By Design: Big-name golf course architects leave lasting legacies in northern Michigan

Other than missing a handful of big-timers, northern Michigan features a list of designers as good as any destination in the country.

All the usual suspects who dominate top 100 lists -- from Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak to two-thirds of the famous Jones family -- are well represented.

Obviously, no Pete Dye design is a bummer for those of us who like torture in the form of lost golf balls and high scores. Real architecture buffs would love a true classic by Pinehurst's Donald Ross or Canada's Stanley Thompson, but they have to settle for Willie Watson's Belvedere Golf Club (or find a way onto Crystal Downs Country Club, routed by Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell).

Minimalists Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are noticeably absent as well, mainly because the region hasn't opened a year course since they became fashionable in the last decade. There's no Shark, either. Sorry Greg Norman, the Great Lakes are fresh water.

Here are the 10 best "designer" golf courses in northern Michigan:

Tom Doak's Black Forest at Wilderness Valley, Gaylord

One of Doak's early efforts doesn't look or play like something created by the man who started the minimalist movement. The Black Forest Course at Wilderness Valley is penal, maybe a little overly so, with complex greens and deep bunkers. It's still beautiful and a treat to play.

Arnold Palmer's The Legend at Shanty Creek Resorts, Bellaire

The best of the five Palmer courses in the state starts off with a rousing downhill tee shot on a reachable par 5 that personifies the region's topsy-turvy terrain carved by glaciers. The highlights are a glimpse of Lake Bellaire and the seventh hole, a par 5 dissected twice by the same stream.

Jack Nicklaus' The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, Acme

This longtime venue of the Michigan Open has been softened over the years, but there's still enough bite for it to be considered among the toughest golf courses in Michigan. The Bear is not as scenic as many courses in the region, although it requires better ball-striking and course management.

Tom Weiskopf's Forest Dunes Golf Club, Roscommon

Weiskopf, who also designed the excellent Cedar River at Shanty Creek, was given a magical site where sand dunes and forest intermingle. He rose to the occasion with fantastic risk-reward options off the tee on its par 4s. Nobody does greens better than Forest Dunes. A new lodge, built in the same grand style as the spectacular clubhouse, opened in 2013 to accommodate stay-and-plays in the remote Huron National Forest.

Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s The Heather at Boyne Highlands Resort, Harbor Springs

The Heather, the grand dame of northern Michigan golf, opened way back in 1966. It's the first course developed by Everett Kircher, the father of Boyne USA Resorts. The timeless, tree-lined fairways and enduring charm of the do-or-die finishing hole give The Heather a slight nod over RTJ Sr.'s difficult Masterpiece Course to be included on this list.

The hills come alive at Treetops. Fazio's style always makes for a fun round that's visually pleasing. Some think the Premier is the third-best course at the resort, behind Rick Smith's Signature and the aforementioned Masterpiece. I believe otherwise.

Rees Jones' Black Lake Golf Club, Onaway

Onaway might as well be called "faraway" since it's so isolated from any major resort. The reward for the drive? A peaceful cart ride through the forest. Playing Black Lake Golf Club feels like the pure bliss those Pure Michigan ads imply.

Gary Player's The Wolverine at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, Acme

Much like their playing careers, Player's course doesn't quite live up to Jack's. It's still pretty good, though. Some of the best holes on the property zigzag through the wetlands of the front nine.

Jim Engh's Tullymore Golf Club, Stanwood

In 2002 when Tullymore opened, the Colorado-based Engh was a hot name. Engh doesn't play by the same rules as other architects. The fingers of his narrow bunkers extend in every direction, creating havoc with certain lies. His par-35 front nine sports three difficult par 3s. The par-37 back nine counters with three very different par 5s. His True North Golf Club, now a gorgeous private club in Harbor Springs, is strong, as well.

Arthur Hills' Bay Harbor Golf Club, Petoskey

This Toledo, Ohio-based architect has dozens of courses in his home state, although none are as acclaimed as this 27-hole facility atop the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay. The Quarry nine runs through an old rock quarry. The Preserve nine ambles through the trees. The best shoreline views come courtesy of the Links loop. Collectively, they're the star of Boyne's nine-course golf empire.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Related Links
Northern Michigan's golf scene is spectacular and diverse, but also vast. Jason Scott Deegan offers some pointers to help plan your first trip.
5 Min Read
A decade after the largest golf boom any state has ever experienced, Michigan witnessed similar explosive growth in the number of casinos from 2007-09. Playing golf by day, and gaming by night. We'll bet you'll have a good time. Jason Scott Deegan offers up Michigan's five best golf-and-gambling destinations.
3 Min Read
More from the author
5 Min Read
January 18, 2022
Whether it's music on the range or a friendly staff, these public and resort courses set the mood just right for a special round of golf.
2 Min Read
January 11, 2022
It's time to adjust your expectations, considering how different golf is during the colder, wetter months.
2 Min Read
January 3, 2022
Shotlink data showcases the holes on public and resort courses that baffled the pros in 2021.
4 Min Read
January 3, 2022
Want to start 2022 off with some great golf writing? Check out these pieces.
6 Min Read
December 27, 2021
If money and private club access were no issue, we've found the 10 destinations to live out your golf dreams.
3 Min Read
December 17, 2021
New tec, new greens and more will improve your next golf vacation to Arizona's Valley of the Sun.
18 Min Read
January 10, 2022
We tallied more than 320,000 reviews in 2021. Here are the courses you and your fellow golfers loved best.
1 Min Read
January 10, 2022
More than 40,000 reviews have been tallied to determine California's best public golf courses based on our community of reviewers.
By Golfers' Choice
2 Min Read
December 20, 2021
Golf course news & notes: December, 2021.
1 Min Read
January 10, 2022
Best public golf courses in the state based on our community of reviewers.
By Golfers' Choice
Load More
Now Reading
By Design: Big-name golf course architects leave lasting legacies in northern Michigan