I’m as guilty as every player in the state when it comes to ignoring U.S. 23, the road "less traveled by” when it comes to golf trips.
When Interstate 75 splits off into U.S. 23 just north of Bay City, I always stay to the left. This highway leads to golf riches as good as any in the country: Treetops Resort, Bay Harbor, Boyne, Shanty Creek, Grand Traverse, Crystal Mountain, Arcadia Bluffs … the list goes on.
But, for the first time in at least eight years, I explored the resorts and courses of U.S. 23 last summer. Along the way, I rediscovered golf playgrounds I had neglected and found some new ones. It was a memorable trip—and not just because I landed my first hole-in-one.
Logistics and time constraints prevented me from taking my intended path from south to north up U.S. 23’s lakeshore routing. Instead, I invaded from the west to follow a zigzag of stops in Hillman, Alpena, East Tawas and Oscoda before heading home.
I heard a constant theme during my travels. The recession of the past three years hit this "blue collar" region of the state pretty hard. Some people made it sound like the sun might never rise on the "Sunrise Side" of Michigan again. Several course owners even expressed regret for sinking their life savings into properties in communities that never really took off like the west side of the state.
But the survival mode the past five years meant they've had to work a little harder to keep guests happy. Why not take advantage of their hospitality? I found out first-hand they appreciate every visitor and treat them like family.
Thunder Bay Resort
Golf’s Grand Entrepreneur
My first stop was Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman, a spot I've had on my radar for years but never gotten to until now.
I finally met owner Jack Matthias, a golf entrepreneur who continues to reinvent his cozy little resort.
He built his 6,712-yard, par-73 course by hand, opening in 1990. Matthias wanted it to be tough, a decision he laments some today. The tight tree-lined fairways feel a bit claustrophobic at times, yet for the most part, it's an interesting place to play. His signature shot showcases the beauty and beast within Thunder Bay. The approach on the long par-4 17th is a threatening shot to an elevated green over a rock wall and pond.
Matthias added an RV park for big rigs within the last decade to attract customers who don't want to stay in the villas and lodges, where spacious suites with a kitchenette and separate living area are just a short walk from the clubhouse and restaurant.
He hosts theme weekends for quilting, murder mysteries and wine lovers. But his pride and joy is the resort's fall and winter elk viewing rides. These dinner retreats end with a spectacular meal in a well-appointed hunting cabin buried deep within 160 acres of woods he owns. The winter trip ranks among the top 10 sled rides in the country by USA Today. His wife still makes the meal from scratch.
“The rides are literally over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house,” Matthias said. “The quality of the food is exceptional. It’s a world-class experience.”
Alpena Golf Club
Local gems in Alpena and Harrisville
A pink sunrise greeted my early morning drive to Alpena Golf Club about a half-hour away. I chose Alpena Golf Club because of its proximity to U.S. 23. Alpena used to be home to two courses whose names caused constant confusion … the Alpena Golf Club and the Alpena Country Club. The 6,583-yard country club, now called River’s Edge, went public in 2008 after an ownership change. It’s considered the tougher of the two designs.
I paired up with a couple of members at Alpena Golf Club. Ken Bott, an Alpena resident, explained the virtues of the area's golf this way: “The (courses) over here are more player friendly, and they are better from a price standpoint, too. Some over on the other side (of the state) are just ridiculous.”
Alpena Golf Club
The front nine of the 6,455-yard Alpena Golf Club dates to the 1930s. The back nine, later designed by Warner Bowen, is better with longer holes, larger contoured greens and several ponds.
My next stop was an hour's drive to Harrisville, the home of Logger’s Trace at Springport Hills, a 27-hole facility with some interesting holes and great topography right along U.S. 23. Co-owner Steve Ashford bought the original nine holes in 1984 before designing two other nines in 1996 and 2004. Ashford understands why the region has suffered so much during the near-bankruptcies of the auto industry.
“We are on the blue collar side of the state,” he said. “We have General Motors, Ford and Chrysler retirees. They have the executives on the other side of the state.”
Logger’s Trace cuts a few corners in conditioning to keep its green fees low. It's a quirky kind of place that some golfers learn to love. Three-star courses like these aren't the rock stars of golf, but coupled with friendly playing partners like I had in Rick Sedgwick, I found what the game should be all about … a good time.
