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By Don VanderVeen / Photography by Kevin Frisch

Most Michigan golfers know that it’s a sure bet to find great golf up north. What they may not know is that there are a growing number of great golf courses way U.P. north, as well.

Indeed, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of the state’s last great frontiers for golf. The number of golf courses in the U.P. is approaching 50. They are vast and varied in layout, amenities and challenge. Just as varied are the greens fees, which range anywhere from $20 to $60 per round.

Upscale Golf? You bet.

Wild Bluff and TimberStone rank right up there with Michigan’s finest courses.

Interesting? How about Chocolay Downs, which boasts the “World’s Largest Green” and will unveil “The World’s Longest Hole” later this year.

Intriguing? Of course. U.P. golf courses span two different time zones. Getting to some of them require trips through wilderness with some outstanding scenery and tourist attractions along the way.

And summertime offers long days for golf, travel and adventure.

“ One of the attractions up here is that the golf is very reasonable and the golf courses are very nice,” Red Fox Run head professional Frank Guastella said. “During peak summer hours, it gets light at 5 a.m. and stays light until about 10:45 p.m. at night.”

For those with the fortitude, a group could conceivably play The Rock on Drummond Island, travel up near Sault Ste. Marie and play Wild Bluff and then head a little south and play Indian Lake in one day. After an overnight stay, upscale courses such Pine Grove and TimberStone are within a 3-wood of each other. To the north, Marquette features courses such as Red Fox Run and Chocolay Downs. Terrace Bluff headlines a handful of courses near Gladstone, while those really looking for an adventurous road trip can travel to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge located at the tip of Copper Harbor.

“ They complement each other, because not one is the same as another up here,” says Joan Gilchrest, manager of Hessel Ridge.

When it comes to destination golf, the U.P. ranks right up there with the best.

TimberStone, Dickinson County
Timberstone is an impressive semi-private facility prominently featuring the natural rock formations of the region. The Jerry Matthews design is laid out on 310 feet of upward vertical rise, but playing it requires just a couple of uphill shots.

“ I liked the challenge of TimberStone from a design standpoint,” Matthews said. “With a site as hilly as TimberStone, the imagination has to work harder. It is very beautiful land, but you still have to make it playable to golfers to get them to the top of the hill without having it play to cumbersome.

“ Everybody likes to play downhill. But somewhere, we’ve got to get them uphill without too much challenge and strenuous activity. It worked out very well, as far as I’m concerned.”

Two man-made lakes on the property come into play on four holes.

The signature No. 17 hole is located at the top of the mountain. It is a par-3 hole that features a breath taking shot with a 110-foot vertical drop from the tips.

“ We offer four sets of tees for daily play, so it can be accommodating to golfers of all abilities, while not insulting their abilities,” head professional Suzy Fox said. “You can play all lengths, yet still have the challenge.”

Golf in the spring and fall provides spectacular color, but the scenery is serene throughout the year because of the mixture of evergreens and deciduous trees.

“ We like to call it Mother Nature’s canvass,” Fox said.

TimberStone first opened for public play in 1997, and earned Golf Digest honors as No. 3 Best New Upscale Public Course in North America. The course has been recognized by Golf Digest two other times. The No. 6 hole was given an honorable mention as one of America’s Best 18, The New Generation, and TimberStone received a 4.5 star rating among top places to play.

“ I believe it is still undiscovered,” Fox said. “The neat thing about it is that we are still moderately priced and we’re easier to get to than people are willing to admit.

“ Once they discover us, they keep coming back.”

Wild Bluff, Brimley
Director of Golf Mike Husby isn’t bluffing when assessing this new superstar of a golf course: “If it weren’t for Bay Harbor or Arcadia Bluffs, this would be THE spectacular site for a golf course in Michigan.”

Okay, so Husby may be a little biased. After all, he designed the course.

But the site is spectacular, and the golf just as outstanding.

Wild Bluff — operated in conjunction with Bay Mills Casino — is cross-marketing the gaming industry with golf. Although the gaming is hit-or-miss for those who try their luck in the casinos, the golf is a sure thing.

“ The mixing of the two is a perfect fit,” Husby said. “People love golf and people love gaming.”

From the first tee — a breath-taking downhill shot with an awesome view of Lake Superior’s Waishkey Bay — Wild Bluff is a fun, entertaining and scenic course to play. Views of Lake Superior can be seen on 11 holes, building up to the most spectacular view at the tee of No. 18.

