Ranking Michigan’s top 10 vacation golf courses

Ranking Michigan’s top 10 vacation golf courses

Vacation golf.

Are there any two sweeter words in the English language?

But what makes a great vacation golf course? Is it the course’s beauty? The location? The course’s architectural pedigree? What about the level of its challenge? Do you want something easy? Or do you want U.S. Open-like difficulty? Do you want a course you can brag about playing? Or do you want a hidden gem?

Great vacation golf courses can be all these things, and no one attribute is more important than another.

I kept as much of these criteria in mind as I ranked the Free Press’ top 10 vacation golf courses in Michigan. Let’s tee off with our top course first.

No. 1: Bay Harbor Golf Club, Bay Harbor

If there’s a more scenic golf course in Michigan, I haven’t seen it. This 27-hole layout rests on the shores of Little Traverse Bay with abundant views of the azure waters. The course is made up of three separate nines, but you want to play the Links and the Quarry to experience the best of the three courses.

This is Michigan’s version of Pebble Beach: An immaculate course with tons of challenge, elevation and slope that demand great shot-making — while you’re surrounded by a dreamlike backdrop that seems too good to be true.

The only knock on Bay Harbor is it’s probably a little too hard for average golfers who typically struggle to break 90. It has too many blind shots and forced carries, which is especially penal for golfers who aren’t very familiar with a resort course. Just make sure you pack plenty of extra balls and lots of patience. You will never forget this course.

No. 2: Arcadia Bluffs, Arcadia

This likely is Michigan’s most famous and most heralded vacation golf course. Yet few people truly understand the secret of why it’s so beloved: Playability.

The overwhelming misconception about Arcadia Bluffs is it offers amazing views of Lake Michigan because it sits right on the shore’s edge. But the truth is this links-style course only has a handful of holes that play near the shoreline and many holes either face away from the water or don’t offer any lake views at all.

The reason golfers love this course is because of its hidden details that make it fair, fun and always in immaculate condition. Arcadia Bluffs offers tons of room to hit an errant tee shot and not be penalized, the fairways are like plush carpet and greenskeepers painstakingly remove poa annua so your putts roll true.

But yes, the views are amazing, once you get to them. The 11th, 12th and 13th holes make up the Michigan’s Amen Corner — a perfect blend of difficulty, strategy and natural majesty.

The only thing keeping Arcadia Bluffs from challenging Bay Harbor for the top spot is its location: Namely, in the middle of nowhere. Yes, part of the charm of Arcadia Bluffs is its seclusion and the effort it takes to reach the course. But Bay Harbor is a beautiful city, and it’s near the equally charming towns of Charlevoix and Petoskey. 

No. 3: Threetops, Gaylord

If you think this is too high, you’re right. It’s really high. And that’s exactly the point of Threetops, Rick Smith’s inspired, one-of-a-kind, par-3 course with crazy elevated tee boxes. Some elevations approach 150-foot drops and require you take three or four clubs less than usual. Hitting a 7-iron from 219 yards seems odd — until you do it and actually hit the green.

There are plenty of great courses on this list and you can argue many deserve to occupy this spot. But there isn’t one course as memorable as Threetops, nor is there one course that will make you smile as much whenever you think about playing it. Every Michigan golfer should play this fun, amusement-ride-of-a-course at least once. 

No. 4: Belvedere Golf Club, Charlevoix

When people who know golf talk about golf Up North, they talk about Belvedere. And that’s strange, because Belvedere is almost the antithesis up an Up North vacation golf course. Yet it was actually one of the first vacation golf courses in Michigan.

Scotsman William Watson, better known for the Olympic Club in San Francisco and Olympia Fields near Chicago, designed Belvedere in 1925 and built it with five teams of horses and 150 men. These days, Belvedere resembles a more minimalist parkland layout you might more commonly find downstate.

As a young man, Tom Watson spent summers playing Belvedere while on vacation, and it’s easy to see why. It’s unpretentious and a good test of golf, with small but subtle greens. It also has a great finish that starts at the drivable 346-yard par-4. Hey, any course that has hosted the Michigan Amateur 40 times and has entertained an eight-time major winner is doing something right.    

