Wisconsin’s ‘Big Hickory’ Claims Belvedere Title

From left: Bill “Ernie” Ernst, Roger Andrews, Fred Muller, and Ross Hayes

   Fred Muller eyed his lie in the rough just off the 18th fairway. It was not good. Still, a miracle shot might bring him to the green some 185 yards distant and a possible tie for the lead, maybe even a victory should Ernie Ernst falter. He pulled a wood from his bag and put his best swing on the ball… and knew it would not be enough.

   Bill “Ernie” Ernst of Neenah, Wisc. came away with 156 for a two-shot victory over runner-up Roger Andrews of Jenks, Okla. and three clear of Fred Muller, the pro at the Crystal Downs Golf Club in Frankfort, Mich. Ross Hayes of Tampa, Fla. who got into the final foursome with a fine first-day 80, stumbled on Saturday with a handful of double bogies for a final 167.

   It had been a close contest the entire way.

   Ernst and Muller both shot 79 on Friday; Andrews carded an 80 including a triple on 16, a hole on which a lapse of concentration is fatal. (Andrews would later pencil in a rueful note next to that score on the card – “idiot.”)

   These were remarkable scores on a windy, cheerless day that saw the temperature fall to the 40s under gloomy cloudy skies. Scores for the rest of the field were generally higher that normal, or so the clubhouse talk would have you believe. Players were scrambling for sweaters and hats, especially those from more southerly climes unaccustomed to the capricious nature of late spring in northern Michigan.

   After nine holes on Saturday, Muller and Ernst were still tied. Each had shot a 39. Andrews, following a timely birdie on the par 5 ninth came in with 40 for his front nine. Hayes shot 43 and began to fall off the pace, hampered by two double bogies

   Muller birdied 10 while Ernst bogied, a two-shot swing that put the Crystal Downs veteran up by two. Both bogied the 11th, a 348- par 4 that many Belvedere members consider one of the hardest on the course. Ernst applied a little more pressure with pars on both 12 and 13. Muller bogied each to fall back to a tie with Ernst. Andrews also bogied 11 and 12.

   “Fred might have done one more, but a beautiful sand save from the right bunker on 14 gave him a needed par,’ Ernst said. “He has the best short game I have ever seen.”

   All three parred 15. On the signature 16th, a hole both terrifying and somehow exquisite in its conception, Muller put his tee shot in a divot, but played a fine shot to 8 feet and got his par. Ernst, from 126 feet, put a “trusty Gibson mashie” to about 8 feet and collected an unlikely birdie. Andrews par putt barely missed the cup.

   On the 17th, a par three on which accuracy and a deft touch are required to avoid a deep drop to the left, is listed on the card at 165 yards. Surely this is grossly misjudged as this writer has never made the green with anything less than a full-out 190-yard club. But then, this writer has never been in the final group, and likely never will.

   Andrews played a laser to 12 feet and drained a solid, confident putt for a birdie 2. Ernst, now one up on Muller, pulled his shot left of the green to find himself staring straight up to the green. Here, Ernst played what might have been his “shot of the day,” a nicely judged niblick that settled 2 feet from the hole and a resulting par.

   The 18th is a near 400-yard par 4 that culminates in a green that can cause an otherwise well-balanced man to question his orientation. It is ferociously difficult to navigate, with humps and valleys that remove errant putts to new and uncharted vistas of frustration.

   Ernst stood two up on Muller, and three up on Andrews. Hayes, who was playing otherwise admirable bogie golf, was now well off the pace of a trio of “no prisoners taken” competitors. They would not let him in.

   Ernst merely needed to play for a routine par and let his competitors try to make something happen, a tall order.

   “Roger absolutely creamed his drive,” Ernst said, “and had a 140-yard shot to the green.” The pin was toward the right front, the green slanted in front so that a missed putt or approach that failed to gain safe ground, would roll back to the fairway.

   Andrews nailed the approach, but as was his fate so often this day, just missed a birdie.

   Muller, in a occurrence most rare, came through his drive with just too much left to right action and came to rest in harsh, weedy rough on the right.

