Opening of Ozarks National takes Branson’s golf boom to a new level

Spectacular vistas are commonplace when you play a round at Ozarks National.

HOLLISTER, Missouri – Given the history of golf in the Missouri Ozarks, it’s shocking what’s been happening in that area these days.

This area 20 miles south of Springfield didn’t have a golf course until 1938 when Don Gardner, a club pro at two of the Chicago area’s premier private clubs – Olympia Fields and Flossmoor, and his wife Jill built a nine-hole short course they called Gardner Golf Ranch. They sold it in 1961 and the course was eventually expanded to 18 holes in what is now Holiday Hills Resort.

That was the Branson area’s only course until Pointe Royale opened as the area’s “original championship course’’ in 1986. While the Branson area was blossoming into a tourist destination, its golf offerings weren’t keeping pace.

Over two decades passed with little in the way of golf development, the notable exceptions being a course honoring Payne Stewart – a Springfield resident who won three major championships before dying in a plane crash in 1999 – and John Daly’s Murder Rock. Daly had roots in both Missouri and Arkansas, but his course didn’t last long.

The deep ravine fronting the No. 13 green may be Ozarks National’s most intimidating feature.

Enter Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops. This visionary billionaire bought two local courses and the golfing boom here was on. What Morris has already accomplished is impressive.

He hired noted architect Tom Fazio to create Buffalo Ridge, which has been declared the No. 1 course in Missouri. Morris also coaxed Jack Nicklaus into designing a striking par-3 layout called Top of the Rock and Gary Player to create Mountain Top, a 13-hole, walking-only par-3 course with some wild elevation changes.

Other big names got involved, as well. Arnold Palmer designed a world-class practice facility and Tom Watson a putting course but now, with the opening of Ozarks National, things are getting serious.

Despite all the other unique attractions to entice golfers, the fact is that if you have one 18-holer you have just a golf course. If you have two (or more) you have a golf destination. Now Morris has two fine 18-holers around his Big Cedar Lodge – and he’ll soon have three.

Construction is well underway at Payne’s Valley, a Tiger Woods design that will open in the fall of 2019.

By the time the third, the Tiger Woods-designed Payne’s Valley, opens in the fall of 2019 the Missouri Ozarks will be – at least arguably – America’s best golf destination. It’s more centrally located than Oregon’s Bandon Dunes – my choice as the best for now – and many more golf addicts will weigh in on that topic once Payne’s Valley opens.

There’s no reason to ponder what the Woods course – under construction in clear sight of both Buffalo Ridge and Mountain Top — will eventually offer, however. Ozarks National is plenty good and deserves to be in the spotlight for at least the next year.

Designed by the well-respected architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Ozarks National will start offering preview play to the public on Nov. 1. November fees will be $150 for a preview round and $100 for a replay. The fees will drop to $125 and $85 in December and be in effect until the course is closed for the season on Dec. 16.

Ozarks National is within a short cart ride of Mountain Top and can be seen during a round at Buffalo Ridge. The fact that all these courses are close together will inevitably stir debate about which is best. A little controversy will stir up excitement, and that’ll be a good thing for the entire area. Golfing tourists will flock to the place and those who don’t play will find plenty of other things to do.

Ozarks National’s stone house may be one of the most sought-after lodging spots in the Branson area.

Now, about Ozarks National.

The views are spectacular. That’s what you’ll notice first.

As you move from hole to hole you’ll encounter a great mix of challenges. The variety offered through the rotation is extraordinary. The first two holes aren’t difficult, but they get you in the mood to move on to better things.

I love the fifth hole – a true drive-able par-4 if you play the right set of tees. They range from 161 yards up to 352. No. 9 is the toughest – and longest – hole. The No 1 handicap hole, it’s a winding three-shot par five that measures 597 yards from the tips.

No. 12 will probably go down as one of the best long par-3s in American golf. It’s 254 yards from the tips but more recreational types can go after it from 133, 175 or 213 yards. Still, a par-3 is rarely accorded status as a course’s No. 2 handicap hole but this one deserves it.

And, as soon as you putt out on that hole you come to a stunning landmark — a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge that connects the tee box an fairway on No. 13. It stands 60 feet above a flowing creek.

For those into more numbers, Ozarks Naional is 7,036 yards from the tips with 73.9 rating and a slop of 131.

Fall colors will be changing at Ozarks National before preview play concludes for the season on Dec. 16.

Though our party was all riders, Ozarks National figures to be a good walking course when the opportunity arises. The buffalo grass in the roughs is troublesome but the Zoysia fairways and bentgrass greens were more than ready for play even before the official start of preview play.

There’s also an on-course attraction worth visiting. A refurbished stone house, said to be over 100 years old, overlooks a lake that is stocked with bass between the Nos. 5 and 16 greens. It has an indoor fireplace, an outdoor fire pit and a dog house, and it’ll be a lodging option for visitors once the operation is in full swing.

One other thing to remember about the early Ozarks National experience. There’s still plenty of work to be done. Most notably, a big, upscale clubhouse is targeted to open next spring. Until then dining and pro shop facilities at the Mountain Top course will also serve Ozarks National players.

Apparently there’s no serious concerns about applying the finishing touches. Though it’s not official yet, Ozarks National is expected to be the 18-holer used for the Legends of Golf, the popular PGA Tour Champions event that returns to the area from April 22-28 in 2019. Grand Opening festivities for the course will be held during that big event and Buffalo Ridge – a previous tournament site – will be used for public play during the tournament.

Given all of Ozarks National’s special features, a round there will be hard to beat.

Hanse’s architectural touch is now in full force at Pinehurst

It’s still called Pinehurst No. 4, but architect Gil Hanse has given the course a completely new look.

PINEHURST, North Carolina – Pinehurst Resort dates back to 1895, but its leadership has never been reluctant to change with the times. The estimable contributions of course architect Gil Hanse are just the latest examples of that.

Hanse’s portfolio had already featured the Brazil course used for golf’s return to the Olympic Games as well as restorations of such notables as The Country Club in Boston, Merion in Philadelphia and Oakland Hills in Michigan when Pinehurst announced his hiring for a more expansive project in November of 2016.

Not only was Hanse to create a short course on 10 acres of the property that had been part of two of its 18-holers, he was also entrusted with a complete redesign of one of the resort’s most popular layouts. Now that job is done.

