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Traverse City: Great Golf, But Oh, So Much More
by Mike Terrell

What could you ask for in a golf vacation destination that you couldn't find in the Traverse City area? The simple answer is: You couldn't ask for anything more.

When it comes to golf you have some of the finest courses in the world grouped around the "Queen City" of the north. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf and Gary Player are some of the names associated with area golf courses. There's arguably as nice a mix of high-end and medium priced golf courses from which to choose, as you'll find anywhere else in the Midwest. Add to that all the amenities that go along with the Traverse City area--crystal clear lakes, white sugar-sand beaches, pristine environment, shopping, fine restaurants and entertainment to name just a few--and it adds up to wonderful vacation destination for the entire family. In addition to golf you can fish, bike, hike, sail, canoe, scuba dive, explore some of the tallest dunes in the world or just relax on a secluded beach along Lake Michigan. And when it comes to accommodations--from wonderful little "mom and pop" motels to charming B&B's to world-class resorts--the choices are as varied as the list of amenities and things to do. You could choose to stay at one of two resorts with multiple golf courses, or you could stay in town and play at any one of the 25 or so courses scattered around the area. The choices are endless.

For a guide to the Traverse City area, call the Traverse City Conventions and Visitor Bureau at (800) TRAVERSE, or click on www.mytraversecity.com.

At the top end of the golf spectrum you have two choices: Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and Shanty Creek. Both are rated among the top resorts in the Great Lakes region. Grand Traverse Resort and Spa--the house that Jack built--is home to two of northern Michigan's premier courses, Nicklaus' The Bear and Gary Player's Wolverine. William Newcomb, who's designed several courses in the Wolverine State, designed a third course called Spruce Run. It was actually built before the other two, and is still a popular choice with area residents who don't want to tackle the length and difficulty of the two superstar courses.

The Player course fits well with the notoriously difficult Bear, which when built in 1985 helped establish Nicklaus as a builder of penal golf courses. The Player course can be just as long and cantankerous from the tips as its counterpart, but with four sets of tees versus three on The Bear, it can soften the course considerably. Both play over 7,000 yards from the back. The Bear is still a formidable 6,400 yards from the white tees and has a slope rating over 140, which is considered very difficult by most standards. While the Wolverine is over 140 from the back tees, it softens to a 125 from the white tees, which are slightly less than 6,000 yards in length.

Grand Traverse Resort, which hosts the Michigan Open in June each year, is the Midwest's largest full-service resort and conference center. Since opening in 1980 it has garnered numerous awards for both its golf courses and the wonderful amenities that surround the three courses. For more informational call (800) 748-0303, or click on www.grandtraverseresort.com.

Shanty Creek started out as two little golf and ski resorts in the 1960s that sat about two miles apart, as the crow flies. In the 1980s Schuss Mountain merged with Shanty Creek and they became one. At the same time Nicklaus was finishing The Bear, Arnold Palmer was putting the finishing touches on his signature course, The Legend which also opened in 1985. Receiving a four-and-a-half star rating from Golf Digest, it has long been an area favorite for visiting golfers. But, surprisingly, the old Schuss Mountain course designed by Newcomb in 1977 gets the most play of Shanty's four championship courses, which also features the highly acclaimed Cedar River Golf Club. Designed by Weiskopf and opened just two years ago, it has already snared several awards. Golf Magazine says it's one of the "top 100 courses in the country and one of the top 10 new courses."

For those who like a short, "bump and run" course, try the Summit. First opened in 1965, it's one of the older courses in the area. "It's a fun, relaxing course with a lot of open fairways, not much trouble, and you don't have to think a lot," says longtime director of golf Roger Jabara. Shanty Creek has evolved into almost a European-like enclave with three separate villages all connected by country roads and trails, each with its own lodging, restaurants and amenities. The new Whispers restaurant, opened just a year ago in the Cedar River Village, has already received an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Gracefully spread out over 4,500 acres, it's one of the largest resorts in the Midwest. For more information call (800) 678-4111, or click on www.shantycreek.com.

Across the road from the Creek, The Chief at Sky Lodge, the forerunner of a new golf resort and community, made its debut last fall. The first of two courses (the second is under construction), The Chief "is a shot maker's course" says pro Dave Hill. "Placement is more important here than length.

"Leave the driver in the bag on a lot of holes," he advises. The course, designed by Canadian John Robinson, is a typical northern Michigan design. Cut through the hill and dale country of Antrim County, the fairways pitch and roll through the hardwood hills. "It has a nice natural feel," added Hill. For tee times, call (888) 483-5465, or click it at www.golfthechief.com.

The newest course in the Traverse City area is Lochenheath, a limited public-play course, which will open this summer. A golf course development designed by Floridian Steve Smyers, dramatic views of East Bay will come into play on 16 of the holes. Four sets of tees--ranging from just under 7,000 yards to a little over 5,000--will allow any player to enjoy a round, according to part-owner Mark Krakow. "The links-style course will feature bent grass fairways, greens and tees and native grasses will line the rough," he said.

