Northern Michigan...
the Place to Be for Great Golf

Story by: Steve Donahue
Photography provided by respective golf resorts

Contrary to what some might believe, there’s more to Michigan than professional sports teams, the auto industry and Detroit’s financial woes.

Golfers find the best Northern Michigan base in one of three Petoskey-area Boyne Resorts — Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs, Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls or The Inn at Bay Harbor-A Renaissance Golf Resort in Bay Harbor.  The above photos show from top to bottom: Crooked Tree, Belvedere & Bay Harbor courses.

Fact is, Michigan has long been one of the nation’s premier golf and vacation destinations, and nowhere are the courses and family activities more prevalent than in the northern part of the state, 280 miles north of Motown.

Golfers, not to mention fun-loving families, find the best Northern Michigan base of operations is one of three Petoskey-area Boyne Resorts — Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs, Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls or The Inn at Bay Harbor-A Renaissance Golf Resort in Bay Harbor (

Our 12-person golf writers group chose Boyne Highlands, a favorite vacation spot for midwesterners since the winter of 1963-64, when the resort’s skiing operation opened. The slope, at 552 feet high, is the state’s Lower Peninsula’s highest vertical. Since the skiing operation is closed in mid August (who knew?), we focused on the resort’s four golf courses — The Arthur Hills, The Donald Ross Memorial, The Heather and The Moor — which were nearly as challenging as schussing down a snowless mountain but much more fun, not to mention safer.

Boyne Highlands’ main lodge, which resembles an English country estate, has recently undergone major guest-room renovations.  My room, despite its location at the opposite end of the building, was still just a short walk to the Main Dining Room’s incredible hot buffet breakfast, and the casual Slopeside Lounge. The Spa at Boyne Highlands, which opened in 2012, offers a plethora of treatments and massages. Golfers can add a $100 spa credit for just $75 when booking any golf package or lodging, and golf packages start at a mere $87, which, considering the quality of the hotel and its courses, is mind boggling.

My guest room’s window overlooked the 18th green of the Heather, a 7,154-yard, par-72 Robert Trent Jones design that kick-started the region’s golf boom. The resort’s owner, Everett Kircher, wanted a summer activity to draw hotel guests and Heather — a mainstay on Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses” ranking from 1971 to 1989 — remains a big hit. Heather is No. 73 on the publication’s “America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses 2013-2014” ranking.

The stern test (74.6/141 course rating/slope) concludes with a 487-yard par 4, requiring an all-carry approach over a pond to a green with bunkers behind and right of the putting surface. I watched countless golfers out my window rinse white pellets in the water before everyone in our foursome followed suit the next day, blaming the fairway landing area’s downhill lies. While it’s one of Trent Jones’ toughest closing holes, turns out Kircher, unbeknownst to the architect, actually created the pond after the job was finished.

I played The Heather and The Hills during a 2001 Northern Michigan tour, but only got as far as The Hills’ vertiginous, 570-yard rear 13th tee, from which I launched an arching, monster drive down the middle of the wide fairway. As the ball reached its apex on the course’s signature hole, a massive lightning bolt crashed into the hills beyond the green and, before my drive touched ground seemingly 30 seconds after I struck it, I was in the cart racing to the clubhouse, barely beating a vicious storm that flattened trees throughout the resort’s property.

My much-awaited 2013 replay of the Arthur Hills-designed namesake course was much less dramatic and, in fact, I birdied the previously unlucky 13th after two solid shots put me on the bowl-like green. The spectacular course has a number of roller-coaster elevation changes, and holes wind through and around wetlands and forest — including some holes lined by perfectly uniform rows of towering pines with the straightest trunks we’ve ever seen — making for a serene experience, no matter how much you’re getting beat up.

Shown here is hole #7 of the Donald Ross Memorial course, a composite re-creation of classic holes designed by Ross in the early 20th century from some of his finest courses.

The 6,814-yard, par-72 Donald Ross Memorial course is a composite re-creation of classic holes designed by Ross in the early 20th century from some of his finest courses. I’m generally leery of “tribute” courses, but nearly everyone in our group felt the Ross course was his or her favorite of the resort’s offerings. Not only is each hole true to its original, the entire routing flowed brilliantly. We felt we were playing an outstanding Ross-designed course which, naturally, was the resort’s goal. Everyone’s most-memorable hole was the 617-yard, uphill fifth that replicates the 13th at Oak Hill (East), site of Jason Dufner’s 2013 PGA Championship win the weekend of our trip, which played uphill into the wind. Despite finding the wide fairway with my drive, it took me four more shots to reach the green, despite not finding a single bunker. My advice? Avoid the thick, deep rough.

