Its been called the “Hilton Head of the Heartland” and the “Golf Mecca of the Midwest,” but northern Michigan is both–and more. Its self-conjured title is “America’s Summer Golf Capital,” but even that moniker does little to capture the excitement of the superb resort and daily-fee courses sprinkled in the valleys of the glacier-carved, sand-based hills between Traverse City and Gaylord. These courses have been a surfeit of riches for a region that not too long ago was known mainly for its cherry orchards, fudge stores and taxidermists.
The region, by the way, does not touch the Arctic Circle. It’s a four-hour drive (or a short flight) from Detroit. Also, the northern sector of Michigan’s lower peninsula is not a place that receives “nine months of cold weather and three months of winter,” as outlanders would have it. The golf season is May through October, and the summer climate, tempered by cool breezes off Lake Michigan, is ideal for golf. Also, extended daylight in these northern latitudes allows play until 10 p.m. in the summer months. Many a golfer has looked up from his final putt to see the aurora borealis throbbing on the northern horizon.
Gaylord, its Main Street architecture reminiscent of a Swiss alpine village, is the gateway to Treetops Resort, a former mom ‘n pop ski facility with a few modest bunny slopes that has emerged as a major golf complex with a diverse array of layouts. The resort’s original 18 was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., who is credited with giving the property its name. The story goes that Jones, at the time he was building his final design in Michigan in the mid-1980’s, looked 120 feet downhill from the sixth tee and exclaimed, “Gee, what a beautiful view. Look at all those treetops. Treetops–I like that name. What do you guys think?”
Now known as the Masterpiece Course, the Jones layout, characterized by deep valleys, rolling hills and panoramic views of the Pigeon River Valley, was an immediate success, but it was the back-to-back opening in the early 1990s of top-notch courses by Tom Fazio and swing guru Rick Smith that set this four-season retreat on a pinnacle of its own. More about them tomorrow.