With a background in motion pictures, Rob Yanovitch recognizes a great location when he sees one and there are a multitude of reasons that he loves the lakefront site of Shangri-La Resort in Northeast Oklahoma. Now the resort’s Director of Golf & Club Operations, Yanovitch recently sat down with Carl Mickelson for a Q&A about where the club sits and other fascinating items about the destination.

When you put into perspective the quality of Shangri-La’s 27 championship holes and the addition of the spectacular new short course, The Battlefield, how much do you now consider Shangri-La a true national golf destination — or at least a must-play destination in the region?

Rob Yanovitch
What we did with The Battlefield is match the level of golf that the Championship Course brings. And by that, I mean you have to hit golf shots. It’s not a chip and putt. It’s a golf course. You don’t hit drivers, because it’s a short course, but you will hit every club in your bag if you play the correct set of tees for your ability.

The conditions match, or even exceed, what we have at the Championship Course. Across the board, it fits in with what we did, but we provided another venue, opportunity and even product with a short course that adds to the golfers’ experience when they come down. I love playing lots of golf. But as I’m getting a little older, and if I’m going on a golf trip, I don’t know how many days I could play 36 holes. But if I can play 18 and then the par-3, that’s a nice match for guys.

The other part is it has its own identity, its own restaurant there with a beautiful patio to sit on. We see people coming up there just for lunch and to sit and enjoy the view because it’s such a beautiful landscape.

What impresses you the most about what Eddy Gibbs and your team there have done to make Shangri-La a world-class experience for guests?

We’ve embraced innovation, like The Battlefield. Also, being able to see what the golf trends are – shorter amount of time to play and more access for all kinds of players. You don’t do that by building another championship course. So that’s part of what we’ve done at Shangri-La.

When we built The Anchor – our activity park – we put some things in there that aren’t going to bring us any revenue, but we thought they would be awesome experiences and innovative. We built a mini Fenway Park wiffle ball stadium. Nobody pays to play it – you just go and it is the coolest thing when you walk up into The Anchor and to your left you’ve got the Green Monster there in a fully framed wiffle ball stadium. So I really think that’s what sets us apart from other destination golf resorts, is an innovative mindset to bring something different to the guests that they wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Can you describe the different character of each of the three nines at Shangri-La and what you find appealing about each?

Even though they have different character, they really blend together well. On the Champions nine, we have lake views. It’s slightly shorter than the other nines but the rating is just as difficult because you have more water in play. You have more bunkers on that nine. The championship course that we play when a major event comes to Shangri-La is the Heritage and Legend nines. That’s the old Blue course that used to be there, but the routing is different. The mapping is similar to what it was back in the day. Now we renovated everything from the ground up to the green – all the green complexes, we reshaped some holes and trees. 

So it’s brand new, but the routing is the same as it was previously. But what’s great about it is that all three nines do work together. So if you want to play the Champions and Legends nines, if that’s the course rotation, you don’t feel like you’re on two separate golf courses. The Heritage nine has some really great green complexes. When we rebuilt it, we threw back to some classic green complexes so you get some really nice shots where you hit the ball left and make it go right. So there’s a little bit more of that on the Heritage nine. 

The Champions Nine third hole is a classic short par-4 with the added thrill and majesty of playing along the edge of Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Is it one of the best short pars you’ve ever played and… Which other holes at Shangri-La do you think provide similar thrills?

We have one short par-4 on each nine. No. 3 is drivable and really fun all because the lake is on your left. And on the weekends, you see all the boaters out there having a good time. And you’re trying to drive that green with all that stuff going on. On a nice day, the water’s like glass. It’s a really good hole and picturesque. And then the Legends nine has our signature hole called the Mickey Mantle hole, which is our island green. It’s a par-5 with a real good risk-reward. It’s called the ‘Mickey Mantle’ hole because it was his favorite hole when he used to play there. When we renovated it, we kept it a par-5 that’s reachable in two over the water. Mantle (from nearby Commerce, OK) made a double eagle there once, so they adopted the name for that reason. We kept the nature of that hole but we built an island green there now. It tells you what we did with the entire golf course when we renovated. That hole used to be just a second shot over water to a green. We turned it into an island green. We respected the original design but we just made everything better.

The Clubhouse, Summit and Buffalo Bar would bring pride to any golf operation in the country. How cool is it for you and your team to operate out of such a well-built and thoughtfully designed space?

It’s really a pleasure to be there every day. It’s such a beautiful clubhouse and space. It sets the stage when you drive up to the beautiful, big stone building. It’s very welcoming. You go into some clubs, some resorts, and it feels almost intimidating because it’s so fancy. This is more rustic and welcoming. The Buffalo Bar has a lot of hardwood in there with the buffalo head up. It’s just a welcoming, relaxing place to go. And then in the evenings, it turns into our fine dining with the Summit restaurant attached to it. But it’s always a welcoming feel. Our staff embraces that and addresses people like they come every weekend.

What impressed you most about The Battlefield the first few times you played it?

You hit every shot. The green complexes are unlike anything you’ve played. You can do some things on a par-3 that you can’t do on a championship golf course. You get away with a little more. You get a little bit more creative because you’re not having to post the score to your handicap. Thus, the greens are a little bit more dramatic than I would probably put on a championship course because it’s a par-3 course that’s an experience and a round of golf at the same time. 

We’re striving for people coming off the course to say they’ve never played anything like that before and I think that’s what we’ve been getting. That’s probably the thing that stands out the most is just the unique greens and the fact that you hit every shot that you want to hit when you play golf. 

What “wows” people about what Tom Clark put into this special piece of land?

The creativity of how we fit the golf course into that land. There was a lot of elevation changes, a lot of rock work we had to remove. It’s impressive how we fit the design into this space. We had a lot of room to do it. But there’s a lot of elevation changes and a lot of challenges to do that. And it really fits seamlessly into the land and feels really natural. And that’s a real achievement for the space we had.

One reason it’s called “The Battlefield,’ is when I first went out there on that land in 2013, I’d been at Shangri-La for two years and had never gone on that piece of land because there was nothing out there. My superintendent used to hunt the land. And I asked him to take me on property and drive around because it was all weeds and it was hard to get around. I don’t have a truck, and we couldn’t go on a golf cart. So he took me in his truck and we were bouncing around all over the place and and I said ‘man, this this looks like a warzone in here’ – not because it was damaged, but just like it just looked like an old World War II battlefield . So that was one of the reasons we call it The Battlefield. It has the look of an old countryside, with the hills and trees. From the start, we kind of looked at that piece of land as how can we do a par-3 course up there. So yes, it’s very cinematic with very dramatic elevation changes. It looks really natural the way it sits in there. 

The location of Shangri-La makes it a true vacation “escape.” How do you describe the serenity and singularity of what it’s like to spend time there just taking in the nature, the peace, the hospitality and everything that makes the property unique? 

It’s on the end of an island – it’s actually a peninsula – but we call it Monkey Island. And really there’s nowhere to go. But if you’re driving down that road, you’re heading to Shangri-La. And it’s the lake atmosphere that surrounds the whole facility and resort that’s really peaceful. You’re there to escape the ordinary, because you’re going out there to do something different. The world is so fast paced and there’s so much going on. I like to think that when people come out here, they want to put their phones away and just enjoy. Enjoy the golf course, enjoy their time, and enjoy being taken care of. 

What’s next for Shangri-La?

We’re always growing and looking for the newest opportunity to be innovative and create a better, more unique experience for visitors and members.

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Feature PhotoL The Battlefield

Photos Courtesy of Shangri-La