The Kingsley Club: A Classic Golf Sanctuary in Northern Michigan

World-class clubs always leave a lasting first impression. The armed guard at the entrance to Pine Valley. Modest yet regal Magnolia Drive at Augusta National. The massive iron gate at the National Golf Links of America, and its mausoleum-like clubhouse.

At the Kingsley Club, located south of Traverse City, Mich., the first impression is an unmarked dirt road, one that goes on for miles and miles, with rolling farmland on both sides of the hardpan. Just when the unpaved road seems like a dead end to oblivion, a modest wooden sign marks the entry to the Kingsley Club. Once inside the confines of this wild, wooly kingdom of golf, it is clear that the club, opened in 2001, can hold its own with any serious retreat in the nation.

While the founders, Ed Walker and Art Preston, are to be credited with locating a rugged 320-acre parcel scraped by retreating glaciers and framed by hardwoods and pines, they also had the good sense to seek out the advice of Fred Muller, the long-time head pro at nearby Crystal Downs, the revered Alister Mackenzie design where Preston is a member.

Designer Mike DeVries shoehorned holes into the northern Michigan landscape

One of the sagest golf minds in the Midwest, Muller’s recommendation for a designer was unequivocal: Mike DeVries. The up-and-coming architect, who had worked with Tom Fazio and Tom Doak but more importantly had cut his teeth at Crystal Downs, is a Mackenzie devotee through and through, both in theory and execution. It shows in the design of the Kingsley Club. Routed across billowing hills and staked out by fearsome bunkers, the holes are visually arresting.

“It is an important thing in golf to make holes look much more difficult than they really are,” wrote Mackenzie in Golf Architecture. “People get more pleasure in doing a hole which looks almost impossible, and yet is not so difficult as it appears.”

Ingeniously melded to ridges, knobs, bowls and other glacial footprints, the Kingsley Club, while anything but minimalist, is a true lay-of-the-land design that resembles a British heathland course on steroids. Incredibly, DeVries moved only 30,000 cubic yards of dirt during construction, a few teaspoonfuls by modern standards. Clearly the designer spent countless hours walking the site to learn everything he could about the landscape. Clearly he took special care to fit the holes to the existing terrain. He has, in fact, “imitated the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself,” which Mackenzie felt was the chief object of every golf architect.

They say in life to be careful what you wish for. Same in golf. The club’s founders reportedly wanted contours, variety, intrigue and flow. DeVries, who personally shaped the greens and built the bunkers, delivered in spades. The Kingsley Club is a strategic masterpiece. Yes, it’s a little funky in places—blind shots, crazy slopes, vertigo-inducing greens—but the designer artfully harnessed the natural rise and fall of the site to his end purpose, and he did it with panache.

The course, which has five sets of tees ranging from 6,956 to 4,954 yards (par 71), is exposed to the wind, which ratchets up the challenge. Because the fescue fairways are kept firm and fast, the ball can be bumped along the ground to reach the open-entry greens. At nearly every hole, there is an opportunity to use ground contours to get the ball close to the hole. For imaginative players with good touch, the Kingsley Club is a golf course dropped from heaven into Michigan’s north woods.

Bunkers at the Kingsley Club have a sculptural quality

The club’s scorecard and tee placements were devised by a committee that understood how a decent club player should be tested given the strengths and demands of the course. For example, the Member tees at 6,480 yards are a clever composite that utilize the Gold (back) tees at six holes. Playing these tees, I got a taste of what experts face at three of the par 3’s and at a trio of short to mid-length par 4’s. It was a blast without being overbearing.

The clarion call at the Kingsley Club comes at the very first hole, a daunting par 5 with a split-level fairway delineated by four huge bunkers gouged into the face of a hill. These awful sand pits are fringed with native fescue grasses, adding to their terror. From the get-go, players must take a line—high road or low–and commit to the shot. Tactics matter. This is golf at its best.

From beginning to end, each hole at the Kingsley Club has something to recommend it. There’s the dramatic par-5 seventh, which plays over hill-and-dale to a plateau green; the intimidating par-3 ninth, its peninsula green perched above a deep bowl and several nasty bunkers; and my personal favorite, the short par-4 13th, which looks simple enough until you reach the putting surface. Surely Mackenzie himself would have endorsed the convoluted, 58-yard-deep green (the largest on the course), which looks for all the world like a couple of giant kitchen sinks cobbled together and seeded with a blend of bent and fescue grasses. DeVries claims the green at No. 13 was “already there.” I believe him. No mere mortal could ever dream up such a thing.

“In the Spirit of the Game” is the club’s motto, and here’s why I think it fits. While the Kingsley Club is private, it permits limited outside play. Simply have your home-club pro call ahead on your behalf. Believe me, it’s worth the effort. The reward is a bold, bodacious course that not only is a great test of golf, but offers pleasurable excitement to all classes of players.

“An ideal hole should provide an infinite variety of shots according to the various positions of the tee, the situation of the flag, the direction and strength of the wind, etc.,” wrote Mackenzie. Rest assured, the Kingsley Club, which I believe is one of the very best new courses built in the 21st century, has one hole after another that fits the good doctor’s description perfectly.

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