Red barns and cows. Narrow two-line highways and trees – so many trees. Grand lake views stretched to the horizon. Blue jean jackets and gas stations attached to liquor stores. Tall cornfields and billboards advertising only the finest marijuana edibles.
And incredible golf.
Michigan is more rural than an outsider might expect, full of farms and small-town crossroads. Outside Detroit and a few midsize cities, the Great Lakes State is the embodiment of Midwestern agrarian living, this despite it being the 10th-most populous state among the 50.
And thanks to a boom of golf course developments over the past 25 years mixed with a handful of exceptional classic tracks, Michigan offers what could be considered a surprisingly inspiring spread of public-access layouts. Outsiders might expect states such as California, Arizona and Florida to be packed with solid golf, but a recent study of Golfweek’s Best ranked courses revealed that Michigan offers the seventh-best sampling of elite public-access layouts in the country, ahead of such golf-heavy destinations as Hawaii and Virginia. Not bad for a state where the golf season doesn’t stretch much past seven months before the snow falls in many locales.
The Links nine at Boyne’s Bay Harbor Golf Club in Michigan (Courtesy of Boyne Golf/Evan Schiller)
I was there to see as many courses as I could fit into 11 days. Landing in Detroit and cruising west toward Lake Michigan, I would tee it up at 15 layouts – including a new par-3 course – and put some 1,400 miles on my rental car’s odometer before dropping it off in Milwaukee, the easiest major airport for me to reach after sliding my carry bag back into its travel case at the end of the trip.
This trip started with an airport arrival in Detroit and meandered all the way north into the Upper Peninsula along the shores of Lake Superior with samples of everything from daily-fee options with one course to a winter-season ski destination with 10 tracks. The only rule was the courses had to offer spots on their tee sheets to non-members. I started my planning with the goal of playing the top five Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in the state and added plenty more, including four days in the Upper Peninsula hosting a tournament for Golfweek’s Best raters. My golf route, in order:
- Eagle Eye, No. 5 in Michigan on the 2021 Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list for public-access layouts
- Arcadia Bluffs’ Bluffs Course in Arcadia, No. 1 in Michigan
- Arcadia Bluffs’ South Course, No. 6 in Michigan
- Forest Dunes’ Bootlegger par-3 course
- Forest Dunes’ The Loop, No. 3 in Michigan
- Forest Dunes, No. 4 in Michigan
- Belvedere, No. 9 in Michigan
- Boyne Golf’s Arthur Hills course, No. 19 in Michigan
- Boyne Golf’s Donald Ross Memorial
- Boyne Golf’s The Heather
- Boyne Golf’s Bay Harbor (Links/Quarry nines), No. 8 in Michigan
- Island Resort & Casino’s Sage Run
- Marquette Greywalls, No. 2 in Michigan
- Island Resort & Casino’s Sweetgrass, tied for No. 15 in Michigan
One of the best parts: The end of summer in Michigan offers some of the best-rolling greens found in the country. Bent grass thrives at this latitude, and the putting surfaces I sampled were, without exception, pure. Perfect greens frequently are an imperfect goal – there’s a lot more to great golf than smooth and fast greens – but seeing ball after ball roll across Michigan’s putting surfaces with hardly a bump or wiggle was a highlight of my trip.
It was an unforgettable and sometimes exhausting romp, with nine rounds played on foot and six in carts. There were cliffside holes overlooking one of the Great Lakes followed by secluded, forested layouts – even a fast and firm track that plays in one direction one day, the other direction the next. Hills, valleys, bluffs – a few birdies to keep things rolling, and so many bogeys. Too much golf and never enough, always waking before sunrise to squeeze in more holes, trying to finish before dark with enough time to find an open restaurant while avoiding the roadside deer that flashed through my high beams en route to that night’s bed.
Simply put, a wandering golfer’s dream.