Sweetgrass, Island Resort & Casino
Best Bets in Michigan’s U.P.


Story by: Steve Donahue

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of golf’s best-kept secrets. The destination’s marquee attraction is the Island Resort & Casino and its superb Sweetgrass Golf Club, home to the LPGA Symetra Tour’s annual Island Resort Championship.

The Michigan's Upper Peninsula's destination marquee attraction is the Island Resort & Casino and its superb Sweetgrass Golf Club.

Daily flights to the Upper Peninsula (or U.P., as it’s known by the locals) arrive at and depart from small-but-convenient Delta County Airport in Escanaba, a mere 20-minute drive from Sweetgrass (for more information visit www.sweetgrassgolfclub.com). Connections to Escanaba from the likes of Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis airports make it easy for travelers anywhere in the U.S. and Canada to reach the resort, which is owned and operated by the Hannahville Band of the Potawatomi Nation.

Our band of traveling golfers — men and women — visited Sweetgrass in Summer 2013 and fell in love with the course, where strategically placed water hazards affect play on seven holes. The par-72 layout—designed by Michigander Paul Albanese and opened in 2008—stretches 7,275 yards from the tips (with a stout course rating/slope of 75.2/143) across 740 acres of sprawling, rolling terrain.

Sweetgrass has hosted the Island Resort Championship for three years, and impressed the players and the LPGA enough to renew their contract through 2016. The layout sprawls across open meadow through and around natural wetlands, and boasts unique green complexes — including Biarritz, island and double greens. Each hole carries a Native American name and legend, paying tribute to the tribal owners, who are honored with a open fire pit on the ninth tee.

Sweetgrass personifies the risk-reward philosophy, with some holes more obvious than others.  Bottom photo is of the Timberstone Golf Course.

Sweetgrass personifies the risk-reward philosophy, with some holes more obvious than others. The meticulous, undulating putting surfaces are chock-a-block with invisible, subtle breaks that take a few rounds to figure out. Well, unless you’re me. I couldn’t make a putt outside gimme range, no matter how straight it looked.

Streching some 440 yards, this par 4, number 5 hole is a great challenge to any golfer.

The first two holes ease golfers into their rounds before reality sets in. The third through ninth holes measure, respectively, 200, 469, 440, 630, 230, 429 and 547 yards. The 469-yard fourth is a beast, and justifiably the No. 1 handicap hole. The fairway doglegs right around a hill, then requires a long uphill approach to a blind Redan green perched atop a mound with steep grass dropoffs in front and left. Long is OB.

The back nine is no pushover, either. Holes 11 through 13 measure 565, 214 and 489 yards (a par 4), respectively. The 12th features a pond on the left side of a narrow, severely double-tiered, 58-yard-long Biarritz green, which can stretch to 244 yards. The 168-yard 15th hole has a signature, rock-encircled island green shaped like a turtle, which is held in high esteem in Potawatomi legend. I hit a perfect shot and my delicate three-foot birdie putt slid four feet past. Thankfully my playing companion gave me the par putt or I might have thrown myself into the drink. The 427-yard 17th— which utilizes a recovered U.S. Department of Transportation footbridge—necessitates a long drive over water from the tips. The course ends on a double green—shared by the uphill ninth and 18th holes—which lies just beyond cascading waterfalls and a pond. There are also seven bunkers to avoid on the closing hole.

Looming beyond the double green is the Island Resort & Casino, whose luxurious Palm Tower adds 162 spacious rooms and luxury suites to the existing Sun Tower’s 113 rooms and suites. The casino offers 24/7 gaming, including 1,300 slots; and a variety of table games such as poker, roulette, blackjack, craps and a bingo hall. The 275-room hotel (Sun and Palm Towers) also features five restaurants and two lounges. Firekeepers — serving breakfast, lunch and dinner — was voted Michigan’s Favorite Casual Restaurant, the 5 Bridges Pub & Grille serves as a 19th hole/steakhouse and the Island Sports Bar is a great place to watch sports on 11 TVs, enjoy cocktails and rehash your round. There is also a covered pool/whirlpool, live entertainment nightly and a 1,400-seat Showroom featuring nationally recognized performers. The resort’s Conference Center, following a $2 million expansion, has nearly doubled its size to 17,400 square feet, hosting up to 825 people for corporate outings and events.

Sweetgrass and the Island Resort & Casino are main draws for U.P. However, two other courses Greywalls (right) and TimberStone (left) realized there were few other local diversions aside from golf and gaming.

While Sweetgrass and the Island Resort & Casino are the main draws for U.P.-bound golfers, two other courses — Greywalls and TimberStone — realized there were few other local diversions aside from golf and gaming in the west-central U.P., so they banded together to create the Perfect 4Some stay-and-play package. The very popular, value-driven rate (starting at $285 through Sept. 22, 2013; $215 starting Sept. 23) includes rounds at Sweetgrass, Greywalls and TimberStone, and a two-night stay at the Island Resort & Casino. Each course offers unique, spectacular playing experiences.

The 168-yard 15th hole has a signature, rock-encircled island green shaped like a turtle, which is held in high esteem in Potawatomi legend.

A look at rankings in national golf publications reveals golf has ironically attained a gold standard in a region where copper was once the main draw. Sweetgrass was named one of 2009’s best new courses by Golf Digest and Golfweek while Greywalls (No. 5), Sweetgrass (No. 14) and TimberStone (No. 19) are ranked among GOLF Magazine’s 2012 Best Public Golf Courses in Michigan, a state with a surplus of world-renowned courses.

The bottom line is if you love great golf and gaming, Michigan’s U.P. — with the Island Resort & Casino as your base of operations — is hardly a gamble. In fact, it’s a sure bet.

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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 steve.donahuecomm@gmail.com.


Watch a short video taken from a powered parachute fly-by of the Island Resort and Casino and Sweetgrass Golf Club.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Sweetgrass Golf Club
W399 Hwy. 2 & 41
Harris, MI 49845
877-ISL-GREEN (475-4733)
www.sweetgrassgolfclub.com

Island Resort & Casino
W399 Hwy. 2 & 41
Harris, MI 49845
800-682-6040; 906-466-2941
www.islandresortandcasino.com