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By Don Vanderveen

The name was inspired by a spiritual novel. The setting is picturesque. The plot is peaceful. The ending spectacular. It’s little wonder that tee times at Pilgrim’s Run must be booked. Literally.

“ The most difficult thing about playing Pilgrim’s Run,” head professional Jeff O’Malley says, “is booking a tee time.”

Pilgrim’s Run Golf Club — located in Ensley Township about halfway between Grand Rapids and Big Rapids — enters its second full season with some outstanding credentials to back it up.

“ Golf Digest” ranked Pilgrim’s Run No. 4 among best new affordable courses in the United States and Canada.

“ It gives good recognition to the state of Michigan and surrounding Grand Rapids area,” O’Malley said. “Being affordable means price and quality of the product.

“ As consumers, we’re always looking for the best deal to get the highest quality and lowest price and that’s what we have here.”

And then some.

While the lofty ranking provides the club with national status, it doesn’t come as a surprise for those who have played it. Few things are prettier and more pleasant than playing Pilgrim’s Run when the sun is shining.

“ People enjoy the playability of the course,” O’Malley said. “There is a lot of shot value to the course and risk and reward to it. People enjoy the 10 minute tee times and the fact that there are no houses, no highways, no airplanes or no trains. It’s just so peaceful here.”

Pilgrim’s Run, which can play as long as 7,065 from the back tees or as short as 4,771 from the front is a par-73 course set on 400 acres of woodlands and gentle rolling hills with bent grass tees, greens and fairways and detailed bunkering.

The 10-minute tee times allow for a comfortable pace of play. There are four sets of tees on every hole.

“ When you put everything together — the playability of the course, the aesthetics of the course and the peaceful back-to-nature atmosphere — you get a really enjoyable experience,” O’Malley said.

The holes at Pilgrim’s Run are named after passages from John Bunyan’s book, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is the brainchild of the late West Michigan businessman, Robert VanKampen, the founder of Pilgrim’s Run.

Many names of the various holes — such as Difficulty, Sleepy Temptation, Deception, House Beautiful, Dark Valley, Narrow Way and Entice — aptly describe the adventure awaiting.

“ Each hole has its own uniqueness,” O’Malley said.

A round at Pilgrim’s Run begins with a non-intimidating par-5 (Pleasant Arbor), except for the deep pot-bunkers in front of the green. No. 2 (Difficulty) sets up nicely with a large, undulating green with a pond lurking to its left. Then, golfers are greeted to a fairway lined with wetlands (Slough of Despond) to the left and bunkers to the right with a pine tree in the middle of the fairway. This green has three large undulations, requiring a target shot to the stick.

Following a short par-3 (Deception), No. 5 (Sleepy Temptation) is a par-4 that sets up nicely with an expansive landing area. The par-5 No. 6 hole (Vainglory) provides a chance to get home in two on a green complex located at the top of a hill.

Then, it’s a long par-3 downhill (Bottomless Pit) with bunkers surrounding the green. Two short par-4s (Error Hill and House Beautiful) meander through pines and provide scoring opportunities before making the turn.

A short par-4 awaits at No. 10 (Wicket Gate), followed by a par-5 (Giant Despair) and a long par-4 (By-path Meadow). No. 13 (Dark Valley) is the longest hole on the golf course. Pilgrim’s Run has its own version of “Amen Corner” on holes 14 (Straight Way), 15 (High Mountain) and 16 (Valley of Humility).
After a short, but testy par-4 (Narrow Way), the finishing hole (Entice) provides a risk-and-reward opportunity with a pond cutoff representing a big discount between a middle iron or a chip shot to the green.

“ The key to scoring out here is to position yourself well off the tee and hit the correct area of the green for a make-able putt,” O’Malley said.“The challenge sometimes is after you get on the greens, because they are undulating and fast. There are some birdie holes out there and there are some you’ll have to work to make par on.”

The natural setting of valleys and plateaus and hardwoods and pines create a multi-scenic golf course. Rows of maple, pine and oak trees and distinct bunkering add to the variety of shot options on the course.

“ There is a lot of definition,” O’Malley said. “It looks tight, but doesn’t play tight. For the most part, what you see is what you get.”

A cozy clubhouse and outstanding practice facilities emulating exact golf course conditions add to the upscale presence. Alcohol is prohibited at Pilgrim’s Run.

“ People come here to play golf and enjoy an outstanding golf experience, not to drink,” O’Malley said. “We try to provide a friendly service to acknowledge everybody who walks through the door.”

One of the amazing aspects of Pilgrim’s Run is that it was originally designed by employees of VanKampen instead of one of the well-known architects who have greatly enhanced the Michigan golf scene over the past 10 years.

Six different people — who had little or no golf course architecture experience — designed three holes apiece. Superintendent Kris Shumaker, with an agronomy background, put things together and created a flowing, visual masterpiece. Golf course architect Mike DeVries was brought in to set up the green and bunker complexes.

“ Being able to design your own three holes was like a fantasy to those people,” O’Malley said.

It has turned out beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.

“ A golf course is like 18 spokes in a wheel,” O’Malley said. “We knew we had an unbelievable piece of ground, but the course had to be routed and we had to build it to the size to create various lies and various shots, and they did a great job with it. Once we got the routing established, the holes fell into place. It just flows.”

Pilgrim’s Run is located near Ensley’s Corners, on land once owned by Benjamin Ensley, the founder of the township that bears his name. Ensley, a flamboyant pioneer that made his fortune in the California golf rush, was a character who was both a philanthropist and somewhat civil disobedient. Two monuments from Ensley’s Civil War era farm remain preserved and useful on the property at Pilgrim’s Run as a starter building and halfway house, adding to the aura of the area.

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