Pure Michigan. There may not be a better marketing tag anywhere. Not only does it encompass a wide variety of outdoor activities for every season in one of our country’s most beautiful states, but for the traveling golfer it applies to one of the most golf-rich destinations we have in America. On this episode of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast, hosts Mitch Laurance and Darin Bunch discuss Mitch’s return to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this time getting to experience three first-time, fantastic locations: The Belvedere Golf Club in Charlevoix; Mackinac Island off the northwest coast; and Forest Dunes, inland in Roscommon. All three are totally different and together form a perfect example of the unique variety Michigan golf offers.
Detailing Mitch’s first visit to Belvedere — site of the 2019 U.S. Hickory Open and one of the more historic courses in America — the hosts discuss how the club opened in 1927 and was designed by legendary and prolific Scottish architect William Watson (Interlachen, Olympic Club, Olympia Fields and 115 others). Belvedere proved to be an eye-opening experience for Mitch and the 120 participants in the Hickory Open, due in large part to the 2017 restoration of its original layout, which features brilliant green complexes and a beautiful routing that was once a favorite stop for such legends of the game as Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead and Ken Venturi. Eight-time major champion Tom Watson considers Belvedere to be his third-favorite course in America, behind only Augusta National and Pebble Beach. Mitch gives props to Head Professional Marty Joy and the most welcoming of private-club memberships, who are willing to open the Belvedere doors to visitors (with advance notice, of course).
Moving up the Upper Peninsula coast to the storied and dream-like Mackinac Island and its historic Grand Hotel, Mitch recounts how the next leg of his journey was shared with wife Ewa and Michigan-based best friends Bob and Vicki Paski. He details the long history of the Grand Hotel, and talks about why it’s the perfect base for a for a couples getaway to the island. For the golfer, the Grand Hotel offers The Jewel, two great nine-hole choices as part of its activity offerings, and Mitch explains his round on The Grand, located just off the front steps of the hotel. He shares its history, dating back to 1901, and the restoration work done by architect Jerry Matthews in 1987, which brought this challenging but playable layout into the modern era. He describes the spectacular views of the Hotel and nearby Straits of Mackinac from the course as well as the course’s incredible landscaping, and reviews the small greens complexes and shotmaking demands that make this most interesting nine-holer the perfect compliment to the Grand Hotel. He also explains the other Grand nine-hole course, The Woods, also designed by Jerry Matthews in 1994, which is connected to the Grand by the only available method of transportation on the island: Mackinac’s famous horse-drawn carriages, used for the 1.5-mile trip to the inland Woods course.
Next up is what Mitch considers one of the most unusual and wonderful experiences you can have playing golf — the historic and truly unique Wawashkamo Golf Club, designed in 1898 by two-time U.S. Open champion Alex Smith. Mitch details the trip to “Wawa” from the Grand Hotel, taking 30 minutes by horse-drawn carriage to reach the largely unchanged layout, which sits on the site of the 1894 Battle of Mackinac, part of the War of 1812 between the American forces and the British. He describes how golf history and battle history are intertwined throughout the nine-hole course, played as a full 18 holes by using the brilliantly-designed different sets of tees on each hole, giving the golfer varying distances and multiple angles for each of the nines. What else makes Wawashkamo so special? Rugged yet carefully maintained conditions that mirror the 1898 experience; small, challenging greens that reflect the hickory game of 1898; heather-filled surrounds that serve as natural hazards; and unique elements such as the short par-4 No. 3 hole called “The Circus Ring” for a green almost completely surrounded by knee-high heather. With the loving care and attention to historic detail shown by Head Professional and General Manager Chuck Olson and his staff a big part of the story, Mitch makes it clear why a trip to Wawashkamo is worth every effort to get there.
The last leg of the trip takes Mitch to the inland stop of Roscommon at one of the country’s most exciting and unusual golf destinations: Forest Dunes. Darin begins the discussion by talking about Tom Weiskopf’s Top 25 layout, the original Dunes course, and explains why the lush parkland-style course is so highly regarded. With both hosts having experienced Tom Doak’s award-winning and ground-breaking, reversible course at The Loop, they trade reflections on why Doak’s design of the clockwise Black and counterclockwise Red, which offers golfers completely different experiences on the same course played in opposite directions each day, is an unparalleled accomplishment and a stunning addition that takes Forest Dunes to a whole new level as a golf destination. Add a true feel of Scotland to the playing conditions, with fescue fairways that run forever, greens complexes that challenge you from your first approach shot and a course that was totally enjoyable for Mitch’s foursome, each of differing skill levels, to the mix, and Mitch and Darin’s glowing reviews of The Loop make complete sense.
In closing, Mitch shares details of his meeting at Forest Dunes with rising golf architecture stars Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns, who are completing work on the much-anticipated Short Course at Forest Dunes. After spending some time with both men “in the dirt” as the 10-hole par-3 course neared completion, Mitch explains why this latest addition to the Forest Dunes collection is another reason to make it a “must stop” on any Pure Michigan itinerary.