The Spell of Golf in Northern Michigan
It’s like the Hamptons, with cozy neighborhoods, lakeside cottages and wide front porches. Then you round a bend, and it’s like the Pacific Northwest, all rolling hills and cherry trees. Cross a lake, and it’s Amish country, with the clippity-clop of a horse-drawn carriage and the whir of a bicycle. Turn your head, and Northern Michigan is all Mayberry, a red-white-and-blue Main Street parade, sidewalks lined with kids and grandparents, a marching band, homemade floats and the Lilac Festival Queen.
Then you’re walking the silky beaches of Grand Traverse Bay, white sand squishing between your toes and waves of turquoise water that tempt you to swear you’re in Belize. Except you’re not, because Belize wouldn’t have storybook inns, fudge shops and miniature golf courses. Spin around and you’re in the Texas Hill Country, craggy limestone cliffs and deep blue skies impossible to take in all at once.
Or if you’re in Otsego, out past the point where the Alphorn Sport Shop and Nelson’s Drug Store mark the edge of downtown, drive a little farther until you reach an unmarked dirt trail that winds down to the Manistee River and fishing guide Duane Snook’s favorite trout stream. Now you’re in Montana, with brooks and brownies, casting a fly rod upstream at sunset.
Then you pull off your waders, work your way back up the road, and Northern Michigan is again Pinehurst, with mile-tall pine trees and fine golf courses all around you.
Golf in this area is more than what you think it is, too. It’s more than courses cut out of dense forests, though you’ll find plenty of those. It’s more than greens and tee boxes on the edge of Lake Michigan and Lake Traverse. More than Bermuda fairways bordered by fruit trees whose limbs are heavy with cherries and apples and peaches, fruits that gush in your mouth and taste like what a roll of Lifesavers can only dream to be. It’s all that, but it’s also T-shirts and flip-flops, $8 all-you-can-eat breakfasts, inexpensive golf packages and spectacular golf courses almost to yourself.
So Gaylord, Petoskey, Boyne, Traverse City, and a slew of other towns on a wishbone of highways that link these hamlets together will remind you of a lot of other places. But they are also like no other place. All at the same time.
The bulk of Michigan extends into the Great Lakes like a lobster claw, nearly surrounded on three sides by water. The northwest portion of the claw, the upper pincer, holds all the real meat: the state’s best golf. The premier courses are only short drives apart. Long autumn days begin early and linger until deep into the 9 p.m. sunset. You can easily play 36 holes a day and still have plenty of relaxation time between rounds.
If you begin in Traverse City, as I did, the short flight from Chicago will land you in the heart of Middle America. What strikes you first about Traverse City is its small-town feel. Propped on a corner stool in the airport is a sleepy, gray-haired security guard, nodding off with his arms crossed above his generous midsection and his black pants pulled high above his navel. When you come upon the concourse sign simply labeled “Coffee Shop,” you know that’s precisely what you’ll find inside. A few blocks away is a bakery that specializes in cherry pies. Northern Michigan is both the heart and the stomach of America.
The other thing that strikes you about Traverse City is Lake Michigan’s clear, coral blue waters. If you’d been dozing on the plane, you might wake up, look out the window and think you’ve accidentally boarded a plane to the Caribbean. Happily, the golf on Traverse City’s best course, Jack Nicklaus’ The Bear at the Grand Traverse Resort, is nothing like a Caribbean layout.
The Bear opened in 1985. It quickly rose to rank among the nation’s most difficult courses, appropriate for the site of the Michigan Open. Though there are three courses at Grand Traverse Resort, “The Bear is the one course up here that everyone wants to play,” more than one marshal told me.
Like Texas, the weather changes rapidly in these parts. You might begin your round under a robin’s egg blue sky but soon find yourself under bars of thick clouds, the sky now woolen gray and a two-club wind kicked up out of nothing. Nicklaus seems to have taken that into consideration, incorporating wide landing zones for most golfers but feathering them in more tightly where the big hitters would drive the ball.
Leaving Traverse City on Highway 31, beyond the line that bisects the equator and the North Pole, past where the shoulder of the road broadens just enough to wrap around a red cedar picnic table and a broad oak tree, you’ll find yourself in Boyne.
