Note: This story was originally published in the September, 2001, issue of Golf Digest
As a ski mecca, Northern Michigan has its limitations.
It snows here, and snows a lot, but the region doesn't have much of what resort managers longingly refer to as "vertical"--mountain peaks steep enough to satisfy even the most experienced black-diamond veterans.
The hard truth for the Northern Michigan ski resorts like Boyne, Crystal Mountain and Treetops was evident. Without the verticals of Vail or Park City, they could never develop into anything more than regional, half-year ski destinations. To grow, they needed to attract tourists during the region's mild summer.
For the bean counters who approve spending for things like new lodges, restaurants and spas, signature golf courses from prominent designers have proved to be a perfect way to use the exposed land adjacent to the ski slopes, fill the hotel rooms and condos, and keep valuable staff members employed year-round.
But it has only been since the course-construction boom in the 1990s that modern architects have discovered the things Alister Mackenzie knew well when he built his under-publicized masterpiece, Crystal Downs, on the Lake Michigan shore west of Traverse City in 1933. The crescent of land that crowns Michigan's lower peninsula offers perfect topography, soil, views and weather. In other words, this is a perfect place to build a golf course.
Or a hundred of them.
It might have taken a half-century for them to catch on, but developers needed only a decade to catch up. Michigan had more new course openings than any other state every year from 1994 to 1998. Even with a softening economy and a glut of premium daily-fee courses around Gaylord (the epicenter of Northern Michigan golf) that has inspired predatory price-slashing, more than 75 new courses opened in the state from 1998 to 2000, the last years measured by the National Golf Foundation. Now you can find a memorable golf course at every point in the price spectrum, from $50 at The Gailes to $250 at Bay Harbor. And with the variety of views and terrain, you can play something that reminds you of Scottish links in the morning (with a Great Lake substituting for the North Sea), then search for your tee shot in white-pine forests in the afternoon. For a golfer, there might not be a better place to visit.
'Pinehurst of the Midwest'
"The best golf in the nation is here," says instructor and architect Rick Smith, who has designed four courses in the area and has a school at Treetops Resort in Gaylord. "The land is fantastic and the views go on for miles. It's the Pinehurst of the Midwest."
The complete roster of Northern Michigan courses, which numbers about 150, isn't as tightly accessible as the best in Pinehurst, but on a well-planned, five-day driving trip, no course is too remote to reach with a morning drive. The entire parabola of Northern Michigan's golf Riviera is less than 200 miles long, or about a 3 ?-hour car ride. As at Myrtle Beach, most of the prominent new daily-fee courses here count on visitors coming for long play-and-stay weekends--sampling the resort's offerings, but also traveling off-campus for rounds at other courses.
A topographical map of Michigan makes the state look as if someone steamrolled it with heavy equipment, then rumpled the northwest corner. From the Ohio and Indiana border up through the middle of the state, Michigan is Nebraska flat. It's only when you head into that northwestern quadrant of the Lower Peninsula that the road in front of you starts to disappear over an oncoming hill. The state's biggest ski resorts are all within this 100-mile radius.
Most of Northern Michigan's main roads are well-paved, fast-paced and lined with trees, which makes pleasure drives a popular diversion. Just remember to watch the road. Northern Michigan is alive with deer, elk, bear and various other animals that can destroy the front of a rental car faster than you can say "deductible."
First stop: Arcadia Bluffs
On a recent trip, we started in Arcadia (a comfortable five-hour drive from Detroit), worked our way up to Traverse City, then through Petoskey and Gaylord before finishing on the Lake Huron side of the state. Plotting a route following the lakes, it's easy to pick Arcadia as the jumping-off point, but it isn't such an easy place to find. A fisherman's inlet for the past 100 years, this sleepy town only seems as if it's at the edge of the world. Arcadia Bluffs, the striking new Warren Henderson-Rick Smith course overlooking Lake Michigan, is past the edge of the world, two wrong turns past Arcadia's tiny post office.
The postcard-worthy views in this part of the state are the kind most courses in the world would envy. There's the panorama from Arcadia Bluffs' 15th green, which sits on a cliff 200 feet above Lake Michigan. And the ninth plays 240 yards from the back tee. Even the view from the picture window in the golf shop is stunning.
