Golf in Southwest Michigan

Golf in Southwest Michigan

The 1st hole at St. Ives
John R. Johnson

The Dutch may be celebrated more for their strokes with paintbrushes than with putters, but the perception that Holland lacks a golf heritage is — like Vincent Van Gogh’s ear — a little off. The proof hangs in the British Library, where the painting Book of Hours depicts 16th-century lowlanders using a crook-shafted stick to play kolf, the Dutch word for “club.” This golf lineage might also explain the abundance of fine courses in Southwest Michigan’s Dutch Country.

All eyes will turn toward the Mitten State in September when Oakland Hills, near Detroit, hosts the Ryder Cup. And while northern-tier resorts like Shanty Creek and Bay Harbor usually hog the limelight, excellent layouts have sprouted like tulips in the state’s southwest corner, where names like Van der Vaart and Hoeksema still pepper the phone book.

Let’s see what all the commotion is about.

In 2002, Michigan-based architect Raymond Hearn designed The Golf Club at Yarrow in Augusta, 20 minutes east of Kalamazoo, on an almost treeless moor marked by thigh-high native grasses. The 588-yard 1st hole is majestic. It requires a downhill tee shot to a fairway with a steep, fescue-strewn embankment along the right and bunkers that seem to ooze off the hillside on the left. From there, it plays hard uphill to a multitiered green perched atop a volcano-like knob. Most holes at Yarrow are fringed with ball-eating rough, but ample fairways and firm conditions take the edge off this 7,005-yard layout.

Yarrow would be hopelessly tucked away were it not for golfers who’ve been trekking to Augusta for decades to play at Gull Lake View Golf Club and Resort, the grande dame of Southwest Michigan. There are five courses here: Gull Lake East and West, Stonehedge North and South, and Bedford Valley. All but Bedford were designed in house by the Scott family, which has operated the resort for 41 years. The pick of the litter is Stonehedge South, opened in 1988 and named for the ubiquitous stone walls left over from the property’s sheep-farming past. Lightly bunkered and without a single water hazard or forced carry, the South is as refreshingly straightforward as a luge run: Stay between the walls and you’ll do just fine. The Gull Lake experience is as much about the ambience as it is about the golf, and the rangers might be the most polite you’ll ever find.

Want to see how automobile technology has advanced? Take a spin north from Gull Lake to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, where you’ll find 175 vintage cars, including an 1899 Locomobile, Ford Model T’s and some funky muscle rides. Nearby Battle Creek is the cereal capital of the world, home to Kellogg’s and Cereal City USA, a factory-tour-plus-theme-park that proves almost anything can become an interactive experience. If you’re dying to know how Corn Flakes are made or how tall Tony the Tiger is, this is the place for you. You can even take home a box of Frosted Flakes with your photo on the front.

Downtown Kalamazoo and the strip in neighboring Portage offer solid dining and drinking options. Bell’s Brewery on Kalamazoo Avenue pumps out some of the finest microbrews in the Midwest. Right across the street, Kraftbrau also serves up great beer, with a chaser of live bluegrass music. The Bohemian and Doppelbock brews and any of the homemade pilsners on tap come highly recommended.

Kalamazoo also has one of the finest munis in the state. Milham Park Golf Course is a delightful throwback, a hoofer-friendly, old-style track where single walkups are welcome. Built in the 1930s, the layout values accuracy and shot making above raw power. And you get it all for the pleasing price of $24.

The undeniably quirky 6,540-yard Milham Park layout is superbly maintained. The 165-yard 4th hole is renowned for its waterside beauty and the team of ducks that gathers on Portage Creek to the right of the tee. Most holes make hairpin turns left or right through maples, oaks, locusts and pines. The 9th hole is typical of Milham’s challenge: A giant oak guards the left side of this 380-yarder, but thread a driver carefully down the right side and it’s just a short flip to a tiny elevated green. Anything wayward takes par out of the picture.

Some locals old enough to remember its early days complain that Milham Park has become overgrown and strategically dominated by trees. They may be right, but without the hardwood this course would be almost defenseless.