The Cradle, its nine holes spread over only 789 yards, opened in April and has already played to more than 10,000 rounds. The latest version of Pinehurst No. 4 made its debut a week ago. It’s hard to image Hanse’s No. 4 topping the popularity of The Cradle, but time will tell.

Short courses are a sign of golf’s changing times.

Part of The Cradle’s charm is its marketing approach. For $50 you can play all day, and that’s a temptation. Playing this course, with its array of elevation changes and walkability, is addictive. Unless play happens to be too slow or the weather not to your liking, it’s hard to stop playing.

Pinehurst has been described as “The Cradle of American Golf’’ and that’s how the new short course got its name. The Nos. 3 and 5 courses lost their first holes in the Hanse design. There’s also a strategically placed bar – it’s portable and not in any way resembling a halfway house – that entices players not once but twice on their tour of The Cradle and background music also rocks the atmosphere at The Cradle.

The scorecard lists holes measured from 56 to 127 yards but that’s misleading. Yardages changes each day according to the whims of the maintenance staff, and up-to-date yardages are provided on the hole markers. We played one that measured only 30 yards on our visit.

Seeing players on every hole hasn’t been unusual since The Cradle opened.

More and more resorts are adding short courses to their amenities, and that’s a good thing. They’ll get more players involved with the game, and that fact is underscored once you get a look at The Cradle.

The course was created in a busy time frame for the resort. Not only were the Nos. 3 and 5 courses and the Maniac (America’s first driving range) being altered to make room for The Cradle, but the Thistle Dhu putting course was also moved to a more attractive location in front of the clubhouse and also expanded in a short time period.

Hanse turned his attention to Pinehurst No. 4 in the fall of 2017. The legendary Donald Ross designed the original course in 1919 and some others in the sport’s architectural elite had put their stamp on those 18 holes before Hanse got a crack at it. Robert Trent Jones did a re-design in 1973, Rees Jones in 1982 and Tom Fazio in 1999. Hanse’s was a look back as much as it was a look ahead.

The same rugged, natural look at Pinehurst No. 2 is also in evidence on No. 4.

Positive feedback from the re-design of Pinehurst No. 2 by the architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2011 convinced Pinehurst leadership to give No. 4 a similar look. Hanse’s version of No.4 meant the return of exposed sand and wire-grass.

The strength of Fazio’s design was its striking bunkering. Many of those bunkers disappeared as Hanse went to a more natural look. The greens are less severe now, too.

Hanse’s version may not be as pretty as its predecessor, in large part because the azaleas behind the par-3 fourth hole are gone. That hole was moved, though the rest of the rotation remained pretty much intact. The end result is that Pinehurst now has more of the more natural, rugged look that was so well-received in the Coore-Crenshaw remake of the famed No. 2.

That’ll come into play most prominently in 2019 when Nos. 2 and 4 are used for the next playing of the U.S. Amateur. No. 4 can play as long a 7,227 yards from the tips, and it measures 5,260 from the front markers. Championship rating is 74.9 and the slope is 138.

In setting the tone for the big events that are sure to be coming the new No. 4 has different policy directives than its predecessor. As is the case with No. 2, golf carts are allowed only on designated paths. And – unlike No. 2 and all the other Pinehurst courses – push carts are being allowed on No. 4 on an experimental basis. Caddies are available to both courses.

More scenes from Pinehurst:

GOLF/TRAVEL NOTEBOOK: Carolina courses dodged big problems from this hurricane

Tidewater is among many Myrtle Beach courses to open after experiencing Hurricane Florence’s wrath

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Florence was devastating, especially in North and South Carolina, but those states’ golf courses averted serious damage for the most part.

Golf mecca Myrtle Beach, S.C., was an hour’s drive away from Wilmington, N.C., where Florence struck first. Myrtle Beach has about 100 courses in its general area. As of Wednesday 45 of them were open and that number was expected to increase to 69 by Friday.

“We are obviously excited to have golfers playing again in Myrtle Beach, and they can expect to see sunny skies and quality course conditions,’’ said Bill Golden, chief executive officer of Golf Tourism Solutions – the agency responsible for promoting the area as a destination. “The Myrtle Beach golf community was very fortunate but the impact of the storm for many of our neighbors was tragic. We wish them a complete recovery.’’

Greg Williams, of North Augusta, S.C., won the Flight Winners Playoff at the 35th Myrtle Beach World Amateur Handicap Championship.

Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Resort in South Carolina, issued a special message to golfers who might be coming his way.

“We are very fortunate that we experienced no negative effects from the storm – no infrastructure damage, no power outages, no beach erosion and no flooding,’’ said Warren.

The courses were closed for a day in compliance with an evacuation order but by Sunday the resort was in full preparation mode to welcome guests. Kiawah was fully open and operational on Wednesday.

Pinehurst, the famed resort in North Carolina, also reported good news. It had no significant damage and its hotels and courses were open and fully operational on Wednesday.

Here’s an artist’s rendering of the French Lick Springs Hotel after expansion is completed.

FRENCH LICK EXPANDS: The French Lick Resort, which hosts the Senior LPGA Championship on its Pete Dye Course in October, announced the launching of a $17 million project that will add 56 guestrooms and a new sports bar near the Event Center and French Lick Casino. The six-story guestroom addition and sports bar are slated for completion in the fall of 2019.

The additional rooms will supplement the existing 686 guestrooms at the two historic resort hotels – French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs — and bring the resort’s overall capacity to 742 rooms.

INNISBROOK RENOVATION NEARLY COMPLETE: The South Course at the Innisbrook Resort, in Palm Harbor, FL., has scheduled its re-opening festivities on Nov. 30 It’s been closed all summer to allow for the planting of TifEagle Bermuda on all of its greens. That’s the same grass that was already put on the Copperhead course – site of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in March – and the North Course. The North renovation was completed in 2017.

HERE AND THERE: Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club in Orlando, FL., has announced that it will host the King’s Cup from May 23-25, 2019. The national qualifying will be Sept. 27-29 at Walt Disney World Golf.

The two courses at the Tullymore Resort in Stanwood, Mich., are planning for a big finish to this season. The St. Ives course will hosts its fourth annual Ironman scramble tournament on Oct. 14 and the Tullymore facility will become a year-around facility later in the month. The Topgolf Swing Suite is being installed there.