Arcadia Bluffs' clubhouse is perched on one of the highest points of land on the property, overlooking the Lake Michigan bluffs from which the course got its name. At the apex of the climb from the parking lot to the shop, the lake tumbles into view across the entire horizon, offering a thrilling preview.
Henderson and Smith made the most of the 253 acres, sending players away from the water for the first two holes, then dramatically returning lakeside for the next seven, grabbing all the exposure to the 3,100 feet of lake frontage they could. Don't get distracted by the views, though. Wicked fescue penalizes wild shots, and the huge greens are the size of carnival midways, and about as wild.
As striking as Arcadia Bluffs is, it really is in the middle of nowhere, just south of the huge Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore. Unless you're planning to pitch a tent, you'll have to find somewhere else to stay. Fifteen miles east, on a state road that meanders through farmland, old-growth tree stands and vineyards, is Crystal Mountain Resort, which sets the standard for low key, cost-conscious elegance.
A family-run ski resort since the mid-1950s, Crystal didn't get into golf until the late '70s, with its Mountain Ridge and Betsie Valley courses. Mountain Ridge is entertaining and a test from the back tees, but what sets the resort apart is its school, the Brad Dean Academy, which rivals Smith's school at Treetops as the best in the state. Dean, the Michigan PGA's teacher of the year in 1998 and 2000, runs more than 60 schools every summer--from women's programs to beginners' clinics. And if you're worried Dean might not be able to adapt to your personality, don't. He was Jesper Parnevik's college roommate.
Crystal's lodging was designed with the skier in mind, but its mountainside condos offer gorgeous forest and golf course views. The condos feature kitchens fully stocked with dishes and silverware, making them family-friendly.
Earlier this year, Crystal Mountain announced plans for a 10-year, $60 million expansion that will include an 18-hole course and at least 10 more ski slopes--a substantial commitment for what remains a family-run operation. The expansion is a must, if only to keep pace with more northerly neighbors Grand Traverse Resort, Shanty Creek and Boyne USA.
While places like Crystal Mountain and Garland (located in bustling Lewiston--population 2,200) are out of the way, Grand Traverse Resort & Spa is the place to stay if you have no interest in renting a car. It's only 10 minutes from the Cherry Capital Airport and another 10 minutes from downtown Traverse City. When The Bear course opened in 1985 (designed by--surprise!--Jack Nicklaus), it immediately earned a reputation as one of the most challenging in the Midwest. It has been the site of the Michigan Open every year since then, and has punished unsuspecting tourists in its spare time. To offer a change of pace, Grand Traverse opened The Wolverine, a Gary Player-designed course, in 1999. Much like its designer, the Wolverine is shorter and easier to get along with.
Traverse City offers the convenience of fast-food restaurants and brew pubs, but that comes with a cost--congestion. Thanks to its proximity to the area's only real airport, a large, modern hospital and great schools, business is booming, and the town's infrastructure is groaning as it tries to adapt to bigger-city life. This is the only place on a Northern Michigan trip where you'll wait in line. Mode's Bum Steer is one local steak joint worth the wait, and Mackinaw Brewing Company serves authentic local ale.
Getting on Mackenzie's ultra-private Crystal Downs is next to impossible unless you know a member, but you can take a trip from Traverse City to Charlevoix (50 miles north on U.S. 31) for the next-best thing in time travel: Tom Watson calls Belvedere Golf Club one of his all-time favorites, and it's easy to see why. Like Crystal Downs, it's a vintage early-20th-century gem, with fairways lined by mature, overhanging trees. It's also off the beaten resort-course path.
Technically, Boyne Mountain Resort (one of three Boyne USA properties in Northern Michigan; others are in Utah, Montana, Washington and Florida) was the first Michigan resort to combine skiing and golf, when founder Everett Kircher helped scrape out a par-3 executive course at the base of one of the ski runs. Since the 1960s, the Kircher family has built six courses in and around Boyne City (20 miles northwest of Gaylord), including the award-winning Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed Heather course at Boyne Highlands Resort. A Pete Dye course is scheduled to open in 2004.
