The Gaylord Golf Mecca has been moving forward as a premier U.S. summer golf destination for 37 years. In 2024, through its time-tested cooperative destination marketing model, the Mecca offers 16 golf course members and 20 lodging partners.
“The real reason the Mecca works and continues to grow is a tremendous group of owners who have vision and believe in destination marketing,” said Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Mecca since its inception in 1987.
“We simply keep getting better together. Our members and partners improve their courses, turf, bunkers, tees, it seems all the time, and those with lodging keep up to date with regular room renovations. I see all the improvements the properties keep making, and our Mecca partnership with the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City has opened up new national and international markets to us. We, as a group, share ideas to serve visitors. The Mecca is the true meaning of cooperative, and as a group and as individual properties, there is a commitment to always being the best golf destination Gaylord can be.”
Gaylord, also known as the Alpine Village, at first glance is not a typical major golf destination.
It started in 1987 when Harry Melling, a flamboyant auto industry supplier and NASCAR team owner who had earlier purchased the Sylvan ski resort on the edge of town, unveiled the Masterpiece, the last major golf course design by the legendary architect, Robert Trent Jones.
The award-winning Jones creation attracted golfers to what became known as Treetops Resort, but also quickly put Gaylord in the national golf conversation as a must-stop in the Midwest. It was also Jones who coined the name Treetops. During construction he had observed the stunning view over the Pigeon River Valley from the ridge and tee 180-plus feet above the green of the course’s iconic signature Par 3 sixth hole. It’s treetops for miles.
The Masterpiece was the first of five top-flight and award-winning golf courses Melling would go on to build at the resort, including the only Tom Fazio designed course in Michigan, which is called the Premier.
The Golf Channel launched its popular “Big Break” series in Gaylord and ESPN’s “Par 3 Shootout” at Treetops on the Rick Smith-designed Threetops par 3 course. Both productions, pushed forward by Smith who was then Treetops’ head golf professional, helped spread the Mecca message across America as Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Lee Trevino and others came to town.
In that same summer of 1987, the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau formed the Gaylord Golf Mecca – a coordinated marketing effort and brand officials hoped would draw attention to the original six Mecca member golf courses. Five of those six – Treetops, Otsego Resort, Gaylord Golf Club, The Pines at Michaywe and Lakes of the North – remain part of today’s Sweet 16.
At the Masterpiece grand opening in 1987 Jones called the Gaylord area, and specifically Treetops, a place “waiting for golf to find its way here.” Golf had already found its way in limited amounts to Gaylord, but Jones envisioned what is found in 2024.
The golf pro Smith was a 23-year-old fresh-faced, floppy haired PGA pro from Toledo armed with endless enthusiasm and yet-to-be-discovered wide array of skills. He nodded his head as Jones talked that day.
“It’s so perfect here,” Smith said as he made his rounds on the practice tee a few minutes later. “Just wait until you get out there and play.”
Jones, Fazio, Smith and many more golf architecture greats have their artistry included in the Mecca collection, primed and ready each golf season for people to get out and play.
Wilfred Reid, a Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member whose most notable design is the Olympic Club in San Francisco, did original design work that remains a part of the classic Indian River Golf Club since redesigned by Michigan’s Warner Bowen.
Rees Jones, one of Robert Trent Jones’ sons, created one of his personal favorites and an award-winning course at Black Lake Golf Club.
Rick Robbins and PGA Tour player and NBC golf analyst Gary Koch built The Tribute at Otsego Resort, a tribute to Northern Michigan golf and vistas. William Diddle of Indianapolis, a co-founder of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, designed The Classic, the friendly course along the road at the resort.
Jerry Matthews, the most prolific Michigan Golf Hall of Fame designer, crafted nine of the holes at Lakes of the North to go with an original nine by Bill Newcomb, another Michigan designer.
The late Ron Otto, a Detroit businessman who invented the insulated garage door and later developed and owned Garland Lodge & Golf Resort, also became a golf course designer. His four popular designs at the resort are a clear reflection of his creative talents, including the popular Reflections course.
“We are unique in this country as a destination in the north because of the quantity and quality of golf,” Beachnau said. “I believe only Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday has been together as a cooperative marketing effort in golf longer than the Mecca. And right now, I see and feel a resurgence in cooperative action, in golf travel, a good economy, those types of things and it is easier to get to Northern Michigan now, which opens us up to other big golf markets too. It’s exciting. We have a bright future as long as we keep the quality of our great courses at an elevated level and keep working together.”
In what is almost four decades Gaylord has earned the right to be called America’s Summer Golf Mecca.
“The first budget for the Mecca was $15,000, the tourism bureau contributed $7,500 and we had a formula for the golf courses to put in $1,500 each to make up the rest,” Beachnau said. “The initial Tourism Bureau budget for Gaylord was just over $100,000 and is now well over $1 million with a little over $300,000 budgeted for the Golf Mecca marketing and advertising.”
The first year of the Mecca saw courses record 60,000 rounds of golf with revenues of $2 million. High water marks for the Mecca are now 300,000 rounds with revenues around $20 million.
Beachnau said he and the early founders of the Mecca were comfortable in the golf product they were selling, but he is amazed by the level of success now being experienced.
“If you had asked me if I ever envisioned the growth in the number of quality golf courses I would have to say no,” he said. “I imagined us to be reasonably successful in developing a cool niche of the golf market, but what it has led to in terms of the number of golf courses in Northern Michigan, the quality, and the number of world class designers that have found us, is just amazing.”
Judy Mason, the head golf professional at The Pines at Michaywe, said the group has long realized that together they are stronger. “Together we have great inventory, more to offer and sell and it gives us as a marketing group more to talk about,” she said. “Beyond that, we know the key is to bring more golfers to Gaylord and we can all grow stronger together. Cooperation and competition can work together. We prove it in the Mecca.”
The Mecca is a collective reflection of many talents, and the current leaders of the Mecca believe it’s a collection of golf variety unmatched by other golf destinations.
Corey Crowell, the general manager of Indian River, said traveling golfers can’t beat the Mecca variety. “You can play two completely different styles in one day easily, and three or four completely different styles of courses on one trip,” he said.
Rob Diroff, the head pro at Lakes of the North, said the Mecca can fit any golf budget. “You get more bang for your buck in the Mecca, and we’re talking world class golf at affordable prices,” he said.
JT Aude, the head golf professional at Gaylord Golf Club and the Mecca’s current president, calls the Mecca destination unique. “I can’t think of any other destination that has a similar combination of quality and quantity combined with affordability, ease of access and a clear effort to make sure the golfer comes first,” he said. “There are places with affordable golf, but not with the quality of courses we offer at our combination of prices. There are places with more courses, but not in a variety from family friendly golf to classic country club style golf to award-winning resort golf all designed by some of the world’s top architects. You only find all that here, in Gaylord.”
Visit www.gaylordgolfmecca.com to learn more.