Destination: Grand Golf
By Don VanderVeen
Five years ago, upscale golf and Grand Rapids could not even be mentioned in the same sentence. But that was then, and this is now.
Upscale golf has arrived in Grand Rapids.
Now, the West Michigan area features more highly touted new courses than any city in the state.
If Downtown Grand Rapids were the "Destination" -- a golf course comprised of golf courses -- there would be an array of shot-making choices to satisfy players of all abilities.
Just look at an updated scorecard. The "Destination" options are impressive.
Within driving distance -- less than an hour from downtown -- are such admirable courses such as St. Ives, Thoroughbred, The Ravines, Hawkshead and The Colonial, among others. These outstanding courses provide golfers looking for dramatic views and challenging layouts with a fix that will leave long-lasting impressions.
Just a 3-iron away -- within a half hour -- are The Meadows at Grand Valley State University, The Links at Bowen Lake and Pilgrim's Run. Each championship caliber course has been built within the past five years and offers nice scenery to complement the shot-making options.
The outstanding chip shots -- those courses located within 15 minutes of downtown -- include upscale golf developments at Thornapple Pointe, Boulder Creek, Thousand Oaks and Quail Ridge. This most formidable foursome of gems -- whose list of architects read like a Who's Who in Michigan and U.S. golf course design -- have all opened within the past four years. Thousand Oaks and Quail Ridge are making their public debuts later this summer.
Then, there are the middle iron courses. These courses are what Grand Rapids golf was founded on, and are price-point bargains for what they have to offer the average golfer.
"There are a lot of courses of outstanding caliber within a very reasonable drive to Grand Rapids," says Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "When you combine the caliber golf courses with our other amenities we have to offer in Grand Rapids, it makes for a very attractive package."
Additional offerings of nightlife activities and sporting events make this "Destination" even more attractive. The West Michigan Whitecaps minor league baseball team, the VanAndel Arena -- which hosts concerts featuring musical legends the likes of Elton John -- and other major events such as the West Michigan Grand Prix and the Senior PGA Tour's Foremost Insurance Championship add additional excitement and options for golfers after they make -- or play -- their daily rounds.
Ten years ago, there was no VanAndel Arena, there were no West Michigan Whitecaps or any courses like The Meadows, Thornapple Pointe, Boulder Creek, Thousand Oaks and Quail Ridge. Now, they are all located within minutes of Downtown.
The transformation of this city over the past decade has been nothing short of amazing. Especially for golf aficionados.
"At some destination points, there are not a lot of alternatives if you want to get outside the actual resort you're at, but here we have the night life, the hotels and the restaurants to support the golf," Wilson said. "It's a great combination that works very well."
Located northeast of Grand Rapids in Mecosta County, St. Ives combines the best of nature -- wetlands, woodlands and steep elevation changes -- with well manicured bent grass tees, fairways and greens. When it opened in 1997, this Jerry Matthews design was ranked No. 5 by Golf Digest among the best new public courses in the United States.
The Thoroughbred, located just north of Muskegon, is one of Michigan's most challenging golf courses and is not for the timid. But if you want a course with some bite to go along with its beauty, this is a "must play" venue. It was designed by Art Hills. The Thoroughbred has two new shoreline mates that opened or will open this summer. The Ravines, located near Saugatuck and designed by Arnold Palmer, has been 10 years in the making, while The Colonial is a neatly laid out player-friendly course located near the Silver Lake resort town of Mears. Just a little south, in South Haven, Hawkshead is another terrific Art Hills layout, with many Pine Valley touches, that winds through sandy dunes and protected game areas.
The Meadows, which opened in 1994, is smartly laid out on the campus of GVSU and provides for a playable experience with every round. As a bonus, The Meadows boasts one of the best learning centers in the state. The course has hosted a number of state and collegiate events and has been well-received by players. And customer and outing service is top notch here.
