by Terry Moore
More than a hundred years ago, Manistee boasted the third busiest port (behind Chicago and Milwaukee) on Lake Michigan due to the booming lumber trade. In fact, that lumber boom resulted in Manistee having more millionaires per capita than just about anywhere in the U.S. Today, there's still plenty of lumber around these parts -- in its original state at the Manistee National Forest. But the boom one hears nowadays in the Victorian Port City (as Manistee proudly hails itself) is that of golfers using their Titanium drivers off the tees on some of most scenic, affordable, and enjoyable golf layouts in the state. And with a stunning Rick Smith-designed Arcadia Bluffs on the horizon (see Jack Berry's accompanying story) for 1999, Manistee area golf is poised to be one of the state's next up-and-coming golf destinations. Here's why:
Located just outside Bear Lake, County Highlands is a "textbook" success story. Back in 1964, a group of Bear Lake residents sought to build a golf course and make it a non-profit, association-operated facility. So the founders sought information from the National Golf Foundation (NGF) on the best way to build a course. "Even starting with a relatively easy first hole -- to get play moving -- came from the NGF," said head pro Greg Babinec, now in his fourth year.
Now 34 years later, those NGF principles have paid off handsomely as County Highlands is one of the most popular layouts in the area. "People appreciate that our excess revenues are plowed back into the operation here. We're constantly improving," says Babinec. Improvements of late include adding new blue tees to the course, thereby adding some 400 yards to the scorecard. "The new back tees will stretch our course to 6500 yards and will make our course even more attractive to visitors," said Babinec. Another attraction is the quality of the turf here. Ably maintained by super Garrett Waller, the bluegrass/poa fairways are lush as are the putting surfaces. County Highlands is noted for its rolling terrain and some pretty views of nearby Bear Lake, particularly on numbers eight and nine. But sharp claws await wayward swingers here, as there are water hazards, mostly lateral, on seven of the holes here. All in all, County Highlands is a worthy test of golf. For sure, the NGF would be proud of how it all turned out. Call 616-864-3817.
Located five mile south of Manistee on U.S. 31, Cobi Pines, one can argue, help launch Manistee as an emerging golf destination some five years ago. Just ask John Witkowski, 64, and Ken Turk, 59, charter members of Cobi Pines who just finished nine when I interviewed them. "This is a well-kept golf course," said Witkowski. "The owners really take of the place." That includes the greens according to Turk, a retired policeman. "The greens here are as good as you'll find in the area." From the back tees, Cobi Pines measures out to 6600 yards and has a slope rating of 133.
The conscientious owners are Don Bielski and his son Larry. 14 months ago, they added a new dimension to Cobi Pines by the opening of a most impressive 50-room resort motel. And this isn't just your plain vanilla, thin-walled, Econ-o-Inn. Instead, the Bielski's -- who formerly owned a Days Inn -- listened to their customers on building the ideal accommodations. The results are over-sized rooms boasting two TV's, microwave, refrigerator, hairdryer, free continental breakfast etc., and best yet: eight-inch thick walls. "You won't hear anyone snoring in the next room here," cracked Don. Also available are king suites, Jacuzzi rooms, meeting rooms, and an indoor pool/whirlpool, all just a short 9-iron from the first tee. It's no wonder that Cobi Pines' stay-and-play packages, some starting as low as $59.95 per person for room and golf plus cart, are at a record pace for '98. "With the courses in the area, there's now more reason for golfers to stay here and play golf for several days," said Larry. Call 1-800-867-2604.
Located five miles north of Manistee in Onekama, off M-22, The Heathlands opened to critical acclaim last year. Designed by Jeff Gorney and sporting fine, bluegrass fairways, The Heathlands is especially popular with first-time visitors for its user-friendly design and scenic beauty. "Our foursome really enjoyed the course today," said Jerry Laatsch, 67, from Lansing who I interviewed just after his round in early June. "It's in excellent shape and there's a nice balance in the design: not too tough but not too easy either." The layout, that has views of Portage Lake, is a par 72 that from the tips stretches out to 6800 yards. Generous fairways and open approaches to green sites lend a charming links-style feel to the course.
The GM is affable John Read who relishes the challenge of improving the facility even more in the years ahead. "Basically, we believe if you offer a good product, maintain it, and treat people well, then we'll be successful."
Improvements so far in '98 include increasing his golf car fleet to 60, marking the sprinkler heads with yardages, adding yardage stakes and signage, and opening up several landing areas off of the tees. And Read is justly proud of a new tee for the par-three 11th hole which opens up the hole and makes it more playable. But Read's favorite hole is still the 14th, a near driveable, risk- reward par-four. "I just love how the tee sits on top of the bluff and tempts you to go for the green."