The small, wealthy community of Petoskey is the cultural center of Boyne. Petoskey borders 26 miles of Little Traverse Bay shoreline famous for winter skiing, summer water sports and fall golf. Neighborhoods are peppered with summer cottages. The marina is lively day and night, surrounded by eclectic restaurants and urban renewal projects. Of the 180 holes of golf in Boyne, three area courses in particular are the big draws: the Heather course at Boyne Highlands, the three nines at Bay Harbor Golf Club (all owned by Boyne Golf) and True North Golf Club at Harbor Springs, a private residential development that permits public play.
Boyne Highlands is a collection of four 18-hole courses and a lighted par-3 track. Of the four, you’re here to play the classic Robert Trent Jones, Sr., design that winds through heavily forested corridors and hosts the Michigan Amateur championship.
“You’re in for a real treat,” the starter told me. “This golf course is the entire reason someone should come to play golf in Northern Michigan.”
I’m beginning to notice a trend, but I think he’s probably right.
Heather is a blast to play. The conditioning is pristine. Greens run true. Fairways are cropped tight. Hiring a caddy is optional, but with green fees as low as $30, why not spring for one? The routing takes you along blueberry patches, under dense oak canopies and around a handful of water hazards. Jones’ greens and tee boxes may have been softened over the years, but the course remains tough and a fair a test of golf. Oversize greens with gentle contours, large bunkers and top conditioning make Heather a course you should play … twice. Even if it’s raining.
Boyne Golf also operates Bay Harbor Golf Club, a triptych of nines called Quarry, Preserve and Links. All three nines play along Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay.
Bluffs and dunes characterize the Links routing, which runs along a five-mile stretch of shoreline that was once the site of a cement factory. The factory is long gone, replaced by golf, an excellent hotel – the Inn at Bay Harbor – and a marina development. The terrain is mostly parkland with some natural sand dune hazards left undisturbed. The fairways flow like rapids, with wide, twisting shapes and plenty of nooks and crannies to swallow a long hitter’s ball. Tongues of fairway jut out at strategic points, cleverly tempting you to take on risk but rewarding a well-placed tee shot. A smattering of pot bunkers, waste bunkers, wetlands and greens with false fronts help hold your concentration on the game instead of on the sailboats in the lake and the dramatic coastal views.
Follow Links with the nine-hole Quarry, which plays inside and around an immense shale quarry long since converted into a residential development and golf course.
“You’re about to play the most spectacular hole in all of Northern Michigan,” my playing partner, Director of Golf Bernie Friedrich, told me, reinforcing that braggadocio trend I’d been experiencing. It was a forced-carry, 500-yard, par-5 toward a pin high on a crest bordering the lake. Shots pulled to the right drop into danger. Friedrich’s brag wasn’t misguided: From the green, you take in a 180-degree panorama of Lake Michigan, the harbor and miles of rugged coastline. Once you reach the green, maintain focus: Unlike the crowned greens on the Links nine, though, Quarry’s greens force you to contend with troughs and swales that cut across the putting surface to aid in drainage.
Further inland, golf course architect Jim Engh tamed hundreds of acres of rolling hardwoods and mature pines to create True North Golf Club. Owner John Hover and Director of Golf David Mocini run a first-class operation, with widely spaced tee times and immaculate course conditions. Don’t be surprised if the only others on the course are either four-legged or feathered.
True North is one of Engh’s best designs. A master of elevation changes, he paints vivid pictures with hues of green grasses and sinuous lines. His fairways trail off in the distance as dark, thin ribbons bordered by darker bluegrass rough, uncoiling up or down the sides of a hill until finally unspooling at the edge of cup-and-saucer greens. Do not miss True North.
Perhaps the best-known golf resort in Northern Michigan is Treetops, a collection of five wonderful courses in the tiny town of Gaylord. The downtown is quintessential Americana. The train still crosses Main Street near Town Hall. City Barbershop shares the street with Sugarbowl restaurant, both only a few blocks away from Gobblers.
