Staying at one place for four days and three nights and playing the same two or three golf courses over and over is kind of like going to one of those all-inclusive resorts: it’s easy and generally affordable, but it’s been done before. It’s basic. That’s why I prefer turning run-of-the-mill golf trips into road-trip adventures. Whereas golf trips allow you to see one (or a few) golf courses in any given destination, road-trip golf adventures allow you to play a greater variety of courses and incorporate an area’s non-golf experiences.
You can turn almost any destination into a golf road trip. Last year, three friends and I drove from San Diego to San Francisco, hiking and teeing it up along the way. This year, we went to Northern Michigan, one of the country’s most underrated golf getaways, and we combined golf with a few Northern Michigan staples: fly fishing, hiking, breweries and Mackinac Island.(I snapped this photo while standing on the first tee at the Treetops Signature Course...more about that later.)
After flying into Traverse City, my sister, Kira (left), her husband, Adam (right), and my friend, Tom (middle), drove about an hour west to Treetops Resort. We began our trip the way every golf trip should begin: by playing a par-3 course.
Threetops ($55) is a 9-hole, par-3 course, and it's one of five courses at Treetops (the other four are 18-hole tracks). It offers crazy elevation changes and will test your approach game in the best way possible.
The elevation changes we encountered at Threetops remained ever-present at the Treetops Signature Course ($145). Designed by Rick Smith, the Signature Course winds through woodlands and hills and offers a unique layout that exists only in the upper midwest. The fairways offer landing areas that are wide and generous, but shots into and around greens are terrifying.
Since we grabbed the first tee time at Treetops Signature, the lighting on the first tee box was stunning. There are three other 18-hole courses at Treetops, but we didn’t have time to see them—after putting out on the 18th green, we grabbed lunch at the Sports Bar and drove south for an afternoon tee time at Forest Dunes.
Forest Dunes, about an hour south of Treetops, is the most secluded course of the five tracks we played in Northern Michigan. After driving through a long stretch of backcountry roads, we arrived to find a peaceful golf haven.
Forest Dunes ($120) is aptly named—the first eight holes of the course course wind through the forest and the final 10 holes move through dunes. It's routinely considered one of the best Tom Weiskopf designs you can play.
Our favorite hole at Forest Dunes? The 278-yard par-4 17th. It’s a classic risk/reward par 4 that could either yield a birdie or stage a disastrous finish.
The course also has a bye-hole that’s perfect for settling bets—it’s a 117-yard par 3 that has a bunker in the middle of the green. This bye-hole sits right next to the restaurant’s back porch, meaning golfers who are closing out bets are never far from a well-lubricated crowd. As for lodging, there's a 14-room hotel located just 35 yards from the first tee, and golfers can also rent large homes that line the course.
Forest Dunes works with Au Sable Fly Shop, a local fishing company, to coordinate excursions for guests. The morning after we played the course, the four of us woke up early and meet up with Justin, our fly fishing guide. We spent five hours riding down Au Sable River, a fresh-water river that's home to a bevy of trout. Our crew managed to catch just one of those trout, but spending the morning away from the course and within the peaceful confines of Au Sable was a perfect way to recharge after a 36-hole day.
After five hours of fishing, we packed up the car and drove two hours north to Mackinac Island. This is a historic island that bans automobiles, so we had to drop off our Lincoln MKX at Shepler's Ferry, then take a 15-minute boat ride.
At 3.8-square miles, Mackinac Island has a year-round population of 500 people, but its occupancy increases considerably during the summer months, when it attracts as many as 15,000 visitors per day. It has three golf courses (Golf on the Jewel and Wawashkamo are shown in the montage, bottom-left and upper-right, respectively) and we even stumbled upon a waterfront putt-putt course (bottom-right). As you can see from the upper-left image, horse-drawn carriages were our main mode of transportation. The other two available modes of transportation? Walking and riding a bike. Seriously.
This was our view from dinner at the Pink Pony Bar & Grill. It was 9:45pm when I snapped this photo and dusk lasted about an hour. Bliss.