After golf, I invited Sedgwick, a Logger's Trace member, to join me at Red Hawk Golf Club the following day. In turn, Sedgwick treated me to dinner. A new friendship was born. Only in golf is this possible.
Heaven in East Tawas
A refreshing dip in the pool and hot tub the night prior at the Bay Inn in Tawas City refreshed my tired body for the Red Hawk in East Tawas. Arthur Hills has built some strong golf courses in Michigan (HawksHead and Bay Harbor to name two), but Red Hawk stands tall. The beautiful setting mirrors the wonders at Treetops or Boyne. The elevated tee box on the par-3 third sits high above the green and wetland. It's picture-perfect northern Michigan postcard.
I thanked Sedgwick for his company and drove another 25 minutes to the most renowned golf retreat of the region, Lakewood Shores Resort in Oscoda. I hadn't been to Lakewood Shores since playing the Blackshire course in 2003. I was looking forward to a great finish to my trip, but I had no idea that magic was about to happen.
An ace in Oscoda
The 152-room Lakewood Shores Resort serves up some of the most affordable packages in the state. Golf groups invade Lakewood Shores for the variety of playing experiences found on its three courses, The Gailes, Blackshire and the Serradella.
The resort has grown steadily since 1990 when owner Stan Aldridge began adding lodging. More new lodges, built in 2008 just down the road from the main clubhouse, feature hotel-style rooms, some with double beds and in-room Jacuzzis. Out back is the Wee Links, an 18-hole short course for families or those looking to settle bets at the end of the day. A private beach on Cedar Lake is perfect for swimming, jet skiing, canoeing and fishing. The clubhouse restaurant serves a breakfast buffet, lunch and dinner.
The Gailes, ranked by Golf Digest as one of the top 25 courses in Michigan for 2011-12, put Lakewood Shores on the map when it opened in July, 1992. Stan's son Kevin, an aspiring designer at the time, walked many of Scotland's best courses to come up with the nuances for The Gailes. His creation introduced many Michiganders to the quirks of links golf—double greens, sod wall pot bunkers and fescue. It was different than anything else in the state. Arcadia Bluffs has one-upped the ante of links-style golf since, but The Gailes remains a strong choice at one-third the price.
The Gailes plays tough, but for one shining moment I solved its riddles. My perfect pitching wedge found the bottom of the cup on the 141-yard 12th hole. Watching the shot take two bounces on the tiny elevated green and then disappear is a memory I'll always cherish, even if the ace cost me some cash at dinner that night.
Aldridge’s encore, The Blackshire, has matured nicely since opening in 2001. The sandy soil lent itself to the winding waste bunkers that frame the wooded corridors. The Serradella, the original parkland course at the resort, completes this unique triumvirate.
Driving home, I realized how much Lakewood Shores symbolizes golf along U.S. 23. Thanks to the right mix of price, the variety of the courses and some memorable scenery, Lakewood Shores can compete with many of the other pricier golf resorts in Michigan. It's an underrated place.
What I took from my four-day tour is simple: I’ll be back. As Yogi Berra famously quipped “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.” •
Huron Breeze Golf Club
If you're indeed considering a golf trip along U.S. 23, there are a few courses I just didn't have time to see. Huron Breeze Golf Club, just four miles north of AuGres, is the perfect starting point. The course features a nice mix of fairways lined with majestic pines and hardwoods and ponds. White Pine National Resort in Spruce near Hubbard Lake is off-the-beaten path a bit from U.S. 23 but still an excellent choice. Designed by Bruce and Clem Wolfrum, the 6,762-yard course feels like a peaceful escape among 400 forested acres. Guests can stay on-site at the four-bedroom Pine Trace Cottage or the Maple Lane Lodge. Two of Michigan's best courses, Elk Ridge in Atlanta and Black Lake in Onaway, are also within reach of U.S. 23. If you're really looking to cover the entire length of U.S. 23, consider a stop at the Cheboygan Golf & Country Club, a course dating to 1922 that was enhanced in 1990. At the very top lies the Mackinaw Club Golf Course, built in 1997 just four miles south of the bridge.