closest town – tiny Lewiston – is nearly 10 miles away.

“He’s a do-it-yourself kind of guy,” says Boyne USA president Steve Kircher, whose father, Everett, pioneered resort golf in northern Michigan. “He’s accomplished a lot in some less-than-traditional ways and certainly in a location that most of us in the business up here hadn’t considered to be viable.”

Although Otto helped his father, Herman, patch together 36 holes at Garland as a youngster, he never planned to be a resort owner or course architect. Instead, he went to his parents’ homeland of Germany for college, studied tool and dye-making, and came back to Detroit to work in manufacturing.

He eventually acquired Taylor Building Products, where he invented the insulated garage door, building annual sales to $45 million before selling it in the early 1980s for $26.5 million. Meanwhile, he dabbled in big-game hunting and sailing but not golf.
It took a natural gas explosion on Labor Day 1985 to bring Otto back to Garland. The resort was under the guidance of Otto’s mother and sister (his father had died two years earlier) when the explosion leveled Garland’s lodge.

“It was a big boom,” Otto says. “I took it over with a big hole in the ground. So I said, ‘What the heck, let’s play with this.’ ”

Otto rebuilt the lodge, expanding it from a modest building with 27 rooms into the largest log-frame structure east of the Mississippi River. The new, amenity-rich lodge became the resort’s centerpiece.

Next he turned to golf. Starting in 1987, Otto carved up the original 36 holes and built four courses – Reflections, Swampfire, Monarch and Fountains – over the next decade.

Many thought Otto was nuts. Boyne was making a name for itself with courses by Jones and Arthur Hills, while Garland’s nearest competitor, Treetops, was bursting onto the scene with works by Jones and Fazio.

But like the character in Sinatra’s famous song, Otto took the doubt, ate it up and spit it out.

He says much of that independence came from his father.

“He was a rogue in his business, too,” Otto says. “If he wanted something, he went out and did it.”

Detailed visions of golf holes just appear in Otto’s head as he walks a piece of undeveloped land.

“I can see everything in living color, the finished product,” says Otto, a single-digit handicap. “People have a hard time with that. They say, ‘How do you see that?’ Well, I just see it.”

“He has a knack for it,” says Tom Howell, Garland’s head pro. “He understands surveying and land forms. It’s all in his head.”

Otto has a degree in engineering, though he believes course architecture is more of an art form.

“A lot of people have a tendency to over-engineer when they build a course, rather than use the assets nature gave,” he says.

In at least one instance, however, Otto’s engineering prowess came in handy. On the Monarch, which many regard as his best design, Otto envisioned a great routing for the 11th hole. It was to follow the terrain downhill from the tee, level out and move uphill to an elevated green. But the land for the green site was needed to dam a lake.

So Otto “engineered” a wonderful green complex into an earthen dam. The green’s substructure includes steel pilings and two overflow valves that pump water into a creek running beside the green and across the fairway.

“We got a 200-year rain about six years ago. There were dams breaking everywhere,” Otto says. “We had pike swimming in the fairways, but the green was fine.”

The Monarch holds a special place in Otto’s heart. When people criticize his courses as too “playable,” he points out the Monarch hosted the Michigan Open for three years and the best score posted was 69.

“The Monarch is sloped 143,” he says. “If Robert Trent Jones or Nicklaus designed Monarch, it would probably be sloped 151.”

Like most good architects, Otto begins at the green and works backward. He believes every hole should be framed, provide a target, and let golfers know what they’re getting into. There’s only one blind shot on Garland’s 72 holes, and that came about because of a property line.

The resort is visually pleasing. Garland is immaculately maintained, comfortable and casual. It provides all the amenities and activities one would expect of a high-end resort, minus the stuffiness that often permeates such places.

“There’s an atmosphere that comes over a lot of people,” says Jeff Hannaford, whose band has played Garland’s lounge since 1988. “I envision the ties coming off the collars as they drive in here.”

There’s probably not another 72-hole golf resort in America that combines good golf, food and accommodations in a setting so laid-back that the house band can play everything from Journey to Rick James to AC/DC, not to mention an occasional rendition of “My Way,” with a special assist from the owner.

“You know, Ron is a real person,” Kircher says. “There is no pretentiousness with him. He likes to do things his way.”

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