Perhaps one of outstate Michigan's best-kept secrets is Pilgrim's Run, an 18-hole championship course located about 25 miles north of Grand Rapids. Carved out of a hardwood forest, Pilgrim's Run is a plush bent grass course spread out over 400 acres on a rolling terrain. Contoured greens, wide generous fairways and intelligent bunkering add to the mystique of this unique par-73 layout that plays 7,078 yards from the back tees and 4,771 from the front.
The Links at Bowen Lake, in northeast Kent County, boast four of the more spectacular looking par-3 holes you'll find on a course anywhere. Watch for this course to become more popular as word gets around.
Located near the Kent County International Airport, Thornapple Pointe has taken golf to upscale heights in Grand Rapids with its a par-72 layout with four tee boxes that play 6,821 yards from the tips and 4,878 from the front. From its sharply designed clubhouse and its well-maintained playing conditions, to its PinMark global positioning satellite systems providing patrons with exacting yardage to the pins, Thornapple Pointe has virtually every essential amenity available to public golfers.
On the northeast side of Grand Rapids, Boulder Creek prides itself on providing patrons with a country club experience. The golf course itself -- featuring continous concrete cart paths -- is interesting in that it offers a tree-lined adventure on the front, and a more open, links-like experience on the back. It plays 6,850 yards from the black tees and 4,996 from the red. Three additional tee boxes are arranged in between.
"People who play here enjoy the variety of holes and the different elevations," said GM Jerry Roberson said. "We have some unique holes.
Quail Ridge is the creation of Michigan Golf Hall of Famer Randy Erskine, who's now the Head Pro at Great Oaks. Designed by Ray Hearn, Quail Ridge is a neatly laid out championship course located southeast of Grand Rapids in Cascade Township featuring a double green for No. 9 and 18 that is 140 feet across and a beautiful, cascading waterfall behind the No. 7 green.
Elevation changes, some wetlands, rolling terrain and continuous cart paths accent the layout. There are five sets of tees on every hole at Quail Ridge, which plays from 6,930 yards down to 4,865 yards.
"It's a golf course that is very pleasing to the eye and a very playable course for all people," Erskine said.
Adding to the top-notch golf being offered in northeast Grand Rapids this year is Thousand Oaks, designed by award-winning course architect Rees Jones. Thousand Oaks is carved out of, well, about 1,000 oak trees, on a rolling terrain that Jones claims was meant to be a golf course. It is a player-friendly course with wide, sweeping fairways, strategic and directional bunkers, and open front greens to welcome run up shots.
"There is a lot of natural aesthetics with the terrain, valleys and plateaus," Jones said. "It's a multi-scenic golf course.
"You might say there are a thousand reasons why you should play this course over and over again." The head golf professional is Gary Smithson.
L.E. Kaufmann in Wyoming remains one of the state's top municipal tracks for challenge, playability and conditioning. Candlestone, near Belding, provides one solid golf experience after another, while improvements and additions hallmark Scott Lake in Comstock Park. Over in Jenison, Wallinwood Springs remains popular for matching a friendly front nine with a watery and challenging back nine. The clubhouse is one of the best in town for outings and weddings and the like. In Hudsonville, Gleneagle underwent a major re-do and renovation a few years back and the result is a pleasant, affordable test of golf. The greens at Gleneagle provide some of most fun in the area with their undulating surfaces. The 10th green, with its four tiers, surely demands one (two or three?) of most imaginative and testing putts in GR. in Jenison keep patrons coming back time and time again.
Grand Rapids Golf Club, located off I-96 and the East Beltline, is as easily accessible as it is to play. Saskatoon is a bit more tricky to find, but its 36 holes offer a variety of shot making alternatives -- from a Scottish links design on nine holes to a tree-lined 18 -- for those who want to use the entire arsenal in their golf bags.
The combination of the beauty, playability and proximity of these outstanding courses -- along with outstanding accommodations for lodging, dining and nightlife -- have made West Michigan a must for the avid golfers list.
Taking a cue from Horace Greeley's famed line, it's easy to exhort: Go West, Young Man and Woman!
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