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Michigan golf courses worth the drive, especially with fall colors in play

Updated: Nov 1, 2021


(This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune Aug. 7, 2017)

Few golfing moments are more rewarding than standing on an elevated tee box in a long-sleeves breeze, filling your chest with crisp Northern Michigan air, and looking out over an explosion of reds, yellows and oranges crowding around the lush geometry of greens and fairways.

We who are lucky enough to live in a place where nature resets the scenery every few months know the sublime pleasure of golf in the fall. It’s like a bottle of port from the chef’s collection, shared with a few special diners just before closing time.

Getting away from the sprawling flatness of Chicago to enjoy it is step one, of course. And while options abound to the north, west and even south, those of us who know their way to the northwest corner of Michigan will tell you that the six-hour drive — or a short flight into Traverse City — is a small price to pay for the great rounds that await.

Quick disclaimer: Any discussion of Northern Michigan golf in the fall must acknowledge the weather. If you’re there when the leaves are at their brightest, you’re also there when the weather has begun its slide into winter. That means 60 degrees and sunny one day might be 35 and cloudy the next. Bring warm clothes. And be prepared to go with the flow. (I’ve always found that the best “flow” on a cold day can be found in any of the cozy taverns scattered through these parts, but a warm fire and a good book also work.)

That being said, when the fall weather is good up here in Michigan’s pinkie — hold your hand up with the palm facing out; we’re talking about the area in the top of your pinkie, with Traverse City perched about halfway up the outside of your ring finger — it’s as good as it gets.

Not only does this area offer a variety of golfing options, including a few of the top courses in the country, it spaces them out just enough to require pleasant drives through trees and orchards. (This is cherry and apple country, with several respectable vineyards.) The best road for this sort of wandering is M-22, a popular scenic route whose alphanumeric symbol is the subject of many a bumper sticker and stolen highway sign. It runs from Manistee to Traverse City, wandering through Frankfort, Empire and Glen Arbor and around the Leelanau peninsula.

A cozy cottage is an ideal option in this part of the world, offering a place where you can hunker down around a warm fire with a puzzle or a well-stocked game cabinet. And while this is an easy rental option for week-long trips — try Leelanau Vacation Rentals or Peninsula Vacation Rentals, if you have that much time — it doesn’t always work for shorter fall getaways.

Some excellent resort options include The Homestead in Glen Arbor, Grand Traverse Resort in Acme, and Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville. Arcadia Bluffs, one of the best golf courses in the area, has beefed up its lodging choices to include both hotel rooms and on-site cottages. Traverse City has no shortage of places to stay, along with a lively little downtown. Frankfort also offers a nice selection for B&B lovers, as well as The Hotel Frankfort, an old-school downtown inn, and Harbor Lights Resort, with condo rentals steps away from beautiful beach sunsets.

The best course along M-22 is Crystal Downs, a venerable beauty designed by Alister MacKenzie shortly before he created Augusta National, annual home of the Masters Tournament. Crystal Downs is one of Golf Digest’s top 20 courses in the country. But it’s also private. Unless you know a member, all you can do is drive by. (If you know a member and they invite you, drop everything and go play.)

The good news is the best public option in the area is also highly rated. Arcadia Bluffs is perched on sandy terrain several hundred feet above Lake Michigan. No trees are on the course itself, but surrounding forests and rolling terrain make for great views. It’s a long and challenging course, with sod-wall bunkers and extra-large, undulating greens. (If you putt off one of them, you won’t be the first to do so.) It’s pricey, but the 18-hole rate drops from $190 to $85 after Oct. 4. Even at those rates, it’s crowded, so book ahead. Try to time your round to end at sunset. You’ll be rewarded with one of the best you’ve ever seen, ideally with a beverage in your hand and a birdie or two to brag about.

If ever there were a golf course made for playing at the height of fall colors it’s Crystal Mountain, the fair-weather centerpiece of a small ski resort in Thompsonville, southwest of Traverse City. (It’s not exactly on M-22, but close.) While it may not be much of a mountain compared to, say, the Rockies, it is a large hill in the middle of densely forested acreage for miles in every direction.

The Mountain Ridge course, one of two on the resort property, winds its way up and around the hilly terrain, with well-designed tee boxes that highlight the spectacular views. It also offers the benefits of a full resort, with amenities for non-golfers, and a cozy tavern for 19th hole activities.

The area also has several lesser known, more affordable courses. While these may not have the polish and stature of the pricier tracks, many offer excellent value. One of my favorites is Champion Hill, just south of Honor, a few miles off M-22. Friendly service and a layout that makes the most of the hilly terrain make it a favorite stop, especially for high handicappers.

Another bargain is Dunes Golf Club in Empire. This course has the added benefit of proximity to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where you can drive to the top of the massive sand piles for a view you won’t forget. We prefer to hike the Empire Bluff Trail, which rewards a brisk walk through the woods with breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the nearby Manitou Islands. If you hike it, do yourself a favor and cap it off with a burger and a beer at Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire.

If a modern, full-service resort and spa is what you’re looking for, Grand Traverse Resort and Spa 6 miles northeast of Traverse City is likely the best option. It’s self-contained, with three golf courses of its own. But it’s well situated for exploring the area.

Definitely off the M-22 trail but worth a look for serious golfers are two other courses. One is Tullymore Golf Resort, tucked in the woods of Stanwood, about an hour north of Grand Rapids. It’s a full-service resort with two strong courses. The other is Forest Dunes, a Tom Weiskopf-designed track in picturesque Roscommon.

Wherever you play, just remember that it’s OK to take your eye off the ball every now and then and enjoy the fall colors.



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