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By Don VanderVeen

When “Golf Digest” speaks — or goes to print, as the case may be — people listen. Or take notice, as the case may be.

The golf magazine’s final 21st century ranking of Michigan’s top-25 finest golf courses included 13 from the West side of the state, which may very well be the “Best Side” of the state when it comes to outstanding golf courses.

The Best of the West includes Crystal Downs (2) in Frankfurt, Wuskowhan Players Club (4) near Holland, Bay Harbor in Petoskey, The Thoroughbred (8) in Rothbury, The Legend (12) at Shanty Creek, St. Ives (13) in Stanwood, Treetops Jones Course (15) in Gaylord, The Bear (20) at Grand Traverse Resort in Acme, The Heather (21) at Boyne Highlands, Dunmaglas (22) in Charlevoix, Black Forest (23) in Gaylord, Hawkshead (24) in South Haven and Treetops Fazio Course (25) in Gaylord.

Criteria for the “Golf Digest” ratings are based on a handful of components, including shot value, resistance scoring, aesthetics, conditioning and memorability. Some of the courses that have been around long enough or have hosted prestigious tournaments receive bonus points for tradition.
Crystal Downs and Wuskowhan are private clubs. The rest are daily fees courses.How many of these outstanding golf courses have you played?

Following is a list of those courses, their designers and additional reasons why each is played on — and looked upon — with such reverence:

2. Crystal Downs, Frankfort, Alister Mackenzie
Designed by the renowned Scottish architect and built in 1929, Crystal Downs is a traditional private golf course that has withstood the test of time and — like fine wine — has become better with age.

Situated on rolling sand dunes on the coast of Lake Michigan, sand hills and beautiful grasslands accent the natural setting. The green complexes are outstanding, perhaps the best in all of Michigan. Crystal Downs played host to the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship in 1991.

“ It was designed by the greatest golf course architect that ever lived when he was at the peak of his design creativity and built on just an incredible piece of property,” Crystal Downs head professional Fred Muller said. “It’s an amazing collection of holes without an average hole on the course.

“ Golfers generally consider Cypress Pointe, Crystal Downs and Royal Melbourne as Mackenzie’s three greatest works, just ahead of Augusta.”

4. Wuskowhan Players Club, West Olive, Rick Smith
Wuskowhan was ranked No. 2 in the country on the list of Best New Private Clubs when it opened in 1997. Situated on a pristine 240-acre setting with over 80 acres of wetlands, the natural layout designed by Rick Smith is as much of a sanctuary for birds as it is conducive for birdies. Wuskowhan is widely acknowledge for its efforts toward conserving the environment and earned the distinction as becoming the first Michigan golf course to be designated a signature sanctuary course. The front nine meanders through hardwoods and much of the back nine runs along the pretty Pigeon River, taking golfers on what seems like a trek through both Carolinas in a single round.

“ What truly makes Wuskowhan special is a serenity over the entire property,” Wuskowhan general manager and director of golf Michael Kernicki said. “The course is spectacular and always manicured to tournament conditions.

“ It has been nicknamed Nature’s Course, and that’s what it’s all about.”

5. Bay Harbor, Petoskey, Arthur Hills and Stephen Kircher
Twenty seven holes — The Links, The Quarry and The Preserve — of awe-striking beauty await golfers at Bay Harbor. Each nine has its own unique characteristics and provides a diverse array of challenging championship golf holes with breath-taking waterfront views. Because of its scenic beauty overlooking Lake Michigan, Bay Harbor has been favored comparably as “the Pebble Beach of the Midwest.”

“ It’s obviously one of the more diverse experiences in the state, if not THE most diverse experience for golf,” said Boyne USA Michigan general manager Stephen Kircher, who collaborated with Hills on the design. “Having the proximity to Lake Michigan with the golf holes and the view on the lake make it unique.

“ We spared no expense on construction or maintenance, and with a great architect like Arthur Hills, there is tremendous shot value there.”

8. Thoroughbred, Rothbury, Arthur Hills
The Thoroughbred scored big despite being void of tradition points. Its diverse layout gives the feeling of being at three distinctly different places during a round. There are hardwoods, elevation changes and rock formations creating one element, a pine forest providing another and a trip around Carpenter Lake creating a totally different look. With four sets of tees, the course can play anywhere from short and sweet to long and strong.

“ What we have going for us is the design variety,” director of golf Jeff Howland said. “Our strength is in that variety and it creates many memorable holes.

“ It gives you a great variety in length and a great variety in nature. The horse tracks (from the Double J Resort), a cranberry bog and fruit orchards are intertwined around the course, providing an aesthetically pleasing round.

“ We have 13 different holes that could stand out as signature holes and nobody can agree on just one.”

12. The Legend, Bellaire, Arnold Palmer
Located at one of the state’s premier resorts at Shanty Creek, The Legend provides an experience fit for a King. After all, it was designed by the “King” himself. Winding through hardwoods with magnificent views and elevation changes, The Legend provides a pleasing blend of nature and shot value.

“ From the minute you take off from the first tee until you finish, you do not see another hole,” Shanty Creek director of golf Rodger Jabara said. “There’s the view on No. 3 overlooking Lake Bellaire, and all sorts of wildlife. Every hole has four sets of tees — from 7,000 yards to 5,000 yards — and we hear it a lot that it’s a very friendly course for people of all abilities. On top of all of that, when they come to Shanty Creek, they get the total experience, from the staff, to excellent dining and a little night life as well.”

