Ringelberg Takes A Long Path Home

June 5, 2002
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SAUGATUCK — He’s been a deck hand on the Mississippi River, worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, served as a corporate attorney for Microsoft in Europe, and co-founded an investment bank.

Golf? Not until his late 20s did Steven Ringelberg even play the game, and you would hardly consider him an avid player.

So why did the Holland native decide to develop what’s been hailed in the golf world as a premiere practice and teaching facility for serious and novice golfers alike?

“It’s problem-solving, mostly,” says Ringelberg, the founder of the HillTop Golf Center, an indoor-outdoor golf practice and instructional facility that doubles as a banquet and reception center.

“There’s really nothing like this anywhere,” he said. “There are many places in America where golfers have no other recourse but to hang up their clubs for several months each year.”

The seeds for HillTop Golf Center were planted when Ringelberg returned to West Michigan with his wife, Lisa VanderHill, in July 1998. Searching for a new business venture, Ringelberg spoke with the then-owners of the former Blue Star Playland, who were seeking a buyer for the go-kart and picnic complex located next door to his summer vacation home on Blue Star Highway, east of Saugatuck.

He eventually bought the playland and initially looked at redeveloping the site for residential and retail uses, “none of which was particularly attractive.”

Then came the idea Ringelberg liked: A “golf education center” that would cater to golfers year-round and complement the dozens of public and private golf courses across the region.

HillTop features 24 heated and sheltered driving tees that golfers can use to practice their swing in the winter, plus an 8,000-square-foot indoor chipping and putting facility which is easily converted into a banquet and reception center with a rotunda that can seat up to 350 people.

The sheltered driving tees opened a year ago and the indoor facility opened this month. A par-three, nine-hole golf course is scheduled to open later this summer.

The banquet facility, Ringelberg said, stems from a need to have secondary use for the indoor practice facility. It’s an added feature Ringelberg hopes will attract corporate and social gatherings. HillTop is complemented with a lounge, electronic golfing simulators, and a golfing school known as Innerform.

In conceiving the HillTop Golf Center, Ringelberg said he decided to include sheltered tees and an indoor practice facility in order to make it viable year-round.

“The question was, ‘how do you deal with an asset that lies dormant under the snow for five months of the year,’” he said. “It was solving practical business problems.”

The path to founding HillTop has taken the 1977 Holland High School graduate through many turns.

After high school, he went on to earn a degree in history at Oberlin College in Ohio. He later went on to law school at New York University, but only after spending time working on the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Graduating law school in 1986, Ringelberg wanted to work for a big firm. He joined a New York firm as a litigator.

He left the firm in 1990 and he and Lisa settled in Washington, D.C. In 1991, he saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal seeking an attorney to start a European legal department for “a company I had never heard of.”

That company was Microsoft, which was setting up a new European headquarters. Ringelberg was hired to do legal work in Europe that was previously handled out of Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. corporate offices.

Based in Paris, he eventually grew weary of the long hours and constant travel that went with the job. He decided to leave Microsoft in April 1996 so he could “have a life.”

“I had a wife who said, ‘I’d actually like to see the husband I married,’” he said.

The next stop was investment banking. Partnering with a friend from law school, Ringelberg co-founded Agile Equity, a New York City-based boutique investment bank. Remaining in France, he worked to arrange financing for Internet start-up companies.

Two years later, he and Lisa decided to come home so she could care for her ailing mother. Ringelberg sold his stake in Agile Equity and they returned to Holland.

In developing the HillTop Center, Ringelberg’s goal was to provide a comfortable environment for people to learn the game and hone their skills year-round. While the facility is centered around golf, he sees it as a recreation venue where anybody can host an event or relax and, if they wish, learn how to play golf.

“It is about recreation. The focus is about golf,” Ringelberg said. “It doesn’t have to be all about golf. We have a great location here.”

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