Destination Guide: Northern Michigan
Long daylight hours and an endless supply of golf courses make Northern Michigan an ideal spot for a loaded summer golf vacation. The territory that makes up Northern Michigan is sparsely populated, densely forested and hilly enough to create a seemingly endless amount of dramatic golf courses. Since the 1980s -- when modern design equipment made it possible to build on more severe, mountainous terrain -- the region's golf courses have taken on an entirely new level of drama. The area has had golf clubs dating back to the end of the 19th century. Even Alister MacKenzie came to the northwest coast along the shores of Lake Michigan to design ultra-private Crystal Downs Country Club in 1929, prior to his work at Augusta National. The secret has been out for some time in Northern Michigan. It's just a matter of time before your golf group points their compass north.
Northern Michigan: Where to play golf
Michigan's best golf courses are well represented in all the top golf publications' ratings -- and with good reason. As much as Northern Michigan has become a national player since the 1980s in the golf scene with Top 100 mainstays such as Bay Harbor Golf Club and Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club at the destination's core, this is an area where you can name your price to play golf. The northwest side of Michigan features the majority of top golf courses and resorts in the area. Scattered between the Top 100 mainstays, however, are bargain courses Michigan residents flock to play regularly. Near four-course Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire, Hawk's Eye is always at the top of the list among returnees to Northern Michigan. The 18-hole course features high, elevated tee shots that play to fairways set in thick hardwoods. Next door, golfers can find even more affordability on The Chief, another local favorite. The string of towns along Little Traverse Bay -- Charlevoix, Petoskey and Harbor Springs -- present some of the area's top upscale golf courses and resorts. Around the corner from Bay Harbor is Dunmaglas Golf Course in Charlevoix, which sits on 800 scenic acres. To the south of Little Traverse Bay is Traverse City, Northern Michigan's largest city set on Grand Traverse Bay that boasts a couple dozen worthy area plays. Just north between Grand Traverse Bay and Torch Lake, A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort features two top area courses, the more traditional Torch Course as well as one of Northern Michigan's newer layouts, the Sundance Course, designed by Jerry Matthews. Golf course architect Tom Doak is a resident of Northern Michigan, and you can play one of his earliest -- and toughest -- designs, Black Forest in Gaylord. Next door is Wilderness Valley, one of the area's more traditional parkland courses that is a good layout for walkers. If you head south from Gaylord to Roscommon, Forest Dunes Golf Club boasts a mix of dunes and forest holes. Managed by Troon Golf, its playing conditions and facilities rank among the nation's best. Also on the southern side is Tullymore Golf Club. An hour north of Grand Rapids, it anchors the 36-hole St. Ives Resort.
Northern Michigan: Top places to stay
Northern Michigan features many multi-course golf resorts that offer great value with stay-and-play packages. With four 18-hole golf courses and one of the nation's most exciting par-3 courses, Treetops Resort has been Gaylord's top spot to stay and play since the 1980s, when Robert Trent Jones Sr. unveiled the masterpiece. Since, Tom Fazio and Rick Smith have added their own imprints to the steep, wooded hills of Gaylord. Just around the corner from Treetops is one of Gaylord's traditional golf resorts, the Otsego Club. The Otsego Club is home to the Classic Course, an affordable, traditional walk. Next door, the resort opened the Tribute Course, one of the more spectacular up-and-down mountain courses in the area. Atop the mountain in the main building is Pontresina, one of the area's finest restaurants specializing in steak. Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire is enjoying a revival after new ownership pumped in new life to the golf courses -- which include designs from Arnold Palmer and Tom Weiskopf -- as well as its several lodging properties. A new spa was added and the dining options at the Summit hotel were enhanced. You can also stay in a golf lodge on site at the Weiskopf-designed Cedar River course.
Off the course in Northern Michigan
Michigan is not only the anchor of the Great Lakes, but also about 11,000 lakes as well as hundreds of rivers and streams. Each offers its own unique fishing and boating opportunity. You can find marinas and beaches along Grand Traverse Bay and Little Traverse Bay, but Lake Michigan has the most beachfront property. The most spectacular is Sleeping Bear Dunes. Located west of Traverse City, it features 25 miles of the Great Lake's most spectacular, nationally protected shorefront. There isn't much of a nightlife scene in Northern Michigan, but Traverse City has a pleasant downtown area with microbreweries, bars and good restaurants. Both downtown Gaylord and Bellaire aren't much more than a street, but there is always a bowling alley or pub nearby for golf groups to cut loose after hours. Another nightlife option is the handful of Native American-owned casinos, including Turtle Creek Casino near Traverse City, Leelanau Sands Casino & Lodge just north and Little River Casino Resort in Manistee. And first-timers to Northern Michigan -- especially those with their family -- are obligated to make the trip to historic Mackinac Island, a small island (3.8 square miles) north of the state's mainland that has banned motor vehicles. You can visit for the day or stay overnight at the famous Grand Hotel.
Getting to and around Northern Michigan
The saying goes in Northern Michigan that the drive to the next golf course is always "about 45 minutes." The area is still rural enough that winding, back country roads dominate the landscape, so take your time (especially with all the deer around). Gaylord is located right off I-75, making it one of the more convenient golf meccas, and it's loaded with golf courses for every budget. The courses of Northern Michigan are about three to four hours (by car) from metro Detroit and about five or so hours from Chicago. If you'd rather fly from these cities, the best airport is Traverse City's Cherry Capital Airport, which has direct service to a handful of destinations, including seasonally to Denver and New York.
Golf season in Northern Michigan
The golf season is cruelly short in Northern Michigan. While courses start to open around April, the May months can still bring cold spells. The peak summer season begins in June and lasts through September. At this time, highs are generally in the mid-to-high 70s, making golf extremely pleasant. Days are also long enough that you can enjoy 36 holes or more each day. October, while it becomes cooler, features spectacular fall foliage. Michigan's north is loaded with trees and high, spectacular vistas to take it all in.