When it comes to golf in the Midwest, Wisconsin has pretty much dominated the conversation in recent years, thanks to the dual driving forces of noteworthy championships and high-end development. Erin Hills, the U.S. Open, Sand Valley, the Ryder Cup … it’s been one big story after another.
On the other side of Lake Michigan, however, the golf is just as good, if not as sensationally publicized. Michigan has about 650 courses (some 200 more than Wisconsin) and the wide range of options – from remote hidden gems tucked in dense forests to sprawling multi-course resorts – make it a terrific golf destination.
As a bonus, because it is on the western edge of EDT, daylight extends to nearly 10 p.m. in mid-summer and the weather, at least from May through September, is about as good as it gets.
I’ve visited downstate Michigan and/or the Upper Peninsula more than 15 times over the last 30 years and can vouch for the quality of golf, having played more than 50 courses there. If you’re planning a golf getaway or a buddy trip in 2022, consider the Wolverine State and its many offerings.
You might want to use my latest trip as a template.
Immediately after the Ryder Cup in late September, I saddled up the Nissan Rogue, took the Lake Express ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon and spent four blissful days soaking up Michigan golf on 75-degree, Chamber of Commerce days.
On Day 1, I drove north on Highway 31 and made quick pit stops at Arcadia Bluffs, Michigan’s answer to Whistling Straits, and Crystal Downs in Frankfort, a private club with a marvelous course designed by Alister Mackenzie. At the latter, the golf shop attendant was kind enough to let me take photos of the course and browse the shop.
Then it was on to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for an afternoon of scaling the massive, 450-foot dunes that afford spectacular views of the lake and the Manitou islands. Finally, with legs burning and daylight fading, I drove east on Hwy. 72 into Traverse City and checked into the Delamar hotel, just feet from the water’s edge on Grand Traverse Bay.
With no golf scheduled on Day 2, I spent most of the day exploring the Old Mission Peninsula and its 10 wineries before driving on to my accommodations at the Inn at Bay Harbor in Petoskey. The 45th Parallel bisects the narrow peninsula, as it does the famous wine region of Bordeaux, France. Apparently, the soil and micro-climate here are perfect for growing grapes. Who knew?
Day 3 dawned cool, crisp and clear, perfect for golf. It had been 17 years since I played Bay Harbor Golf Club, but some courses, you never forget. The world-class facility has three distinct nines flowing along shoreline bluffs, all designed by Arthur Hills, who died earlier this year. Bay Harbor opened in 1997, predating Whistling Straits by one year; not for nothing is it marketed as “The Pebble Beach of the Midwest.”
I played the Links-Quarry combination with Ken Griffin, the director of sales and marketing for Boyne Golf. Taking its cue from the seaside courses in Ireland, the Links is a nearly treeless, windswept expanse of emerald turf and golden fescue, with miles of uninterrupted views up and down the lakefront. My favorite hole was the par-5 seventh, with its infinity green seemingly suspended above the water.
The Quarry nine was built in and around the remains of a massive shale quarry and showcases Hills’ ability to leverage the existing terrain, with its deep gorges, stone cliffs and water features. I don’t know which got the bigger workout – my driver or my camera.
Following golf, we retreated to the Inn at Bay Harbor for dinner on the Vintage Chophouse patio and watched the sun set over Little Traverse Bay, streaking the cloudless sky with splashes of yellow, orange, red and purple.
The four-star Inn, a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel, was built on the footprint of an abandoned cement factory and ranks among my favorite places to stay.
A 30-minute drive on the morning of Day 4, along the lake through charming Petoskey and then due north into Michigan wilderness, delivered me to Boyne Highlands and my appointed round at the Arthur Hills course. Alone with my thoughts, I played the superbly conditioned Hills at a leisurely pace, enjoying the views along the nine-mile cart path. Though it was Sept. 30, the forest this far north – roughly parallel with Rhinelander in Wisconsin – was ablaze with fall color.
My regret is that I didn’t get to play more of Boyne’s offerings, which include 10 courses at three resorts: Bay Harbor, Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands. At the latter, the Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed Heather opened in 1966, launching Michigan resort golf. It was named the 2019 course of the year by the National Golf Course Owner’s Association.
From past experience I know all of Boyne’s golf courses to be maintained to the same high standards. Bay Harbor is the jewel, but you won’t play one course and wish you’d skipped it to play another.
“The standards are maintained across every course,” Griffin said. “Yes, we guide (magazine) raters toward certain courses; we can’t tell them they’ve got to play 10, because all we’re going to do is fragment the votes. So, we keep them on Bay Harbor, the Heather and the Hills. But then there’s the Alpine, the Ross, the Monument, Crooked Tree … there is just so much good golf.”
The next morning, I headed north on Interstate 75, across the Mackinac Bridge and into the Upper Peninsula, then turned west on Highway 2 and drove on to Harris for my final two rounds, at Sweetgrass Golf Club and Sage Run. The courses are part of the Island Resort & Casino, owned and operated by the Hannahville Indian Community.
The hotel was booked solid for, of all things, a concert by the ‘90s boy band 98 Degrees, so I found a room about eight miles away at the Comfort Suites, just outside Escanaba.
Sweetgrass and Sage Run both were designed by Paul Albanese, but they are as diametrically opposed as two courses can be – a nod to Albanese’s skill as an architect. If Sweetgrass is sophisticated, dressed in a tuxedo and drinking Perrier, then Sage Run is its unkempt cousin – shirt untucked, two-day stubble, beer in hand … and a ton of fun.
Sweetgrass was selected as the 2021 Michigan Golf Course of the Year by the Michigan Golf Course Association, which qualifies it for national course of the year in 2022. It is flattish, superbly conditioned and provides subtle prairie links challenges. Features including an island green on the par-3 15th and a massive double green serving Nos. 9 and 19.
Sage Run is wild and woolly, with cart-taxing elevation changes (it cannot be walked). I had a 10:30 reservation but because I planned to drive home after golf – Milwaukee is about four hours away – I called ahead and asked for an earlier tee time. I was given the 9:30 slot, first off the tee and alone in the morning fog. It was eerily quiet, with not a breath of wind stirring the air. I couldn’t see my ball on the first couple holes but could hear the hollow thwonk when (if?) it landed in the fairway.
The experience was exhilarating, but be forewarned: Sage Run is not for the faint of heart. It is long and unforgiving and has a couple of the scariest uphill holes you’ll ever play.
Sated from four days of memorable golf, I packed up the car and broke up the drive home with a stop at the sobering Peshtigo Fire Museum, then passed through Green Bay as the Packers were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field. Listening to Wayne and Larry helped pass the time.
Would I do it again? Sign me up.