Perched on top of a bag rest near the driving range at Spring Lake Country Club on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Bitner, undoubtedly, had a smile on his face. He had just completed analyzing the swings of a handful of his varsity golf players from Spring Lake High School, a few days before they’ll compete in the Division 2 state finals at Forest Akers East Golf Course in East Lansing.
A few minutes later, he zoned in on the whoosh of another driver, this time from a boy who was much smaller than the high school upperclassmen that had departed to their summer jobs.
“He’s going to be one of my dynamite freshmen next year,” Bitner said confidently.
The boy crushed a drive off the tee — a perfect split down the range. “He’s swaying some,” Bitner noted, his coaching vision always unblurred.
The potential Laker will add to the count of the hundreds of lives Bitner has shaped through the game of golf. The 74-year-old will conclude his 42nd season guiding the Lakers’ boys team on Saturday in East Lansing, a total that would cause most prep coaches to shake their head in amazement. Bitner has pulled double duty for 31 of those seasons, as he’s also coached the girls program since its inception in 1980.
Combined, his teams have amassed more than 770 wins during his tenure.
DEFYING THE NORM
Bitner’s answered questions before and continues to do so on how he’s maintained the desire to coach for so long. He pipes in before it can be asked again, interrupting with a laugh that his players often hear on the course.
“I love it,” he said. “You got to if you have to get up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning for invitationals. For me, this job is not in a stressful situation. If there’s any stress, I put it on myself.”
“For most people, they marvel at how long he’s done it, but he’s one of those that has so much passion and love for the game and being around and teaching the kids,” said Spring Lake athletic director Cavin Mohrhardt, who had Bitner as a sixth-grade basketball coach at Spring Lake. “I’m not sure he’ll ever grow tired of it, or it will ever stop him.”
Bitner’s lineup is typically decided by challenge matches, so it gives parents little ammunition if they want to complain about their child being left off the varsity roster.
“I think I can count two parents who have complained to me over the years,” Bitner said. He paused. “No, maybe three. But that’s about it.”
There hasn’t been much to complain about the job Bitner has done this spring, as he’s led the Lakers to one of their best seasons in program history. They easily won the Lakes Eight Conference title; their talented reputation has helped them rise to a No. 1 ranking in Division 2 through the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association; and on Thursday, finished second at regional competition at The Highlands Golf Club in Grand Rapids.
“We’ve won eight trophies this year,” Bitner said. “And we lost to Mona Shores at (the Ludington Invitational) on a tie-breaker.”
In the fall, Bitner’s Lady Lakers captured their sixth-straight Lakes Eight title.
Bitner’s players, including senior David Bonter, realize how sweet it would be to reward him with his first state title. The best finish by a Lakers’ boys team at the state finals has been sixth.
“He told me that the best was sixth-place, and I said ‘Coach, I’m pretty sure we can beat that,’” Bonter said.
“He’s just a loving man,” he added. “And he’s a great coach. He tells you what you’re doing wrong, but he’s very easy-going. He gives us these booklets on what to do in certain situations, and if you go by what he says, he’s usually always right.
“After 50 years of (coaching) golf, he said he’ll probably retire, so it would be an all-around great feeling if we could win for him.”
WHO’S YOUR CADDY?
Bitner was born in Sturgis and in a cruel twist of fate, his high school fielded a golf team before and after, but not during his high school career. Instead, he learned the game while caddying during his youth at nearby Klinger Lake Country Club.
When his skill set and knowledge of the game developed, he was quick to share it with others.
“The last two pros there did not want to give lessons to women or children,” Bitner said. “I was more than happy to jump in, and that’s how I got started.”
Bitner went on to play golf at Hope College, and then remained in West Michigan for his first teaching job at Holton High School in 1965.
“I coached track, wrestling, and the last year I was there, golf,” he said. “Then I came to Spring Lake in ‘68, and started coaching in ‘69.”
His days of teaching fifth grade at Spring Lake are long over, but his classroom remains in session on the golf course. With it has come several prestigious individual honors, including induction into the MIGCA Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Michigan High School Golf Coaches Hall of Fame in 2009. He was also named the Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year in 2007.
Bitner admits to having a pair of favorite pupils throughout his coaching career: His son, Andy, a 1987 Spring Lake graduate; and daughter, Alyson, a 1983 grad.
“Andy was a 45 shooter, but he would never tell anybody that the coach was his dad,” Bitner said with a laugh. “And Alyson, she would take no prisoners out there.”
He’s also turned his wife, Eunice, onto the game as well.
“She goes along with (my coaching). She knows I’m much happier when I’m coaching,” Bitner said. “We play around the state and down in Florida when we’re there during the winter.”
Mohrhardt and Bitner’s players say if there’s one thing he’s notorious for, it’s his humorous stories, 95 percent of which revolve around golf. Still on the range at SLCC, Bitner couldn’t help but giggle to himself as he recalled a time he secretly added a new club to his wife’s golf bag.
“We get out on the course, and there’s still cellophane wrapping on it,” he said. “It had been in there for six months because I knew she’d let me have if she knew I was replacing her clubs. She loves her 4, 6, 8 and wedge, and that’s it.”
WHEN TO SAY GOOD-BYE
Bitner said he’s always been goal-oriented, so reaching the magic number of 50 years of coaching might be an ideal finish line.
“But if my health is OK, I’ll stay as long as they want me,” he admitted.
Mohrhardt joked that there have been a hundred applicants in waiting for Bitner’s job. Of course, having nearly unlimited access to the plush course at Spring Lake Country Club is an easy selling point, he said.
Still, Bitner gives the impression that the job means so much more to him than any free perks.
“It’s a shame I get paid for doing this, because I feel like I’m stealing from them,” he said. “I actually did coach for free when they started the girls team. I volunteered to coach.
“The bigger reward is watching kids improve,” he added. “That’s satisfying for me. Plus, being around kids, it keeps you young and it keeps me on my toes.”