The Red, White & You Charity Scramble has been scheduled for Dec. 9 at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, FL. It’ll benefit PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere). That’s the flagship military program of the PGA of America’s charitable foundation, PGA REACH.

Chuck Knebels has been named director of golf and membership at Banyan Creek, in Palm City, FL.

Big tournaments are a prelude to Eagle Ridge’s 40th anniversary celebration

The beautiful colors and the elevation changes on The General give Eagle Ridge something special.

GALENA, Illinois – Illinois’ premier golf resort turns 40 in October and the months leading into that milestone have not been easy ones on the golf end. Weather-related issues haven’t been kind to Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa.

“We’ve been getting punished, for sure,’’ said director of golf Reagan Davis. “We’ve been getting five-six inches or rainfall at a time and had nine inches last weekend. Our biggest concern is the bunkers. It’s been a little scary because they’re not designed to handle that much rain.’’

Still, Eagle Ridge has carried on and two of the biggest events of the year are coming up quickly. The Midwest Regional Classic will have 36 college teams competing this weekend before the Illinois PGA Players Championship comes to town Sept. 24-25 for the last of the Illinois Section’s four major annual competitions.

Not only have the Eagle Ridge Inn’s rooms been renovated, the view outside them is stunning as well.

Both will be on the North Course, oldest of the three 18-holers on the property. The North opened in 1977, a year before the resort’s official opening — when the Eagle Ridge Inn started accommodating visitors. The South opened in 1984, the nine-hole East layout in 1991 and The General – the showcase layout – in 1997. All were designed by the late Roger Packard, with two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North pitching in on The General.

The General is one of the best layouts in the Midwest, with – for Illinois at least – its rare blend steep elevation changes. Still, when it comes to big tournaments, they most always go to the North Course. That has always puzzled me.

“Years back it was set up too tough for one tournament and others have shied away from it ever since,’’ said Davis. “It’s tough to walk, but I don’t think it’s any harder than the North. It’s (the various tournament organizers’) choice.’’

In bypassing The General, the most serious tournament players don’t get to take on the most memorable tee shot in all of Illinois golf. No. 14, a downhill par-4, has a 180-foot elevation change from the tee box to the fairway. It’s an awesome view, as parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa can be seen from the tee markers.

Anyway, this week’s collegiate event will raise money for local youth golf programs – the latest in the Touchstone Golf Foundation’s community outreach efforts. Four area high schools plus Loras College in nearby Dubuque, Iowa, use Eagle Ridge as their home base.

The Illinois PGA Players Championship, scheduled a week earlier this year than in previous years, will feature about 100 club professionals finishing up their bids for Player of the Year points. That event annually produces plenty of drama.

Indeed the resort’s 40th anniversary is a well-deserved cause to celebrate. The resort underwent a change in ownership and management in 2013. Davis and Colin Sanderson, the director of sales and marketing, arrived then and, in the last five years, that new leadership has accomplished a lot.

This year an extensive three-year project to renovate all 60 guest rooms in the courtyard area of the Eagle Ridge Inn was completed while the golf upgrading continued.

“The courses continue to get better every year, and we want to get them back to their original playing condition,’’ said Sanderson. And that’s not all.

New golf carts as well as a golf simulator were also added resort’s amenities this year.

The striking clubhouse at The General course has become an Eagle Ridge landmark.

Mammoth Dunes opening has taken Sand Valley to a new, most fun level

No doubt Sand Valley is aptly named. It was built on sand dunes that were up to 80 feet tall.

NEKOOSA, Wisconsin – I accept the premise that if you have one 18-holer you have a golf course, but if you have two – or more – you have a golf destination.

Well, Sand Valley is definitely a golf destination now. This Mike Keiser-developed facility in Central Wisconsin opened its first course on May 2, 2017. Designed by the widely respected architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, that course was called simply Sand Valley. It was well received, of course.

Keiser, though, always planned to have more than one course here. So, preview play was permitted at the second course, Mammoth Dunes, late in the 2017 season and the David McLay Kidd design opened officially this year. So did The Sand Box, a 17-hole par-3 course that was already the site of Sand Valley’s first significant competition. The Wisconsin State Par-3 Championship was held there in July. The Sand Box is also a Coore-Crenshaw design with Jimmy Craig also on the credit line.

Mammoth Dunes, though, is the course which took Sand Valley to destination status, like Keiser’s other American project Bandon Dunes in Oregon. The courses at both resorts are walking-only, though carts are available for those with medical issues.

Lots of Amerian golf destinations offer a variety of courses, and we’ve been blessed to experience many of them. Bandon, with its four courses and a 13-hole par-3 layout, is clearly the best golf resort in America from this perspective. Sand Valley is still in its fledgling stage and might get there eventually.

For now, though, this focus is on Mammoth Dunes which — I’m comfortable in declaring — the most fun golf course I’ve ever played. And that’s saying a lot. There are a lot of fun courses out there.

More than anything golf is supposed to be fun. Mammoth Dunes is that – and it would be even when your golf ball isn’t always going in the “right’’ direction.

David McLay Kidd is a Scottish architect who designed the first course at Bandon Dunes 20 years ago. At Mammoth the fairways are wide and the greens are huge. No. 18 at Mammoth has the largest putting surface on the property – nearly a half-acre. Though water barely comes into play on any of the 36 holes, the fairways and greens on both courses are filled with bumps and mounds and impacted by bunkers and hazards that stimulate your thinking. You don’t lose many golf balls, though.

This is the swing that did it. I proved that Mammoth Dunes’ No. 14 is indeed a drivable par-4.

The course has a bonafide drivable par-4 hole. Many “drivable par-4s’’ don’t deserve that description. They’re that for only the select long-ball hitters, but I know Mammoth Dunes’ No. 14 fits the bill. I drove the green from the white tee, 261 yards with a strong helping wind and a downhill path to the putting surface. It’d been over 20 years since I’d driven a par-4, so it was quite a thrill even though a three-putt followed.

But I digress. This hole has an interesting history and Kidd doesn’t get all the credit for it. Brian Silvernail gets partial credit. A Florida resident, he won Golf Digest’s Armchair Architect contest in 2016 and Kidd incorporated his design of this hole into the Mammoth Dunes rotation.

