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Old-Style Charm Abounds in Muskegon
By Tom Cleary, Contributing Editor


Even a civic booster or lifelong resident would be hard-pressed to call this busy west Michigan port city one of the state's hotbeds for golf. Yet in its own way, the quietly modernizing town of Muskegon knows its golf courses are similar to newly renovated downtown buildings. Thanks to recent applications of elbow grease and a newfound appreciation for the past, they're not such bad places after all.

As shoreline communities go, Muskegon has suffered comparisons to the bustling summer fun neighbors Grand Haven, Holland and Saugatuck; that's not surprising, since Muskegon has been the area's breadbasket for as long as anyone can remember. And while its residents have endured the kind of reputation assigned to industrial Great Lakes siblings like Detroit, Cleveland, Erie and Pittsburgh, when its downtown facelift is complete Muskegon will have not only an inviting look, but also more serviceable golf (by far) than any other watery outpost on our side of Lake Michigan.

Private golf in Muskegon began early in the 20th century with Muskegon Country Club. A Donald Ross design, it's a quaint, friendly test that invites comparison to other Ross courses in places like Grand Rapids (The Highlands and Kent Country Club) and Detroit (take your pick). Many of Michigan's greats have passed through the doors here, and the membership reflects generations of families who have lived through the city's good times and bad.

Daily fee golfers can experience much the same thing at Lincoln Golf Club (616-766-2226) on Whitehall Road. The formerly private club looks like a pushover for 21st century bombers, but at a little over 6,100 yards it still provides plenty of satisfaction to its devotees, of which there is no shortage. Sporting and affordable, it's the kind of course America's rapidly aging golf population may want to start thinking twice about instead of caving in to the urge of buying a driver approved only by the Royal and Ancient.

Many west Michiganians say the best golf in town is played at Chase Hammond (616-766-3035), a Mark DeVries-designed municipal layout. Though not as notorious as his Michigan State contemporary Arthur Hills, DeVries has done a lot of respected work throughout the state in the days when courses cost thousands--not millions--to build. On any given Saturday you'll find many of the county's best players traversing Chase Hammond, and doing so at a price that wouldn't get you on an executive course in places like Oakland or Macomb Counties. Not overly long (only about 6,400 yards from the tips) it's a course that has been open about 30 years, but has the venerable grace of Ross courses that have dotted the Michigan landscape for the better part of a century. Not far from US-31 and just a few miles north of Grand Haven lies the popular Fruitport Golf Club (616-798-3355). Like Chase Hammond it's a bit on the short side in terms of yardage (a little under 6,000) but remains popular thanks to an understated layout that's always well-conditioned. A transplanted local once told me, "When I lived in Chicago I used to routinely pay $100 to play courses that weren't nearly as fun as Fruitport." Maybe that's a hidden benefit to living near Muskegon: you don't often have to put up with rampaging duffers from other parts of the state.

West Michigan has always been a coveted destination for campers, and those who rough it at Hoffmaster State Park aren't just there for the fresh air and starry skies; when fellow granola-crunchers aren't looking, they often sneak next door to Oak Ridge Golf Club (616-798-4591). Situated just off the big lake, this public course is on Pontaluna Road and offers easy access from both U.S. 31 and Interstate 96. Through the years, it's been a summer refuge for those campers whose idea of roughing it is a twin bed at a Holiday Inn. Looking for something a little less strenuous or time consuming? There's more than just a few options there as well. Hickory Knoll Golf Course (616-894-5535) in nearby Whitehall has three nine-hole courses, none of which is backbreaking. It's a favorite for seniors and women.

Also in Whitehall is Bent Pine (616-766-2045), a par-72 course that's only marginally longer. In the city proper, there's the nine-hole University Park (616-773-0023) and for a treat, try the fine par-3 at Family Golf and Driving Range (616-766-2217) in North Muskegon, or the par-30 Eagle Island (616-773-7171) in Muskegon, which boasts an 18-hole putting course. Another par-3 is West Wind GC (616-773-8814) on Sheridan Drive, which is 18 holes and only a spot over 2,000 yards in length.

A little ways out of town is the Ravenna Golf Course (231-853-6736), a par-73 layout measuring a little over 6,100 yards. And the newest area course, Moss Ridge (231-853-5665), is just outside of Ravenna. Designed by Bruce Matthews III, it has scored early with area golfers. It may be the only real championship test in the area as it stretches to nearly 7,000 yards in length. But it was built for playability and aesthetics, and blends in nicely with other area offerings. Matthews' firm is carving out a nice bit of business in Michigan with its sensible designs, and though Moss Ridge can be considered marginally more expensive than other area courses, it opened with a greens fee and golf car rate of under $40. It's located on Apple Avenue just five minutes from the junction of M-37 and M-46.

In recent years, the Muskegon area has gotten a boost from players who have visited similar high-profile courses such as The Ravines (south of Muskegon, near Saugatuck) and The Thoroughbred, north of Muskegon in Rothbury (only a half-hour north on U.S. 31). And while both have plenty to offer, here's a recommendation to visit Old Channel Trail in nearby Montague.

Originally designed by Robert Bruce Harris, one the founders of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, Old Channel was truly one of the first public courses offering a majestic view of Lake Michigan. While modern real estate costs have put a giant crimp in the development of golf courses with a view, Old Channel Trail soldiers on. The Matthews family of designers (long prominent in this area) have thoughtfully added on to Harris' original work and have made this a protected gem for Muskegon area golfers.

Those who have returned recently to Muskegon have been pleasantly surprised to find a town that is no longer under siege from the smoky factories and smelly plants that gave the place its early life. And they're finding a wealth of old golf courses that have survived the onslaught of modern architecture and upscale pricing. Maybe the grass wasn't always this green here. But plentiful, affordable golf--long a Muskegon staple--is sure looking pretty good right now.

May 2001 Issue Table of Content
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