The drive to Treetops takes you through farmland scattered with red barns, newly painted white fences, and a mailman who makes deliveries from an old gray Chevy sedan with bench seats and windows rolled down. Eventually you’ll reach the Pigeon River and a left turn down a two-lane road whose sudden presence surprises even the GPS. Out of seemingly nowhere, you will have reached Treetops.
Each of the five courses, including a riveting nine-hole par-3 course, is worth your attention. The bulk of the property seems to have been cut out of a thick forest. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., designed a course here, as did Tom Fazio. Golf teacher Rick Smith takes design credits for the other three, including the par-3 course.
Of the five, the par-3 is the unexpected star.
“You should think about playing the par-3 twice,” a local player told me. Green fees on the par-3 are $50, about half the price of the other Treetops courses. (Like the rest of the golf in Northern Michigan, discounted green fees are readily available.) Insiders say the par-3 gets 10,000 rounds of play a year, nearly three times the play it received when it debuted in 1992.
Smith incorporated dramatic elevation changes from tee to green, some as steep as 170 feet. The layout is no slouch; even the pros who played in the Par-3 Shootout found the course challenging. Yardages range from 96 yards to 216 yards.
Smith’s Signature course is also a demanding test. Smith incorporated an Irish flair into some of his holes, with deep bunkers, heather, tall grasses and small greens.
Fazio took a different approach with his Premier course. His fairways, equal parts generous and picturesque, often funnel errant balls back to friendly ground. But second shots require precision to land favorably on Fazio’s large, tricky greens.
With long days and cool nights, fall in Northern Michigan gives you plenty of opportunity to play 36 holes a day. That means you can’t leave Gaylord without playing the Tribute course down the road at the Otsego Club. The course rolls and tumbles over 11,000 acres of land owned by one of two private ski clubs in the U.S. The varied terrain requires you to shape your shots from nearly every tee and the fairway, working the ball left and right around doglegs and obstacles like streams and meadows, gulleys and cliffs. Many of the greens are deeply contoured. Go for the golf, but you’ll linger for the photo opps – and the $38 price. (Get there early for the all-you-can-eat $8 breakfast.)
If you can spare an extra day or two, take the Arnold Ferry to Mackinac Island, and stay at the Grand Hotel, truly one of America’s grandest old hotels. Play golf at the Grand’s Woods and Jewel golf courses (short but scenic) and at Wawashkamo Golf Course, a compact layout that rents hickory shafted clubs and gutta percha balls for an unforgettable round. Motor vehicles are prohibited on the charming island, which relies on horse-drawn carriages and bicycles for transportation to anywhere you don’t want to reach on foot.
A golf trip to Northern Michigan is better than you can imagine. The golf is amazingly affordable. With discount packages readily available, you can “stay and play” for a week for only a few hundred dollars. The long, cool, fall days end with crisp nights that set hillsides on fire with explosions of autumn color.
Try to get lost. Country roads seem to lead nowhere but somehow all lead to a golf course, an isolated fly fishing stream or a beachside fudge shop. Whether you find yourself at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, where everyone in the dining room spontaneously applauds when the string quartet plays “God Bless America,” or eating just-caught Lake Michigan perch at the Inn at Bay Harbor, the quality (and price) of the food will impress you. And when you walk through the Traverse City airport on your way home, remember as you pass the Coffee Shop not to wake the sleepy security guard. He’s probably dreaming about golf, too.
Just the Facts
Grand Traverse Resort
Grand Traverse, MI 888-335-7045
True North Golf Club
Harbor Springs, MI 231-526-3300
Inn at Bay Harbor
Bay Harbor, MI 800-462-6963
Bay Harbor Golf Club and Boyne Highlands
Bay Harbor, MI 800-GO-BOYNE
Gaylord, MI 800-752-5510
Gaylord, MI 888-TREETOPS
Grand Hotel and Jewel Golf Course
Mackinac Island, MI 800-33-GRAND
Wawashkamo Golf Club
Mackinac Island, MI 906-847-3871
Alphorn Sport Shop (fly fishing guides)
Gaylord, MI 989-732-5616