Measuring shoreline is a tricky, inexact business. Consult five different sources, and you will likely find five different lengths for Michigan’s shoreline. But no matter how you measure it, the state of Michigan has a lot of it.
By most estimates, that number is over 3,000 miles. And by some estimates, that total makes its shoreline second only to Alaska’s. Which isn’t surprising, considering Michigan is made up of two peninsulas.
As with most summer destinations, proximity to water is the main reason northern Michigan is such a popular vacation area. For decades, this region has been the favored summer getaway for residents of the Detroit area, and to a lesser extent, Chicago and the rest of the upper Midwest. It has been Middle America’s answer to East Coast getaways like Cape Cod and the Hamptons.
Michigan’s summer vacationers range from RV campers to the rich, famous, and the notorious of the Midwest. The Fords have homes here. So do the Procters and the Gambles. Al Capone used to come here. The Perry Hotel, in the coastal town of Petoskey, was a favorite hangout of a young Ernest Hemingway. The Watsons of Kansas City have a place on a lake. One of them, Tom, went to a local course a few years ago, looking to hit some balls. When he went into the shop to inquire, the counterperson just stared at the eight-time major winner.
You don’t have to have even one major to find great golf in northern Michigan. Along with water activities, golf is the major draw for summertime visitors. Unlike its more class-conscious East Coast counterparts, golf in northern Michigan is highly accessible, fitting a variety of budgets, and highly rated, with five GOLF Magazine Silver Medal resorts in the area.
Oddly, though, while golf and water are ubiquitous, they don’t come together as much as you think they would. Many of the hundreds of courses take you away from the Great Lakes. But if you do like golf on the water — or at least close to it — there are plenty of choices in northern Michigan.
Here’s how to find them. Hold your left hand in front of you, palm facing away. That is approximately the shape of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, which is surrounded by water. Lake Michigan is to the left of the pinky and ring finger. The index finger and thumb abut Lake Huron.
This journey will take you from the outer edge of the pinky all the way around to the outside of the index finger.
Let’s begin on the west, or sunset, side. Because Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club probably has the best golf-course sunset east of Pebble Beach. The clubhouse looks down on a course laid out over a landscape that tumbles down toward the eponymous precipice, 180 feet above the lake. But land and sea didn’t meet here quite as felicitously as at Pebble Beach — 80 acres of forest had to be cleared and elevation changes were built by moving earth.
Only one hole, the 16th, plays along Lake Michigan, but you can see the water from every hole, and almost all that play toward the lake seem to have an elevated tee, further enhancing the already considerable vistas. Of course, that means a lot of climbing to the tees, so walking may not be the smartest option, especially when the wind is blowing. Neither is missing the huge, undulating greens. Even if you hit the green, two-putting is never routine. So don’t expect a fast round.
Look back down at the back of your hand. Arcadia Bluffs is located in the middle of your pinky. Moving up the coast, you will reach the tip of your ring finger and Traverse City, the epicenter of northern Michigan.
Anchoring Grand Traverse Bay and home to the National Cherry Festival each July — don’t laugh, it’s a huge deal — the area is abuzz from Memorial Day to Labor Day. After that, according to Rodger Jabara, Traverse City resident and Shanty Creek’s director of golf, “It’s like they unplug the city.”
Just outside Traverse City is GOLF Magazine Silver Medalist Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. Although wind is not a huge factor since the lake is across the street, the resort’s Bear Course is aptly named, requiring both length and precision, with severe penalties for straying. Designed by Jack Nicklaus (hence, the name), it hosts the Michigan Open and is perhaps the toughest layout in northern Michigan.
After 18 holes on the Bear, you can reward yourself with a visit to Trillium, the restaurant and lounge that occupy the top floors of the resort’s tower, 16 stories up. From here, you can look out over the bay, the course, and the surrounding areas. The tower may be a bit of an eyesore — it looks like an office building displaced from downtown Detroit — but it serves its purpose.
For about a month during the fall, Hockeytown moves north to Grand Traverse, the training-camp base of Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. As golf season winds down and hockey season begins, many players usually can be found on the golf course between workouts, getting in their last rounds before the winter.
Or maybe they will be at nearby Shanty Creek, another Silver Medal Resort. While not directly on Lake Michigan, Shanty Creek is just miles from Grand Traverse Bay, close enough to warrant a slight detour from the shore. The most recent addition to this golf/ski resort came in 1999 with the Cedar River course, a Tom Weiskopf design in the so-called Northern Michigan style: carved out of the trees with elevation changes.