Just south of Kalamazoo, in Vicksburg, Angels Crossing Golf Club, designed by Bruce Matthews, opens this month. Each hole on the 7,169-yard track has a winsome name, such as Ole Yeller, and some even audaciously claim lineage to holes at St. Andrews and Prestwick. Time will tell where this course fits into the local golf landscape.

An hour’s drive north from Kalamazoo, on Route 131 (the spine of Western Michigan), and you’ll arrive in Grand Rapids, home to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, a sprawling combination of landscape architecture, wildlife habitats and chiseled art forms. Nearby is Thousand Oaks Golf Club, a 1999 Rees Jones masterpiece. The terrain here is severely hilly, but Jones tamed it by cleverly routing diverse, playable holes. The 391-yard 13th, for example, drops 50 feet to a bunker-lined fairway before turning right and finishing at a green with some 20 treacherous hole locations among its many swales and hollows.

While some architects might have created a series of downhill chutes connected by one uphill cart haul after another, Jones built some terrific ascending holes that are not unduly taxing. The 443-yard 4th climbs from tee to green, while some of the best holes, particularly the 368-yard 14th and the 408-yard 16th, rise from fairly flat fairways to hilltop putting surfaces. As a result, Thousand Oaks is a thrilling roller-coaster ride. Just don’t forget your Dramamine.

Grand Rapids is the hub of Southwest Michigan. It’s also the spiritual home of the Dutch Christian Reform Church, which drew many Old Country lowlanders here in the first place. You can buy a beer on Sunday in most places but not at Pilgrim’s Run Golf Club in Pierson, a half-hour’s drive north of Grand Rapids. Pilgrim’s Run, which holds a spot on GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 You Can Play, has been dry since it opened in 1998, and for three years it didn’t even allow golf before noon on the Sabbath. Those were the wishes of club founder Robert Van Kampen, the pious Dutchman behind Van Kampen Funds. When he died in 2001, Sunday morning tee times were given the OK, but Sunday golfers who arrive with that day’s church program still get a $10 discount.

Pilgrim’s Run is a terrific layout conceived by a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of. Van Kampen assigned design duties to six friends, each of whom sketched out three holes. The routing was done by then-superintendent Kris Shumaker, and architect Mike DeVries handled the bunkering and greens. Not surprisingly, the 7,093-yard course is extremely diverse, but it hangs together beautifully. The fairways offer more forgiveness than a Tammy Wynette ballad, while the greens are huge and demanding.

The green at the 427-yard 3rd hole seems like four greens in one; two putts here is a major accomplishment since your first effort might be shockingly long and have to traverse three tiers. At the 433-yard 12th, a cluster of fairway bunkers opens to a colossal landing area that funnels to a putting surface heaving with slopes and turns. With forced carries about as common as liquor here, Pilgrim’s Run is a bad driver’s dream. But it’s also a bad putter’s nightmare. Even so, you’ll be hard-pressed to walk off the 18th unhappy. Besides, there’s no beer to cry in.

Crib Sheet: Southwest Michigan
Angels Crossing Golf Club
Greens fees $35-$38

Diamond Springs Golf Course
Greens fees $24-$40

The Golf Club at Yarrow
Greens fees $59-$72

Gull Lake View Golf club and Resort
Greens fees $51-$54 for all courses (cart not included)

HawksHead Links
Greens fees $50-$60

Milham Park Golf Course
Greens fee $24 (cart not included)

Pilgrim’s Run Golf Club
Greens fees $52-$62

St. Ives Golf Club
Greens fees $85-$99

Double JJ Ranch & Golf Resort
Greens fees $59-$75

Thousand Oaks Golf Club
Greens fee $80

Tullymore Golf Club
Greens fees $85-$99

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If you’re headed south from Pierson back to Grand Rapids, stop by Rosie’s Diner in Rockford, named for the waitress who starred in Bounty paper-towel commercials. The spots were filmed in the Silver Dollar diner in Little Ferry, New Jersey, but that was before Jerry Berta bought the vintage eatery, moved it 700 miles to Michigan, and transformed it into a gallery with kitschy object d’art in neon and clay. When folks kept asking for fries with gravy — despite a sign saying, no food, just art — Berta gave in and entered the restaurant game. The vittles, not to mention the unique decor, have become local favorites.