Luke Jackson, a local caddie, knew all the nuances of Sand Valley’s courses.
One thing that’s a must when you play Mammoth Dunes – at least for the first time – is a good caddie and, in local guy Luke Jackson, we had the best. A bag-toter is desirable for more than just making the seven-mile hike less of a physical challenge. A lot of shots aren’t what they might first appear at Mammoth Dunes. Go with your gut and you’re sure to get burned. Take an experienced caddie and you’ll do much better. Either way, though, you’ll enjoy the Mammoth experience.

It was impressive to see how far Sand Valley has come in the three years since we hiked the sandy hills with Michael Keiser Jr, Mike’s son, prior to the resort’s opening. The first course, Sand Valley, is more challenging than Mammoth Dunes.

Mammoth – at 6,988 yards from the tips — is an insignificant 50 yards longer, but both are par-73 layouts. The fifth hole on Sand Valley was built at the highest point on the property. It’s not the toughest short hole on the property, though. That label easily goes to Sand Valley’s 17th, which presents an uphill blind tee shot to a green 236 yards away from the back tee.

Sand Valley’s two courses are all about elevation changes, and they can confound golfers.

None of the 10 par-5s on the property play as long as Sand Valley’s fourth – 593 yards from the tips. For those into numerical comparisons Sand Valley tops off at a 73.2 rating with a 134 slope. For Mammoth it’s 72.4 and 132.

The rap on Sand Valley is the shortage of lodging. Wisconsin, as a state, isn’t long on chain hotels, either. More lodging is being built in and around Sand Valley to fill the need and the town of Wisconsin Rapids, a 20-minute drive away, has a variety of options. We used Hotel Mead there and the dining options are more numerous there as well.

Wisconsin is known for its supper clubs and fish fries, and we found the Branding Iron in Wisconsin Rapids provides a great flavor of the area. The resort has an upscale dining room and more informal pub and non-golfing locals like to hang out around Sand Valley’s snack bar to watch the golfers tee off and finish their rounds. That fun setting complements the players’ enjoyment on the course.

Now, I don’t put much stock in the course ratings published annually by the various golf publications. In this case, though, it’s worth mentioning that Sand Valley was Golf Digest’s Best New Course of 2017 and Golf Magazine labeled it Best New Course You Can Play.

That’s lofty praise, and Mammoth Dunes should be a lock for the same honors in 2018.

The life and times at Sand Valley Resort are happy ones, and filled with great views.

Sage Run’s drumlin will make a big impact on Michigan golf

The bridge to Sweetgrass’ island green is just one nice feature devised by architect Paul Albanese.

BARK RIVER/HARRIS, Michigan – Very few new golf courses are opening these days. That’s just a reflection of these economic times. One did in July in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, however.

The Paul Albanese-designed Sage Run is brand new. It’s no renovation built over an existing course. This one was created on previously untouched land as part of an $8 million renovation of the Island Resort & Casino, which is eight miles away and already had a quality layout – Sweetgrass – on its property.

Sage Run is no Sweetgrass, which was also designed by Albanese. It opened in 2008 and has blossomed into one of the very best courses in golf-rich Michigan. Sweetgrass, obviously more mature, is better now and Sage Run is different – not worse, just different. That’s the way Albanese wanted it.

“We didn’t want to force that,’’ Albanese said of the inevitable comparison of the courses. “They’re completely different properties. It’s like red wine and white wine – two different styles.’’

This is what a drumlin looks like. Sage Run’s big ridge is clearly a factor on the par-3 fifth hole.

Sweetgrass already has more than its share of aficionados – I’m certainly one of them – but golfers will be talking about Sage Run as soon as they play it for the first time.

Albanese brought a new buzz word to golf architecture – drumlins – when he unveiled Sage Run to a bunch of golf media people who were virtually unanimous in never having heard the term.

“It’s by no means unknown in the golf architecture world,’’ said Albanese. “A drumlin is a geological formation created by glaciers. A large ridge is a drumlin.’’

Albanese used a very large ridge when he designed Sage Run. It runs through the center of the 300-acre property and the holes go around, over and through it.

Getting around Sage Run is no walk in the park. The course has a rough, rugged look throughout.

Though golf architects may know the term Albanese has used a drumlin on only one of his previous courses – Mill Creek in Upstate New York.

“Drumlins aren’t everywhere. There aren’t a lot in the South but, they’re a great land form for golf,’’ said Albanese. “It gives you elevation change, and drumlins are usually above flatter land. They look like an upside down spoon, and they add a lot of character.’’

Leaders of the Potawatomi tribe gave Albanese thousands of acres on a typographical map to find a place to build a golf course, and he decided on this one.

Sweetgrass didn’t have drumlins. Neither did Tatanka, an Albanese creation in very rural Nebraska that was named Best New Resort Course by Golf Magazine in 2015.

The bridge leading to Sweetgrass’ island green runs right to the putting surface.

Albanese is believed to be the only Harvard educated golf course architect. A resident of Plymouth, Mich., he is partnered with Chris Lutzke, a former Pete Dye associate, in Albanese & Lutzke Golf Design. Though he is currently working on a course in Vietnam, Albanese has worked extensively with Indian tribes in the past.

Sweetgrass, Tatanka and now Sage Run were all projects done in conjunction with tribes and are part of casino facilities.

“Tribe leadership has wanted to utilize their people in building these courses,’’ said Albanese. “They want them to have a stake in building the golf course and take pride in it. It’s been amazingly successful.’’

Sweetgrass is in a class of its own, but there are similarities between Tatanka and Sage Run.

“Both have a more rough and rugged flavor. That came through at both courses,’’ said Albanese. “Conceptually we used the natural ruggedness of the terrain.’’

The clean look of this bunker at Sweetgrass’ No. 8 hole is in sharp contrast to the bunkers at Sage Run.

Low-Mow bluegrass was used for everything except the greens at Sage Run. The putting surfaces are bentgrass, but the tees are more noteworthy. Their concept is in keeping with the unusual focus on the big drumlin.

“We created teeing areas, not tee boxes,’’ said Albanese. “Tees are shaped to be flat, but we wanted to shape these like we shape greens. The tee areas have the same flavor of a green complex.’’

