Top courses in Michigan's Gaylord Golf Mecca: Six (and a half) can't-miss options

Golf in Michigan is arguably the best in the nation. And if there were a year-round golf season, there would be no argument about it at all.

In this dual-peninsula state, surrounded by nearly one-fifth of the world's fresh water, you'll find more public golf courses per capita than in any other state and more five-star and four-star courses, too -- so Michigan has both quantity and quality.

When golfers who know Michigan talk about golf, one area always comes up first: The Gaylord Golf Mecca. The "Mecca" is larger than just Gaylord and includes 17 courses, five resort properties and 20 hotels, so there is plenty of room both on and off the course during the precious summer months. All these choices can be overwhelming, though. So if you're making your way to the Gaylord Golf Mecca for the first time, here are six (and a half) must-plays to get you acclimated to some of the best golf in the country:

1. The Tribute at the Otsego Club

One of the landmark golf and ski resorts in Gaylord is the Otsego Club and Resort. In 2003, the 7,347-yard Tribute Course , designed by Rick Robbins and Gary Koch, opened to rave reviews. Situated on more than 1,000 acres of land, many holes are routed through wetlands, including nos. 5-8, all of which run along the Sturgeon River. Most holes feature elevated tees and lots of visual slight-of-hand, which produces some of the most memorable shots in the area.

2. Elk Ridge Golf Club

Just less than 35 miles east of Gaylord, the sleepy town of Atlanta is nestled into the dense woodland. And bedding down in those woods is one of the largest elk herds in the lower 48 -- the namesake elk of the 7,072-yard Jerry Matthews masterpiece, Elk Ridge Golf Club . In 1992, Elk Ridge was named the second best new course to open in America, and it remains one of the most unique. The layout through elk-ridden woodlands (during rutting season, the greens are roped off to limit elk damage) features numerous doglegs and wetlands. Club selection is key here, as positioning off the tee will usually be the difference between an easy par and a hard bogey.

3. Black Forest Golf Course

World-famous course architect Tom Doak first explored his signature minimalist proclivities at Black Forest Golf Course . Opened in 1992, it was named the best new public course in America and has perennially been rated as one of the best in the state. The 7,044-yard track starts off with five or so of its hardest holes, so tee up and man up -- birdie chances will come later. Above all, you'll notice the natural bunkering style, which in the early '90s helped revolutionize golf course design.

4. Fazio Premier at Treetops

Treetops Resort has been the focal point of northern Michigan golf, including the site of the defunct (but perhaps soon-to-return) Par-3 Shootout (see more about that below). With four 18-hole championship courses and one spectacular, par-3 nine holer (again, see below), visitors to Gaylord could spend their entire time in the Gaylord Golf Mecca at Treetops. Everyone has a favorite Treetops track, but the Tom Fazio-designed Premier Course might have the most fans. At 6,832 yards, and with wide, bowl-like fairways, it's player friendly -- it fits the eye, and the large, undulating greens are readable and puttable.

5. Rick Smith Tradition at Treetops

Treetops Resort is owned by golf coach to the stars Rick Smith. Smith also designed a few of the courses at Treetops, including the often-overlooked Tradition Course . At just 6,467 (par 70/71) from the tips, the Tradition was laid out so that players could walk it (unlike most of the other courses in the Gaylord Golf Mecca). Despite the diminutive length, the Tradition has a very nice collection of long-ish par 4s (like the 491-yard 11th). Best of all, the greens here are the fairest, most playable of all the Treetops courses.

6. Black Lake Golf Club

Black Lake Golf Club in Onaway is a bit of a hike from Gaylord (just less than an hour north), but it's technically part of the Golf Mecca, and it's well worth the drive. This 7,030-yard Rees Jones layout features one isolated hole after another, replete with natural sand waste areas, wildlife and wetlands. Owned and operated by the UAW, Black Lake feels like a private club, choc-full of amenities, including a 773-yard, par-27 "Little Course" that's perfect for families. All of the greens offer both areal and run-up approach routes, and despite the surrounding woods and marshes, wide fairways and generous landing areas make Black Lake playable and enjoyable for golfers of all levels.

6.5. Threetops at Treetops Resort

The made-for-TV Par-3 Shootout put Gaylord onto the national golf radar, and when Lee Trevino aced the seventh hole for $1,010,000 in 2001, it was a shot heard round the golf world. So don't poo-poo a par 3. Threetops packs as many thrills into nine short holes as many courses do into 18 full-length ones. And considering that some of the best players in the world have been challenged by the 100-plus foot elevation drops, it is anything but a pushover. Renovations are also underway to bring Threetops back up to television standards, in an attempt to resurrect the Par-3 Shootout.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.
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Top courses in Michigan's Gaylord Golf Mecca: Six (and a half) can't-miss options
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