HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. - I've been coming to Boyne's three resorts in northern Michigan longer than any other major golf property in the country.
And, for that reason, I've probably been taking their excellence for granted. A June tour of Boyne Highlands, Boyne Mountain and Bay Harbor - my first visit in five years - served as a not-so-subtle reminder just how good things are under the Boyne umbrella. In fact, I'd argue that things are better than ever.
I've never seen the courses in such great shape. The greens were frighteningly pure, and the rough lush and fraught with peril. And that's after a late winter onslaught that left some courses "up north" five hours north of Detroit struggling with conditioning. Even the food tasted better than I remember. It seems the operation almost runs itself, a testament to Boyne's stability of leadership with Stephen Kircher, son of Boyne founder Everett Kircher, at the top, and Bernie Friedrich the long-time patriarch of the golf division.
Considering there are more challengers than ever in northern Michigan's vast golf landscape - Forest Dunes debuted the reversible Loop in 2016 and Arcadia Bluffs welcomes the new South course this summer - Boyne continues to stay ahead of the curve with a consistent approach. The standards of good golf, comfy accommodations and quality service never waver. You get what you pay for, and then some. How many other golf resorts can you walk away from feeling you've gotten a great value?
Come to think of it: Name another resort that provides such a diverse collection of tee shots - the drop-shot thrills of beautiful 13th on the Arthur Hills course (watch the video above), the intimidation of the rock-walled quarry on the sixth of the Quarry nine at the Bay Harbor Golf Club or the dreamy views of Lake Michigan from the third on the scenic Links nine at Bay Harbor. You can't. That's the beauty of Boyne. There's so much versatility and variety with three resorts and eight courses at your disposal.
Main Lodge at Boyne Highlands
Big changes are in store at the Highlands (pictured), modeled after an English country estate with vines crawling up its exterior walls. If all goes according to the plan, a major renovation by 2020-21 will modernize the lodge, which saw 71 of its 148 rooms damaged during an arson fire in December 2016. Life is mostly back to normal otherwise.
The lodge still serves a killer buffet every morning in the main dining room, and the back lawn is always crawling with families and children, playing corn hole, croquet and ladder ball. Some are whacking shots on the free Cuff Links Executive par 3 course on the ski hill, which stays lit for night golf. Others soak in the heated outdoor pool and hot tub.
Our group stayed two nights in the Ross Cottages closer to the golf clubhouse for the Hills, Moor and Donald Ross Memorial courses. They're spacious and private with full kitchens to boot.
With four courses, the Highlands is built for the weekend golf bender for golf buddies. Like most guests, I favor the classic feel of The Heather, the original Boyne course by Robert Trent Jones Sr., and the natural beauty of Hills. The Memorial is a fascinating course and story - Friedrich and the Kirchers scoured the country looking for the 18 best holes by Donald Ross they could reproduce in northern Michigan. The result is a tribute/replica course that stands on its own with or without the Ross history lesson. With 120-plus bunkers, bring your best game. The two short par 4s from The Inverness Club (no. 7) and Salem Country Club (no. 11) are just as likely to cough up bogey as birdie. The seventh green might be the smallest I've seen on a regulation course. I've played the par-4 14th hole called "Railway" at Royal Dornoch (No. 10 on the Memorial) in Scotland and the par-3 17th on the South course at Oakland Hills Country Club (no. 3 on the Memorial) and can see the eerie resemblance of each.
If your game needs a tune-up, the Boyne Golf Academy features Gears, my favorite instructional tool out in the market today. The sensors on the vest that capture your swing motions on video can be invaluable in diagnosing what's wrong. It takes the guess work out of teaching.
Bay Harbor's Quarry nine
From the Ross cottages to staying in one of the two penthouses at the Inn at Bay Harbor in Petoskey. Not bad.
It's a 16-mile (30-minute) jaunt around the Little Traverse Bay from Boyne Highlands to the Inn at Bay Harbor. The Bay Harbor development is Boyne's crowning achievement, Michigan's version of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous', if you will. Everything here - the village, the Marriott-managed inn (an Autograph Collection Hotel), the 27-hole golf club, the yacht club and marina - are fab. Considering what it used to be, a deteriorating shale quarry right on Lake Michigan, Bay Harbor remains one of the state's engineering and rehab miracles.
With its spa and fine dining, Bay Harbor is a couples paradise, but families fit right in too with the outdoor pool right near the lakeshore.
Our meal, dining on the patio of the Vintage Chophouse as the sun set over the water, will be one of my highlights of the summer. So was playing the famous Links-Quarry combination at Bay Harbor the next day. The weather was Pure Michigan, high 70s and little wind.
Bay Harbor by Hills must be played two or three times before it can be appreciated. The views distract the first time around. It's a lot of target golf with a couple daunting forced carries off the tee and some tricky holes (What's the line off the tee of No. 3 and No. 5 of the Links loop?). The par 5s can be vicious until you figure them out, especially the two in the quarry. I still lost two balls in the stream on the 495-yard fifth, even though I know better. It's still one of the best quarry courses in the world.
Across the street with expansive views high above the lake is the Crooked Tree Golf Club. A redesign several years ago softened it up, improving the overall playability.
Unless you're doing one of Boyne's fantastic "Unlimited Golf" packages, you're likely not bouncing between the three resorts like I did.
Another 20-mile (30-minute) ride south from Bay Harbor to the tiny town of Boyne Falls reveals the 36-hole Boyne Mountain. The Alpine and the Monument are twin layouts cascading off of the ski hill. The 10-minute cart ride up the ski hill to the first tees has to be one of the most unique first impressions in golf.
Playing nine holes at the Alpine revealed to me why so many Michigan pros who compete in the annual Tournament of Champions consider it their favorite Boyne course. While the Monument is more hemmed in by the forest, and quirky in spots, the Alpine glides through the trees on the front nine before opening up to a meadow for the stretch run. An island green tops off the round at no. 18.
Next time I come back, it will be with my family in tow. We love the setting on Deer Lake across the street from the clubhouse so much that I included Boyne Mountain among my favorite family resorts in America. There are tennis courts right there near the water and a large lawn with a nine-hole all-grass putting course mowed into it. Between the clear water and sandy beach at Deer Lake and the indoor Avalanche Bay Water Park, your children might have more fun than you do.
My Boyne course ranking
The famous 18th at The Heather
I'll leave you with this useful nugget: My ranking of Boyne's courses. Just like my personal preferences at Bandon Dunes and Streamsong, this list isn't right. It isn't wrong, either. It's just perspective.
I've still not played the more traditional Moor, which several Boyne pros say they favor. By default, it ends up last. If I had to play a course every day for the rest of my life, it'd be The Heather. If I had to impressive a client or play the last round of my life, Bay Harbor would be my choice. In the end, here's something to chew on:
1. The Heather
1a: Bay Harbor
6. Crooked Tree
But don't take my word for it. Go play all eight and decide for yourself. Talk about a worthwhile summer project. If you've played some of them already, how would you rank 'em? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below.