Cut out of a scrub forest, Husby — who also designed courses such as The Loon and Marsh Ridge near Gaylord — used his magic to turn Wild Bluff into an enchanted forest by the time it opened in April 2000. Elevation drops of 100 feet or more are featured throughout the course. It is not a hilly course, however.

“ We wanted to create a golf course that is beautiful and a golf course that is fun to play,” Husby said.
The course is set up so that it is quite easy to play from the white tees and very difficult from the blacks.
“ People enjoy playing it so much and the hospitality is so great, that they can come here every year or every couple years as a destination,” Husby said.

And the price is right for the upscale experience. “We feel it’s the best $50 round in the Midwest,” Husby says.

Hessel Ridge, Hessel
Located just minutes from St. Ignace, Hessel Ridge is set on former hunting grounds across from a single-engine airport. Hessel Ridge is not a resort golf course in length or price. But the conditions are very good.

It is very accommodating for both men and women, with the forward tees in as nice of shape as the tips. The tree-lined fairways are wide and generous.

“ Nothing on the course is carved out,” manager Joan Gilchrest said. “It’s how the land was originally here.”

The front nine at Hessel Ridge opened in 1996. The back nine opened a year later. It is located just a skipping stone away from St. Ignace or a 3-iron shot away from Sault Ste. Marie.

At $42 with cart weekends and $32 with cart Monday through Friday, Hessel Ridge combines value and quality. The scenery, combined with the shot value and price point, make it a fun stop to begin or end an Upper Peninsula golf excursion.

“ There’s a lot of bang for the buck,” Gilchrest said. “You can miss a shot and still have room to play, because you’re not confined.

“ When you hit a ball into the woods, it’s not like you’re in jail. It’s a very fun course to play. You can come out here and score very well.”

Hessel Ridge is located just a couple minutes north of Cedarville’s Les Cheneaux Golf Club. The nine-hole club is the oldest golf course in the U.P., dating back to 1898.

Chocolay Downs, Marquette
Bigger is better at Chocolay Downs.

The Marquette-area golf course is expanding to 27 holes this year with a couple of features that would make Guiness proud.

The original course boasts the “World’s Largest Putting Green,” where making a two-putt could become quite a feat from quite a few feet away. The green is a whopping 29,000 square feet. Some putts could be 125 feet or more.

“ The biggest green prior to us building that was out in Boston where Godfrey Cornish built one 27,000 square feet,” Chocolay Downs proprietor Joe Gibbs said.

Keeping with the theme on the new nine scheduled to open later this year is what Gibbs is billing as the “World’s Longest Fairway.”

“ It was my idea to build the biggest green and my son’s (Wayne Gibbs) idea to build the longest fairway,” Joe Gibbs said.

The No. 8 hole on the new nine — a par-6 — will play 1,007 yards from the back tees, 738 yards from the middle and 550 from the front.

“ It is a toughie,” Gibbs said. “We’ve surpassed the hole the Japanese have as far as distance. Theirs is 964 yards long. They can increase their hole 40 yards, but we have the vacant acreage to increase ours 400 yards if they want to play games. We know they’ll run out of land. We won’t.

“ The longest in the United States is 841 yards at Locust Grove, Va. We have that beat without even trying.”

The three nines at Chocolay Downs are spread over 604 acres of pine-lined sandy loam soil.

The original 18 holes play 6,375 yards from the back tees, 5,770 from the whites and 4,870 from the front. The final nine, when completed, will play as a par-37 — with the par-6 hole included — at a distance of about 4,000 yards.

“ Every fairway is isolated,” Gibbs said. “There are no parallel fairways. There are no hardwoods on the property, so we advertise that leaves are not a problem up here. It’s leafless golf at its best.”

Red Fox Run, Marquette
Red Fox Run in Marquette is a user-friendly course offering two distinctly different nines that play about 6,000 yards from the back tees.

“ It’s very player-friendly, but as short as it sounds, we don’t have many people who come in here and tear it up,” head professional Frank Guastella said. “It’s extremely competitive.”

The front nine is more open and spacious, while the back cuts through a forest and requires accurate shot placement where positioning is paramount.

Other U.P. courses offering challenges and outstanding golf include Indian Lake Golf & Country Club in Manistique, George Young Recreation Center in Iron River, Gogebic Golf Club in Ironwood and Pictured Rocks Golf & Country Club near Munising.

It’s interesting to note that there are only about as many golf courses in the entire Upper Penninsula as there are in Oakland County alone. But the scope and breadth of these courses are stunning.

Take a map. Make a road trip. And discover Michigan’s final frontier for golf in the Upper Peninsula.

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