My 15 best golf courses in northern Michigan

When asked to come up with my 10 favorite courses in northern Michigan, I cheated. I took a mulligan because I just couldn't narrow it down.

There are more than 30 golf courses that are four-star caliber worth including on a golf trip to northern Michigan. I could, theoretically, put the three best courses at Treetops Resort in Gaylord and the three best courses managed by the Boyne USA Resorts in the top 10, which wouldn't leave much room for anybody else. A building boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s stocked the region with quality resort golf experiences.

To make my job only slightly easier, no courses in the Upper Peninsula or south of Ludington were considered. Don't consider this a "best-of" list, merely a personal guide to the 15 courses I love to play in northern Michigan (in no particular order):

Forest Dunes Golf Club (Roscommon)

Tom Weiskopf built a backwoods beauty within the serenity of the Huron National Forest. Risk-reward shots over bunkers and around trees punctuate a fun round at Forest Dunes Golf Club. New cottages make a stay-and-play option much more viable. An extra par 3 next to the majestic log clubhouse ends all bets.

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Round Trip feature: Northern Michigan

Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club (Arcadia)

Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club has blossomed into the state's Ballybunion, a links-like course that attracts players from around the world. Shaggy dunes along Lake Michigan frame its best holes. The lodge/clubhouse serves up the finest food and sunset in Michigan golf.

Bay Harbor Golf Club (Petoskey)

A few respected club pros I know don't care for Bay Harbor Golf Club, but this 27-hole Arthur Hills design is hard to beat for its intimate experience along the water. Bay Harbor's Links-Quarry nines provide the most dramatic scenery, both in a former rock quarry and along Lake Michigan.

The Signature at Treetops Resort (Gaylord)

I still wonder: Is the Signature Course at Treetops really the best play at the resort? That's how close the competition is. Rick Smith's design gets the nod from me for its elevated tees. They add playability and splendid views throughout the day.

The Legend at Shanty Creek Resorts (Bellaire)

This is another one where you could debate all day long: Is The Legend Course really better than Weiskopf's Cedar River? I vote yes because of its elevation changes and cool collection of par 5s, notably the downhill first hole and stream-soaked seventh hole.

The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa (Acme)

My game certainly isn't up to the challenge of taking on one of the nation's toughest courses. Still, it's always interesting to try to tame The Bear, a longtime Michigan Open host. Mounds choked with ball-grabbing rough, deep bunkers and water hazards lurk on virtually every shot.

The Heather at Boyne Highlands Resort (Harbor Springs)

The Heather, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, feels like a classic Midwestern country club. It's one of the rare up north courses that allows walking and taking caddies. It doesn't get more pure than that. And while you're at Boyne Highlands, be sure to play The Hills, which most certainly deserves a spot on this list.

Black Lake Golf Club (Onaway)

Black Lake Golf Club might be the best off-the-beaten path course up north. It is roughly 45 minutes from Gaylord. I've always wanted to stay onsite. The 228 rooms include the “Old Lodge,” the secluded “Hilltop Chalets” and a traditional hotel experience.

The Premier at Treetops Resort (Gaylord)

The Premier, the only Fazio course in Michigan, edges out The Masterpiece by RTJ Sr. as the second-best course at Treetops. Doglegs and hilly terrain keep players on high alert.

Cedar River at Shanty Creek Resorts (Bellaire)

Welcome to another winner by Weiskopf. Plenty of flamboyant bunkering gives Cedar River a cool look, while adding difficulty.

The Tribute at Otsego Club & Resort (Gaylord)

Rick Robbins and Gary Koch, given 1,000 acres of virgin forest as their canvas, painted a picturesque course that rides sloping fairways that could double as black diamond ski runs. The Tribute explodes with colors in the fall.

Manitou Passage Golf Club (Cedar)

The nearby Homestead Resort has done wonders reviving this Arnold Palmer course on the gorgeous Leelanau Peninsula. The cozy clubhouse serves as a charming hangout, and Head Professional Lee Houtteman has found a way to give lessons without a range and renew interest in local leagues. Manitou Passage Golf Club is the little club that could.

Mountain Ridge at Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa (Thompsonville)

Mountain Ridge plays like a true resort course, forgiving enough to go low on a good day but strong enough to host the Michigan Women's Open every year. The final three holes climb up and fall off the mountain, adding drama and fantastic vistas to end the round.

Belvedere Golf Club (Charlevoix)

Belvedere Golf Club, host of a record 40 Michigan Amateurs, is northern Michigan's other true classic. Designed by Willie Watson in 1925, Tom Watson grew up playing the 6,943-yard course during summer vacations as a boy. Enough said.

The Gailes at Lakewood Shores Resort (Oscoda)

This pseudo-links was kind enough to hand me my first hole-in-one. Double greens and sod-walled bunkers make The Gailes a rare breed in the Midwest.

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.

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My 15 best golf courses in northern Michigan