12 Historic Michigan golf courses you can play

From Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, this golf-rich Midwestern state has an illustrious history and some public-access gems from a bygone era.
On Mackinac Island, historic Wawashkamo is a 19th century throwback. The 9th/18th hole can play as a long par 4 or par 5.

Few U.S. cities roared quite as loudly as Detroit in the early 20th century. Henry Ford's assembly line, coupled with his doubling of worker wages to $5 a day, spurred a remarkable population increase in the city. Widespread immigration brought workers and a melting pot of cultures, while iconic architecture like the Fisher building, as well as radial city plan helped Detroit earn the nickname "The Paris of the West." Detroit's population went from 466,000 in 1910 to 1.56 million by 1930 and in 1920 was the 4th largest city in the country.

Detroit was the place to be, and golf in Michigan in the early part of the century dovetailed off the prosperity of the era. It shouldn't be too surprising that one of the Golden Age's most prolific architects, Donald Ross, was commissioned to build a collection of top private clubs: Oakland Hills, Franklin Hills, Detroit Golf Club, Dearborn Country Club and Grosse Isle. But while here also lent his hand to humbler clubs like Rackham and Warren Valley.

Ross wasn't the only Golden Age architect in Michigan. The most prolific was Tom Bendelow. Our course guide credits Bendelow with 32 golf course designs in Michigan alone. These include a handful of gentle municipal (see: 5,000-yard Huron Hills in Ann Arbor) and public-access golf courses.

Michigan's present-day makeup for golf is heavy on modern designs thanks to the 1990s golf development boom. But seldom too far away, there are still some neat, historic courses straddling 100 years of existence that you can play from metro Detroit to the north. Ready for a dream cruise through Michigan's historic (and accessible) golf courses?

  1. The par-3 8th hole at Belvedere Golf Club.

    This semi-private club in Charlevoix is held in high regard for its connections to Tom Watson and the Michigan Amateur. The classic course, designed in 1925 by Willie Watson of Olympic Club fame, has hosted the Michigan Am a record 40 times. The event will return in 2025 for its centennial celebration. Watson spent summers in northern Michigan as a boy, honing his game at Belvedere before going on to win six majors. The club keeps a locker always at the ready in his honor. The course itself is infinitely walkable and playable, perfect conditions for the hickory golf tournaments held there, including two National U.S. Hickory Opens.

  2. The short par-4 sixth hole at the University of Michigan Golf Course is risk-reward -- with lots of risk.

    There are two Alister Mackenzie designs in the mitten and while Crystal Downs is remote and exclusive, Ann Arbor's University of Michigan Golf Course is near Metro Detroit and does offer limited public access (or just schmooze with a U of M alum and play with them).This course, opened in 1931, is set right in the heart of town and while it's a little cramped on the perimeter, the routing is bold and the green complexes are spectacular. So is the elevated 18th hole tee shot and heroic approach shot over a large pond. (You won't mistake the golf course clubhouse for being historic. It's brand new.)

  3. View from behind the 13th green at Washtenaw Golf Club.

    One of the state's oldest clubs is a relatively new addition to the public realm. Washtenaw Golf Club, straddling Ann Arbor and its east side neighbor, Ypsilanti, dates back to 1899 and for most of its history was private. Ownership changes in recent years have transformed the facility into a character-filled daily-fee experience in southeast Michigan. This infamously tight course with slick greens is currently undergoing a restoration plan led by Michigan-based architect Ray Hearn that will widen playing corridors and enlarge greens to their original size. Fans of the classics will want to pair Washtenaw with U of M and, if they can score access, Ann Arbor's stately Donald Ross course at Barton Hills.

  4. There was golf overlooking Lake Michigan around these parts well before Arcadia Bluffs. Just south of Arcadia on M-22 by about 20 miles is the coastal town of Manistee, home to 18 holes between the lake and town that dates back to 1901. If the brawny and more expensive Arcadia Bluffs sounds like too much, head to Manistee and pay as little as $30 walking to enjoy this pleasant lakefront layout that stretches to 5,614 yards.

