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, especially 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.”
Born in Grand Rapids in 1934, Matthews, the son of golf course engineer Bruce 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 1959.
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.
Among Matthews’ jewels, Timberstone in Iron Mountain, The Majestic at Lake Walden, Buck’s Run in Mount Pleasant and Hawk Hollow in Bath. He designed St.Ives in Tullymore and Sundance at A-Ga-Ming.
Matthews was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 2005, and was a past president of the American Society of Golf Engineers. Matthews, who also earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Michigan, was a mentor to many in the field of golf course design, including Ray Hearn.
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 shoot on the 12th hole, while Matthews sat there in a rocking chair. The rocking chair will be there, albeit empty, after Matthews died 90 minutes after his tribute Thursday night.
By the way, Matthews, he still has a few courses in the works – in Michigan of course.
“He still has projects,” Hobson told the News Friday morning. “Bring plans with him.”
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