North of Pilgrim’s Run, the Canadian Lakes vacation community sports two courses. The 6,702-yard St. Ives Golf Club debuted in 1995 and takes excellent advantage of rare elevation changes for this part of Michigan. The 487-yard 7th is typical: The tee shot is downhill into a triple-tiered fairway, while the approach plays uphill to an elevated green.

The second course at Canadian Lakes, Tullymore Golf Club, might never have materialized had the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality not stopped the damming of creeks for commercial development. Unable to pursue this real estate formula any further, the developers commissioned Jim Engh to design this 7,148-yard gem, which opened in 2001. Engh made his name carving tracks from the mesas and high prairies of Colorado, but at Tullymore he coaxed compelling golf from a swamp and earned it a place on GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 You Can Play.

Tullymore is all about angles and water. The par 3s mostly require forced carries over ponds or bogs, and several par 5s wrap around water hazards. Engh also made deft use of several immense trees. At the 317-yard 3rd, a giant maple guards the corner of the dogleg-right, and another sits on a ridge to the left. The fairway squeezes between them, ensuring that this is one of the most challenging short par 4s you’ll ever play. And in a fitting finish, three wooden monsters stand sentinel up the left side of the 18th hole.

Drive 90 minutes west through farmland to Rothbury, and you’ll find The Thoroughbred Golf Club. This 6,900-yard design by Michigan’s own Arthur Hills is admirably old fashioned, yet a tad quirky. During the opening ceremony, Hills stood on the tee at the 2nd hole — a 446-yard dogleg-left around a bog with a huge fairway hump that makes you feel like you’re playing down the spine of a brontosaurus — and admitted, “I don’t know what to hit here.”

The Thoroughbred club canters through thick woodland with some striking elevation changes. Its equine name isn’t mere window-dressing. The course is on the Double JJ Ranch & Golf Resort, which has catered to horse-loving folks since 1937. The mix is eclectic, to say the least: The golf is complemented by a petting zoo, medicine shows, horseback riding and an active singles scene, which is one way to work on your off-course scoring technique. Afterward, pull up to the Dog-n-Suds in Montague, one of the last drive-in root beer stands in America. Carhops serve frosty mugs of “the world’s creamiest root beer” on trays that attach to your car door.

Head 60 miles south from Rothbury along the shore of Lake Michigan and you’ll hit Holland, an appropriate home for the renowned Tulip Time Festival (to be held May 1-8 this year). You can also visit the Dutch Village Theme Park & Wooden Shoe Factory and the Windmill Island Park with its 240-year-old Dutch twister and klompen dancing all summer.

In nearby Hamilton, the Diamond Springs Golf Course is a 6,803-yard jewel, but don’t get your car washed on the way — the course is a couple of miles down a dirt road. Here you’ll find the same design features that mark Pilgrim’s Run: generous fairways and flamboyant greens. But there is an odd quirk: Diamond Springs has no rough. Aside from the greens, every blade of grass is mowed to fairway height. Landing areas seem prairiewide and play moves briskly. The superb final five holes, including two great par 3s at the 14th and 17th that call for forced carries, hug a striking ravine. At $24, Diamond Springs is one of the best values in the state.

Farther down the shore, just two hours north of Chicago, are the town of South Haven and HawksHead Links. This 6,984-yard Hills creation rambles over a vast, sandy expanse just a few miles from Lake Michigan. Here Hills taunts you into taking aggressive lines across the waste areas that litter the layout. The driveable (for some) 326-yard 11th sports a massive bunker on the inside of the dogleg-left; those who find the sand will face a tricky pitch over the steep bunker wall just to get back to the fairway. At the 422-yard 18th, the green appears to float in a sea of sandy scrub, and clearing the trouble is no guarantee of par. At HawksHead, Hills pushed around a lot of soil to form dune-flanked corridors and some steeply canted greens. The result is an enjoyable test of precision and strategy.

Adjacent to the course is the Inn at HawksHead, a Tudor-style clubhouse-cum-hotel with a fine restaurant from the owner of Clementine’s, the most celebrated eatery in downtown South Haven. The inn also boasts a great pub with a selection of spirits wider than a Pilgrim’s Run fairway. It’s an excellent place to kick back and raise a glass to the Dutch and their often-overlooked contribution to the game.

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