We spent the following morning at Mackinac Island, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and walking along the marina. But by noon it'd been forty hours since we'd hit our last golf shot and we became antsy to tee it up again. We took the ferry back to Shepler's, piled into our Lincoln and drove an hour and a half south to Cedar River at Shanty Creek Resort. This might sound obvious, but since road-trip adventures require lots of driving, it's important to pay close attention to the car you select. The Lincoln MKX comfortably fit four golfers and all the gear we required (which was a lot), and it offered a plethora of cool features like 22-way adjustable seats, adaptive cruise control, a full-glass vista roof, seats that massaged and offered air conditioning, and ample power supply to ensure our devices were always fully charged.
Cedar River, Tom Weiskopf's first design in Michigan, is the least expensive course we played ($68) and the only one we’d never heard of, but its quality is right up there with the other better-known tracks. It's raw but charming and “discovering” a great golf course that nobody seems to talk about was a thrill.
The 18th hole at Cedar River epitomizes the entire course: it's a beautiful par 5 that isn't too demanding but still forces you to think. Lodging at Shanty Creek sprawls across the entire resort, and the two-bedroom suite we stayed in sat just across this 18th hole.
The morning after we played Cedar River, we drove an hour and a half west to Sleeping Bear Dunes, a park that runs along Lake Michigan. There's more than a day's worth of activities to do at this lakeshore park and all we had was the morning, so we decided to do the Dune Climb and the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The Dune Climb was flat-out tough—it's a huge, steep dune that's made from tons of soft, hard-to-walk-in sand. If we'd had the time, we would've walked through the dunes and to Lake Michigan (which would've taken four hours), but we opted for the 7-mile scenic drive instead. This drive looped through the Beech-Maple forest and even more sand dunes, and it exposed us to some fabulous views of Glen Lake and Lake Michigan (as you can see in the photo).
Arcadia Bluffs ($180), the course we'd heard most about leading up to our trip, ranks 13th on our list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses. It sits right on Lake Michigan and offers features that make it play more like a links course in Ireland than a lakeside track in America. Bunkers like this one, on the fourth hole, coupled with strong winds and open, rugged terrain made us feel as if we'd traveled across the pond.
Speaking of bunkers, check out this one on Arcadia's 10th hole. A beautiful beast.
The par-5 11th hole begins the greatest three-hole stretch I encountered in Northern Michigan. You can see Lake Michigan from the 11th tee box, and the winds become stronger as you approach the green.
And then, BOOM...in stunning fashion, the par-4 12th hole runs right along Lake Michigan. This hole, even more so than the others at Arcadia Bluffs, encourages a bump-and-run style of play, which, coupled with strong winds coming off Lake Michigan, really exaggerates the course's links-like qualities.
Arcadia Bluffs' fabulous three-hole stretch ends with the par-3 13th. It's severely downhill, which really forces golfers to take in the view from the tee box. On-course housing at Arcadia Bluffs is, in one word, luxurious. The Three cottages that sit right by the second green each accommodate up to 8 people, and there 15 rooms in the Lodge at Arcadia Bluffs that offer lakeside views.
We transitioned from Arcadia Bluffs to Kingsley Club, a rustic, private course that is tucked down a dirt road. Golf Digest selected Kingsley as one of America's 20 Best Damn Clubs Around, in part because one end of its double-sided range has speakers built into it and always pumps some tunes. (Kingsley is private, but it allows limited public play. If you're interested in playing there, ask your PGA pro to call and make arrangements.)
By the time I got to Kingsley, I'd played so many different types of golf courses that every part of my game felt sharp. I’m convinced that’s why I shot my low-ever round there (69). It could also have been the shot of whiskey I took while standing on the 18th tee—a bottle of Jameson is stashed inside the rock wall that surrounds the tee, and Kingsley tradition demands you take a slug. It’s a tradition we would never have discovered had we limited ourselves to just one resort.
And, that's a wrap. Five courses, five days and 500 miles of driving later, Tom, myself, Kira and Adam created memories that will last a lifetime.