BOYNE CITY, Mich. — Once again, I'm looking down at the fairway.
I'm on another elevated tee on the Alpine Course at Boyne Mountain, an unsung yet highly fun and scenic resort course in Northern Michigan. To reach the first tee of the Alpine, it's a long drive from the mountain's base (712 feet above sea level according to Google Earth) all the way up to the summit at 1,141.
Do the simple math. To get home, more shots will head downhill than up. And adding to the vertical drop, the routing by Bill Newcomb places quite a few tees a few feet higher than the previous green. I suppose a more balanced golf course would have holes that go both uphill and down.
But have you ever grown sick of watching your ball soar in the sky an extra couple heartbeats?
The 21st century has been a boon for strategic, neo-classic and oftentimes nuanced or layered architecture that seem to be getting the bulk of new gigs and honors.
And yet on the flip side it's a trip to experience a relatively simple and satisfying resort concept from the 70s. Northern Michigan earned its national golf reputation decades ago with gorgeous, front-page worthy pictures of elevated tee shots at resorts like Boyne, Shanty Creek and Treetops. The state's newest works, meanwhile, pay homage to Seth Raynor (Arcadia Bluffs South) and the reversibility of the Old Course in St. Andrews (The Loop at Forest Dunes).
Boyne's Alpine was built and opened in 1971 during the so-called "dark ages of golf course architecture." These days, few Top 100 panelists probably even consider a stopover at it when they're in this golf-rich mecca, perhaps opting for the gentle, 1920s-era, Willie Watson-designed Belvedere Golf Club just up the road in Charlevoix or the reclamation feat that is 27-hole Bay Harbor beside Little Traverse Bay. But the Alpine remains a popular course in the Boyne Resorts umbrella and a course golf-mad Michiganders always love to chat about. Traditionalists would appreciate the Alpine's walkable routing (after the initial cart drive) and it hosts the yearly Tournament of Champions.
But make no mistake, the unapologetic appeal of The Alpine to golf travelers is that with only one notable exception, the meaty par-5 5th, it just keeps trickling down.
Maybe the ultimate golf trip itinerary tickles both sides of the golfing brain: Play some traditional or neoclassic designs as well as a course or two with novelty. You're on vacation, after all. It's okay to act like a tourist.
I'm reminded of a few other guilty-pleasure concepts in golf course design:
The calendar golf course
Mesquite's Wolf Creek outside Las Vegas is a course I've yet to experience, but one of those courses that I'm always hearing about. The comments are always strong opinions in both directions about this bold desert layout full of elevated tee shots and fairways wedged through canyons. There isn't much subtly here. "Wolf Creek is not for the faint of heart," summarized Local Golf Advisor BrandonWebb.
The out-of-place golf course
Some golf courses strive to blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. Others aim to stand out from them, transporting golfers to somewhere else than where they came to. The obvious example is Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. It's pretty remarkable what you can do with an unlimited budget and the vision of a Vegas marketer. Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn crafted a lush oasis out of a North Las Vegas industrial zone to attract the city's whales. Even the Top 100 panelists have tipped their cap to the audacious Shadow Creek, placing it high on most U.S. lists.
Importing trees like the Pacific-inspired Bali Hai Golf Club is another way to go. And while the modern desert courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale celebrate desert surroundings, many of the earlier layouts strive for something lusher with a wall-to-wall parkland vibe, like the historic Adobe Course at Arizona Biltmore or Wigwam Gold.
Looks hard, plays fun
A few years ago, architect David McLay Kidd went through a professional rebrand, eschewing a brief phase of his career where he built tough courses. Now, on his latest layouts, golfers tend to brag about career rounds thanks to width off the tee, backstops on greens and firm turf that lends itself to a few extra yards of rollout. You'll still see big bunkers and bold features, it's just that they're typically avoidable if you choose. Two of his recent efforts, Gamble Sands in Washington and Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin, are super wide and yield happy players. A recent tweet from DMK speaks to the philosophy of his designs:
The longest, toughest course in town
Practically every destination has one. The course that is 7,500-plus from the tips or has an eye-popping slope-rating. Some even have names like "The Brute" or "The Nightmare."
Others have broken the 8,000-yard barrier like the Dye Course at French Lick in Indiana. A course in Myrtle Beach, Eagle Nest, recently announced a Superhero tee of 8,100 yards. Has anyone who is not a professional dared playing them?
Playing the tips on a tough course once in awhile can be fun as long as your swing is in good shape and no one in your group is back there against their will.
The faux links
Few golfers can afford the trip overseas to play golf in Scotland. So paying homage to the game's roots back home has been a popular concept. It can be trickier to pull off when there is landlocked heat and spongy turf. Fescue doesn't thrive on the continent like it does in the British Isles. But clear some trees, build a few pot bunkers, St. Andrews-esque double greens (or a cobblestone bridge) and grow out the native areas, like the Gailes Course at Lakewood Shores in Michigan or the New Course at Grand Cypress in Florida, and you can offer up a little taste. Royal Links in Las Vegas replicates famous holes from The Open rota. Which leads me to ...
The Replica course
This may be the ultimate guilty-pleasure golf course. They sprouted up in the 1980s and 90s as ways for the commoner to play holes from the TV. World Tour in Myrtle Beach showcases holes from legendary courses around the world. Jack Nicklaus has TWO replica courses inspired by his portfolio's best holes: Bear's Best in Las Vegas and in Atlanta. The Donald Ross Memorial at Boyne Highlands features the best holes from Ross' portfolio and Tour 18 in Houston is one of many courses that seek to replicate the un-replicable Amen Corner of Augusta National. Did I feel I was truly playing Amen Corner on a generally flat piece of land in Humble, Texas? Hardly, but I still let the mind dream a bit while playing it.
The replica concept hasn't gone away so much as it's been re-imagined. Template holes from classic designs pepper many new layouts, and Tiger Woods' revamp of the Peter Hay Par-3 Course at Pebble Beach feature a replica of Pebble's famous 7th.
Currently, reversible courses are a hot concept, like Silvies Valley Ranch, The Loop and the nine-hole Bobby Jones Golf Course near Atlanta. Others are on the way. They receive a lot of praise for their efficient use of land and architectural complexity. After all, it's hard to design greens that can be receptive from two sides. But some grumble they're confusing, and if both directions aren't equally popular, what's the point? The jury is still out on how well they will ultimately be received. Are they a longstanding answer to growing cost of land and resources? Or will they be rendered too confusing by the masses?
Novelty layouts typically don't fare well in Top 100s, but they're always popular courses for buddies trips. Do you have a favorite you've played in your travels? Let me know in the comments below: