The Tribute: King of the Hill

I should have known what we were in for when we pulled up to the bag drop at Otsego Club & Resort on Thursday morning . Two very attractive young ladies were there to greet us.

“Which course, gentlemen?”

“We’re playing the Tribute at 10:40.”

Following a rain shower earlier in the morning, we were as soggy-headed after four straight days of golf as the weather. But that didn’t stop us from asking the girls about the course.

“It’s really nice,” the perky one with the colorful ribbons in her hair told us.

“If you don’t birdie the par-5 fourth hole, we have a pink cap for you,” said the confident 8-handicapper in the pink shorts. With emphasis, like she meant it. Nice.

I’ve been visiting northern Michigan for 25 years and thought I knew all the top public-access courses in these parts. Otsego Club & Resort, the oldest private ski club in the nation, has two courses: the Classic, a short, pleasant parkland test that dates to 1958; and the Tribute, a grand-scale test hewn from the wilderness by Rick Robbins and Gary Koch in 2001.

A genuine “sleeper” located 10 minutes from Treetops Resort in Gaylord, the Tribute was introduced with no fanfare and was scheduled as a “filler” course between the region’s better-known venues. Well under the radar and deserving of wider notice, the Tribute is a knockout. Set on 1,100 acres and stretching to 7,347 yards, this well-groomed test is bold and beautiful, its staggered tee boxes accommodating all ability levels. The greens are uniformly large and liberally contoured. The corridors, framed by hardwood forests and pinched by cedar wetlands, are wide. The bunkers are in all the right places, but not overdone.  The routing is a counterclockwise loop of non-returning nines that erases all reminders of civilization.

We are macho warriors, but we are sensible. We played the white tees at 6,256 yards, and it was all we could handle. Again, morning showers had softened the fairways. The course played long. REALLY long. Starting with the opening tee shot, it was clear that flat holes are a rare commodity at the Tribute. Also, nearly every tee is elevated, accentuating the majestic 30-mile views of the Sturgeon River Valley.

The par-4 third hole is the first of many where the panoramic views of distant hills needs to be savored and then set aside. We played the hole at 380 yards, and yet a pair of our drives finished in the vicinity of the green.

The third was a warm-up for the fourth. This is the one the cart girl told us about. The hole features a split fairway: a ball played to the lower, wider (and safer) landing area to the right effectively turns the hole into a three-shot par 5. The upper, narrower fairway to the left invites aggressive players to use the downhill slope to reach the green in two. Messrs. Kessler and Bedell, each a big hitter, had short irons in for their second shots after aiming their drives to the left.

While I enjoyed the hang time and the view at the fourth, I thought to myself, what goes down must come up.  We did our share of climbing on subsequent holes, but the excitement at the Tribute kept building. Otsego’s premier course has been awarded four stars by Golf Digest, but, let’s face it, we live an age of designer labels. It’s Jones this and Nicklaus that. It’s rare to see such a beautiful, well-strategized layout by a relative unknown and a former Tour pro not classed with Crenshaw and Weiskopf.

Robbins, a North Carolina-based designer, has good pedigree. His father worked with legendary LPGA star Peggy Kirk Bell and her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell, as general manager at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club. Hound Ears Club in Boone, N.C. was developed by his father and uncles. Robbins himself learned the trade under Robert von Hagge and later worked as a senior design associate in Jack Nicklaus’ Hong Kong office. Like most golf architects, Robbins works extensively in China these days, but the Tribute remains one of the highlights of his domestic portfolio.

I believe courses should be judged on how much pleasurable excitement they deliver to all types of players. From any set of tees, the Tribute is a superb test of golf. It’s overshadowed by the region’s better-promoted courses, but it belongs on any golfer’s northern Michigan itinerary.

I hope to play it again soon. Someone who works there owes me a pink hat.


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