Northern Michigan is home to some of the largest golf resorts in the world.
Treetops, Garland, Boyne Highlands, Shanty Creek and A-Ga-Ming all boast at least 72 holes. The growth of Forest Dunes and Arcadia Bluffs as resorts - both have added a new second course and more lodging in the last five years - have made it that much tougher for standalone courses to survive in such a competitive market. There's been a lot of interesting consolidation the past five years as smaller resorts look to keep up with the big boys. They're buying up more local courses than ever before.
In Gaylord, the Loon Golf Resort has expanded exponentially, first taking over the nearby Lakes course and then buying the former Marsh Ridge Resort and renaming the property The Ridge in 2015. A-Ga-Ming has only joined the list of northern Michigan mega-resorts in the past couple of years. The purchase of Antrim Dells in 2012 and the addition of the Charlevoix Country Club in 2017 gives it as diverse a golf offering as any 'up north' resort. On the west side of the state, the Double JJ Resort in Rothbury acquired the Grand View Golf course in nearby New Era in 2017.
More recently, the Riverwood Resort in Mount Pleasant just finalized the purchase of the Pines at Lake Isabella in May, giving that mid-Michigan destination an additional 18 holes. "The Pines is a wonderful course and it was a great opportunity for the Riverwood family to grow," owner Dick Figg told the Morning Sun newspaper. "We're excited about merging two fine golf courses and all the possibilities it presents for members and open play."
By all accounts, the golf business is tough sledding, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and especially so in an oversaturated market like Michigan. So why are local resorts spending big to expand? The answer has multiple layers: 1, To eliminate local competition. 2, To create more enticing stay and plays that offer variety and potentially keep golfers on property longer. 3, To keep up with the Joneses.
Boyne Resorts - stocked with three distinct resort properties - has long had a grip on northern Michigan's golf vacation scene. Having eight stellar courses, ranging from the sporty Alpine and Monument courses at Boyne Mountain Resort to the splendors of the 27-hole Bay Harbor Golf Club, has made its "Great Escape" package the gold standard of golf getaways. For $999, a golfer gets unlimited rounds for five days, the ultimate golf binge. There are shorter packages available for the less maniacal player.
With this consolidation trend, the smaller, complementary golf resorts that are growing no longer hide in the shadows. I had a front-row seat to the impressive expansion of The Loon in 2010 when new owners built a townhome village consisting of four-bedroom/four-bathroom units featuring full kitchens just steps from the clubhouse. I brought a foursome to the pro-am that celebrated Butch Harmon's slight redesign of the course. Harmon, who has taught Tiger, Phil and many others, was super-friendly and a great storyteller. Adding the Ridge gives the Loon a lot more space for guests with multiple hotel-style rooms, suites, lodges, cabins and free-standing condos, all within walking distance to the Summit Grill. The course itself is super short at 6,231 yards but is one of the more beautiful and fun experiences in the Gaylord Golf Mecca.
The most curious move has to be A-Ga-Ming's takeover of the Charlevoix Country Club, which is a half-hour from the resort. That facility is more of a private club with a fitness center and pool. It must be going well enough, because the onsite restaurant, Shanahan's Pub, was revived in 2018.
The standalone courses thriving or surviving?
I've played nearly 200 courses throughout Michigan, but I do have a black hole - many of the family-owned courses 'up north' not connected to a resort. Like most golfers, I would go to a resort and play its courses for a story or on a golf package. That left little time and energy to drive off-property to find more golf.
I regret having moved out of state without playing Charlevoix CC and Dunmaglas, located six miles apart in Charlevoix. Both get rock-solid reviews from Golf Advisor users: Charlevoix a 4.3 average star rating and Dunmaglas 4.5. Whenever I'm in that area, chances are I'm teeing up Belvedere anyway, the old-school classic where Tom Watson played during summer vacations as a kid. It has hosted more Michigan Amateurs (40 some) than another other course in the state.
Another one I've missed is the Little Traverse Bay Golf Club & Restaurant, which was less than five miles from Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs. Sadly, it's gone, having sold in April to transform into a 280-acre nature preserve, according to mlive.com.
In mid-Michigan, I'm still hoping to someday play Bucks Run (13 miles from Riverwood) and Apple Mountain in Freeland (20 miles from Bay Valley Resort in Bay City). In recent years, Island Hills, a scenic Raymond Hearn course in Centreville, has developed golf villas that I've heard are really nice.
Another interesting pocket of lesser-known tracks not affiliated with a resort surrounds Traverse City. You could easily stay at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville or The Homestead in Glen Arbor - two of my family's favorites - and play some intriguing local tracks that have escaped me. Pinecroft Golf Plantation in Benzonia (12 miles), Mistwood in Lake Ann (20 miles) and Interlochen (20 miles) are near Crystal Mountain, while the Leelanau Club at Bahle Farms (24 miles) in Suttons Bay and the nine-hole Northport Creek Golf Club (30 miles), the world's only solar-powered golf course, reside in the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula somewhat near The Homestead.
I'll leave you with this, a list of cool, individually owned courses I HAVE played that are within driving distance of some fine Michigan golf resorts. Maybe this will spark your interest to explore off-the-beaten cart path. I wouldn't be surprised if one day at least one of these courses was acquired by a nearby resort or faced closure like Little Traverse Bay or Elk Ridge in Atlanta. Not that I have inside knowledge that any of them are struggling or looking to sell. It's just the way things are trending these days. Surviving solo is no easy task in a region dominated by mega resorts.
* Hidden River Golf & Casing Club in Brutus 12 miles from Boyne Highlands.
* Hawk's Eye and The Chief in Bellaire right across the street from Shanty Creek's Summit Village.
* The Ravines in Saugatuck 20 miles from the Hawkshead Inn in South Haven.
* The Hemlock in Ludington 20 miles from Manistee National Golf & Resort in Manistee.
* Pilgrim's Run in Pierson 30 miles from Tullymore Golf Resort in Stanwood.
* The Pohlcat in Mount Pleasant 8 miles from Riverwood.
* Angels Crossing in Vicksburg 28 miles from Gull Lake View Resort & Club in Augusta.
* Red Hawk in East Tawas 20 miles from Lakewood Shores Golf Resort in Oscoda.
What Michigan resorts and courses do you love visiting when you're 'up north'? Let us know in the comments below.