  5. Some of Rackham's roots to Donald Ross have been lost over the years. For a period, it looked liked the aging 6,555-yard course would be sold off for redevelopment by the city of Detroit, but it has been saved, hopefully for good. GolfPass reviews are decidedly mixed, although most Detroiters can overlook its shortcomings - slow play, spotty conditions - to enjoy the charming walk here that is just $40 on weekends.

  6. Northern Michigan's main tourist hub of Traverse City is full of golf courses, and in particular modern, multi-course resorts. So Elk Rapids, a little 9-holer designed by Donald Ross overlooking Elk Lake, flies under the radar. 9 holes can be walked on this 3,000-yard, charming layout for as low as $22 and 18 for $29.

    "The lake views are great. You'll even get a small audience on their boats. For the price, this old gem is hard to beat."
    Noah Jurik, GolfPass Michigan Local Advisor

  7. Cascades, another Bendelow project, is a Jackson County muni that both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played back in their hayday. Its front nine is 400 yards longer than the back, but the final nine holes are laced with more water. A 9-hole executive course of 2,000 yards accompanies the big course.

  8. A view of a fairway at Verona Hills Golf Course.

    Verona Hills, dating to 1924 in tiny Bad Axe, makes a strong case as the best public course in Michigan's thumb. Its rolling topography and tree-lined doglegs would look right at home in northern Michigan. With every tee time under $50, it's a great bargain.

  9. The Heritage Course gets overshadowed by the club's modern marvel named Greywalls. Two styles collide when comparing the two: The deceptive, straight-forward appeal of a classic course vs. the wild holes and rock outcroppings pieced together by Architect Mike DeVries. Classic designers William Langford and Theodore Moreau, best known for their work at Lawsonia Links in Wisconsin, routed the front nine of the Heritage in 1926 before a second nine with glimpses of Lake Superior was added in 1969 to create a 6,260-yard full 18.

  10. Here's another backwoods gem in the upper peninsula near Escanaba and about an hour south of Marquette. Gladstone dates back to the 1930s with the design credit of A.H. Holly. It has been a favorite amongst our review community over the last few years and has been a selection of our Michigan Golfers' Choice annual lists. Golfers praise the secluded, wooded setting on interesting terrain, the course conditions and friendliness of the staff at this 6,400-yard layout. Peak rates are just $42 including golf cart.

    "Gladstone has big elevated changes, bold greens and superb conditions. I was able to get out early on this terrific course and avoid the crowds. I highly recommend this classic golden age course."
    hornedwoodchuck (Review from June, 2020)

  11. Time stands still on Mackinac Island, where motorized transit is outlawed (besides the golf carts at the island's two courses, naturally). Horses and bicycles are the only way to get to the center of the island to uncover Wawashkamo, a tiny 9-holer that was a battle site between Americans and the British in 1814.

    Wawashkamo may be the most authentically 19th century play in the state, created in 1898 at by Scottish-American golfer Alex Smith. It is minimally maintained lending itself to bouncy summertime conditions and there are some neat, albeit simple land features and a curious "circus ring" to navigate. Pair it with The Grand Hotel and you've got an iconic stay-and-play that shows off the Michigan of yesteryear. (The Grand Hotel's original nine holes, the Jewel, also date back 100+ years).

  12. Joining up with villagers Dave (left) and Bill (right) helped make a round at Grand Beach special.

    Opened in 1912 and laid out by Bendelow, this quaint, hidden-away course in a summer community beloved of Chicagoans is frozen in time. It could have been more famous, as there were originally plans to turn it into a resort with a hotel called "Golfmore." But only nine quirky holes remain, slightly overgrown but dripping with charm. Open to the public, the course charges outsiders the princely sum of $13.50 to walk a loop, payable to the youngster scooping ice cream in the combination snack bar/pro shop. 

    "In your golf Delorean get up to 80mph and set it to 1912. Tucked into the extreme corner of SW Michigan is a virtually untouched Bendelow gem of 9 holes. Excellent historic golden age value play."
    - HOTSPOTTS, GolfPass Illinois Local Advisor
    5 Min Read
    October 7, 2020
    You've heard of Northern Michigan's Crystal Lake because of prestigious Crystal Downs. But did you know its eastern side has three welcoming and affordable courses?

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries 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 @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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12 Historic Michigan golf courses you can play