Jeff Stalcup and I are sitting on the brick-paver patio that wraps around the clubhouse at the Orchards Golf Club, talking about the past. The Washington Township public course just celebrated its 30th anniversary and Stalcup has lots of stories and memories from his tenure as director of golf for most of the club’s history.
At the moment, it’s 1997. The morning of June 13, to be exact. Six days after Steve Yzerman led a procession of Red Wings who hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years.
“Yzerman pulls up in his little red Porsche with the Cup in the passenger seat,” says Stalcup, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and one who sounds like the actor John C. Reilly and chuckles often when he tells a story. “He says, ‘Jeff, throw this on the cart and let the boys have a good time with it today.’ ”
Stalcup’s tone turns as he continues his story. Everyone in Detroit knows the rest.
“The sad part about the Wings,” he said, “was the limo crash.”
The Orchards and the limo accident were featured prominently in ESPN’s 25th anniversary documentary last year about the Wings’ rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche.
If the accident was all the Orchards would have been remembered for, it would have only added to the tragedy that ended Vladimir Konstantinov’s career and left team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov paralyzed from the waist down, because the Orchards has been so much more and has endured as a shining example of what any public course should aspire to be.
The two constants that have kept the Orchards one of the best public courses in metro Detroit since it opened on July 27, 1993, are ownership and Stalcup. Ron Dalby had a clear goal for his club when he decided to build a great, golf-focused course on an old apple orchard.
When Dalby died in 2017, his daughter Jill took over and kept the club in the family. Just as important, much of the day-to-day operations were maintained under the stewardship of Stalcup, who was at the club since the beginning.
And what a beginning it was. Dalby made the crucial decision to hire Robert Trent Jones Jr. to design a great course. While his father famously redesigned Oakland Hills into a “monster” for the 1950 U.S. Open, Jones kept the beast at bay in his design of the Orchards and gave Dalby nothing but a beauty.
I won’t bore with you with golf-nerd observations about grass varieties and green complexes. I’ll just tell you this, because it’s subtle and goes unnoticed: The Orchards wasn’t blessed with amazing elevation or seaside views, but Jones crafted a course that gives the golfer a variety of choices throughout the round and keeps the action moving up and down, left and right.
A few examples of this variety: The par-5 sixth hole turns slightly to the right. The par-4 seventh hole turns hard to the left. The par-4 eighth hole turns to the right. The short par-4 16th hole requires a precise long iron off the tee. The long par-5 17th hole requires a bomb off the tee and an uphill approach. The short par-4 18th hole requires a precise downhill approach.
If you aren’t thinking at the Orchards, you aren’t scoring.
There are a lot of other details most people don’t notice. The great conditions, the vigilant starter, the well-spaced tee times, the flat tee boxes.
The Orchards’ motto, which feels a lot more like a mission statement, has always been, “Your club for the day.” And it’s not just a slogan.
When you pull up, you have to stop at the check-in point, where an attendant takes your clubs and loads them onto a cart. During my recent visit, I walked past Henry, a college kid home for the summer working the check-in. While waiting for the next car to arrive, he adjusted two carts so that the row of eight formed the kind of line that would make a drill sergeant proud.
When I told Stalcup later, he laughed. “That’s probably some of my OCD,” he said.
The Orchards started before Tiger Woods burst onto the scene with his Masters win in 1997. Tiger made golf cool in a way the sport hadn’t seen since Arnold Palmer was a young man four decades earlier.
Every course felt the boom of the Tiger era, but several went bust during the recession. The Orchards, wanting to stay true to its “your club” mantra, resisted league play until the recession, when it was down about 25,000 rounds in 2008. It still allows league play, but not on a huge scale.
The Orchards’ latest inflection point came during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re a golfer, you know what golf meant during this time: Salvation from the closed-off world through one of the very few social activities that resembled normalcy. If you’re a golfer, the Orchards, and golf courses like it, kept you from going mad.
Golfers fell in love with golf again. The Orchards isn’t cheap. The least expensive summer rate is $60 after 3 p.m. weekdays. It tops out at $95 on weekends. And they can’t keep people away.
“He didn’t just win, he crushed them,” Stalcup said of Woods. “So he made it cool on a global level. But COVID made it super cool.”
If you drove up to the Orchards and ignored the absence of a pool or tennis courts, you could mistake it for a private club. From the course to the attentive staff to the classically styled clubhouse to Stalcup’s thriving junior program that boasts 200 youngsters, everything about the Orchards feels like an elite golf experience.
Stalcup has a lot more stories. He smiles broadly when he remembers the Wings enjoying their filets in the clubhouse 26 years ago and players egging him on to drink from the Cup. Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby insisting someone else was going to lock up and he was joining them at the after-party.
There’s something about the past that’s intrinsic in golf. The way you recount your failures and successes right after a round. Maybe the way sitting on the porch of a pillared white clubhouse is reminiscent of the famous veranda at Augusta National. Or just old stories of good times. And the bad.
As for the future at the Orchards, I asked Stalcup about that, too.
“With proper leadership,” he said, “there’s no reason why we can’t maintain it and maintain what has been, what it’s been done the last 30 years. Your club for the day. I’m gonna pass that on someday.”
If the last 30 years are any indication, golfers don’t need to worry about the Orchards. But they should probably make a tee time as soon as possible.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Through triumph and tragedy, Orchards Golf Club celebrates 30 years