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chief golf course

By Don Vanderveen / Photography by Kevin Frisch

Cut out of northern Michigan hardwoods on the beautiful mountainsides of Bellaire, The Chief at Sky Lodge is another northern Michigan golf course with teeth; a stern test of golf.

From the championship tees of 6,600 yards, the Golf Association of Michigan rated the slope at 145 and the overall course against par at 72.6.

“ The thing people really enjoy is the experience of playing it,” general manager Tom Rowe says.

“It is a difficult golf course because of the extreme features on it, but it does play a little more forgiving than one might think the first time out.”

The Chief was designed by Canadian golf course architect John F. Robinson.

“ We were able to tell him what we wanted and he built the course to our desire with deep, dramatic bunkers and huge elevation changes to fit the course with the topography,” Rowe said. “It’s quite a site for a golf course.”

The name was a natural fit. A towering 12-foot tall Indian head carving stands proudly at the entrance welcoming golfers to an experience that features dramatic elevation changes, spectacular views and a test of skill.

“ When the concept of the course was being discussed, we intended it to be a difficult course and a very tough test of golf,” Rowe said. “An Indian chief seemed to personify those qualities. This is going to be a play-it-again course that’s really going to make a name for itself up here.”


The Chief is located near the outstanding courses at Shanty Creek Resort, creating a mini-mecca of championship golf in Bellaire.

“ We complement Shanty Creek,” Rowe said. “However, we do compete with them for rounds. We’ve priced ourselves to be in a competitive position to their top-of-the-line courses, while offering a similar product.”

The Chief opened in July of 2000. An 18-hole round during peak hours is $80 weekdays and $90 on weekends. Twilight rates begin at 3 p.m.

Many of the holes feature elevated tees and wonderful vistas for driving. Fairways run through deep, gaping valleys and big, receptive greens.

The fairways at The Chief are somewhat tight, but open up at the landing areas.

“ It’s more of a visually intimidating golf course that plays a lot more fair than the golfer thinks,” Rowe said. “It’s amazingly forgiving.”

Global Positioning Satellite Systems (GPS) on carts not only offer exacting distances to the flagsticks, but also offer tips about where to place shots. Elevation drops of up to 150 feet are common on the course. A stream runs through a valley off the side of the No. 10 tee.

Four holes play through a meadow, creating a links-style look, giving the course a slightly different character than the wooded hills and valleys. The terrain has a subtle roll to it.

Water — in the forms of wetlands, ponds and streams — can be found on five of the holes. A view of Lake Bellaire can be seen from the No. 4 tee, reminiscent of the view from No. 3 at The Legend.

“ You just get gorgeous views of the Michigan countryside,” Rowe said.

The front nine plays out about two miles away from the clubhouse before groups start working their way back in. “Once you’re out there, you’re out there,” Rowe says.

But never fear. A halfway house is there to prepare a burger or hot dog and provide a cool beverage for those who need it.

The large greens become a little bit smaller on a couple of the shorter par-5s in order to make the big hitters think twice about getting home in two.

Bentgrass tees, greens and fairways with bluegrass roughs create a splendid outline of the course with foreboding sand traps accentuating the look. The bunkers can be extreme, reaching six to eight feet deep in some spots.

“ It’s a thinking man’s golf course,” Rowe said. “People want to come back so they can beat it after they learn how the course is intended to be played. You can certainly score better as you play it over and over again. I like to tell people to keep their driver in the bag and use the 3-wood and 5-wood instead,” Rowe added. “It’s definitely a shot-maker’s course. It’s like taking a walk through the woods.”

A walk through the woods, maybe. But playing a round at The Chief is certainly no walk through the park.

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