College football is back and if past seasons are any indication, it'll be a little harder for me to find golf buddies the next dozen or so weekend afternoons.
But if I can pull them away from their flat-screen TVs and nachos, weekend tee times are easier to come by and the weather will be very pleasant soon enough down here in football-mad Texas.
America is celebrating full football stadiums once again this fall. But this summer I was reminded that there's a lot to love about playing a golf course on campus. My recent trip to Michigan included visits to three university courses. It was a reminder that they should always be on your radar as a golfer. When publicly accessible, they are usually a great value. Their non-profit status and walkability generally means low-ish green fees (with some exceptions like Oklahoma State's Karsten Creek, which can charge $400 to the unaffiliated public!).
Collegiate courses can also help anchor a great buddies trip destination. You can pair golf with a sporting event or live music or meet up with some fellow alumni and pay a nostalgic visit to some old stomping grounds eating the chicken wings and burritos of your glory days.
The perks of collegiate golf courses
One of the perks of living in Ann Arbor is access to not one, but two excellent collegiate courses. Though both mostly require playing with a UM-affiliated player, that's rather easy to find in town. Even though the University of Michigan's Radrick Farms is technically private, I was told annual dues are somewhere around $1,500. That is value so insane that simply knowing this deal exists has probably ruined me from ever joining a $500-per-month private club.
Radrick Farms is a delightfully quiet place and underscores a key perk of a lot of collegiate courses: very few have a residential component to them. They're typically on shady, green parcels of land, even if they are located on a busy campus. That's the case for the University of Michigan Golf Course, the Alister MacKenzie design located across the street from The Big House and is bordered on three sides by busy roads. It makes for a compact routing that is very festive, and the many hills help buffer play. One spot at the top of the hill by the elevated 18th tee has several tees within steps of one another adding to a great vibe.
I also paid a return visit to Michigan State University's Forest Akers West Course, the headliner of two 18-hole courses operated by Sparty. This rolling parcel features a delightful routing with holes ranging from lightly to heavily forested. Combined with nearby Eagle Eye it makes for a dynamite one-two punch of tournament-worthy golf courses in the Lansing area. Like a lot of campuses out there, development is growing rapidly on campus, making the green space occupied by the West and next door East Course that much more valuable.
The best state for college golf?
It'd be tough to top Michigan in terms of its full roster of collegiate golf courses. In this golf-mad state, it seems like colleges large and small all have reputable courses on campus. Next to Ann Arbor in Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University's Eagle Crest Golf Club is a Top 10 Detroit Metro area public-access course that has been improving over the years thanks to a 20-year master plan that is updating this scenic course along Ford Lake. It's operated by the University but is also a rare southeast Michigan resort course with a Marriott hotel onsite.
Meanwhile, on the west side, Grand Rapids is a golf-mad city with a deep list of must-play value courses. Among them is The Meadows at Grand Valley State University, which earns high marks from GolfPass reviews (4.7/5). 18 holes walking on the weekend is just $46. In Big Rapids, Ferris State University is home to a long time PGM program and has a reputable public course on campus, Katke Golf Course.
But as deep as Michigan's collegiate golf course roster runs, Indiana makes an even stronger case, thanks in part to Pete Dye, the Hoosier resident who donated his expertise to Purdue University's 36 holes. Thanks to Dye's team, the Kampen and Ackerman-Allen courses are now both modern standouts. Rival Indiana University also just upped the ante with an extensive rebuild of their tired course, which opened in 2020. The work by Steve Smyers at the newly-christened Pfau Golf Course was so impressive it was even added to a Top 100 Public Courses list by Golf Magazine last year. And up north, South Bend's Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame University is lauded as among Coore-Crenshaw's portfolio's best values and is a favorite host for the USGA tournaments days. Even a couple smaller colleges come highly regarded. Culver Academies, a prep school and military academy, has a 9-hole course design by the popular Lanford & Moreau duo is considered one of the Midwest's best nine-hole courses. And don't sleep on Trine University's Zollner Golf Course, an affordable and publicly accessible course in Angola that is a recent host of the Women's DIII National Championships.
While there have been some perilous moments for higher education during the pandemic - like Dartmouth closing its course and Golden Era architecture buffs watching in horror as Yale sat un-maintained during much of 2020, there are a lot of reasons for optimism. Younger golfers are taking up the sport in record numbers and collegiate courses are filling their tee sheets. Donors are also opening their checkbook for extensive facility renovations, from Michigan's new clubhouse to Indiana and Virginia Tech's brand-new courses designed by nationally-known architects. NCAA golf teams are getting more and more TV time and their practice facilities are drool-inducing to any range rat. It's a great time to tee it up on a campus near you.