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By Don VanderVeen / Photography by Michael Buck

When it comes to nine-hole golf courses, Michigan
has been blessed with some gems that have been designed by legends.

Many represent some of the earlier works by golf course architects who have gone on to attain national and international acclaim. In Michigan, the legendary Donald Ross has left his mark with several indelible nine-hole projects. So have generations of other golf course designers such as Willie Watson, Arthur Hills, Jerry Matthews and Rick Smith.

Some of these courses are more than 100 years old. Others have become part of their respective community’s history with characteristics unique to the area, and yet others are meant to provide convenient playing opportunities in tight spaces.

Playing a nine-hole golf course may be a lot like eating a six-inch submarine sandwich, leaving a person wanting for another half. But the nice thing about it is that a golfer can play it over again and get his fill for just a few dollars more.

Following are nine divine reasons to bite off a little less your next time out and get something more from your round:

1. Les Cheneaux, Cedarville
Construction on Les Cheneaux began in 1895. It was chartered for play by the U.S.G.A. in 1898. That’s more than 100 years of golf.

“ There’s a little argument over which course is the oldest in Michigan,” Les Chenaux manager Roger Ruteledge says. “A couple of courses in Michigan claim to be older than us, but we’re definitely one of the five oldest golf courses in the state.”

One thing is undisputed: Les Cheneaux is the oldest golf course in the Upper Peninsula.

Les Cheneaux was a private club until the 1940s. As recently as the 1960s, two of the top-10 wealthiest people in the United States were members of Les Chenaux Club.

The links-style nine-hole golf course was originally built for private play by members of the Les Cheneaux Yacht Club. It didn’t open for public play until after World War II.

The channel and slips for boats are located behind the first tee and second green. Original members could only access Les Cheneaux via the waterways. No roads led to it.

“ A lot of wealthy people spent their summers here,” Ruteledge said. “When the course was built, there were no roads into the place. Members came from their yachts on the water.”

Trees now dot the shoreline course where there originally were none. The fairways are not watered by a sprinkling system, but the putting surfaces are well maintained.

“ They didn’t move a lot of soil in those days,” manager Roger Ruteledge said.

To this day, the Scottish links style remains. Only the greens are watered.

“ There’s nothing real modern about it, but we did have a low-key celebration for our 100th anniversary,” said Ruteledge. What would you expect to pay to play this piece of regal history? How about $10.50 a round.

2. Charlevoix Golf Course, Charlevoix
As one of the oldest golf courses in Michigan, Charlevoix Golf Course has hosted its share of history. Golf legends such as Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour and Michigan Amateur champion Chuck Kocsis have teed it up at the grand little course over the years.

The golf course features tree-lined fairways. All of the green — which are in outstanding shape — are surrounded by bunkers.

Designed by Scottish architect Willie Watson, Charlevoix Golf Course opened in 1896 as an 18-hole venue. It has operated as a municipal golf course since 1937 when the City of Charlevoix purchased it for $1.00, and transformed half of the course into an industrial park in the 1940s.

“ It seems to be getting better and better every year,” says Lyle King, a retiree who works at the course during the summer time. “It’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen it.”

It is a flat layout with three sets of tees. The course continues to sport character with flat pines, maples, oaks and beach trees.

The three sets of tees play between 2,393, 2,907 and 3,019 yards.

Although there aren’t any “water” holes, pretty views of Lake Charlevoix or the Bay can be seen at various points of the course on clear days.

Thomas Dorsek is the pro shop manager and golf instructor. The cost to walk the historic course is a very reasonable $12.

“ This is probably the best 9-hole course around, bar none,” King boasts. “Even our roughs are in beautiful shape.

“ It’s one of the oldest and — like fine wine — it gets better every year.”

3. Frankfort Golf Course, Frankfort
Located just down the road a piece from world-renowned Crystal Downs, Frankfort Golf Course has earned its place among the top nine-hole golf courses in Michigan.

Developed by eight businessmen from Chicago and built in 1928, Frankfort was the only public golf course in the area for years. It was operated by the Frankfort Chamber of Commerce until 1955.

“ It was closed during World War II because there weren’t any men to run it and there weren’t any people to play on it,” proprietor Bev Ballard said. “It was eventually reopened and established as a golf course, but not until after making a cash crop from the hay that had grown over it.”