Sage Run plays 7,375 yards from the tips, while Sweetgrass’ maximum yardage is 7,275. Sage Run is also longer from the front tees – 5,231 yards compared to 5,075. Raters have visited Sage Run but not yet revealed its rating or slope numbers.

While Sage Run is the latest new thing in golf course design, Sweetgrass is every bit as memorable. A particularly interesting touch design-wise is the use of a bridge to the island green at No. 15. The bridge runs right up to the putting surface.

Sweetgrass has names for its holes – God’s Kettle (No. 2), Michigami (No. 4), The Serpent of the Flood (No. 5) and Trailing Arbutus (No. 9) are my favorites. They all point out the history of the area. Sweetgrass was the first plant to grow on mother earth and the Potawatami used it in making its medicines. Sweetgrass can also be found in the low-lying areas surrounding the course.

According to tribal lore, the other traditional Potawami medicines were cedar, tobacco and sage. The latter led to the naming of the new course as Sage Run.

Sweetgrass also has the replica of some fierce-looking eagles protecting the green at No. 13 and a wolf replica that blows in the wind is a feature on the No. 18 fairway to scare off unwanted intruders. Waterfalls are in view leading up to the double green that serves Nos. 9 and 18 with the casino and its hotel serving as a backdrop.

All in all, Sweetgrass and Sage Run both make for most interesting golf adventures.

The eagles, the wolf and the waterfalls are all part of the Sweetgrass experience.

Great golf and beer — this area of Michigan is a mecca for both

A bridge is needed to get golfers over the Orchestra Pit on the striking 17th hole at Ravines.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan – This is hardly breaking news. Michigan has been a golfing hotspot for, well – almost forever.

Michigan has over 850 public courses, more than any other state in the nation, and golf generates more than $4 billion to the state’s economy. You can pick virtually any section of Michigan for a visit and be assured the golf will be more than just fine.

That’s what happened when we ventured to Grand Rapids which – for us – was an untested section of the state. We found, to no one’s surprise, that the golf was great – four excellent courses in four days and more readily available had we opted for a longer stay.

The Grand Rapids area, we soon learned, has another good thing going. This city with a population just under 200,000 has over 80 breweries in the immediate area. It has earned its designation of Beer City, USA.

We were there for the golf, of course, but daily late afternoon visits to different breweries — climaxed by a guided tour of Founders, the biggest one – made this golf destination stand out from any of the others.

Grand Rapids offers much more than just golf and beer. The high-rises in its skyline are proof of that.

An Englishman opened the first brewery in Grand Rapids in 1836, and the Grand Rapids Brewing Company – the oldest of those still in existence – dates back to 1893. The golf courses aren’t nearly so well-seasoned but they have their charm, too.

Best of the ones we played was Pilgrim’s Run, located in the outlying town of Pierson. It has an interesting history. The Chicago-based Van Kampen family bought the course and had family members and friends design the holes. That was a start before Mike DeVries, a well-respected architect from Traverse City, Mich., stepped in.

DeVries attended Lake Forest College in the Chicago area before entering the golf world. He worked with designers Tom Doak and Tom Fazio before tackling Pilgrim’s Run. Then, teaming up with superintendent Kris Schumacker, DeVries routed the course and constructed in the greens. Since its opening as an 18-holer in 1998 Pilgrim’s Run has been one of Michigan’s most popular public courses.

Pilgrim’s Run stands out because of all its special touches.

Most notable from our standpoint was the short par-4 18th – one of the best finishing holes we’ve encountered. A great risk-reward hole with water protecting the green, No. 18 can play anywhere from 221 to 358 yards. It’s a thought-provoking, fun way to finish a round on a course that can play as long as 7,093 yards.

DeVries’ design credits also include The Mines, Greywalls and the Kingsley Club in Michigan and – well-received most recently – Cape Wickham in Australia. The Mines was also on our Grand Rapids itinerary, and there’s a lot to say for that layout as well – though I’m not a big fan of the many blind shots involved in playing it.

Sweeping elevation changes and undulating greens are major characteristics of The Mines and location-wise the course is near the downtown area. That can be a plus since you’ll be close to plenty of lodging, restaurants and – of course – the breweries.

The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe is bordered by a river with an airport also nearby.

The Mines was built about 150 feet above gypsum mines that had been utilized as early as the 1860s and throughout the 1900s. Some features of the mines were incorporated into the construction of the course. The No. 8 hole is located where a natural sand pit was used for the mining operation. Directional signs were also made with wooden timbers from the mining process.

Another unusual feature of The Mines was that it has back-to-back par-3 holes at Nos. 7 and 8. The course is a par-70 with two tough par-5s, the longest being the 607-yard fifth.

This statue honors Arnold Palmer’s design work at the Ravines course.

The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe isn’t bad, either, and clearly the locals like it. The course was a busy place during our visit. This is a Bill Newcomb design that opened in 1997. It’s located along the Thornapple River on Interstate 96 near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Newcomb’s stature in Michigan golf course architecture started earlier than DeVries.’ Newcomb, who attended the University of Michigan, was a nationally-ranked amateur golfer with wins in both the Michigan Amateur and Indiana Open and a competitive appearance in the Masters. Like all the courses we played on our Grand Rapids visit, The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe had great views, interesting holes and striking views.

A quirk in the planned schedule turned out much to our advantage, as we had the opportunity to also visit a course about 30 miles beyond the Grand Rapids boundaries – the Arnold Palmer-designed Ravines in Saugatuck.

Ravines was another good layout, as would be expected. It has only three sets of tees but lots of forced carries. The most eye-catching features are the tall pines that dramatize the longest hole – the 626-yard 14th – and the Orchestra Pit at the par-3 17th. There’s a deep dropoff in front of the green, which accentuates the putting surface as a stage.

Playing those four courses may give you a thirst to try some more of the area layouts, but in Grand Rapids it might be a better idea to check beer drinkers’ hot spots like the The Knickerbocker, for its pinwheel appetizers, or City Built Brewing Company, for both its unique beers and Puerto Rico-inspired food menu, or the Creston Brewery, where its beer flights are served osn vinyl phonograph disc records. The brewerys were not cookie-cutters; all had their own unique atmospheres.

