Golf Association of Michigan History 1940-1949 #GAM100 – Belvedere Golf Club in Charlevoix, Favored Host of the Michigan Amateur Championship
by Greg Johnson
Editor’s note: This is the third of a 10-part series celebrating the Golf Association of Michigan’s 100th year of service to the game. #GAM100
CHARLEVOIX – Blue water, blue skies, “Big Band” music and golf at Belvedere Golf Club were among the reasons the tiny Northern Michigan city of Charlevoix already enjoyed an international reputation as a summer resort area by 1940.
The Argonne Supper Club offered all-you-can-eat shrimp for $2 to the beat of visiting Big Bands, passenger trains trekked north from the large communities downstate, and yes, a few among the 2,299 locals thought there were perhaps too many tourists and too much traffic.
However, the economic impact of visitors with significant incomes, including golfers of the period, couldn’t be denied.
“Charlevoix hasn’t changed all that much from 1940,” said Dennis “Marty” Joy, the head golf professional and a Belvedere Golf Club historian who is writing a book on the golf club’s history that will be published in time for the club’s 100th anniversary in 2025.
“The population is about the same. Tourists still come for the same reasons, only not by train. It switched to cars by the 1960s, and many of Belvedere’s members get to Northern Michigan by planes today. Those members, for the most part, still come from other states. And we have some local people who complain about too many tourists, too much traffic in the summer.”
The Belvedere course, designed by famed architect William Watson, had been around since 1925. Membership of the golf club, as it remains today, was almost completely summer visitors from southern states and big cities like St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Cincinnati.
Watson designed a big, strong golf course, especially by the standards of the era. It played to an unheard of 6,500 yards with just one tee pad on 17 of the 18 holes. It was a test, and understandably became the eighth club in the state to host the Michigan Amateur Championship.
It was a great place to couple a tournament and state championship for the period’s largely private club golfers who also happened to be the state’s best golfers. The 23rd version of the state championship was played for the first time at Belvedere in 1930 and won by Chuck Kocsis of Royal Oak, who is historically regarded as Michigan’s finest amateur golfer.
Belvedere hosted again the next year with Rex Bigelow of Jackson winning, and again in 1935 with Bob Babbish of Detroit taking the Staghorn Trophy.
Zygmund Zawadski of Detroit won in 1940 at Belvedere, which also hosted in 1941 with Sam Kocsis, Chuck’s brother, winning.
World War II caused suspension of the championship for four years as it did championships around the world (1942 to ’45), but then it was back to Belvedere for the 1946 championship in which Louis Wendrow Lansing emerged as the winner.
Chuck Kocsis won his fifth amateur, and second at Belvedere in 1948, and would win his record sixth amateur and third at Belvedere in 1951.
The Watson design, which escaped change and renovation projects in large part because the membership was only in Charlevoix for two months, hosted three times in the 1930s, four of the six that were held in the 1940s, five times in the 1950s and then from 1963 to 1988 hosted 26 consecutive times. The state championship, then presented by the Golf Association of Michigan at different courses around the state each year to in part allow golfers from various regions of the state better access, returned for the 39th time to Belvedere in 2003, and for the 40th in 2014.
“Belvedere is just really special,” said Steve Braun, a Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member and former professional at the Belvedere who is also a GAM president emeritus, executive board member and rules official. “A championship at Belvedere – there’s just something right about it.”
In the 1940s decade almost all of the top golfers came from the clubs of the Detroit District Golf Association and other top clubs in Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Lansing, Port Huron and Flint. And they kept coming, often bringing the family along to enjoy Charlevoix.
“They loved it,” Joy said. “I can’t tell you how many of the great players in the state over the years have told me they came to play in the amateur, brought their families, made it a vacation for the family and a tournament for them. They would compete, and even when they got beat, stick around, go to the Argonne Supper Club, and later Grey Gables Restaurant and celebrate being in a beautiful place with their families.
“Belvedere became the home of the Michigan Amateur, and the club was proud of it. They are still proud of it. They are proud to have hosted it 40 times, and Belvedere is going to host it again in 2025 when the club celebrates its centennial. The GAM and Belvedere will celebrate a great history together.”
Joy said despite additional length added in part for the 2014 Amateur, the design of the course has been maintained and recently renovated to give it virtually the same look that faced golfers in the 1940s.
“It’s amazing how much it looks like it, even from old aerial photos to now,” he said.
In the fall of 2016, the demolishment of an old building in Charlevoix led to the discovery of Watson’s original drawings of the historic course. While aerial photos existed from the late 1930’s, there was no actual documentation of the original parkland design with its classic flowing fairways, strategic bunkers and subtle greens until the find.
Watson who is famous for classic and major championship designs across America including Olympia Fields in Chicago, Interlachen in Minneapolis, The Olympic Club in San Francisco and others started hands-on with his design in 1923. With five teams of horses and 150 men, the Scotsman went to work on what had been a farm on the outskirts of the small village.
After 95 years, with the original drawings at hand, Belvedere decided to begin a restoration. Golf architect Bruce Hepner and Superintendent Rick Grunch completed the project for the 2017 season. They expanded some putting surface areas, fairways and approach areas on many of the holes that had been lost to erosion and mowing patterns over time, and they did a strategic tree removal and brought back a few lost bunkers.
Joy said the work brought back strategies for playing the course that Watson originally intended.
“It was a great success,” he said. “We play all the way back from about 6,900 yards now, but the strategies, the landing areas, the hole positions, those things are the same as the 1930s and 40s.”
The proof that golf from the early era still works at Belvedere happens each year. The club has hosted an annual Society of Hickory Golfers major championship since 2006 and has been selected to host the major among hickory majors – the U.S. Hickory Open this summer.
The U.S. Hickory Open annually attracts an international field of golfers who play with authentic pre-1935 hickory shafted golf clubs. Competitors dress in period appropriate apparel, including knickers, ties and jackets. The Society of Hickory Golfers celebrates and promotes the hickory game of the 1910s – 1930s. The tournament is being planned for June 20-22.
“Here at Belvedere we have the most hickory society golfers of any club in the country,” Joy said. “We have 44 men and women who are members here who play with authentic hickory golf clubs. Belvedere is a classic. It works for hickory golf. It works as the home of the Michigan Amateur. It’s a timeless golf course.”
#GAM History – Did you know?
Belvedere has long been a favorite of many golf greats, including legend Walter Hagen, who won the first Great Lakes Open at Belvedere, and five-time British Open winner Tom Watson, who as a youngster honed his game playing summers at Belvedere. Watson remains a member and often returns to play. He regards the short par 4 No. 16 hole as one of the great par fours in American golf architecture, and he lists his top three courses in America as Pebble Beach, Augusta National and Belvedere.