Tuck and Becky Tate purchased the golf course from the Chamber of Commerce in 1955 and ran it until they sold it to the Ballard family in 1984.

The well-groomed course features rolling hills and an abundance of mature hardwood trees.

“ Each hole is very unique in its own way,” Ballard said. “There are no two holes that are exactly the same.

“ The course was cut out of the natural landscape, because there weren’t a lot of land movers and shapers back in those days.”

The relatively short, par-34 course has no par-5 holes. It plays 2,700 yards from the men’s tees and features seven par-4 and two par-3 holes.

“ You have to be fairly accurate,” Ballard says. “It is thickly wooded on all sides.”

The cost to play Frankfort Golf Course is $14 to walk and $20 with cart.

4. Shadow Ridge, Ionia
The late, great Donald Ross built his reputation as a legendary golf course designer during the boom of the 1920s. But prior to that time, he designed some outstanding nine-hole courses throughout Michigan.

Shadow Ridge, formerly known as the Ionia Country Club, is one of them.

Commissioned by Michigan Governor Green to create the course in 1916, Ross went to work on the Ionia project while simultaneously working on his masterpiece at Oakland Hills. The club is located near the former Governor’s mansion in Ionia.

Over the years, however, the course aged, but not as gracefully as Oakland Hills. James and Susan Simons purchased the club in 1994 and have attempted to restore some of its former glory. Original bunkers have been restored, and the hilly course still features many of the mature trees that have grown up over the years. Flower beds and heather grasses are also part of the restoration.

“ Our goal was to get green grass again and restore it to its past glory. We also added some moguls after reading a book by Donald Ross,” Susan Simons said.

One of the trademarks of Shadow Ridge is the difficulty of the par-3 holes. The second hole is one that plays 249 yards into a bowl-shaped green. Hole 6 plays up to an elevated green with pot bunkers on the right side and another has a green that is severely sloped.

“ You don’t want to be putting above the hole on No. 6,” warns Susan Simons. “You don’t get any breaks on the par-3 holes here.”

The par-5s — 451 yards on No. 3 and 462 yards on No. 9 — offer a little respite from the demanding par-3s and an opportunity to get back a couple strokes.

The course has two sets of tees, and a growing clientele of golf aficionados appreciating the history and challenge Shadow Ridge presents.

“ The play has tripled since we’ve been here,” Susan Simons said. “Some of our older players remember being caddies here when they were kids. Golf was such a different game then. They didn’t water the fairways and the ball rolled forever.

“ The difference we have is that the fairways, tees and greens are now irrigated throughout the course.”

5. Elk Rapids Golf Club, Elk Rapids
Elk Rapids Golf Club is another early Donald Ross design.

Built in 1923, the nine-hole, semi-private club is situated off the banks of scenic Elk Lake. The 3,000-yard course features three sets of tee boxes.

“ There’s a ton of history here,” Superintendent Chris Drummond said. “There have been some changes, but not very many. We’re trying to preserve it for history.”

Although no water actually comes into play on the golf course itself, views of water and wildlife are commonplace during play. The tees, greens and fairways are watered.

There have been slight renovations over the years. Holes 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 9 are still original. On No. 4, the green has been enlarged. The 17 original bunkers remain.

The club is open to the public every day except Wednesday. Many vacationers in Northern Michigan take advantage of the $12 walking greens fee to play a round on a course built by the master of Michigan golf.

6. Mitchell Creek, Traverse City
Mitchell Creek in Traverse City is a Jerry Matthews course where water comes into play on virtually every hole, either on the side of a fairway or by a friendly forced carry.

The wooded course is fairly flat and opened in 1983.

Playing it in the spring and summer is very pleasant. Playing it in the fall can be a spectacular color experience.

The course, which is surrounded by wetlands, features three sets of tees, with the longest playing just over 3,040 yards. Trees divide several fairways.

“ From my standpoint and from an environmental standpoint, it was one of the very first golf courses I did after they passed the Wetlands Protection Act, and was my first meeting with a DNR employee,” Matthews recalls. “The standards have stiffened considerably since then.”

Green fees for nine holes run about $12.

“ They had 18 holes designed originally, but you couldn’t do it now because there are too many restrictions on wetlands,” Matthews said.