With some unexpected time on our hands one afternoon, four of us decided to play the resort’s 6,850-yard, par-72 Moor, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Moor features plenty of trees, doglegs, water, marshes and bunkers, the latter of which looked as though they hadn’t been raked since the 20th century. The overall conditioning wasn’t up to par with its immaculately manicured sister coures, either, but the resort planned to begin an extensive bunker renovation project shortly after our visit.

Bay Harbor's Links course is one of 27 holes in a collection of three distinct nines.

Conditioning aside, Moor is a fun, challenging layout. A gentle start lulled us into thinking it would be a pushover, but it was soon apparent we were in for a tussle if we kept missing fairways and greens. Moor’s 525-yard 18th encompasses the course’s overall feel with plenty of trees, water, wetlands, bunkers and doglegs. In fact, the unusual “S”-shaped fairway starts out to the right, doglegs sharply back to the left and then doglegs back to the right. The temptation is to attempt to cut off the first two doglegs by clearing two different water hazards on your first two shots to reach the green in two. After playing very poorly on the back nine, I had nothing to lose but another ball or two, so I took the swing-and-pray route and ended up on the front edge of the green in two. I missed the 15-foot eagle attempt but was happy to walk off Moor with a birdie and at least some self respect.

There’s never a dull moment at Boyne Highlands. Several folks in our group also teed it up at the resort’s Cuff Links par-3 course, which is lighted on weekends, and had a blast. Other golf-season activities include ziplining — a handful of us absolutely loved it — horseback trail rides, scenic chairlift rides, hiking trails, mountain biking, four hard-surface tennis courts, pond fishing and paddle boating, a children’s adventure camp, live birds of prey and the Young Americans Dinner Theater (June-August).

We also played two off-site Boyne-affiliated courses — Bay Harbor Golf Club and Crooked Tree Golf Club.

Bay Harbor, designed by Hills, is a 27-hole gem with three distinct nines — Links, Quarry and Preserve. Golf Digest ranked Bay Harbor third on its “Best New Upscale Public Courses of 1999” list, behind Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits. Bay Harbor is still earning accolades, as its 6,827-yard, par-72 Links/Quarry combination — which we played — is No. 65 on the magazine’s “America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses 2013-2014” ranking. The windy Links plays 140 feet above Lake Michigan’s rocky coastline for more than a mile. The Quarry plays above, around and through an abandoned shale quarry.

Designed by Authur Hills, Golf Digest ranked Bay Harbor (top) third on its “Best New Upscale Public Courses of 1999” list, behind Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits.  Belvedere (bottom left) opened in 1925, is a classic designed by famed architect William Watson. The Heather is shown bottom right.

Crooked Tree Golf Club, two miles away on Highway 31 in Petoskey, is a 6,712-yard, par-71 course designed by Harry Bowers in 1991, with Hills giving the final three holes a much-needed facelift to make those holes, which will reopen in Spring 2014, more playable. The course was sculpted from centuries-old hardwoods. The greens give Crooked Tree its teeth. The multiple-tiered putting surfaces feature wild slopes, often making three putts a probability, not a possibility. Holes 9 and 18 share a double green.

We sampled Petoskey’s wonderful dining scene including City Park Grill downtown and the Petoskey Brewery. We also dined at The Pier, on the water in nearby Harbor Springs. I fell in love with Petoskey Brewery’s six brews on tap, especially Horny Monk Belgian Dubbel. The food is also outstanding. I recommend the Slider Trio —barbecued pulled pork, Buffalo pulled chicken and smashed meatball — piled high on pretzel rolls. Oh, also be sure to order the superb Not-so-chilly chili.

