Jack Perry, the legendary Michigan golf writer, had a nickname for famous engineer Jerry Matthews.
He was nicknamed “Johnny Appleseed” in our state. After all, Matthews spread the seeds of golf course design throughout the upper and lower peninsulas, and built courses in more than half of Michigan’s 83 counties, most notably during the golf boom of the 1990s.
Matthews, who has designed or renovated more than 200 courses and opened at least 90 courses in Michigan, died Thursday shortly after being honored for his lifetime working in the industry during a party at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
Michigan Golf Live’s Bill Hobson posted the news of Matthews’ death on social media. Matthews was 88 years old.
In announcing Matthews’ death, Hobson wrote, “If you played golf in Michigan, you would probably have played one of the wonderful courses designed by this distinguished, humble, and wonderful man.”
“Thank you, Matthews family, for sharing Jerry with us for so long.”
The son of golf course engineer Bruce Matthews, born in Grand Rapids in 1934, Matthews got his first taste of golf at the age of 12 when he worked at his father’s Green Ridge Country Club, which was sold out in the 1980s. It became what is now the Valley of Egypt.
Jerry Matthews attended Michigan State, earning a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture, before joining his father’s design business in 1960.
Bruce Matthews retired in 1979, and Jerry took over Lansing.
In the 1990s, amid the golf boom when courses were opening up pretty much everywhere across the country at a frenetic pace — reaching their peak in the late decade, after the rise of Tiger Woods — Michigan pioneered, Jerry Matthews was at the front and center of it all. .
“I love Michigan and I was really lucky to accompany my dad at that point in history,” Jerry Matthews once told NBC. “There was a lot of work and I was learning a lot.”
On why he rarely ventures outside Michigan, he once said, “I knew I’d rather be here than spend a lot of time in airports or on planes.”
In 1991, Michigan opened eight new courses, and Matthews designed five of them, according to NBC. From 1995-1997, he opened 17 golf courses.
Notable Matthews designs include 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 in Tullymore and Sundance at A-Ga-Ming. Perry considers Sundance and Bucks Run to be a 1-2 Matthews punch.
“If you’ve been golfing in Michigan, you’ve probably enjoyed Jerry’s work,” said Chris Whitten, executive director of the Michigan Golf Association. “Golf Michigan is better because of Jerry’s passion, effort, care and friendship.
“We send our deepest condolences to the Matthews family.”
“Jerry’s legacy of course design and the impact of his service on the ASGCA will continue,” said Jason Straca, President of the American Golf Engineers Association. “Jerry’s commitment to educating the next generation of professionals in the golf industry has demonstrated the value he has placed in driving it forward.”
Matthews was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 2005, and was a past president of the American Society of Golf Engineers. While many golf course designers attempt to build the biggest, toughest and most difficult golf courses, perhaps to collect all these rating points from golf publications, Matthews had a reputation for creating simple designs. Lynne Henning, a former Sports News writer and acquaintance of Matthews, said he “didn’t exaggerate his layouts,” preferring instead to let the natural terrain dictate the layout. This helped him avoid “bad” holes, Henning said. He passed on his philosophy to the younger generation of architects.
Matthews, who also earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Michigan and taught at his alma mater, was a mentor to many in the field of golf course design, including his nephew Bruce and Ray Hearn.
Hearn learned of Matthews’ death Friday while on a business trip in Montana.
Hearn, who spent 10 years working for Matthews before branching out into his own company, recalls fondly that Matthews took his employees to his company: a sunrise-side cottage on the stateside for weekends fly fishing and lively golf design conversations. “Jerry was what I would call a naturalist. Jerry loved to honor the Earth.”
Matthews’ death is the latest among the top golf course design firms. Pete Day died in 2000; Arthur Hills, who also made his mark in Michigan, passed away in 2021; and Tom Weskov, lead hero-turned-designer, in August.
Matthews died at the hotel where he and his wife, Carol, were married. Carol was on a trip this week with him, as was fellow course designer Paul Albanese. The plan for Friday’s golf outing was for Albanese to hit the groups on the 12th hole, while Matthews sat there in a rocking chair. The rocking chair was still there, albeit empty, after Matthews died 90 minutes after his tribute Thursday night.
By the way, Matthews has had a few courses in the works – all of them in Michigan, of course.
“He still has projects,” Hobson told the News Friday morning. “Bring plans with him.”
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