Some holes require some shot making. No. 4 is a narrow par-4 with a dogleg to the left. There are two par-3s and two par-5s, with the longest holes measuring 505 yards and 450 yards. The par-3s — one with a forced carry over a pond — present some birdie-making opportunities.

7. Mill Race, Jonesville
It’s hard to believe that there is not one 18-hole golf course in Hillsdale County. But when it comes to nine-holers, Mill Race is tops.

Arthur Hills has a renowned list of Michigan golf courses to his credit, including Hawkshead, Egypt Valley and fabulous Bay Harbor, among others. But even Hills had to start somewhere. Mill Race in Jonesville, which opened in 1972, represents one of his earliest works.

Hills originally built the course for a local man who had been longtime friends of his parents. It has always been a public course.

The par-36 golf course has a hilly, northern Michigan feel to it with tight greens that are quick and undulating. There are three sets of tees on every hole and the course is accented with rocks and rolling hills (no pun intended).

“ There were a lot of rocks on the course when they were building it, and it has kind of become (Hills’) trait,” head professional Steven Sprague says. “He likes to put boulders at the tees like Arnold Palmer uses island greens in his designs.”

The No. 7 hole is a 213-yard par-3 hole from the back tees that overlooks Mill pond, a water tributary that feeds into the St. Joseph River.

“ It’s a hole you could put anywhere and it would be beautiful,” Sprague boasts.

Weekend Green fees are a modest $10 for walkers and $16 with cart. They are reduced to $8.50 and $14 during the week.

“ It’s just a great nine-hole course,” Sprague said. “I’ve worked in Northern Michigan before. People around here don’t realize just how great of a track this is.”

8. Treetops, Gaylord
Located at the renowned Treetops Resort, Threetops is unique in that it is comprised of nine one-shot holes, creating one of the state’s most spectacular, awe-inspiring par-3 courses.

One of the reasons for Threetops immense popularity — aside from the spectacular views and top-notch condition — is that after groups finish playing one of Treetops’ 18-hole championship courses, they can play nine additional holes without spending three more hours to play. Threetops is an outstanding complement to the championship golf courses at Treetops.

“ Guys go around and play two and even three times,” Treetops professional Jeff Goebel said. “They may think of it as an executive course at first, but once they play it they want to come right back.

“ If it is termed an executive course, then it’s one of the most challenging executive courses I’ve ever seen. We could do even more rounds than we do, but we have to regulate play.”

Like many of the outstanding nine-hole courses in this feature, Threetops represents an early representation of a designer that has gone on to earn honors in the industry. It represents the first venture into golf course design of golf professional Rick Smith (Arcadia Bluffs).

There are up to seven tee boxes on certain holes, providing an array of shot options that range from challenging to mild.

“ You typically have to drop three clubs for the elevation change, but if the wind acts up it can become all you can handle,” Goebel said.“ Shot selection from hole to hole ranges from a 2-iron to a wedge.”

“ Some players could use almost all the clubs they have in their bag,” Goebel said.

ThreeTops annually hosts the Par-3 Shootout, and will again in 2001. Players who have participated in past shootouts have included Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Raymond Floyd, among others.

“ It has been a big draw to the resort, and all of the players want to come back and play,” Goebel said.

9. Sand Creek, Marne
A different name, a change of ownership and a commitment to upgrade the nine-hole facility for practice and play has added another dimension to Sand Creek Golf Course & Driving Range.

“ It has taken us 10 years to get to where we want to be toward making this a real golf course,” says Linda Zahm, who owns the course with her husband, Jerry. Continuous upgrades and renovations have turned Sand Creek into 9-hole gem in Marne.

Two holes were taken out and replaced with a practice area, complete with lighted driving range and putting and chipping green. Lights provide night practice and allow late-evening golfers to finish the final two holes under artificial illumination.

Sand Creek makes for a quick, fun round of golf, affording golfers a chance to sneak off at lunch and get in a quick nine before returning to the office. It’s an efficient, economical way to keep your game sharp.
The par-32, 2,000-yard course has four par-4 holes from the men’s tees and five par-4 holes from the women’s tees. “We’re short, but we’re real golf,” adds Zahm.

The course has been re-seeded with a stronger strain of bluegrass and a new fleet of mowers keeps the conditions better than they have ever been. A private lawn maintenance service has been subcontracted to keep the greens and fairways in top condition. A picnic area with a mini kitchen and grills has also been added to accommodate outings and other events.

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