Discovering Northern Michigan

The number of scenic, challenging golf courses in the Wolverine State’s Lower Peninsula might surprise you.

By Rob Duca

I was sitting at the City Park Grill in Petoskey, Michigan, at the same bar stool, second from the end, that Ernest Hemingway once frequented. Hemingway was associated with many exotic locales during his lifetime, from Havana and Key West to Venice and Paris. But who knew Papa also hung out in Northern Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, drinking whiskey and working on his stories?

It turns out that his family owned a cottage on nearby Walloon Lake and Hemingway would come to this now iconic restaurant, called then “The Annex,” in the 1920s, after attending bare-knuckle fights downtown. Hemingway’s ghostly presence is just one of the many surprises you’ll discover when you visit an area that is a skiing paradise during the winter and a golf destination in spring, summer and early fall.

Here’s another revelation: It’s easy to get there from New England. The flight from Boston to Detroit is approximately 90 minutes, with a connection to Traverse City taking 30 more, followed by a 60-to-90 minute drive to any of three destinations owned by Boyne Resorts. Depending on which resort you visit – and you can easily hit all three during one vacation – you’ll find everything from panoramic mountainside lodging to spectacular lakeside accommodations, along with 11 championship golf courses. Among the course designers are Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Arthur Hills. There is also zip-lining, water sports, fishing, kayaking, tennis, horseback riding, paintball, paddle-boarding and casual evenings toasting marshmallows around a roaring fire pit.

With the recently introduced “dynamic pricing” at all the Boyne courses, it’s easy to book a package that fits any budget. Prices fluctuate depending on a variety of factors, such as how far in advance you book, the predicted weather conditions for that day, the time of day and the demand for tee times. Therefore, one golfer might pay $50 for a greens fee and the person directly behind in line could pay $150. It’s like booking an airline ticket.

Boyne Resorts is comprised of Boyne Mountain in Boyne Falls, Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs and The Inn at Bay Harbor. They also have a New England connection as owners of the Sugarloaf and Sunday River resorts in Maine and Loon Mountain in New Hampshire.

My week began at the Bavarian-style Boyne Mountain Resort, which is tucked inland at the mountain base and features the Alpine and Monument golf courses. The Alpine is the more forgiving of the courses, with wide, wooded fairways and stunning elevation changes. As I stood on the elevated 12th tee, I could see a smattering of holes on both courses and was able to scan the horizon all the way to Lake Michigan. Although the Monument is considered the more difficult, the Alpine will test golfers of any ability during a treacherous back nine that closes with four consecutive par-4 holes of more than 400 yards, a par 3 over water and a finishing par 5 where water comes into play off the tee and on the approach to the green.

After golf, the Beach House Restaurant, with outside dining overlooking Deer Lake, is a great place to unwind and savor spectacular sunsets. Don’t miss the morel mushroom appetizer, a local specialty that is a concoction of roasted garlic, Madeira, cream and crostini.

A 30-minute drive the following day landed me at Boyne Highlands, where I played the Hills and the Heather courses. As I quickly learned, every course in the Boyne Resort stable has a distinct flavor, making this a wonderful spot for a golf vacation. The Hills is a stunningly beautiful layout. Skyscraper pine trees frame the fairways and extend all the way around and behind the greens, and it’s not unusual to spot deer and wild turkeys casually roaming through the rough. There is a series of intriguing holes, with cavernous bunkers and pristine greens. This was my second favorite course on the trip. My first? More on that in a bit.

The Heather, designed by Donald Ross, is a classic design reminiscent of a course you would find in Massachusetts, Vermont or New Hampshire. With tree-lined fairways, light rough and small greens, it demands strategy and precise iron shots.

Between rounds I strapped on something resembling a wet suit, had electrodes attached to my arms, legs and feet and saw my swing analyzed on Doppler radar equipment at the resort’s golf fitting center. The computer screen displayed loft angle and swing path from takeaway to the point of impact and provided immediate feedback on what I was doing right – or, ahem, wrong.

The third day brought me to the dazzling Bay Harbor Golf Club, which is perched on the shore of Lake Michigan. I never thought I’d experience a course as stunning as Old Head in Ireland, but this nine-hole Links layout comes awfully close. Bay Harbor consists of three nine-hole Hills-designed courses: the Links, the Quarry and the Preserve. Most visitors elect to play the Links/Quarry combination despite a greens fee that at peak times reaches $250. That’s a lot of money, but the experience is exhilarating.

The Links is a visual assault on the senses. It is perched on a cliff and holes feature eye-popping views of the lake all the way across the water to Boyne Highlands and the village of Bay Harbor. The Quarry was built on an abandoned quarry and is characterized by forced carries over deep ravines. There are also plenty of lake views. A word of caution: Bring an ample supply of golf balls.

Down the road and situated on the bluffs above Bay Harbor is Crooked Tree Golf Club. It features ski-slope fairways and massive greens, including a double-green for the ninth and 18th holes. A recent redesign of the closing three holes greatly enhanced the finish and now makes it championship quality.

My final night was spent at the luxurious Victorian-style Inn at Bay Harbor. Located on Lake Michigan, it features its own sandy beach, pool, outdoor bar and patio dining. As I settled into an Adirondack chair on the back lawn and watched the sun recede into the lake, I couldn’t help but think: Who knew that Northern Michigan had so much to offer?

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