At the beginning of the RGV Tour, there were 3 states that I was most excited about. New York, Texas, and Michigan. Not necessarily because those are the best states, but because they had the most undiscovered territory with huge potential. States like Wisconsin and California are great golfing states but I have seen most of the golfing places already. Somehow Michigan had eluded my grasp. But no more! It was now in reach and the temperatures were dropping into the 70 degrees and sunny territory. It was just as I had planned and this was going to be good.
In technical terms, I decided to enter Michigan from the bottom right by the thumb, swoop into the top of the mitten and come out the bottom left palm. In total, the tour would visit 19 golf courses in Michigan and a visit to Ann Arbor and it’s Alister Mackenzie golf course was up first.
After a solid warmup, it was time to jump into the big guns with a round at Oakland Hills. You have 2 courses at Oakland Hills, the North Course and the South Course. I only had time for one round and I took on the storied South Course.
Designed by Donald Ross, the history at Oakland Hills’ South Course is as storied as any course in the nation. Since it’s opening in 1918, the course has hosted 15 major championships. Perhaps the most legendary of those was the 1951 US Open won by Ben Hogan. With only two rounds shot under par during the entire tournament, the course earned it’s nickname “The Monster.” After shooting a final round 67 to win the tournament, Ben Hogan is quoted as saying, "I am glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees."
On a perfect afternoon, I would whole heartedly attempt to shoot 67 and tame the monster as well. I started out as a single and then joined up with 3 other golfers on holes 4-9. Since my new friends were only doing 9 holes, I was solo again on hole #10. As I waited on a slow group in front of me, I joined up with another single by the name of Jay. It turns out that Jay is awesome and a long time member of the club. We traded stories and he shared tidbits and history from over a decade of membership. Sometimes that slow group in front of you is a blessing in disguise.
Tom Doak has recently designed an unusual course out at Forest Dunes called The Loop and I was excited to visit. The unique part about The Loop is that it is reversible. The Black course is played clockwise one day, and The Red Course is played counterclockwise the next day, both on the same piece of land, with the same greens. Doak had mulled over the idea for decades and had finally gotten his chance to birth such a creation. I would get my chance to play the course as the summer was coming to a close.
The challenge for Doak was to create an interesting course and not just something that was flat and boring. The key was the creation of interesting green complexes with compelling undulations.
The tee boxes are also angled so that you are not just coming in from 180 degrees in each direction depending on the day. A green you approached yesterday from the ‘front,’ you may now face from a 90 or 120 degree angle today.
The Loop is an interesting place and a course worth exploring.
The most popular option at Forest Dunes is Tom Weiskopf’s original and more traditional creation on the property, Forest Dunes Golf Club. As you may have guessed, the layout runs through the forest and the dunes. As usual, I preferred the dunes portion of the course.
Playing as a single for the first 16 holes, the good action did not really start until I paired up with a 3some on the 17th hole. I decided to get my act together and go with an eagle, birdie finish. I usually end up impressing my playing partners with double bogies, so this was a real nice change of pace. Forest Dunes also has a short little 19th hole that almost everyone plays as you walk off of 18. I am not sure why more courses don’t do this.
Next up was a visit to Boyne Highlands for a day of 36 holes on The Heather and Arthur Hills Golf Courses. There are a lot of good options for public golf in Michigan and Boyne was near the top of the list. I found the Heather course to be enjoyable but the Arthur Hills course really held my attention as I golfed until the sun came down.
When I returned to the RGV in darkness, I noticed a large Kalamazoo Hornets head cover had been placed under my windshield wiper. I have no idea who placed it there. Perhaps it was a gift from an RGV Tour fan, perhaps it flew under there on it’s own. The world will never know.
A mandatory trait that one must have in order to survive on The RGV Tour is resourcefulness. Because the budget isn’t endless, I am always looking for ways to get around at reduced costs. It turns out that one of the best places to find some necessities is at country clubs. Compared to the RGV, the showers almost never run out of water, the electricity appears endless, and they have snacks sitting out almost everywhere.
As I normally do, I decided to walk the hilly course in order to burn off the 2,000 calories of banana bread that I consumed. While the banana bread at True North was absolutely delicious, it did not compare to the deliciousness of the golf course.
Almost every day on The RGV Tour has been rewarding in some way or another, but there are certainly some days that stick out from the rest. I was about to have one of those days in Frankfort, MI. As you pull up to the clubhouse at Crystal Downs, you can’t help but notice the golf course on your right hand side. You get little glimpses of the front nine and your heart starts to beat faster. I eagerly parked the RGV and headed up to the clubhouse in search of my host Al.