If you’re having trouble picking out a post-round recovery spot you can hop on the Grand Rapids Beer Trolley Tour. It’ll take you to a variety of locations for good dining and sipping. Then again, picking from all those available options might not simplify matters either.

The colorful Grand Rapids beer scene has created a cheerful, fun atmosphere.

TRAVEL NOTEBOOK: More from the Missouri Ozarks; Changes on Indiana’s Dye Trail

Old Kinderhook’s ninth hole offers a full-length view from the facility’s lodge.

The Ozarks is an unusual region of the country. Broadly defined, this beautiful area encompasses parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Golf-wise its central point is Missouri’s Branson area and Johnny Morris’ array of exciting projects there. Top of the Rock and Mountain Top are Morris courses completed in recent years. Ozarks National, a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design, is set to open on Sept. 1 and Tiger Woods’ Payne’s Valley is targeted for 2019. That’s going to become America’s greatest golf destination eventually.

There’s another part of the Ozarks – a segment that still in Missouri – that shouldn’t be missed either, however.

A 100-mile drive north of Branson is the long-respected Lake of the Ozarks Golf Trail, an area with a conglomeration of 13 courses that are plenty good, too.

Heading that list is Old Kinderhook, a Tom Weiskopf design in Camdenton. You can be assured the ideal combination of good golf and good lodging when you visit this place. This year the 700-acre facility has a new professional in Shane Blankenship. Formerly at Sullivan Country Club in the central part of Missouri, Blankenship is well decorated as both a teacher and player and is directing the Old Kinderhook golf school while Jason Woods is the head professional at Old Kinderhook.

With its attractive elevation changes, the Old Kinderhook course is a tester, and its conditioning was excellent on our visit. The Lodge at Old Kinderhook has on-site restaurants, marina, spa, swimming pools, fitness center and even a volleyball facility. In short, other activities are available besides just golf at that location.

Golf isn’t the only nice viewing at Old Kinderhook. Volleyball works, too.

Stay & Play packages include other facilities as well. Osage National, in Lake Ozark, is an Arnold Palmer design and his original renderings of all 18 holes are on display in the recently updated Eagle Bar and Grill.

Blankenship isn’t the only new pro on this trail. Jamie Martin moved to Bear Creek Valley in Osage Beach.

Troon Golf has taken over the management at The Lodge of the Four Seasons’s Ridge and Cover courses in Lake Ozark. The Tan-Tar-A Resort is in the process of transitioning to a Margaritaville Resort property, with the grand opening scheduled for 2019.

The Pete Dye Golf Course at French Lick remains the highlight of Indiana’s re-launched Dye Trail.

CHANGES ON PETE DYE TRAIL: Indiana’s collection of Pete Dye-designed courses has been re-launched, with the Indiana Office of Tourism Development taking over the managing and marketing.

The Trail has one new addition, the Ackerman-Allen Course on the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette. Plum Creek, one of the original members located in Carmel, is under new management and — while still open for play — is no longer part of the Dye Trail.

Ackerman-Allen is part of the Birck-Boilermaker Golf Complex that is the home for Purdue’s teams. One course at the Complex, the links-style Kampen, was included in the original Dye Trail.

The other, known as the South Course and later Ackerman Hills, was designed by the Bill Diddel. He was a prolific Indiana-based architect who had 160 courses on his resume, including 52 in his home state. Diddel, who died in 1985 at age 100, was as much of a Hoosier legend as Dye — but not just for his architectural efforts. He was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and also won the Indiana Amateur golf title five times.

Diddel’s design earned a significant place in golf history in 1961 when Jack Nicklaus won his only NCAA individual title there. Purdue was also the NCAA team champion that year, creating a moment of athletic glory for the host school. While there was some reluctance to tearing down a course with so much history, the replacement quickly won over the players.

Backed financially by Sam Allen, a former Purdue golfer who became the chief executive officer of John Deere Company, the Dye renovation was named the Ackerman-Allen Course.

“The old course was pretty nice,’’ said Dan Ross, the head professional, “but not to the level that things are now. There are five sets of tees instead of three, so more people can enjoy it. It’s such an enjoyable, fun layout. Pete did a phenomenal job.’’

Dye changed all the green complexes and much of the routing while switching the course from bluegrass to bentgrass. He also built two new holes, a par-4 and par-5 at Nos. 15 and 16. The new course opened in the summer of 2016 and both courses were used for last year’s Indiana Open.

Could there possibly any more stunning views than those offered at French Lick Resort’s Dye Course?

NEW LEADER AT BAY HILL: Don Emery is now the president and general manager at Arnold Palmer’s By Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla.

Emery had been at California’s famed Riviera Country Country Club the previous six years as general manager. Before that he was GM at Interlachen in Winter Park, Fla.

During his stint at Riviera that club hosted top-flight events in both golf and tennis. It was the site of the 2017 U.S. Amateur and the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust and Genesis Open in golf as well as the annual International Tennis Association Women ‘s All-American Championship.

MORE HONORS FOR NEMACOLIN: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, in Farmington, Pa., continues to dominate Golfweek Magazine’s Best Courses You Can Play list.

Nemacolin’s Mystic Rock layout was named Pennsylvania’s best public course the last four years and it’s also No. 45 in the publication’s Best Resort Courses in the U.S.
Shepherd’s Rock, like Mystic a Pete Dye design, opened last July and made its debut on the rankings list at No. 5 among the Best Courses You Can Play in Pennsylvania.

TAGMARSHALL AT PINEHURST: Tagmarshall, a sophisticated pace of play system, is now operational at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort. It’s a course intelligence system that uses small tags attached to golf bags or installed on carts to transmit location data. Its supporters contend that Tagmarshall turns pace of play into an asset with reductions of 15 to 17 minutes per round reported at some courses.

Other facilities using Tagmarshall include the Ocean Course at Kiawah in South Carolina, Whistling Straits and Erin Hills in Wisconsin, East Lake in Atlanta and Valhalla in Louisville.

Pinehurst Resort is always at the cutting edge in providing for its golfers.

The world’s next great golf destination will be….the Missouri Ozarks?

Work progresses at Tiger Woods’ Payne’s Valley course while golfers play at Buffalo Ridge Springs.

HOLLISTER, Missouri – Where do you start in describing all the big new things Johnny Morris has in the works for golfers in the Missouri Ozarks?