"We wanted to create a summertime amenity for conventions, and to fill what was our ski lodge during the off-season," says Steve Kircher, son of the founder and one of the resort's principals. "My dad started it with the course he built, then he brought in Robert Trent Jones in the mid-1960s to build the Heather, and that was basically the start of it all in Northern Michigan."
Bay Harbor luxury
Golf is still only 9 percent of Boyne's total business--almost 2 million skiers bought lift tickets at the Boyne properties last year, but fewer than 300,000 players paid for rounds of golf. But Boyne's involvement in the creation of the luxurious Bay Harbor community 14 miles up the road near Petoskey has made its commitment to summertime diversions pretty clear.
Boyne teamed with local investors to undertake one of the most ambitious golf developments of all time. It cost more than $500 million to transform five miles of Lake Michigan coastline just west of Petoskey from an abandoned cement plant and limestone quarry into 27 spectacular Arthur Hills-designed holes, a planned waterfront community with ultra-exclusive shops and hotels, a 90-acre marina and a state-of-the-art equestrian center. The golf complex alone cost $22 million. Waterfront home sites--the plots, not the completed buildings--sell for as much as $1.5 million. Those are Silicon Valley and New York City numbers for a place with distinctly midwestern sensibilities. Real-estate sales have been brisk, so it seems Michigan's most exclusive address has been created out of thin air--or at least old cement. Last year, the Bay Harbor community had a tax base of $1.4 billion, more than that of Petoskey, which had a 100-year head start.
Visitors to Bay Harbor can also take advantage of the first-class restaurant, Latitudes, opened to cater to the residents of all those million-dollar homes. You used to have to drive an hour to Traverse City--the only city in the northern quarter of the state with more than 30,000 people--to find a restaurant with napkins not made out of paper. With its bank of windows and minimalist steel fixtures, Latitudes wouldn't look out of place in Greenwich Village, and sophisticated dishes like wok-seared shrimp and sea scallops, seasoned shiitake mushrooms, sweet peppers and lemongrass appeal to even the most experienced traveler.
Bay Harbor Golf Club is run like the private club it is for the 310 members (mostly property owners in the adjacent development or globetrotting serial club joiners). Guests at the Inn at Bay Harbor--a stunning 139-room Victorian hotel with a full-service spa and beach club--can play the course for $180, but nonguests will pay a Monterey Peninsula-like $240, assuming a tee time is available.
You can debate whether any course is worth such a steep fee (and play Arcadia Bluffs twice while you're at it), but Hills doesn't cheat those who are willing to spend the money. The 27-hole complex has three miles of direct frontage on the lake. The 500-yard seventh hole on the Links is a microcosm of that particular nine. It isn't especially long, even from the back tee, but it plays wildly differently depending on the wind. From the tee, it looks as if the world falls away into Lake Michigan down the right side of the fairway, but you've actually got plenty of room. The hole plays uphill the rest of the way to a green set on a promontory overlooking the water. A 40-yard wide runway of short grass funnels run-up shots onto the green, but miss right or long and you'll need rappelling gear, a hatchet and some scuba equipment to retrieve your wayward ball. Five other holes on the Links nine have direct lake frontage. Call it Whistling Straits East.
Northern Michigan's other ski resort giant, Shanty Creek (in Bellaire, only 20 miles from Boyne Mountain), has assembled its own cadre of prominent architects to bolster its four-season schedule. The Legend Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design, has been a staple of resort play in Northern Michigan since it opened in 1985, but it has been overshadowed by new sibling Cedar River Golf Club, a Tom Weiskopf design cut from mature forest and straddling a mountain stream.
Weiskopf left most of the trees intact, which makes the course look as if it has been there for years. As you wind your way out of the forest to more exposed terrain after the first five holes, water takes the place of trees as the dominant design feature. The 383-yard seventh is protected on its entire left side by a small lake. The green juts into the water as well, and anything long or right is swallowed by bunkers. If the pin is on the left side of the 176-yard eighth, you've got to play a long iron over the same lake.