The course was designed with walking in mind and a caddie program will be available. A large, diverse practice area capable of simulating several shot conditions will be open to the public as well as a 14,000 sq.-ft. clubhouse, which will house a full-service dining room, lounge, pro shop and lockers. For more information, call (231) 938-9800, or click it at www.lochenheath.com.

King's Challenge, located on the west side of Traverse City, is the other Palmer course in the area. Opened four years ago, the course plans to eventually go private, but for now the public is still welcome. A typical Palmer design, it features several elevated greens and tees, long par-5s and awesome views of Lake Michigan from some of the holes. A new full-service clubhouse with a pro shop and a dining room overlooking the 18th green is slated to open this season. They've also renamed the old Sugar Loaf course, which is now called Sleeping Bear Golf Club. For reservations at either course, call (888) 228-0121.

A couple of area courses that might be put in the "don't miss category" on the east side of Grand Traverse Bay are A-Ga-Ming and High Pointe. A-Ga-Ming, located just north of Elk Rapids off US-131, offers both scenic and challenging golf. Overlooking beautiful Torch Lake, Chick Harbert, who owns more Michigan golf titles than anyone, designed an exceptional 18-hole layout that new owners Mike Brown and Larry Laverly have taken to the next level. This summer they start construction on a new 18-hole golf course called--what else--The Torch that will sit to the west of the present course.

Designed by Jerry Matthews, it could be one of his best designs, according to Steve St. James, who has constructed several other Matthews golf courses. "It's one of the best natural pieces of property that I've seen in a long time for golf course construction. The natural routings for the holes are already there." The new course is slated to open year after next. In the meantime to schedule a round this season, call (800) 678-0122, or click on www.agaming.com.

High Pointe, considered by many to be Tom Doak's finest golf course design, has added a fleet of new golf carts and announced that Jeff Dean, a well known area teaching pro, will be instructing full-time with them this season, according to golf director Ben Croftchik. Doak's design has stood the test of time. The two-fold course--a Scottish links-style, wide open front nine and a typical northern Michigan back side that pitches and rolls through hardwoods and pines--is still very popular with area golfers and visitors. For more information, call (800) 753-PUTT. It's located just a tee shot down the road from Grand Traverse Resort.

On the west side of the bay a couple of courses that should also be included in that "don't miss category" are The Leelanau Club and Mistwood. Tucked into the hills above Suttons Bay, The Leelanau Club is a "hidden gem" in every sense of the word. Overlooking all of Leelanau County, the course features a lot of elevation changes and elevated tees, but "14 of those will play downhill" according to PGA Professional Chuck Olson. Golfers will find lots of spectacular views, tree-lined fairways, strategically placed bunkers and small greens. "The course puts a premium on shot making rather than brute strength," added Olson. To make a tee time, call (231) 271-2020.

Mistwood, located just west of L.A. (Lake Ann), as the locals say, with its 27-hole layout cut through rolling, pine-studded farmland, was the design work of Jerry Matthews and his disciple, Ray Hearn. Using a minimalist theory of design, the course follows the lay of the land. "It has a very natural feel," says owner Sherm Baarstad. "It was perfectly suited for what I wanted to do." The first time he walked the marginal farm and fell in love with the land it was a misty, foggy morning, hence the name Mistwood. For a tee time at the popular course, call (231) 275-5500.

Situated in the hills of Benzie Country--just west of Traverse City--Lee Stone and his partners have built a couple of very popular, modestly priced golf courses, Pinecroft and the new Champion Hill. Both courses, set in the hills above Crystal Lake, offer unsurpassed views of the countryside and many area lakes. Pinecroft, opened in 1993, overlooks all of Crystal Lake. Featuring lots of elevated tees, generous fairways and small target-like greens, it has proven very popular with locals.

Champion Hill, the second collaboration of Stone and design partner Jim Cole, opened last season. The links-style course is a complete departure from Pinecroft. Featuring some of the highest ground in the county, they again took the minimalist approach to building. "With all the open ground and constant wind, it's a lot like seaside golf. We let the fescue rough define the fairways and gave them large, rolling greens to hit," said Stone. "It's great cow pasture golf." For Pinecroft tee times, call (231) 889-9100, and for Champion Hill, call (231) 882-9200.

Nestled in the hills surrounding Traverse City are a couple of other medium-priced courses that deliver great golf at a good value. Elmbrook is the area's oldest course, and The Crown opened its second nine in 1998. Both offer rolling topography and scenic vistas. Elmbrook overlooks both bays. For tee times at these popular local courses, call Elmbrook at (231) 946-9180 and The Crown at (231) 946-2975.

For family golf check out Bay Meadows. Located in the hills off M-72 on the west side of town, they offer a short, traditional length, par-32 nine holes, a nine-hole par-3 course and a great practice facility. It's perfect for a quick practice round or a leisurely walk with the family. PGA Professional Ina Davis, who used to be at Matheson Greens (which now is closed), has brought her well known teaching skills to Bay Meadows this season. For tee times or to reserve a lesson, call 945-7927.

How can a family golf vacation get any better? It can't. The choices are endless for both golfers and non-golfers.

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