GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- My latest trip to my home state -- I moved from Michigan to California in 2014 -- was a journey of golf discovery.
That's hard to do considering I've now played 192 golf courses in Michigan . I'm sure some old guy somewhere has played more than me, but I doubt there's anybody who has analyzed every round so thoroughly, leveraged by photos, illegible notes on the scorecard and endless comparisons in 19th-hole debates.
The west side of the state has always been my black hole. I've visited a few goodies -- Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor, Hawkshead Links in South Haven, Grand Haven Golf Club and, obviously, Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club -- but never toured the entire shoreline like I did in June.
The reason why I never had is obvious -- the lack of golf resorts and accommodations. Cool tracks such as Hemlock Golf Club in Ludington and Ravines Golf Club in Saugatuck don't have any good stay-and-play options for traveling golfers. My seven-day jaunt down Lake Michigan turned out to be a fulfilling eight-course smorgasbord without a stinker in the bunch. West Michigan is a playground of hills, trees, sand dunes and marshes -- all great attributes for golf.
Here's what I found:
Manistee and Ludington
I have interviewed Doug Bell -- the personable long-time general manager at Manistee National Golf & Resort -- many times over the years, although I'd never seen his property. What a pleasant surprise. All expectations were surpassed.
I feel like Manistee National is the "little golf resort that could." It doesn't have the biggest budget, best rooms or greatest courses, but everything is priced right and done well. Golf groups love the convenience of walking between the cozy, 42-room inn and the clubhouse, and the food in the clubhouse's Wanagan Grille will please even the most jaded taste buds from California.
Most weekend golfers will enjoy Manistee National's Canthooke Valley Course more than the surly Cutters' Ridge , a Jerry Matthews design overrun with wetlands and forced carries. Cutters' Ridge might be the most difficult course, yard for yard, in Michigan. Both rounds provide beautiful cart rides through northern Michigan forest.
"A lot of 36-hole facilities have a nine (golf course) and a five (course)," Bell said. "We have a pair that are sevens or eights, and they are two totally different courses."
It's not too far to consider adding Hemlock to your itinerary either. Architect Ray Hearn built some unique holes throughout sandy sections of the wooded property. The 302-yard, par-4 third hole keeps golfers guessing about how to avoid the sand, a layup or driver to challenge the green. I'd like to see a few tweaks made to the difficult, par-5 12th hole.
Between the split fairway with a tree in the middle and the giant dune guarding a semi-blind green, there's a lot going on there. Hemlock's drop-shot, par-3 13th hole is appropriately named "Northern Beauty." If the Hemlock can ever get a full clubhouse built, maybe it will get more respect.
Thoroughbred Golf Club: A rebirth in Rothbury
Thoroughbred Golf Club , a nifty Arthur Hills course, has been on my radar since the day its golf staff showed up at the Michigan Golf Show in cowboy outfits. Who doesn't love a cute cowgirl?
The resort has been in constant upheaval over the last decade, swapping out owners like college kids skip classes. The latest owners have reportedly invested several hundred thousand dollars since taking over in 2014 to improve the indoor water park, arcade, horseback riding, multiple restaurants, camping sites, cabins, and hotel rooms and suites.
I had been warned the Thoroughbred had been steadily riding in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the course conditioning and overall routing were more than up to par. The second hole needs a major overhaul -- it's a brutal, albeit beautiful, par 4 around a cranberry bog -- but otherwise, the backwoods setting looks fantastic. The par-5 18th hole boomerangs around a lake, ala the epic sixth hole at Bay Hill Club & Lodge where John Daly once carded an 18. I was happy with bogey. Once the maintenance staff can trim back overgrown brush and branches lining the fairways, the Thoroughbred could be back in the saddle again, ready to return among the top 30 public courses in Michigan.
I would have loved to stay, but this was the weekend of the Electronic Forest Festival, a weird and wild music party that attracts thousands to Double JJ and the surrounding fields to camp and relive Woodstock. I'm just too old for a good rave. I crashed, instead, at the newly remodeled Starlite Resort, a roadside motel in Saugatuck.
Holland and Saugatuck
These two beach towns are popular with summer tourists from Chicago and Detroit, but I had a different kind of sand in mind. The two courses I played just west of Grand Rapids -- the Ravines in Saugatuck and Macatawa Legends Golf & Country Club in Holland -- turned out to be polar opposites.
Macatawa Legends, a Hearn design that survived a bankruptcy in 2009, sprawls out across a large real estate development. Hearn did a nice job of transforming a mostly flat site into an engaging round of golf. Water and fescue grasses line the fairways, leading to ultra-fast greens. The clubhouse and Sunset Lounge are first-class facilities.
Conversely, the setting of the Ravines is serene and secluded. The price golfers pay for such solitude is an untamed wilderness of wetlands and forced carries. This Arnold Palmer design gobbles balls as quickly as Michigan's potholes destroys tires. I still found it fun and quite fair, a definite must-see.
Drink up in Grand Rapids
I morphed into a college kid all over again in Grand Rapids, touring brew pubs and wine bars with a buddy. I had no idea how much fun downtown Grand Rapids could be. The luxurious JW Marriott Grand Rapids proved to be a perfect home base where we could walk "Beer City USA" at night, visiting Founders Brewing Co. and The B.O.B., yet still be close enough to tee times at Pilgrim's Run Golf Club in Pierson and the Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe .
Pilgrim's Run is pure, by far my favorite round of the trip. There wasn't a hole worth complaining about or a blade of grass out of place. It finishes memorably with a risk-reward, short par 4 over a pond. It easily shoots up among my 25 favorite courses in the state.
Thornapple Pointe has plenty going for it as well. Three scenic holes hug Thornapple River. Others roll through trees. There's one disclaimer: Bring ear buds. Locals call Thornapple Pointe "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" because you'll likely experience all three being so near to a major highway and airport.
Reflections on Michigan golf
My ride back to Detroit through Spartan country proved to be costly for this Wolverine fan. I donated six balls into the hazards populating the 27-hole Hawk Hollow Golf Club in Bath. I didn't let that fiasco influence my impression.
It's a really solid course, where risky decisions must constantly be made. Should I aim at the flag or away from the water? Dare I attempt the 200-yard carry over a pond off the ninth tee? Can I hit hybrid out of this nasty rough or just punch out?
The trip rekindled my love affair with Michigan golf. I miss the bentgrass greens, the northern hardwoods, the friendly folk, the Midwest sensibilities, the affordable green fees. 'Til we meet again, old friend.
I checked off nine more new courses. There are always more. I'm coming for you, Buck's Run Golf Club . And you, Moor Course at Boyne Highlands Resort . Watch out, Little Traverse Bay Golf Club & Restaurant . You're on my list, Island Hills Golf Club and Grande Golf Club .
It might take me forever to play them all.
I don't mind. Who doesn't love going home?