Any doubts about Shanty's commitment to golf are swiftly dispelled with a quick walk through the accompanying Lodge at Cedar River, a massive cedar structure with bold galvanized-steel flashing. Half the rooms overlook the 18th green, and throughout the lobby and other common areas, televisions hang in the corners--tuned perpetually to The Golf Channel.
The publicity generated by opulent openings at Bay Harbor and Shanty Creek has inspired less-traditional developers to try to capitalize. The United Auto Workers union, which represents the rank-and-file laborers at the big-three car manufacturers that dominate Michigan's economy, decided to diversify some of its pension holdings by investing in real estate.
Its worker education and conference center was already in place in Onaway, a tiny, out-of-the-way town near the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. The union then hired Rees Jones to come in and carve a course out of the wilderness near the conference center. By all accounts, the design of Black Lake Golf Club--a classic parkland layout with broad shoulders--has been a hit with critics, but only seven foursomes were on the tee sheet on a beautiful spring day earlier this year. Green fees are $65 for non-UAW members.
In Gaylord, Treetops has parlayed its less-advantageous location for skiing (nearby Interstate 75 is more prominent than Treetops' signature ski mountain) into a powerhouse golf business. You can still buy lift tickets during the winter, but golf packages featuring Treetops' five courses provide the biggest business.
No other resort has as gaudy a collection of architectural heavyweights. Tom Fazio's only Michigan course, the Premier, is there along with Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s Masterpiece and three Rick Smith designs. The four 18-hole courses have earned at least four stars in Golf Digest's Places to Play listings, and Smith's "Threetops" has been the site of several prime-time par-3 challenges with tour players like Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd. The newest course, Smith's Tradition, was built with golfers who like to walk in mind.
Centrally located in the region, the town of Gaylord is a charming amalgamation of family-run restaurants, shops and motels. Its location, plus the convenience of the Interstate, makes it one of the most popular destinations for golfers coming from other points in Michigan. It's a short drive from town to a variety of strong courses.
Tom Doak's Black Forest is a fixture on best-public-course lists for its menacing green complexes and elaborate bunkering. Jerry Matthews' Elk Ridge, fourth among Golf Digest's Best New Courses of 1992, has deep-forest views and a highlight-reel 16th hole complete with a 245-yard carry from the tee over a pond.
Working east to picturesque U.S. 23, which runs along the shore of northern Lake Huron, Lakewood Shores Resort, built near the shuttered remnants of an Air Force base in Oscoda, boasts the best golf for the money in Northern Michigan. The Gailes course is as close to Scottish links golf as you'll find this side of Long Island's Shinnecock and the National Golf Links. Golf Digest picked it as the 1993 Best New Resort Course in America, and on a list of great courses with green fees starting in the $75 range, The Gailes stands out with its $55 weekday and $62 weekend fee. Designed by Kevin Aldridge, The Gailes is a moonscape of hidden bunkers, hosel-twisting gorse and exposed mounding.
Aldridge's latest design, the Blackshire, opened this summer. A classical tribute to Pine Valley, Blackshire has those familiar, intimidating waste areas, and short green-to-tee walks that make it one of the friendliest walking courses in America, along with Smith's Tradition at Treetops. Throw in the Bruce Matthews-designed Serradella, an easier, more traditional resort setup, and Lakewood Shores has something for everyone.
Keep in mind that the Lake Huron side of the state is far less commercially developed than its Lake Michigan counterpart. Most of the rooms there are of the motel--not hotel or resort--variety, and restaurants are fewer and farther between. Some travelers will enjoy the relative solitude, while others will long for a Wal-Mart.
If it sounds as if Northern Michigan has more golf than anyone could play in a year's worth of weekend trips, it does. But the golf course developers' biggest worry--market saturation--has become a boon for bargain-hunting golfers. So many resorts and daily-fee courses are vying for golfers' attention in the area that package prices are margin-shatteringly low. "We've had to aggressively defend our market share," Steve Kircher says of his Boyne resorts. "That puts pressure on everybody, and pressure on us, too."
Most resort owners suspect that the weak economy and market saturation will lead to mergers of some courses and the demise of others. "We're entering a period of shakeout," Kircher says. "The market will eventually catch up, but we're oversupplied now. The people who can hold on to their hats until the economy improves and the market grows are going to be the ones who survive."