WASHTENAW GOLF CLUB: Treasured By Neighborhood Golf Blogger
YPSILANTI – John Retzer’s home is eight-tenths of a mile from Washtenaw Golf Club, but he is not your average golf course neighbor.
He’s The Golfblogger, arguably the original golf blogger who started his popular website in 2004 when the concept of blogging still needed to be explained. He owns the domain, golfblogger.com, to prove it, which translates to 17 years of history in what some still consider a new form of communication.
A ghost writer turned school teacher and blogger as well as a beyond-avid golfer, he also has personal history with Washtenaw. He treasures the place and has played the course hundreds of times since he moved to Michigan in 1992 from the Maryland, Washington D.C. area.
“I just fell in love with the place,” he says. “It’s a beautiful course on a beautiful piece of land and I love the classic golf architecture style. It has elevated greens, a lot of interesting elevation changes and is a beautiful old-school course design. It’s also a pretty tough walk, but I walk it every time.”
Retzer has written about Washtenaw, shared photos and information on social media and his website, researched the club as a self-described history lover and was a member for a few years when it was a longtime private facility. He can be easily described as the writer in residence of Washtenaw.
“Washtenaw, I feel exudes history,” he says. “It is so charming. I walk it and I find myself thinking about people playing on this very spot 100 years ago. In 2020 it was the 100th year since it was expanded to 18 holes. I like to stop at places on the course and think that somebody was playing golf right here 100 years ago.”
When the current ownership group, KMD Investors that includes Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member Dave Kendall, purchased the club in January of 2020, Retzer was pleased the new group was excited. Retzer’s excitement grew as he learned of the plans for his favorite neighborhood golf course, which is also among his favorites in the almost 250 courses in Michigan and around the country that he has played and reviewed for his website.
Retzer has sought out and had many conversations with Kendall and built a relationship. He likes the plans for the club and course, and the work underway by award-winning Michigan-based golf course architect Raymond Hearn.
“I can’t think of a better situation than being in the hands of Dave Kendall and Ray Hearn,” he says. “Dave’s appreciation and love for that course is quite evident. He has developed long-term plans with Ray Hearn, who has a great reputation for renovation, and it seems to be they are going in the right direction faster than I expected.”
Over the years Retzer noticed the course had become overgrown in trees.
“Even when I first played it there were some areas where the fairways were too tight because of overgrown trees, and there were places in the fairway where if you hit a shot that you had zero shot at the green because of tree limbs. You should never be punished for being in the fairway.”
He has played Washtenaw in every month possible, including in snow. He has even played it backwards a few times hitting to tee pads and not trekking on greens and risking damage. He was out early this spring and he said he is already seeing amazing benefits of what Hearn and Kendall are calling a gradual renovation project that will involve restoration and some remodeling of the classic course that started out as a 3-hole course in 1899, was expanded to 6 holes and then 9 holes in the early 1900s and finally to 18 in 1922.
“They’ve removed some trees and trimmed branches and opened up lines of play that had not existed in 30 years,” Retzer says. “There were some spots, like on 15 where you could be in the wrong place in the fairway and have no shot to the green. They brought some bunkers back into play that were really not in play any longer, like at 8, and now they are part of the strategy again.
“With strategic tree removal they haven’t really made it easier but definitely made it more of a fair course already. I look forward to playing in the next 10 to 15 years or however long I have in my playing career and seeing how it develops. From talking to Dave I know the plan is long-term and includes bringing back some of the original greens shapes and bunkers and I think it’s going to be a neat process to watch. The best part is that it is evident they are doing it with a lot of care.”
Hearn, elated to add another pre-1900 course to his company’s award-winning work portfolio, says the trees had not been effectively managed at Washtenaw for decades and that they had grown so large that the turf could not stay healthy because the sun was blocked.
“The trees are part of the beauty of the course, and hundreds and hundreds will remain, but there are also many that need to be taken out so that the turf can breathe and the remaining trees can maintain health,” he said. “The other part is the design. We have a rare aerial photograph of the course from 1937, and that has helped us to see old edges of certain historic greens, places where we need to reposition bunkers and do some tweaking of fairway limit lines. In the end we will have restored strategy, shot value and playability.”
Kendall trusts Hearn’s plan and likes the feedback from Retzer, and that Retzer shares information about the course on his blog.
“He’s very knowledgeable about golf and us and he’s played and written about a lot of golf courses, and he loves Washtenaw,” Kendall says. “We value him. I think he appreciates that we are here to provide something special to golfers because we have something special to give.”
Washtenaw offers something especially rare to the average golfer Retzer says.
“The average golfer can play their daily fee at Washtenaw and play a course that is 100 years old, a premier club in Michigan with a classic golf course. Most average golfers don’t have access to classic courses that were designed and built like this, like Oakland Hills, like Plum Hollow, because those classic courses have always been private.”
With a search through old newspaper files among other sources Retzer has learned things about Washtenaw he feels others should know.
For instance, he has written about the Michigan Open Championship that was contested in 1955 at Washtenaw. It included three golf legends and winners of major national championships.
Horton Smith, then the head professional at Detroit Golf Club and the winner of the 1934 and ’36 Masters, Chick Harbert, then the head pro at Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville and winner of the 1954 PGA Championship and Walter Burkemo, then the head pro at Franklin Hills Country Club and winner of the 1953 PGA Championship, were part of 177 professionals and amateurs in the field.
Burkemo shot a closing 67 for a 9-under 279 and six-shot win. Also part of the field – Michigan Golf Hall of Famers Chuck Kocsis of Royal Oak, the low amateur at 290, the Oakland Hills Country Club professional Al Watrous, who had 34 professional wins, and John Barnum of Blythefield Country Club near Grand Rapids, who is best known as the first PGA Tour golfer to win his first tour event after reaching the age of 50.
“Obviously the Michigan Open was in its heyday then in quality of field because a lot of tour pros also had club jobs,” Retzer says, “and they played it at Washtenaw. It’s just one thing I’ve found. The history there is phenomenal and I love that really anyone who golfs can go experience the same course that Walter Burkemo, Chick Harbert and Horton Smith played.”