   Fred Muller, the respected pro at Crystal Downs in Frankfort, Mich., is a seasoned veteran of many high level golf competitions. Rather than curse his luck and wail at the gods as an amateur might, he assessed the situation, considered his alternatives and went to work. Either a miracle shot would bring him to the green, or it would not. From the harsh rough, then, he chose a wood as the only club that might bring him within range of a birdie try. That, combined with a possible bogey from Ernst, would tie him for the lead and a playoff.

   With the same beautifully crafted swing that is his trademark, Muller gave it a go. But the thing did not come off. The ball had a slight push to the right, caught the branches of tree and brought his hopes of a playoff crashing down with it. He would finish with a double bogey.

   Ernst’s third was pin-high to the right of the green. “I just chunked it down the hill to where I would have a putt for a par,” he said. “Even if I missed, I knew if I got a 5, I would win.”

   He got his five.

   Andrews, who played steadily all day, was haunted by several small misses and putts that narrowly failed to find their mark. His motivation for a Belvedere championship is to add the final title to career “slam” of the SoHG’s Championship Series. He has notched victories in the Southern 4-Ball Hickory Championship (2010, 2012, and 2013) the U.S. Hickory Open (2009), the Mountain Valley Hickory Open (2008, 2013), and the Mid Pines Hickory Open (2009).

   “It was a great match,” he said. “To play these fine players at this level is very exciting. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into it. I’m disappointed, sure, but it’s such a great tournament and a lot of fun. I’ll be back to try again.”

   The 2014 victor, Bill “Ernie” Ernst, is a newly retired business professional. The 6-foot-3 Ernst is an easy going man with the square and rugged good looks of a professional athlete. His friends had taken to calling him “Avis” after that rental car company’s advertisements which touted its second place position to Hearst. This because Ernst had finished second in the 2014 Desert Hickory Championship, and second in the 2014 All American Hickory Open gutty-ball tournament. They will have to find a new nickname. “Big Hickory” comes to mind.

   Though Ernst has a soft spot for Wisconsin’s annual “Kummel Cup” hickory event, the Belvedere tournament has become a favorite. “It’s the best one out there,” he says. “They treat us so well.” By the way, Ernst also won the two-man scramble event with partner Chuck McMullin.

   As for the overall event, host professional Marty Joy, who placed fourth in the Open division, said there were 56 players in the field, from the Midwest, South, and Central U.S., and from Canada. As always, the Belvedere members proved most gracious hosts. Several annually play in the tournament and more than a few have become keen hickory enthusiasts. It is clear how much affection they have for their club and for the color and history that hickory golf brings to the course.

   Former Belvedere pro Steve Braun explained that, shortly after the Willie Watson-designed course opened back in 1925, a Great Lakes Open was held, with such pros as Walter Hagen in the field. “Hagen, in his first look at the course, shot a 65,” Braun said. “Granted, the trees were smaller and the fairways were not watered, but let no one think the players of that day could not make those hickories work. To shoot a 65, with hickories, on your first round of a course such as the Belvedere golf club is a hell of an accomplishment.”

   The 2014 Belvedere Hickory Open was moved one week forward in the calendar to accommodate the Michigan Amateur, scheduled for the following week, the time usually slated for the hickory event. As a result, the hickory players encountered course conditions prepared for the amateur contestants – deep rough and narrowed fairways. Indeed, scores were somewhat higher on day one, somewhat abetted by the near-inclement weather.

   Helping to warm things up were social gatherings that included a first night cocktail and hors d’oeuvres party at Castle Farms, a nearby wedding mill that hosts perhaps hundreds of nuptials  each season. The Belvedere club house was the setting for the second night of friendly talk and camaraderie, with the final night bringing the gathering to the Belvedere Casino (clubhouse) overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Lake Charlevoix.

   Tournament winners are listed below. Congratulations to all of them, to the Belvedere Club members, and to Marty Joy, whose unbounded good will and enthusiasm each year make this one of if not the finest modern hickory golf events in the world. (Yes, I said it.)

   Posted below are the results of the 2014 Belvedere Hickory Open. Complete scores for all participants are listed on the PDFs below. The gracious Mrs. Kathy Bullock was present with camera in hand. Many of the photos she took can be viewed on her website at www.hickorygolfhub.com.

2014 Open Divison Results.pdf

2014 Senior Divison Results.pdf

2014 Super Senior Division Results.pdf