For starters, how about a prediction?

This area in the Ozark mountains near the entertainment hub of Branson will – in the not very distant future – become the America’s next great golf destination. That’s what Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, wants and there’s no reason he can’t achieve this the latest of his ambitious goals.

Pebble Beach in California, Doral in Florida, Pinehurst in North Carolina, Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Kohler in Wisconsin all could justifiably claim to be America’s best now. They’re all special in their own way. But keep your eye on the Missouri Ozarks. That’s where the action is now, and by as soon as 2020 – when the Tiger Woods-designed Payne’s Valley course is up and running at full steam — the established hotspots will have a most worthy challenger.

Reports of what is going on in the Missouri Ozarks have been coming out piecemeal, so the full impact of the projects that are underway hasn’t been felt yet. But it will be — and soon.

Here’s what’s happened in just the last few years:

Top of the Rock, a spectacular nine-hole par-3 course designed by Jack Nicklaus overlooking Table Rock Lake, opened at the PGA Tour Champions’ Legends of Golf event in June of 2014. Along with it came the unveiling of Buffalo Ridge Springs, a redesign effort on an 18-holer known as Branson Creek by both original architect Tom Fazio and Morris himself. The revamped layout includes bison, who roam on its outskirts.

Bison don’t affect play but they’re definitely in view off Buffalo Ridge Springs’ No. 1 fairway.

On Aug. 31, 2017, the Gary Player-designed Mountain Top course opened. It has 13 holes, all of them par-3s. The holes at Top of the Rock and Mountain Top were immediately judged good enough to be used for a tournament on the world’s top senior circuit. No par-3 course had ever received such and endorsement, so that was saying a lot.

Morris, who made his mark catering to the needs of hunters and fishermen, moved into the golf world in a most unusual manner. He built alternative courses first. Where else can you find a par-3 layout like the one Nicklaus created, or a course with an odd 13-hole rotation like the one Player designed to fit into space limitations?

Those two courses are close together, but different. Top of the Rock has forced carries and is for riding golfers only. Mountain Top, which is walking only, has no forced carries and is more family-friendly.

A round at Mountain Top involves walking over long bridges to get from hole to hole.

Steve Friedlander, completing his first year as vice president of golf for Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge — a most upscale wildness resort, can appreciate the value of alternative courses. In his 43 years in the golf business Friedlander held similar leadership positions at Doral; Kohler; Ventana Canyon in Tucson, Ariz.; Grand Traverse in Michigan; and Pelican Hills, in California. Those places had multiple quality courses and Pelican had the best practice facility in California.

“But they didn’t have alternative courses. Here we have alternatives for everything,’’ said Friedlander. “We have courses for people with a time crunch who may not want to challenge themselves on an 18-hole course. For them, nine-hole courses can be more fun. Golf is a lot about just getting people out in nature, and Mountain Top is a great walk, yet both our par-3 courses can also challenge the best players in the world. Plus, you can’t beat the scenery.’’

No question about that. The golf in Morris’ part of the Missouri Ozarks is one big photo op. You can easily see for 15 miles from most spots on the courses. He began buying up property near where he grew up — and still lives – in 1987, and he’s done wonders with it.

This is Ozark National’s par-5 first hole, notable for its buffalo grass and beige bunkers.

Just look what’s coming next:

Sept. 1 is the target opening date for Ozarks National, an 18-holer being put together by the well-respected architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. They’ve built the holes on ridge-tops. Tufted, off-green buffalo grass defines many of the non-playing areas, and the bunkers are the only ones on the Morris courses that aren’t of the sparkling white variety. That makes for a course that will look different from the others here.

Stone House is a halfway house, and also a replica of a home that existed 130 years ago.

Another feature setting Ozarks National apart is Stone House, the replica of a 130-year old home that had once been on the property. Overlooking an irrigation lake, it’ll serve as a halfway house that can service players coming to or from four different holes.

Ozarks National will also have a 15-acre practice facility and a caddie program is in the planning stages. Though cart paths are in place, it won’t be a difficult walking course.

The same can be said for Payne’s Valley, the course that Woods’ design team has been putting together on land below the Mountain Top clubhouse and course that once housed Murder Rock – a course designed by John Daly.

Payne Stewart, who grew up in nearby Springfield, Mo., went on to win two U.S. Opens and one PGA Championship before his death in a 1999 plane crash four months after his second Open victory. So that there is no confusion, Stewart once had a course that had been named in his honor in the area, but it underwent an ownership change and is now called Branson Hills.

Woods is planning a course with very wide fairways that will also be very walkable. It could open sometime in 2019, and it’ll have something none of the others have – a 19th hole. The extra hole will be a 202-yard par-3 from the tips with “Johnny Morris’ The Rock’’ as its backdrop. It’s a 250-foot rock wall and, after players finish with it, they’ll get a cart ride through a cave back to the clubhouse.

“By then we’ll have two more courses capable of holding any kind of championship,’’ said Friedlander. “People will want to come here from all over the world.’’

This premier wilderness resort is a most welcoming place.

An oddity in this most positive scenario is that Buffalo Ridge Springs – widely acknowledged as the best public course in Missouri – will no longer be needed for high-profile tournament play. It’s a spectacular layout with bison roaming its outskirts. The drawback is that Buffalo Ridge Springs would be a difficult walking course, and all of the biggest tournaments are walking only.

Along with the completion of Ozarks National and Payne’s Valley comes the finishing up of the Tom Watson Putting Course beside the Mountain Top clubhouse. Watson had designed a similar putting surface, called the Himalaya, at Top of the Rock. The attraction didn’t last long there. It was destroyed when a sinkhole developed shortly before the first Legends of Golf event was played there.

Morris didn’t view the sinkhole as a tragedy. In fact, he made it an attraction that is being called the Cathedral of Nature. More than 200 yards of additional dirt was removed, as Morris searched for a suspected cave on the property. It’ll eventually be another nature-oriented attraction for visitors and the Top of the Rock Lodge will be built nearby.

It was a tragedy when a sinkhole appeared near the Top of the Rock course just before the Legends of Golf tournament. Now it’s a much photographed attraction called the Cathedral of Nature.

