I witnessed the heyday of metro Detroit golf in the 1990s and the subsequent downturn of the game in southeast Michigan during the economic recession a decade later.
Although I'm not a Michigander anymore, I'm glad golf in the 'D' is experiencing a rebirth with the return of the PGA Tour's Rocket Mortgage Classic at the private Detroit Golf Club.
The glory days were a fun ride. They kickstarted my golf writing career. Really good golf courses sprouted out of the ground like a spring bloom. From 1995 to 2000, Michigan led the country in new course openings, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Detroit went from a country club town with a solid core of munis to a daily-fee paradise. The opening of The Orchards by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 1993 and The Majestic at Lake Walden by Jerry Matthews/Ray Hearn in 1994 fueled the building boom. Covering Livingston County at the time for a local paper, I was first on the scene for grand openings of the Golf Club of Michigan, now Huntmore Golf Club, in 1999; Hearn's Moose Ridge in 2000 and the Coyote Preserve by Arnold Palmer in 2001. Shepherd's Hollow (2000) by Arthur Hills and real-estate communities like Twin Lakes (1998), Blackheath (1998) and WestWynd (2002) blossomed in neighboring Oakland County.
The downward spiral starting about 2003-04 was tumultuous while the auto industry buckled, leaving Michigan essentially sponsorless for professional golf. Michigan lost two PGA Tour Champions events, including the Ford Senior Players Championship in 2006. The PGA Tour's Buick Open, two hours from Detroit in Grand Blanc near Flint, died in 2009 after a 50-year run. The 2004 Ryder Cup and 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club were blips of light on an otherwise dark era.
The cycle has come full circle, however. Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, the old Buick Open venue, hosts a new PGA Tour Champions event, the Ally Challenge, in September. There are even two Symetra Tour and two LPGA Tour events in the state now. If only the Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings could rise from the dead.
Should business or pleasure bring you to metro Detroit, take advantage of all the great public golf by packing the sticks. I've chosen a personal top 10 list, one that doesn't include the University of Michigan Golf Course, the Dr. Alister MacKenzie gem exclusive to alumni, students and faculty but recently started offering single-round packages to the public for $125-$150. I challenge another city in America to match its depth of quality, course for course, shot for shot.
How would you rank metro Detroit's best public courses? Let us know in the comments below.
Shepherd's Hollow, Clarkston
The natural, up-north setting; 27 holes and a fine clubhouse/restaurant operation set Shepherd's Hollow apart from the competition, even from its sister courses, Cherry Creek and Pine Trace. Calling the land leased from Jesuit priests "heavenly" wouldn't be a stretch.
The Orchards, Washington
The Orchards bills itself as "Your Club for the day", meaning you'll get the service and conditions of a private club. The Orchards has the best tournament pedigree of any local public venue. It hosted the Michigan Open three times (2011-13) and even a USGA event in 2002, the now defunct U.S. National Amateur Publinx Championship.
The Majestic at Lake Walden, Hartland
The Majestic at Lake Walden by Jerry Mathews marches gracefully around Lake Walden. All three of the loops are equally good. Golfers who start on the back nine are escorted by pontoon boat to the 10th tee, a neat experience.
Coyote Preserve, Fenton
With five par 3s, Coyote Preserve is as fun and it is beautiful. It might feature the best closing stretch in the state. Nicknamed the "Coyote Trap", the par 5-3-5 finish is epic. The 16th can feel a bit goofy until you play it a few times. I'm not shy to admit I never aim for the green on the 196-yard (white tees) at 17. The water is all carry, so you better hit it pure. The 18th, a nice risk-reward, will likely decide your match if a few lost balls on the previous holes haven't already done so.
Eagle Crest, Ypsilanti
Eagle Crest, where I learned the game in college, is my sentimental pick. Its scenery alone merits inclusion. The driving range and clubhouse atop a hill overlook Ford Lake. The 16th, a dramatic par 5, runs along the shoreline as one the most intimidating par 5s I've ever played. Ponds lurk throughout the round. The 10th is almost like a "road hole" copycat. Bash one around/over a tree and the hotel parking lot at the corner of the dogleg for a chance to reach the par 5 in two.
Moose Ridge, South Lyon
No homes in sight and that "up north" vibe of hills and trees endears Moose Ridge to anybody who tees it up. The log-cabin clubhouse is also one of a kind. Moose Ridge engages golfers with a scenic, target test of golf.
Northville Hills, Northville
The competition to be called the best Arnold Palmer course in Michigan is fierce, considering there are four strong candidates. Northville Hills probably bats cleanup, but that's no knock on the quality of this course. The design is solid and the bunkering eye-catching. Two-third of the holes are lined by water or wetlands, as well as large homes, which takes away a bit of the beauty from the overall setting.
Golden Fox at Fox Hills, Plymouth
The Golden Fox is the signature experience of the 54-hole Fox Hills complex. Hills tricked up the greens with lots of undulations and they're kept firm and fast. He also buried a large elephant in a mound fronting one of the greens, providing a different look for this strong test of golf.
Boulder Pointe, Oxford
Boulder Pointe (2000) does push the boundaries of metro Detroit, but its 27 holes built on a reclaimed gravel mine are well worth the drive. The Dunes/Peaks combo is perhaps the best. There's 15 lakes/ponds to navigate and some nice elevation changes to boot. The Greystone Golf Club near Romeo is another former gravel pit operation worth playing.
(tie) Pine Trace, Rochester Hills, and Cherry Creek, Shelby Township
It's by design that these two courses owned by the same ownership group ended in a tie. Some people favor one or the other - me, Cherry Hills - but they offer the same commitment to quality service, conditions and facilities. Pine Trace (1989) by Hills feels more like northern Michigan than Cherry Creek, known for its sprawling clubhouse with some nice memorabilia inside from architect Lanny Wadkins.