If you ask Michiganders where stuff is located in their state, they usually raise the right hand as a de facto map. For example, Detroit is at the base of the thumb and Petoskey is near the tip of the middle finger. But nowhere in that hand is the Upper Peninsula, a sort of forgotten piece of geography that’s often overlooked when most people think of the Wolverine State.
Perhaps that because the UP doesn’t even look like it’s a part of Michigan. You can’t point it out on the hand, unless you hold the other hand over your right. It looks more like an appendage of Wisconsin than Michigan, and it’s really far north, hundreds of miles northwest of Windsor, Canada, for example, in between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.
Most people in the United States can’t name a town in the Upper Peninsula, but if you’re familiar with Green Bay, Wisconsin, you’re actually pretty close. Winters are long; summers are coveted.
Though the golf season is short (June to early October really), course developers really made an effort in the UP, not only for the locals, but especially for those in the hot Southern states like Texas who might want a break from the oppressive heat. It’s also a bargain with green fees and accommodations often south of triple digits. You just have to figure out how to get there.
At the center, perhaps, of UP’s golf tourism is the Island Resort & Casino in Harris, Mich., which is owned and operated by the Hannahville Indian community. Located just 12 miles from Delta Regional Airport – where you can easily connect from Chicago’s O’Hare – the resort originally had just one golf course, the exceptional Sweetgrass Course, home of the Symetra Tour’s Island Resort Championship). Designed by Michigan native Paul Albanese and Chris Lutzke, and ranked among the top 20 public courses in Michigan (which is saying a lot since Michigan excels in golf), it’s certainly one of the best two or three golf courses in the UP.
First off, it’s suitable for all golfers. With six sets of tees, the course plays anywhere from around 5,000 yards to more than 7,200 yards. But what really stands out is its beauty and conditioning. With its wispy sweetgrass billowing around the numerous water features and pure fairways and greens, this is a luxury golf experience. The practice facilities are all that, too, with an expansive perfect grass range with course quality targets, pristine short game area and perfect bentgrass practice greens, which mirror the putting surfaces on the course. Basically, the course is first-class in every imaginable facet, including the brats you can get in the halfway house.
To complement Sweetgrass, however, the resort added another more difficult test in Sage Run, which is also designed by Albanese and Lutzke. Opened in 2018, the course, which Albanese said was inspired by Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down, is also beautiful, but not nearly as straightforward as Sweetgrass. In fact, you might say Sage Run, which hosted a collegiate event in 2019, is a roller-coaster ride.
Built on a natural drumlin, which is an elongated hill or ridge formed by glaciers, golfers not only have to find the fairways, but the correct side of the fairways if they hope to keep it in the short-grass and prevent it from running off into the thick rough. There are also scores of bunkers, which are surrounded by all sorts of nasty grassy lies and rocks. In many cases it’s much better to be in the bunker than to have just missed them. And if you’re a little wild off the tee, rocky grassy terrain also looms, which is why the starter informs groups to simply improve their lies from said areas to avoid damaging their clubs or their wrists. There are also some extreme holes, like the par 3 seventh, which plays some 80 feet uphill or the par-4 14th, which also goes straight up in the air. Both of those holes are simply unplayable by players with slow swing speeds. In short, Sage Run is beautiful and challenging, but not for everyone.
While golf at Island Casino could certainly be enough, especially considering the gaming, excellent dining, entertainment, spa and affordable accommodations, if you make your way to the UP, you might as well venture a couple of hours north to play the Mike DeVries-designed Greywalls Course at Marquette (Mich.) Golf Club, which is truly one of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever half with a set of clubs.
Set on the hills above Lake Superior, this is a difficult test as well, which is why the starter recommends that most players don’t try to bite off more than around 6,000 yards (our group of single digit players had a tough time with a combo set of around 6,400 yards). The reason it’s so hard: lots of elevation change, difficult table-top greens and rock outcroppings that will do plenty of bad things to your golf if you’re not accurate. Best of all, though, the views never stop, from the opening elevated tee shot to last elevated tee shot.
And if you have time, be sure to play the other course at Marquette Golf Club – the Heritage Course, which has nine holes designed by the legendary William Langford.
Another good golf option is Timberstone Golf Club, located at the fun Pine Mountain Resort in Iron Mountain. The course is plenty fun as it winds up and down hills and through the woods. At nearly 7,000 yards, it can be very challenging, but there really is a set of tees for every level of player.
One of the best things about visiting Timberstone, though, has to be having lunch or dinner at the resort’s Famer’s Restaurant, which houses the UP Sports Hall of Fame. Not only is it interesting to browse all the memorabilia, but the fare and atmosphere rock, especially the appetizers. And if you’re from Texas, this might be the time to try cheese curds, a staple in these parts that are their own food group. They go well with pretty much anything, especially a pint or two of the local craft beers or ales.
By Mike Bailey