Words by Mike Norton
There’s a reason why this Michigan region is known as the “Golf Coast” of the Midwest.
And it’s not just because of the massive dunes and moraines left behind some 8,000 years ago by retreating ice sheets, which give this area its distinctive landscape of long hills, narrow valleys and iridescent lakes.
Beginning in the 1980s, some of the nation’s most talented architects put the finishing touches on that breathtaking natural setting with some groundbreaking designs, using the local landscape to create a uniquely scenic “Up North” experience that’s particularly satisfying for a golfer.
Traverse City’s golf courses include two Arnold Palmer designs (Manitou Passage and The Legend), Jack Nicklaus’s groundbreaking layout at The Bear, the Jerry Matthews designs at Antrim Dells and Sundance, Tom Weiskopf’s award-winning course at Cedar River, Gary Player’s challenging Wolverine, and Bill Newcomb’s work at Schuss Mountain and Spruce Run.
But everybody knows those guys. They’re famous.
Not so many people know about Vern Olson – a dairy farmer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who was also one of the early pioneers of homogenized milk. Well, Vern also loved golf, and when he and his wife moved to Traverse City in the late 1940s he was frustrated that the town didn’t have any opportunities for a working man to play a few rounds. So in 1964 he created one.
It’s called Elmbrook Golf Course – an 18-hole course on a high north-facing hill south of town, with naturally rolling terrain and panoramic views of Grand Traverse Bay and the surrounding area. The fairways are lined with mature hardwood and pine trees, and natural areas abound. It was Traverse City’s first public course, and for 36 years he owned and managed it, introducing generations of residents and visitors to the game.
Today, Elmbrook is still owned by Vern’s family – and it’s still a place that combines blue-collar informality with challenging holes (PGA par 72), stunning natural beauty and a surprisingly sophisticated design.
And if you’re not from around this area, you may not have heard of Gary Pulsipher, whose courses are all in northern Michigan. In 1998 he and Steve White designed the back nine of The Crown Golf Club, a fascinating piece of work that includes a tough par 4 eleventh hole where you have to shoot around a hillside to an elevated hole, and a par 5 fourteenth that skirts a sudden ravine.
In 1999 Pulsipher went on to design another unheralded gem: The Leelanau Club at Bahle Farms, described by one golf writer as “the area’s only rollercoaster.” His design, laid out through a steep landscape of forests, ravines and cherry orchards, features spectacular elevations and semi-pedestal greens at several holes. Apparently, he liked how it turned out, since he stayed on as the club’s course superintendent.
Canadian golfers may know about golf architect John Robinson; even though his firm is small, he’s designed a number of great Ontario courses. But to see one of his U.S. designs you’d have to go to Bellaire, where he has two: The Chief and the Hawk’s Eye Golf Resort. Both feature his trademark wide fairways and greens laid out along windswept hills and tree-lined valleys with splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Robinson is a perfectionist who works on his own and still does all his drawings by hand with pencil and paper.
Robinson’s 2000 design for The Chief forces golfers to constantly plan their shots – thanks to the ever-present trees and deep drop-offs, the tall grasses of the roughs and the sometimes tilting greens; it’s a gorgeous course with lots of challenges. Golfers say his 2004 effort at Hawk’s Eye is easier and more forgiving to play, but its natural beauty is even more striking, and there’s plenty of elevation change to keep things interesting.
Chick Harbert’s name is familiar in the world of golf – but mostly as a professional golfer with seven wins on the PGA Tour, including the 1956 PGA Championship. Yet it was his iconic 1986 design for The Torch at A-Ga-Ming, with its stunning seventh-hole green high above Torch Lake that has defined Traverse City’s golf scene in hundreds of photos and ads. It’s a more conservative course than Jerry Matthew’s design next door at Sundance, and most golfers prefer the challenges of the newer course — but Harbert laid out his tees and greens with an eye for beauty, and it’s hard to fault him for that.
On the other hand, few golfers today have heard of Bill Diddel, even though he was one of America’s most prolific golf course architects. When he died in 1985 – at the age of 101 – he left behind more than 300 courses, mostly in his native Indiana, but also the Northwood Club in Dallas, which hosted the 1952 U.S. Open. Here in northern Michigan, his testament is the 1965 Summit course at Shanty Creek Resorts; it’s not a bijou layout like its flashier cousins at The Legend, Schuss Mountain and Cedar River — but since Diddel got there first, he got to choose some of the best terrain at Shanty, and it shows.
Steven Smyers also had a fantastic piece of countryside to work with when he began designing the course at LochenHeath Golf Club: a rolling plateau set high above East Grand Traverse Bay in Acme, not far from the three courses of the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. Smyers is from Florida and has done most of his work there (including the famed Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa) but his 2001 layout at LochenHeath with its wide-open fairways, dramatic bunkering and gorgeous views of the water make it one of the region’s most visually delightful courses.
For detailed information about golf and other outdoor activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, contact Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-TRAVERSE or visit their website at www.traversecity.com.