13. St. Ives, Stanwood, Jerry Matthews Natural Course Design
Dramatic elevation changes, hardwoods and wetlands all add to the aura of St. Ives. The well maintained bentgrass greens and fairways create a plush setting with several unique holes that are both challenging and fair. The scenery is memorable, and the challenge provides an enjoyable experience round after round.

“ Our biggest thing here is the beauty of the golf course and the land that it is on,” St. Ives head professional Kevin O’Brien said. “Aesthetically, it’s a golf course where holes are all very unique and picturesque, and golfers can go back and remember how each hole played.”

15. Treetops Jones Course, Gaylord, Robert Trent Jones
This course, which opened in 1987, is what the Treetops golf mecca was founded on. Built on ridges over heavily wooded, hilly terrain, the Jones Course provides a test of golf for the avid golfer. Its recognizable signature hole, the No. 6 par-3, looks out over the Pigeon River Valley and is 180 yards long with a stunning 120-foot drop from tee to green.

“ When the resort owner hired Jones, he wanted a difficult test of golf, and Mr. Jones complied,” Treetops head professional Don White said. “It’s not overly demanding off the tee, but if you miss a green, it’s a difficult task to try to save par.

“ It’s not a course where the average golfer will have his best score on, but the scenery and beauty of the course is what keeps people coming back to play it.”

20. The Bear, Acme, Jack Nicklaus
One of Michigan’s premier resort courses and grandaddy of all challenges, The Bear remains a “must play” for the avid golfer. Deep grass-faced bunkers and the overall contour of the course that winds through wetlands and woods create an invigorating and somewhat different challenge with every round played. The state’s top professionals try to wrestle The Bear every summer at the Michigan Open.
“ It’s a golf course a person could play every day and not get tired of it,” Grand Traverse director of golf Tom Skoglund said.“It really tests all areas of your game from tee shot to irons into the greens. Then you’re putting gets tested because of the undulation on the greens.

“ The course is always in pristine condition and the greens always roll superb.”

21. The Heather, Harbor Springs, William Newcombe
The combination of wetlands, woods and water create a feeling of peaceful seclusion at The Heather. The Heather is a traditional golf course in nature, but also is known as the first course in Michigan to use global positioning satellite (GPS) yardage-marking systems.

“ Hole by hole, it’s the best golf course in Boyne,” says Boyne USA general manager of Michigan operations, Stephen Kircher. “It has hosted so many tournaments and has such tremendous shot value, especially when it’s set up for competition.

“ It’s a very strategic golf course, but with some very unique physical attributes.”

22. Dunmaglas, Charlevoix, Larry Mancour
Overlooking both Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, Dunmaglas has sparkling views of the water created by elevation changes. Dunmaglas is as much of a test of golf as it is beautiful.

“ It’s one of the more challenging courses up here, which makes it memorable,” says head professional Joel Gohlmann. “There is not one hole that can be compared to another. Each hole has its own characteristics throughout the entire course.”

23. Black Forest, Gaylord, Tom Doak
Cut out of the middle of the Northern Michigan woods, The Black Forest rolls over an awesome 640 acres of ridges and valleys. There are no homes in the wilderness setting. Accented by classic bunker design with intricate capes and bays, the undulating greens make every putt an adventure. The par-73 layout has five sets of tees, making it accommodating to all handicaps.

“ It’s reminiscent of the courses built by the masters like Alister Mackenzie and Donald Ross,” owner David Smith said. “It adds a unique touch to a modern golf course. Even those not enamored with the classic design experience are in awe of the scenery alone.

“ The spectacular setting of The Black Forest covers a huge amount of property, which makes it much more difficult to maintain, but also makes for an extremely enjoyable round of golf.

“ It’s basically an adventure into the north woods.”

24. HawksHead, South Haven, Arthur Hills
Situated on a classic setting over sculpted sand dunes and wisps of grassy fescue, Hawkshead is a scenic links style course that is reminiscent of a seaside Scottish golf course, especially with the prevalent winds off Lake Michigan. Situated near protected wildlife preserve, the scenery is pleasing, the greens and fairways are immaculately maintained and groomed and the diverse collection of holes make every round an adventure.

“ It’s a great layout and the playability is great for the average golfer, yet still tough for the better-than-average golfer,” says HawksHead head professional Jason Fargo. “There’s always that opportunity to score a few strokes better and that’s what keeps people coming back.”

25. Treetops Fazio Course, Gaylord, Tom Fazio
The Fazio Course at Treetops is a classic, country club type of golf course that sprawls over 400 acres. The greens have a distinct contour, including a pair of two-tiered complexes. The fairways are wide and generous, and several of them meander through valley-type settings, allowing shots just a little off center to work back toward the middle. The bunkering is classic with longer grasses surrounding them.
“ Fazio puts a premium on putting and the contours of the greens are evident of that,” Treetops head professional Don White said. “You get some holes with nice, distant views and some elevated tees.

“ The finishing hole is the best I’ve ever seen. It plays 471 yards from all the way back and you’re coming into the clubhouse as a backdrop behind the green with five bunkers to the left and a bailout area to the right.

“ That’s typical Fazio. He gives you a bailout, and the course plays very strategic as far as the shots to the greens.”

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