Michigan is the pits (the state leads the nation in cherry production), the Pistons (Detroit's revitalized hoopsters) and Pam (Anderson, Motowner Kid Rock's former squeeze). It's also a premier place for pasture pool. Seized by a golf course building boom in the nineties—153 new tracks in the last ten years—Michigan has surpassed Texas and now trails only California and Florida with 855 courses in all, a whopping 705 of them public. Nowhere has the boom been more bountiful than in the untamed north, a one-hour flight from Detroit, the city that will host the thirty-fifth Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club in September.
Northern Michigan is coastal stunners like Bay Harbor, where during the mid-summer twilight players can relish a blazing sunset over Little Traverse Bay at 10 p.m., and Arcadia Bluffs, where the coastline is too rugged to walk. It's old inland classics like Belvedere Golf Club, one of Tom Watson's favorites, and new ones like Black Lake and Forest Dunes, two of the best neophytes in the country. It's golf meccas like Treetops Resort—itself a member of the Gaylord Golf Mecca, a consortium of twenty-four courses all within a forty-five-minute drive of Gaylord—and top instructors like Rick Smith, the man who rebuilt Phil Mickelson's game this year. Indeed, the sheer number of highly challenging, stellar resort courses here, and the quality of their amenities, is, in a word, silly.
We threw it all into our on-cart GPS system and here's what came out: Northern Michigan has the greatest concentration of great golf in America, too many first-rate courses to play in a week or even two. Of course, we love a challenge.
BELVEDERE GOLF CLUB
Charlevoix; 231-547-2611, belvederegolfclub.com. Yardage: 6,715. Par: 72. Slope: 129. Architect: William Watson, 1925. Greens Fees: $48-$80. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
You're likely familiar with the Lake course at San Francisco's Olympic Club and Minnesota's Interlachen Country Club, both designed by Willie Watson. Although Watson's Belvedere may be less famous, it's every bit as fine—eighteen holes of classic, old-school cool built by 150 men and five teams of horses. Here, golfers are greeted not by a bag boy wearing a headset but by a modest pro shop with barely enough room for a few clubs and caps. No frills?No worries. The course stands on its own. Greens are small and fast, and fairways are gently sloping (almost everyone walks at Belvedere). All holes are straightforward but memorable, especially the eighteenth, a 430-yard par four with a huge maple tree left of a mounded green surrounded by native grasses and flowers. Belvedere, frequent home of the Michigan Amateur, has played host to Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour and Sam Snead. Tom Watson used to frequent the course in summer and is still an honorary member. Ken Venturi once showed up out of the blue on the advice of a friend, who told him the course was a must-play. The friend?Gene Sarazen.
Roscommon; 989-275-0700, forestdunesgolf.com. Yardage: 7,104. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Architect: Tom Weiskopf, 2002. Greens Fees: $85-$125. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
Weiskopf's work is consistently solid, but this is one of his finest courses. The fairways are framed by pines, oaks and rugged dunesland; bent-grass greens are smartly designed (challenging but fair); and the bright white sand is positively Augusta-like. Weiskopf clearly sweated the small stuff while including characteristic touches such as a drivable par four (the 302-yard seventeenth). Originally conceived as a private club, Forest Dunes went broke even before it opened, but with a new commitment from the Detroit carpenters pension fund, the club debuted as a semiprivate layout in 2002. Two fun flourishes: a 117- yard par three nineteenth hole and junior tees that add up to 3,084 yards.
ARCADIA BLUFFS GOLF CLUB
Arcadia; 800-494-8666, arcadiabluffs.com. Yardage: 7,300. Par: 72. Slope: 143. Architects: Warren Henderson and Rick Smith, 1999. Greens Fees: $75-$175. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
It's coastal. It's roller coastal. Arcadia Bluffs, named for its 3,100 feet of shoreline high above Lake Michigan, features water views from every hole. That's the good news. The bad: This sprawling, vertiginous track can mulch your ego with its humps, hollows and 245 acres of uneven lies, its elephant-graveyard greens and its forced carries. By the time you reach the twelfth hole, a 431-yard par four along the bluff, you may have the urge to hurl your clubs over the precipice toward Wisconsin. Still, for big-game hunters, Arcadia is irresistible with its sod-walled bunkers with stairs, collection areas for imprecise approaches and one green (number five) so diabolical a two-putt should merit a free round. It may win more beauty contests than playability points, but Arcadia is an imaginative design with some of the finest scenery in the Midwest.
BLACK LAKE GOLF CLUB
Onaway; 989-733-4653, blacklakegolf.com. Yardage: 7,046. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Architect: Rees Jones, 2000. Greens Fees: $45-$85. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Inland gem Black Lake stands out first for its redwood, cedar and Wisconsin stone clubhouse inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and built by the United Auto Workers union. (The UAW financed the club, part of a one-thousand-acre retreat for workers and their relatives.) The course is just as artfully crafted by Rees Jones: tree-lined holes through wetlands, a big par five (the 590-yard ninth) and enough sand and water to make you think. Mostly you'll wonder: How can so much sand (seventy-seven bunkers) be so perfectly raked?The bunker on the fourteenth, a 235-yard par three, stretches all the way from the tee to the green, a veritable Midwest Dubai. For family outings, Black Lake's nine-hole pitch-and-putt has holes varying from 34 to 117 yards.
BOYNE HIGHLANDS RESORT, HEATHER
Harbor Springs; 800-462-6963, boyne.com. Yardage: 6,890. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1967. Greens Fees: $79-$129. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Built at the request of late skiing pioneer Everett Kircher, the Heather is billed as the course that began Northern Michigan's transformation from downhill destination to "America's Summer Golf Capital." A mainstay on top-100 lists since it opened in 1967, the Heather calls for players to work the ball both ways off the tee, features two uniquely short but tricky par fours (numbers three and eight) and has plenty of water. The 451- yard par-four finisher demands a mid-iron approach over a lake filled with enough balls to keep two scuba divers busy—little comfort to those who splash their Stratas here.
TREETOPS RESORT, FAZIO PREMIER
Gaylord; 888-873-3867, treetops.com. Yardage: 6,832. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Architect: Tom Fazio, 1992. Greens Fees: $60-$110. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Treetops Resort's eighty-one holes on more than 4,000 acres high above the Pigeon River Valley keep golf-crazed guests on the go. The user-friendly Fazio course is the best place to find your swing at the start of your trip. Known for his beautiful, natural designs, Fazio gives players wide fairways that bank toward center, big greens and "pro pointers" for every hole (on the scorecard). And don't fear the silly-sloped "Himalayas" practice green; the greens on the course are more than fair.
TREETOPS RESORT, RICK SMITH SIGNATURE
Gaylord; 888-873-3867, treetops.com. Yardage: 6,653. Par: 70. Slope: 140. Architect: Rick Smith, 1993. Greens Fees: $60-$110. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Native vegetation creates the sensation that this course plays through an enchanted meadow, while elevated tees afford the eponymous treetop vistas. The 520-yard par-five sixth tests both accuracy and commitment: Players can aim tee shots over the center-cut fairway bunker, short of it or up the alleys left and right. Two of the three par fives are within reach with two shots. Seasoned Rick Smith Signature hands know the sloped greens well enough to aim away from the hole, as at Augusta, and watch shots roll slowly toward it.