Jerry Matthews, Michigan's 'Johnny Appleseed' of golf-course design, dies at 88

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Jack Berry, legendary Michigan golf writer, had a nickname for famed architect Jerry Matthews.

He called him our state's "Johnny Appleseed." Matthews, after all, spread his seeds of golf-course design all over the upper and lower peninsulas, building courses in more than half of Michigan's 83 counties, most notably during the golf boom of the 1990s.

Matthews, who designed or renovated more than 200 courses and opened at least 90 courses in Michigan, died Thursday shortly after being honored for his lifetime of work in the industry during a ceremony at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Jerry Matthews opened or renovated more than 200 golf courses in his career as an acclaimed course architect.

Bill Hobson of Michigan Golf Live posted about Matthews' death on social media. Matthews was 88.

"If you've played golf in Michigan, you've likely played one of the great courses designed by this special, humble, brilliant man," Hobson wrote in announcing Matthews' death. 

"Thank you, Matthews family, for sharing Jerry with us for so long."

Matthews, son of golf-course architect Bruce Matthews, was born in Grand Rapids in 1934, and got his first taste of the golf business at the age of 12 working at his father's Green Ridge Country Club, which in the 1980s was sold off and became what now is Egypt Valley.

Jerry Matthews attended Michigan State, earning a bachelor's in landscape architecture, before joining his father's design business in 1960.

Bruce Matthews retired in 1979, and Jerry took over the business, based in Lansing.

In the 1990s, amid a golf boom when courses were opening pretty much everywhere across the country at a frantic pace — reaching its peak late in the decade, after the emergence of Tiger Woods — Michigan was leading the pace, and Jerry Matthews was front and center of it all.

"I like Michigan and I was really lucky to come along with my dad at that point in history," Jerry Matthews once told NBC. "There was so much work and I was learning so much."

As for why he rarely ventured outside of Michigan, he once said: "I learned I'd rather be here than spending so much time in airports or on planes."

In 1991, Michigan opened eight new courses, and Matthews designed five of them, according to NBC. From 1995-97, he opened 17 golf courses.

Among Matthews' notable designs: Timberstone in Iron Mountain, The Majestic at Lake Walden, Buck's Run in Mount Pleasant and Hawk Hollow in Bath. He also designed St. Ives at Tullymore and Sundance at A-Ga-Ming. Berry considers Sundance and Bucks Run as Matthews' 1-2 punch.

"If you play golf in Michigan, chances are that you have enjoyed Jerry's work," said Chris Whitten, executive director of the Golf Association of Michigan. "Michigan golf is better because of Jerry's passion, effort, care and friendship.

"We send our deepest condolences to the Matthews family."

Said Jason Straka, president of the American Society of Golf Architects: “Jerry’s legacy of course design and the impact of his service to ASGCA will carry on. And his commitment to teaching the next generation of golf industry professionals showed the value he placed on paying it forward.”

Matthews was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 2005, and is a past president of the American Society of Golf Architects. While many golf-course designers try to build the biggest, toughest and trickiest golf courses, perhaps to collect all those ranking points from the golf publications, Matthews had a reputation for creating understated layouts. He "didn't overdo his layouts," said former News sportswriter Lynn Henning, a Matthews acquaintance, and instead preferred to let the natural terrain dictate the layout. That helped him avoid "bad" holes, Henning said. He passed his philosophy on to the younger generation of architects.

Matthews, who also earned a master's degree in urban planning from Michigan State and taught at his alma mater, was a mentor to many in the golf-course design business, including nephew Bruce, and Ray Hearn.

Hearn learned of Matthews' death Friday while on a work trip in Montana.

"Oh my goodness, Jerry was by far one of the kindest guys in the golf-course design industry," said Hearn, who spent 10 years working for Matthews before branching off to his own firm, and fondly recalls Matthews taking his employees to his cottage on the sun-rise side of the state for weekends of fly-fishing and spirited golf-design conversations. "Jerry was what I would call a naturalist. Jerry liked to honor the land."

Matthews' death is the latest among some of the best in the golf-course design business. Pete Dye died in 2000; Arthur Hills, with quite the footprint in Michigan as well, died in 2021; and Tom Weiskopf, major champion-turned-designer, died in August.

Matthews died at the hotel where he and wife Carol were married. Carol was on this week's trip with him, as was course-design colleague Paul Albanese. The plan for a Friday golf outing was for Albanese to hit shots for the groups on the 12th hole, while Matthews was to sit there in a rocking chair. The rocking chair was there still, albeit empty, following the death of Matthews 90 minutes after he was honored Thursday night.

Matthews, by the way, had some courses in the works — all of them in Michigan, of course.

"He still had projects," Hobson told The News on Friday morning. "He brought plans with him."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984