While Grand Traverse Bay is too far to be seen from Shanty Creek, another body of water — Lake Bellaire — provides a scenic backdrop to another of its courses, the Summit.
Its third tee provides such a striking setting that 21 weddings have taken place there over the years.
Bay Harbor moves you back to Lake Michigan. This Silver Medalist showcases a waterfront Victorian-style hotel, the Inn at Bay Harbor, where you can nap on a hammock, play croquet, or enjoy a game of chess on an oversize board with two-foot high pieces — all within feet of Little Traverse Bay.
Just down the road is the golf club, which consists of three nines, the Links, Preserve, and Quarry. If you only have time for 18, the combination to play is Links-Quarry, in that order. You start high above the lake, and the water can be a distraction on several holes. The back nine turns into the quarry before returning toward the water for the final two holes.
The most spectacular hole is the 17th — the Quarry’s eighth. From the elevated tee, the green almost looks as though it sits in the water. Due to the change in elevation, a crisply struck tee shot seems to hang nearly forever against the sky and water before falling to earth — and finding the shallow green, hopefully.
Bay Harbor is a Boyne USA property, as is Boyne Highlands, just across Little Traverse Bay and three miles inland from the coastal town of Harbor Springs. Another Silver Medalist, Boyne Highlands has four courses, including its most recent addition, the Arthur Hills. Truly a course for the 21st century (it opened in July 2000), the layout stretches to 7,312 yards, long enough to challenge modern players and the power game they play.
As you continue along the coast, you will reach the tip of the Lower Peninsula, where it nearly meets the Upper Peninsula. At the same time, Lake Michigan becomes Lake Huron, forming a strait. Mackinac Island sits ideally at this confluence of land and water, which is why the British used the island as a fort. While the British may be long gone, the island has not kept up with the times. A popular tourist destination, Mackinac Island is unique for its lack of motorized transportation.
Grand Traverse Resort
Once you reach the island by ferry, your options are to walk (which can get tiring), rent a bicycle (there are so many that you feel as though you could be in China), or ride a horse-pulled carriage (which is quaint until the ubiquitous odor of horse manure engulfs you in the afternoon heat). There are cars and trucks on the island for emergencies, but they are kept well hidden. In fact, the only motorized vehicles that you can see are the golf carts on the Grand Hotel’s golf course.
Another side trip is to the Upper Peninsula, which may sound as remote and exotic as the Northwest Passage or the Yukon Territory. As it turned out, all you have to do is cross a suspension bridge and pay the $1.50 toll.
Running straight south from the bridge down the middle finger is I-75, the main thoroughfare from Detroit. Treetops Sylvan Resort, the final Silver Medalist in Michigan, lies just off the interstate, about an hour inland.
I-75 also serves as the dividing line between east and west. Nearly all the development — and the great golf — has been to the west. The notable exception is Lakewood Shores, a no-frills resort just outside the quiet town of Oscoda, where people can leave their car keys in the ignition while at work. The way of life, and the prices, evoke the past.
But bargains hardly make Lakewood Shores unique. Nearly every resort and course is trying to entice golfers with packages. You may even hear a radio ad for the Steak and Play — a round of golf at King’s Challenge just west of Traverse City, followed by a steak dinner, for $49 or so.
Lakewood Shores is less than a mile from Lake Huron. The water is not visible, but its presence is discernible, especially at the Gailes. Most courses in the U.S. advertised as links are links-style at best, cosmetically resembling the seaside courses of Great Britain and Ireland. But gorse, fescue, and heather do not a links make. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to see water to be playing a links. Royal Lytham and St. Annes, last year’s British Open site, for example, sits more than a mile inland. Yet it is as pure a links as the Old Course at St. Andrews. The Gailes is a true links as well. It plays fast and firm, and every shot gives you at least two options. Score doesn’t matter. In short, it is fun.
Providing a counterpoint to the Gailes is the resort’s newest course, Blackshire, built in the Pine Valley tradition, although the course also evokes a different Pine — Pinehurst. But the contrast between the Gailes and Blackshire is sufficient for Lakewood Shores to provide a unique golf experience unlike any in Michigan.
The sign of a good course is whether you can remember all the holes after you have played it, and whether you want to go right back out and play it again. That’s the way you will feel about the Gailes — and about the golf in Northern Michigan.