Tucked in the scenic Pigeon River valley four miles from Treetops Resort’s main complex is Treetops North, which features 63 holes of unforgettable golf that defines the ‘north woods’ golf experience in the Wolverine State.
First up is the Tom Fazio Premier course, a user-friendly layout threaded through rolling woodlands that relies on elevated tees, concave fairways and a varied, balanced collection of holes for its appeal.
Persistent arm-twisting was required to persuade Tom Fazio to visit Michigan in 1989 to inspect the proposed site for the resort’s new course. “Initially, I didn’t want to go there,” Fazio remembers. “It was too far away from where I was based (in North Carolina and Florida).” But Rick Smith, the resort’s director of golf, kept phoning Fazio to sell him on the property on which he would be given carte blanche to design a course.
“Rick kept calling me and said I really needed to see the land,” Fazio says. “I had some business in Chicago and from there went up north to see what Rick was talking about.” On a late October day over 20 years ago, Fazio finally visited Treetops. “We walked the land,” Fazio recollects. “I could not believe what I was seeing. There were hundreds and hundreds of golf holes out there! I was hooked. The terrain was so good, there was no place we could have spent more money if we had wanted to. It may be the best site I’ve ever worked with.” And Mr. Fazio has seen a few in his long and storied career.
With the accent on visual drama and playability, Fazio fashioned a gorgeous layout framed by second-growth hardwoods and dense vegetation. The majority of the fairways tumble downhill into troughs framed by heavily wooded ridges, their bowl-shaped landing areas designed to corral errant drives. The wind off Lake Michigan funnels through these dished-out valleys, adding excitement to the shots golfers are asked to play. Swales and bunkers defend the slick bentgrass greens, several of them among the boldest Fazio has ever built. Though the short par fours (notably the 15th, its two-tier green canted nine feet from front to back) are among the best Fazio has ever designed, there are no “signature” holes per se on 6,832-yard, par-72 layout, which opened to acclaim in 1992.
“If you take five foursomes, let them play the course, and then take a poll on their favorite holes, I wouldn’t be surprised if you got 18 different opinions,” Fazio claims. “There are so many dramatic holes with so many different settings.”
Not one to traffic in superlatives, the designer had the last word on a project he nearly sidestepped: “I really couldn’t pick my best course, but I’ve designed about 10 courses–and I include Treetops in that list–that if you wrote down their names and had to pick one out of a hat, I’d base my whole reputation on the one selected.”
The Tom Fazio Premier is probably the resort’s best-liked and most-requested course, but not until the debut of the Rick Smith Signature course, a 6,653-yard, par-70 layout designed by the resort’s multi-talented swing guru and managing partner, did Treetops spread its wings and take flight. Opened in 1993, the Smith course is a large-scale design spread across 300 acres that fully embraces the north woods.
Smith claims he was given “a compass and a map” by late resort owner Harry Melling when it came time to build the course. Smith wore out a four-wheel drive vehicle, lost 15 pounds hiking the site’s hills and valleys, and sketched 13 different routings before arriving at the best sequence of holes. The extensive field work, Smith explained, was necessary “to see what the land forms felt like and looked like. I had to focus beyond what was on the (topographic) map and visualize each hole in my mind.” The result: A fun and wonderfully varied layout with panoramic views and excellent playability throughout.
The layout, Smith’s first full-fledged design, features five sets of tees (from 6,653 yards to 4,604 yards); 135 bunkers (most are decorative); and enormous green complexes (up to 12,000 square feet) designed to test short-game creativity and prowess. The par threes, each with a different look and each facing a different direction, are exceptional. Two of them, the fourth and sanctuary-like 11th, were hand-cleared to preserve the bracken fern and scrub pine that preface the greens. So lightly does the course tiptoe around the land, it was certified as a Cooperative Sanctuary by Audubon International shortly after it opened. (As a tribute to the quality of the land, Smith moved a scant 35,000 cubic yards of dirt to build his course, a few handfuls by modern standards).
In the name of research, Smith visited classic spreads at home and in Europe before breaking ground for the layout. Garden City Golf Club, an exclusive men’s club on Long Island, New York known for its subtle, flowing lines and broad fairways framed by sculpted bunkers and tall fescues, made a strong impression. In fact, the par-four third hole on the Smith Course is a brawny version of Garden City. From the elevated tee, a 60-yard-wide fairway angled gently to the right beckons below, with a small pond to the right and large, decorative bunkers framing the entire left side of the hole. For challenge and beauty, it’s as good a two-shotter as a golfer could hope to play, especially from the championship markers at 467 yards.
The ultimate tribute to this dazzling first effort by Smith was paid by Tom Fazio, who served as a mentor of sorts but encouraged Smith to pursue his own design ideas: “You can tell by his layout–from the types of shots required, the size of the tees and design of the greens–that he’s a player, and that with all the lessons he’s given, he knows how other people play the game.” Smith’s endless sessions on the practice tee, coupled with an intuitive sense of what golfers like to see on a course, add up to one of the region’s most original (and classic) tests of golf.