Michigan's Myrtle Beach of the Midwest
If Myrtle Beach were a state it would be Michigan. With more than 850 golf courses (ranking third among states behind Florida and California), the most public courses in the nation, and more courses currently under construction than any other state, Michigan has become a magnet for traveling golfers, groups of whom can be seen from one end of the state to another emerging from packed vans like clowns in circus cars. Rising taxes seem to be forcing Michigan farmers to either sell their land for a subdivision or build a golf course; sometimes, of course, they can do both. No matter where you are, you can't drive for forty-five minutes in any direction without seeing a sign for some top 10, 50, 100 or forthcoming "championship" course.
Michigan was thus a likely candidate for the pursuit of my passion for accumulation golf--adding as many courses as possible to my collection within a brief period of time. Making Michigan even more attractive are the long summer days in which it is still light well after 10 pm in the upper Lower Peninsula. And an assignment from the Albuquerque Journal to cover the US Open at Oakland Hills in June 1996 gave me both the opportunity and excuse to see if Michigan golf was as special as a variety of national golf magazines have claimed or merely the product of an unsurpassed public relations onslaught. I concentrated on public courses, particularly those recently built, but also used personal contacts and creative groveling to gain access to some famous private clubs.
So what's my verdict after practically encircling the entire Lower Peninsula for 12 rounds (one a ringer) and 15 golf courses in 13 days? Michigan golf is not just hype, it's for real and relatively uncrowded to boot.
The newer courses contain too many forced carries over "environmentally sensitive areas," my least favorite words after "easy to assemble," but today's saturation tee policy means that everyone has the opportunity for a challenging and enjoyable round. I was also pleased to discover that the state is filling its longstanding void in "affordable" quality golf, courses with green fees of $25-45, most with the option to walk. And despite the rainiest spring in years and the aftereffects of an especially harsh winter, there were plenty of indications that the courses are normally in excellent condition.
My trip began with appropriate fanfare on Tuesday afternoon, June 4. As our plane landed in Detroit, the University of Michigan glee club, returning from a tour of South America, burst into a stirring rendition of their alma mater. Now feeling like a Michigander, I drove across the state to Benton Harbor, where the next day Robert Trent Jones's rustic Point O'Woods was as advertised_long, water-filled, tree-lined, and tough, but with Jones's most fascinating greens this side of Peachtree, and a better set of short 4s and more soul than I've come to expect from Jones. After a quick lunch, I headed to my motel_a converted elementary school_in Elberta near Frankfort's much coveted Crystal Downs. During the long drive that covered most of the Lower Peninsula's western shore, I soaked in the ambience, fantasized about having a summer place within sight of the Lake Michigan bluffs and took a guided tour of Arthur Hills's The Thoroughbred, an intimidating track that I hope is more playable than a cart's eye view would suggest. On Thursday, overly pumped up, I naturally played what would be by far the worst golf of my trip on the stunning, wind-swept Crystal Downs. Still, I managed to enjoy every moment (well, almost), and gained a new member for my personal top ten list. I spent the night in Traverse City before making the short drive on Friday to Williamsburg and braving a steady rain to play Tom Doak's controversial High Pointe with its enchanting Scottish links front nine, and hilly Crystal Downs-inspired back nine, that unfortunately concludes with the course's only bad hole, a discordant watery par 5.
Sprinting north in the rain to Petoskey to play Harry Bowers' Crooked Tree, I found the spanking new course in remarkably good condition. Although I wish there were fewer forced carries, it has a beautiful site overlooking Little Traverse Bay, and a distinguished set of par 3's; ongoing tinkering will make its par 4 cross-bunkered 14th famous and the green on its par 5 13th a less frustrating adversary.
Retracing my route for the first time, I headed back down in the dark to Gaylord to the woodsy and understated Treetops Resort prior to Saturday's round on the Fazio Course. With its elevated tees, wide fairways that funnel errant shots back into play, and three trademark short par 4's, Treetops Fazio might be my nominee for America's most playable challenging course; its glorious views, well-sited greens, and bold bunkering certainly place it among the most attractive. Reluctantly hitting the road again after discovering the Rick Smith course was filled with college reunion types, I headed toward Lake Huron and Oscoda's Lakewood Shores Resort, with a diversion to Atlanta to ride around Jerry Matthew's reclusive and narrow Elk Ridge.
Sunday's golf at the Scottish links-style Gailes course proved to be a bit too authentic as rain and wind added to the already formidable challenge of double-take greens, fast running humpty bumpty fairways, blind pot bunkers, and appropriately vicious rough. Although prepared to be offended by a gimmicky version of the real thing, I was thoroughly charmed and was looking forward to a second round until the rain got too intense. Sad to say, however, I was the only walker on this flat, eminently walkable course; carts are always offensive to me but here they undermined the brilliantly created mood and seemed downright sacrilegious.
I drove inland to spend the night at St. Johns, forced by the rain to bypass Frankenmuth where I had hoped to play or tour The Fortress. Monday was Jerry Matthews day_golf on his two newest courses and a pleasant discussion at the end of my second round with the affable Michigan institution himself. I led off with The Emerald at Maple Creek in St. Johns, in part a rework of an old country club course that nicely integrated the existing mature trees but opened too soon, and then caught the tale end of media day at Hunters Ridge in Howell, an otherwise playable course marred by an early stretch of nasty "wetlands" holes. Based on what I've seen so far, Matthews creates distinctive holes, especially par 3's, and subtly attractive and playable green complexes, but has a penchant for awkward tee shots.
After spending the weekend at the Open, my Tour de Michigan ended Monday, June 17 when before catching a 5:30 pm flight, I played Art Hills's Pheasant Run in Canton. A unique mix of municipal golf course, residential development, and civic center for the town of Canton, the uninspiring site provided a real challenge for Hills. Although the tree-lined, beautiful and punishing back nine is a triumph, the intrusive housing on the front is depressing. But if houses are the price to pay to get $45 championship golf, then so be it.
As my plane left the ground I was already making a list of courses I had missed or were under construction. In the words of that other Arnold, "I'll be back."
A professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Rabinowitz is a well-traveled golf freelancer who has written extensively about golf course architecture for the Albuquerque Journal, Golf Illustrated, and New Mexico Golfer.
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