Historic Belvedere Golf Club, in Charlevoix, is a non-Boyne-affiliated course in the Petoskey area we suggest you play. Belvedere, which opened in 1925, is a 6,943-yard, par-72 classic designed by famed architect William Watson. The gently rolling, highly respected layout will hold the prestigious Michigan Amateur Championship in 2014 for the 40th time. Fortunately for us, the semi-private course with sloping, undulating greens allows outside play. Among the legends to have played Belvedere are Gene Sarazen and Ken Venturi. In fact, Sarazen apparently told Venturi to drive to Belvedere and play the 16th hole. Venturi did so, encountering a 346-yard beast whose elevated green offers a long, but narrow target for the short-iron approach. However, the putting surface cants severely to the right, pushing all but perfect shots off the green and down a steep right greenside embankment. Sarazen was right — that hole alone is worth the drive.

The Kingsley Golf Club is a masterpiece crafted by Mike DeVries, a protégé of Tom Fazio and Tom Doak.

We also highly recommend two other incredible layouts we played in the Traverse City area — The Kingsley Club and Grand Traverse Resort & Spa’s Bear Course.

The Kingsley Club is a masterpiece crafted by Mike DeVries, a protégé of Tom Fazio and Tom Doak. The 6,723-yard, par-71 layout is build atop 320 acres of glacier-carved hills, fields, hardwoods and sand dunes 12 miles south of Traverse City. The private, “pure golf” club allows limited non-member play by having your club professional contact the club, so definitely include it in your itinerary. The open front nine winds through, up and around natural scrub and hillocks, then heads into hardwoods and valleys on the incoming nine. Heaving holes are framed with beautiful waving, golden-brown fescue and colorful wildflowers, providing a relaxing feel — at least until you have to hit your next, better-be-precise shot. The wide-but-rollicking fairways are apt to kick less-than-perfect shots into the rough, waste areas or bunkers. The routes some of our putts took on the undulating greens resembled Walt Disney World’s wild Thunder Mountain Railroad ride.

We spent our last night at the beautiful Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. The resort — with 585 rooms and 54 holes of golf — lines the shores of East Grand Traverse Bay, just six miles northeast of Traverse City, whose Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) is Northern Michigan’s gateway and features arrivals and departures from/to major airports such as Detroit, Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis.

Grand Traverse’s signature course, The Bear, was designed by Jack Nicklaus. When it opened in 1985 the par-72 track had the nation’s highest course and slope ratings. Playing from the 7,078-yard tips, it carries a hefty 76.3/148 course rating/slope.

Grand Traverse’s signature course, The Bear, was designed by Jack Nicklaus. When it opened in 1985 the par-72 track had the nation’s highest course and slope ratings. Well, the beautiful beast is still a bear, especially from the 7,078-yard tips, with its hefty 76.3/148 course rating/slope. The Bear will quickly expose anyone without his or her A-game. There are four lakes/ponds, yet water affects play on 10 holes. The course — with its deep rough, moguls and mounds, deep pot bunkers and multi-tiered greens —rolls through pines, hardwoods, and cherry and apple trees, and around or across water and wetlands. Unless you’re a tour professional, bring lots of balls.

Traverse City, the Cherry Capital of the World, is considered one of the country’s top foodie towns. It hosts July’s annual National Cherry Festival, is home to nearly 30 award-winning wineries and has a reputation as a haven for locally-made craft beer with several brew pubs and microbreweries. We dined downtown at Mode’s Bum Steer for dinner — the 8-ounce, center cut filet was outstanding — and at North Peak Brewing Company (no matter what you order, also get a bowl of cheddar ale soup) the next day for lunch en route to the airport.

It wasn’t easy boarding the flight home, but Northern Michigan’s abundance of world-class golf courses already has us planning our next visit.


Steve Donahue is a veteran freelance writer and editor who has played nearly 900 golf courses in all 50 states and 10 countries. He is based in Watertown, Conn.  He can be reached at


For more information on Michigan Golf:
Bay Harbor Golf Club
5800 Coastal Ridge Drive
Bay Harbor, MI 49770
231-439-4028/800-GO-BOYNE (462-6963)

Boyne Highlands Resort
600 Highlands Drive
Harbor Springs, MI 49740
231-526-3000/800-GO-BOYNE (462-6963)

Belvedere Golf Club
5731 Marion Center Road
Charlevoix, MI 49720

Crooked Tree Golf Club
600 Crooked Tree Drive
Petoskey, MI

Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
100 Grand Traverse Village Boulevard
Acme, MI 49610

The Kingsley Club
600 Niblick Trail
Kingsley, MI 49649