Al and I had played years ago at Estancia in AZ and we had kept in touch. Good fortune would shine on the tour and he had a free day in September to play some golf. Al is one of those sneaky good players, heck, you might even be foolish enough to think that you could beat him. But after he calmly hits 14 greens in a row, you start to realize that you never had a chance.
As good as Al is at golf, Crystal Downs is even better. The firm and fast greens really bring out all of the original Mackenzie architecture. You have to think your way around the design and to hit quality golf shots. From the view on the 1st tee to the walk up the hill on 18, Crystal Downs should delight the golfer’s soul. If it doesn’t you are golfing wrong.
The front nine is one of the best in the entire world and back nine only slightly drops off in excitement levels. Highlights include the tough 1st hole, the boomerang green 7th hole, the short par 4 17th, and every hole in between.
After an amazing tour of Crystal Downs, Al invited me to Art’s tavern in Glen Arbor. While this is not a food blog, the burgers here receive 9 out of 10 stars. As I finished up my mushroom and Swiss, I though to myself, the only way that this day could gets any better, is if we roast some marshmallows and eat s’mores down by the lake. You guessed it folks, that is exactly what happened.
A big thanks to Al and Kay for hosting The RGV Tour and delivering a top 10 tour stop.
The next morning, the tour rose bright and early to grab some breakfast and head out to another local gem, Lochenheath. This was my first experience with a Steve Smyers design and I enjoyed it very much.
At this point, you are probably thinking, “Alright Koenig, let’s move on, how much Michigan do you need!?!” The answer is more Michigan. We are about half way through the state with a nice little surprise at the end. The next surprise would be these shots from Arcadia Bluffs. Arcadia has recently added a South Course to their portfolio but the original course remains one of the most scenic in the land. Situated on a bluff overlooking the shores of Lake Michigan, the course reminds me a lot of Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
When you play golf every single day, some of the golf courses can tend to run together and it takes something special to really stand out. Architect Jim Engh creates golf courses that stand out and his creation at Tullymore does exactly that. With a wide variation of golf holes, the course keeps you interested and the unique bunkering style maximizes visual impact.
Some of Jim Engh’s other designs include The Club at Black Rock in Idaho, True North also in Michigan, and Hawktree Golf Club in North Dakota. As I type this, I am preparing to play Hawktree tomorrow and my excitement level is high.
While I was golfing at Lost Dunes, Tiger Woods was busy winning The Tour Championship and capturing his 80th professional victory. Although I was missing history, I was not going to miss Lost Dunes on this Michigan trip. My buddy John was keeping me up to date on the Tiger scenario as it unfolded.
Lost Dunes is one of Tom Doak’s first designs and it is easy to see why Tom was hired for additional projects after this effort.
The penultimate round in Michigan came at Harbor Shores. This Jack Nicklaus design has hosted and will host the Senior PGA Championship 7 times from 2012 - 2024. Harbor Shores is also a not for profit development. Any revenues above operating expenses are granted back to the community for job training and educational programs. Harbor Shores is also a proud partner of the Benton Harbor First Tee.
So yes, the course is a major venue and an inspiration to the community. But the real magic at Harbor Shores is where the course came from. Over 3 million square feet of dilapidated buildings were demolished and over 140,000 tons of waste material was removed from portions of the Paw Paw River and other areas on the property to make room for the golf course. Think about that for a second, the golf course was literally a run down waste dump.
It is hard to imagine what this place even looked like before Jack came to town. Unfortunately, I don’t have before and after pictures. You will just have to settle for the after shots.
It can be argued that the final course in the state of Michigan is the best 9 hole course in the entire country. That certainly is my contention as I have yet to play one that comes close to it. The golf course that I am talking about is The Dunes Club.
For those that know the story of Bandon Dunes and the book “Dream Golf,” they will be familiar with The Dunes Club. This was the golf course that Mike Keiser built before he built Bandon Dunes. The dream of building golf courses like Pacific Dunes, Sand Valley, and Cabot Cliffs all began here.
Here are some quick facts and observations on the 9 hole golfing wonderland.
The clubhouse is very modest and the pro shop is about the size of a walk in closet.
I was the only golfer on the golf course during my visit.
The Dunes Club evokes strong comparisons to America’s #1 course Pine Valley.
The cheeseburger the staff grilled up at the turn receives a 5 star burger award.
The parking lot won the “Tightest RGV Squeeze” award on tour.
The maintenance staff cuts different cups in the afternoon so that golfers playing 18 holes can change up the experience.
As I made my way out of the bottom left palm of Michigan and one of my favorite states came to a close, I felt a slight bit of sadness. The anticipation of upcoming states is one of the best parts about the tour and I could no longer look forward to Michigan. However, I did manage to leave a couple of courses un-golfed and it’s never too early to anticipate a return trip.