No. 5: The Gailes, Oscoda

Kevin Aldridge’s links-style masterpiece will make you believe you’re playing golf somewhere in Scotland. The Gailes is so natural-looking, you would think a bunch of sheep ate away exactly the right amount of grass to reveal a wonderful golf course underneath.

All the classic elements of a traditional links course are here: pot bunkers, tees adjacent to greens, tall fescue, berms, hollows and bedeviling greens that range from microscopic to a massive double green. The course looks benign from the tee box but it protects itself with hidden hazards everywhere. Watch the wind, keep your shots low and study the yardage book closely if you want any hope of making a birdie.

No. 6: Greywalls, Marquette

The way Michelangelo sculpted David out of marble, Mike DeVries carved Greywalls out of granite. DeVries, who studied landscape architecture at Michigan, ended up with a ruggedly handsome course as visually stunning as it is challenging. It’s also deserving of its name as gray, granite walls abound.

More: Michigan golf course designer Mike DeVries gains worldwide acclaim

The routing of the course flows masterfully as you cut your way through stone, trees, hills and valleys. It’s easy to lose balls here, but you won’t mind looking for them as you explore the nooks and crannies of this Upper Peninsula treasure. Greywalls approaches the divine inspiration of DeVries’ Michigan masterpiece, the private Kingsley Club.

No. 7: Forest Dunes, Roscommon

The Loop, Tom Doak’s reversible course that opened in 2017 at Forest Dunes Golf Club, has gotten all the sizzle recently with its innovative design. But Tom Weiskopf’s original 2000 design at Forest Dunes remains the hearty steak that put the course on the map, earned endless accolades and whetted golfers’ appetites in the first place.

Forest Dunes seems to have a little of everything: trees, water and native waste bunkers. Weiskopf was a power player who could pull off lots of shots with lots of clubs, and he pushes golfers at his course to do the same. If you look at your bag at the end of a round and every club is dirty, the architect has done his job.

Weiskopf also tantalizes golfers with risk-reward shots on numerous holes. You have to check your ego at the pro shop and think your way around this immaculate track if you hope to score.

Oh, and Forest Dunes gets bonus points for the 19th “bye” hole: a par-3 over water with a bunker in the middle of the green. Weiskopf included it so golfers could settle any bets. But Forest Dunes loses those points just as quickly for its remote location.

No. 8: Tullymore, Stanwood

Jim Engh’s artistically shaped bunkers get all the attention at this course, and that’s not fair because there’s much more. Tullymore’s massive layout spreads over 800 acres of woods, meadows and wetlands, and has a unique blend of five par-5s and five par-3s. The property is so massive you could fall into one of the bunkers and not be found for days.

Each hole is so meticulously crafted that you don’t want to dishonor it with a bad shot. The course offers plenty of challenge with hazards and multitiered greens. But it never looks intimidating.

One note about the bunkers: Though they lack the same steepness and severity, their carefully designed and manicured style is reminiscent of Augusta National’s bunkers.

No. 9: The Bear, Acme

The oldie but goodie has stood the test of time, and not only remains relevant but has also gotten better with age. That’s because when Jack Nicklaus designed the Bear in 1985, it was insanely difficult as a resort course.

Over time, the course has been softened to help promote faster and more enjoyable play. It’s not the monster it once was, but Nicklaus’ moguls and mounds that twist around pot bunkers and through the fruit trees on the property of the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa are enough challenge for most.

No. 10: Mountain Ridge at Crystal Mountain Resort, Thompsonville

There’s so much elevation on this course, you sometimes wonder if your golf cart is going to make it up the hill to the green. It’s up, it’s down and it’s all around. Bill Newcomb’s design is carved through a deep forest on the mountain — and he was smart to allow for several panoramic views, including from the 16th and 17th tee boxes.

There are long cart rides between holes on the sprawling property, which add to your sense of solitude and serenity. It’s hard to believe the course is part of a 36-hole self-contained resort that features a spa, a water playground and a fine-dining restaurant.

But this is why we go Up North and why we play golf on vacation, to get away from everything and everyone if even for just a little while.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.