BENZIE COUNTY, Mich. – The snuggest spot of the Michigan mitten for golfers is in the northwest section (or the tip of the left pinky). This area features not only top lakefront resorts like Arcadia Bluffs and Bay Harbor, but the state's most prestigious club.
The coastal town of Frankfort in Benzie County, about an hour's drive due west of Traverse City, is on every bucket list golfer's map thanks to Crystal Downs, the gem laid out by Alister MacKenzie on a sliver of tumbling land between Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake. Cruise M-22 north from Frankfort, and once you pass Crystal Lake, veer off onto Sutter Road and you'll be able to get a tantalizing glimpse of its narrow, tumbling fairways lined with wispy fescue. Only a small fence and some brush separate your car from the pin position at the infamous par-3 11th hole and then the storybook walk thru the woods to the 12th tee.
But it takes some effort to get on the other side of the fence and play the course yourself. So where do Frankfort's public golfers play? There was once a public nine-hole course not far from the Downs and a chip shot from Lake Michigan built in the 1920s, Frankfort Golf Club. It closed in the early 2000s, and all that's left is a road named "Golf Ln," an old sign at the entrance of a private driveway off M-22 and the makeup of some very hilly and now overgrown hole corridors.
So if you want public golf near the lake, you'll have to venture beyond Frankfort and the Downs' stone gates. Cruise along Crystal Lake's shore to the east side, where the two adjacent and unsung towns of Beulah and Benzonia (combined population under 1,000 residents), sport a relative wealth of golf, and it's all public and quite affordable. Golfers seeking "name" architecture or resort amenities need not apply. None of these courses even offer online tee times at the moment - you'll have to go old-school and call the pro shop. These courses are family-friendly with pastoral backdrops in the fall. They are walkable and affordable. (This busy dad savored the 9-hole and twilight rates from $15-$25 during his time in the area.) They all tip out at a vacation-friendly 6,400-6,600 yards.
Up for a scenic drive?
Pinecroft Golf Course
As far as first impressions go for value golf experiences, pulling into the parking lot at Pinecroft Golf Course, overlooking Crystal Lake in the distance, is sublime. This former fruit and Christmas tree farm on rolling hills near the lake is now a charming, family-built and owned 18 holes. Property owner Lee Stone built the course himself with assistance from Jim Cole in 1991, and the end result is a quiet and fun loop with a blend of narrow and more open holes on tumbling, rural land. Read Brandon Tucker's Pinecroft course review | Green fees: $41-$59
Champion Hill Golf Club
Shortly after the opening of Pinecroft, Stone was at it again with Champion Hill. His follow-up effort on over 300 tumbling acres is superior in just about every way. Golfers who may have felt a little pinched by trees in various spots at Pinecroft will savor the wide open, fescue-laden and beautifully shaped terrain of Champion Hill. Set on high ground, there are numerous elevated tees and glimpses of Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake.
About the only tree you may have to deal with is a solitary apple tree sitting in front of the delightful, short par-4 15th hole. There are certainly notes of Crystal Downs and Kingsley Club here with big greens and tumbling fairways, and, despite a few hills, the routing is quite walkable. GeekedOnGolf's Jason Way wrote a nice feature on the backstory of Stone's transformation of his land from orchards to 36 holes of excellent public golf. Every golfer surely daydreams about what it'd be like to own a bunch of land, jump on a bulldozer and carve out some golf holes. Stone's effort is about as good as I've seen among owners-turned-golf architects. Read Tucker's Champion Hill course review | Green fees: $40-59
Crystal Lake Golf Club
If you called the shop at Crystal Lake in August for a tee time and got the answering machine, you were treated to the chorus of the 1990s hit song "Tootsie Roll" followed by a message from management saying they're sorry they missed your call. And when you arrive to check in, you pay your green fee at a bar which has party tunes bumping (which reminds me, Pinecroft and Champion Hill are BYOB). This festive spot is the closest course to town and predates its neighbors, having opened its first 9 holes in 1970. The golf course, while a shade below Champion Hill and Pinecroft in overall interest, nevertheless has its moments. The greens are small but well-conditioned and sneaky-interesting, while glimpses of the lake can be seen from several greens and the clubhouse. (Green fees: $30-40)
Restaurants and activities in Beulah on Crystal Lake
If you drive on M-31, you'll remain on an overpass that goes over the small town center of Beulah that stretches along the lake. Try and veer off if you have time. It's a little smaller than Frankfort but is charming with a handful of antiques and trinket shops, bakeries and of course, bars and ice cream. There's a small public beach with a playground and tennis courts as well as a lakefront road that lends itself to pedestrians and cycle traffic. A bicycle trail connects the towns of Frankfort and Beulah and is a gorgeous, generally flat 8 miles that runs along pavement and crushed gravel along the lake's south shore.
We had a wonderful meal on the enclosed, sunny patio at Cold Creek Inn, and the light, New York-style pizza was so good we ordered takeout later on in our trip. There's a full menu and a large beer list.
A new microbrewery in town, Five Shores Brewing, features a nice list of locally made microbrews and ciders. There is a festive outdoor area with picnic tables and a food truck with some good fried fish.
For breakfast or lunch, fuel up at the friendly and charming Cherry Hut on M-31 and grab some cherry-themed swag and jams for the road.
Where to stay around Crystal Lake
There are no big golf resorts in Beulah or Benzonia. Vacation rental cottages by the lake, many independently owned, make up the vast majority of units. Your best bet for golf-centric resort lodging would be the lodge at Arcadia Bluffs, about 20 minutes south. Or go to Shanty Creek Resorts near Torch Lake. You're also not far from The Homestead in Glen Arbor, which provides access to Manitou Passage and is minutes from the Sleeping Bear Dunes.