The Heathlands is cooperating with the nearby Portage Pointe Inn for a stay and play package. Call 616-889-5644 or visit its website at www. heathlands.com.
The great-granddaddy of golf courses in Manistee opened for play in 1901. It was designed by one of the pioneers of American golf architecture -- Tom Bendelow -- who later became famous for his work at Medinah CC in Chicago. Manistee is no Medinah but it has considerable appeal. First, it boasts some of the most stunning views of Lake Michigan in the state. Six holes have either greens or tees overlooking the water. (My favorite is still the par-three 14th hole that I swear is mindful of some rich sister hole on the Monterey Peninsula.) Secondly, its small greens, thick rough, and wind-swept demeanor will confound those expecting a pushover from the par- 70, 5614 yard course.
The new head pro here is the energetic John Kuenzli, who returned to Manistee after spending several years in New York as a PGA pro, college golf coach and general manager. In fact, Kuenzli grew up less than a pitching wedge from the clubhouse. "I guess you could say I couldn't get Michigan out of my blood," said Kuenzli, a '89 Ferris State grad. "Manistee, the beauty of the lake, and most importantly, the people all made it easy to return home for." Manistee is a semi-private golf course, meaning it welcomes outside play by visitors. Kuenzli is just now developing several stay-and-play as well as drive-and- dine packages. There are discounts for juniors and in the works is a frequent player's card. But most of all, Kuenzli is concentrating on service.
"Our staff is focused on the team goal that perfection may be attained and excellence will be tolerated," said Kuenzli. Finally, expect to find exemplary conditioning at this venerable track. Mike Fatke is the super and newcomers to the course rave about the quality of the greens. Call 616-723-2509.
This course, set to open next year, is located across from Cobi Pines off US- 31. Designed by Jerry Matthews, the Bear Cat will rest on rolling, woodsy terrain that has some of the highest elevation in the township. One of principals behind the project is long- time Manistee native Dan Duchon who's particularly bullish about the area's future. "Manistee is Michigan's next big destination," said Duchon, an owner of an insurance agency. "We have a beautiful city, two major rivers, low crime rate, little traffic and for Chicagoans, we're three hours closer than northern Michigan." The Bear Cat sits on 160 acres and will offer four sets of tees. According to Duchon, the greens will be big, some as large as 10,000 square feet. "We're really pleased with what Jerry Matthews has done here," said Duchon. "His natural golf philosophy has impressed us." For more information, call 616-723-2553.
Residents and visitors to the areas have a few other golf choices in the vicinity. There's Fox Hills GC, a woodsy and inexpensive nine holer, that is located five miles south of Manistee off US-31 and Fox Farm Road. Call 616-723-3809. In nearby Wellston, there's Fawn Crest, a nine-holer on the edge of the Manistee National Forest. Call 616-848-4174. A third nine hole course may be found at Chestnut Hills, located six miles north of Manistee off US-31. Call 616-889-4785.
This is a spectacular real estate development that sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, just north of downtown. Harbor Village is the creation of DSLT development company of St. Clair, MI. Only 40 % completed, Harbor Village offers an impressive array of housing choices: Lakeshore condominiums with scenic views of the Lake; HarborSide Condominiums that adjoin the deep water marina; The Cottages offering quaint single family homes on shady lanes with white picket fences; BrookHarbor Condominiums, in the center of Harbor Village, offers views of the Lake and marina; and The Dunes where single family luxury home sites sit on one-half mile of Lake Michigan beachfront. With the arrival and early success of Harbor Village, there's no better evidence of Manistee's bright future. Call 800-968-0783 or visit its website at www.harbor-village.com. Portage
If Harbor Village symbolizes Manistee's future, then Portage Point Inn represents its glorious past. Listed on the National Historic Register, Portage Point Inn consists of 14 buildings on 18 acres with over 1000 feet of lake frontage on Portage Lake in Onekema. It opened in 1903 when steamships from Chicago would unload hoards of happy families anxious to escape the summer city heat for the mild temperatures of northern Michigan. Accommodations include lakefront condominiums, hotel rooms, and rustic one room cabins. Recreational options include tennis, shuffleboard, badminton, volleyball and a variety of water rentals, including sailboats and waverunners. Call 800-878-7248 or visit its website at www.portagepointinn.com.
This fourth annual event is set for Sept. 11& 12 at Manistee Golf & CC and Cobi Pines. A 36-hole, 4-person team best ball event, entry fees are $125 person or $500 per team. The event helps to raise monies for area youth, including the Manistee Recreation Association, Junior Achievement, and Junior League Baseball, among others. Prizes in the past have included fabulous golf vacation packages both in and outside Michigan. Teams may enter in men's, women's and mixed categories. Call 616-723-9274.
For more information about Manistee County and its attraction, call toll-free at 1-877-626-4783.
-- Terry Moore
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