One more thing: the other major American golf destinations don’t have the side attractions that Morris has provided around his courses. The Branson area is about more than its array of shows and other entertainment attractions. Morris, always the passionate naturalist, has built the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum at Top of the Rock and then Dogwood Canyon Nature Park a few miles away.

They provide a diversion from golf, if one is needed, but Wonders of Wildlife is the most impressive of Morris’ efforts to promote the beauty of nature. It opened a year ago at the Bass Pro Shops national headquarters in Springfield, barely an hour’s drive from the golf mecca.

A final look at scenes that sum up the unique flavor of the Big Cedar area. (Photos by Joy Sarver)

Louisiana’s Audubon Golf Trail is a winner for more than just golfers

Lots of states have golf trails, and some of them have received more recognition than Louisiana’s Audubon Trail. That’s unfortunate, because the Audubon offers much more than the others if your golf trips take into account non-golf attractions.

Make no mistake, the 15 courses on the Audubon Golf Trail are good. The trail was named for naturalist/artist John James Audubon, who painted many of his bird studies in Louisiana, and many of the courses on the trail are members of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. They undergo rigorous screening to become members.

We covered six of the courses in as many days in 90-degree early-summer heat. They all kept our attention throughout, and each had its unique features.

Best of the lot – but not by much – was Gray Plantation in Lake Charles – the state’s golf hotbed.

Rocky Roquemore, a Georgia-based architect, became prominent in the Chicago area in 1986 when one of hls designs, Pine Meadow in suburban Mundelein, was named America’s Best New Course by Golf Digest. He also did some work on Cog Hill’s famed Dubsdread course in Lemont, Ill., so I had some familiarity with his architectural style.

The bunkering on the par-3 eighth is Gray Plantation’s most memorable hole.

I got another taste of just how good an architect Roquemore was while playing Gray Plantation. It’s a player-friendly layout with its wide fairways, but it has a great mix of holes. Most notable are a double dogleg par-5 at No. 7 and the par-3 at No. 8 with its stunning bunker complex.

Gray Plantation is one of those “semi-private’’ facilities. It has memberships but also accepts public play. An indoor Golf Academy is also being developed. Though there was some debate among my most knowledgeable traveling companions, from my perspective it was the most enjoyable of the Audubon Trail courses.

Understandably the low handicappers might prefer TPC Louisiana, annual site of the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans. It’s a Pete Dye design, and you can never go wrong choosing a Pete Dye course. On our visit the tournament scaffolding was still in evidence, though any comparison between our play and that of the PGA Tour guys was purely coincidental.

The Atchafalaya at Idlewild spotlighted the habitat that lives on the course with its tee markers.

The Atchafalaya at Idlewild, in Patterson, is a fun track designed by Robert von Hagge. It has five lakes and some dramatic elevation changes but its most unique touches are the tee markers – they’re not color-coded, but rather are named after the habitat in the area. The tees, from front to back, are Otter, Owl, Eagle, Bear and Alligator. I hit from the Owls, a wise move on my part.

The 150-yard markers were also unusual. Rather than using the standard stakes, these were marked by Cypress knees. The camouflage-painted golf carts also gave the course a refreshing look.

The Loyola University chapel overlooks the Audubon Park course.

The Wetlands, in Lafayette, is a tricky layout devised by Frank Burandt, who had formerly been with Nicklaus Design. He made use of the many lakes and – obviously as per the name – wetlands areas. Water comes into play on 11 holes and the greens are well-bunkered.

First course on our agenda, The Golf Course at Audubon Park, was planned as a warmup round. It’s the oldest golf course in Louisiana, dating back to 1898 when it had only six holes. Audubon Park underwent a major transformation when Georgia-based architect Dennis Griffiths created the present layout in 2001.

The length – only 4,220 yards from the tips – may give the impression that Audubon Park is not “real’’ golf. Each nine has one par-5, two par-4s and six par-3s, all situated in a park that includes a zoo and has a walking/biking trail within the borders of the course. You also get a nice view of the Loyola University chapel. Personnel from that school as well as those from nearby Tulane University utilize the facilities, which include a plantation-style clubhouse with good dining options and an outdoor venue for social events like weddings and birthday parties. In short, Audubon Park is a most fun place for more than just golfers.

TPC Louisiana is big on alligators. Some of the live ones were even televised during the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

While The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, in St. Francisville, was shaking off some issues related to flooding, the Arnold Palmer designed course had some excellent holes – especially the 17th, a downhill par-3, and the uphill 18th. James Audubon once studied and illustrated the bird life on what is now holes 11 through 13, and 32 of his paintings were made when he resided in the area.

Other courses at the Trail are Black Bear, the Louisiana State Park’s only course in Delhi; the 27-hole Olde Oaks near Shreveport; Cypress Bend Resort in Many; Tamahka Trails at Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville; OakWing, in Alexandria; Carter Plantation, designed by Louisiana native and one-time PGA Championship winner David Toms, in Springfield; and three Baton Rouge area courses — the Robert Trent Jones-designed Santa Maria, links-style Copper Miller and The Island, carved out of a sugar plantation in Plaquemine.

Unlike most of the other golf trails we’ve visited, the Audubon has signage on both the nearby major highways as well as the course entrances. The courses aren’t difficult to find.

George Rodrigue became a popular artist when he put blue dogs with haunting eyes in his paintings.

There are other quality layouts off the trail, most notably Contraband Bayou and neighboring Golden Nugget, both by the L’Auberge Casino Resort, and The National Golf Club of Louisiana. They’re all in the Lake Charles area.

Just as New Orleans is more than just Mardi Gras, Louisiana is more than just golf. But, the golf is good, affordable and – perhaps best of all – accessible to far more attractions than most of the nation’s other golf trails.

While in New Orleans we hung out for a while at the French Quarter where we dined at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau and enjoyed the night life of the Bourbon O Bar at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel.

The historical offerings were outstanding in upscale St. Francisville, particularly a church cemetery that had gravesites dating back to the mid-1800s. We also were backgrounded on the once brutal but now reincarnated Angola Prison.

No. 17 at The Bluffs, an Arnold Palmer design, has a stunning, and most challenging, par-3 at No. 17.

We petted baby alligators while getting a tour of the Bayou Rum distillery in Lacassine. We enjoyed a terrific Cajun style dinner at the Jack Daniels Bar & Grill at L’Auberge Casino’s Jack Daniels Bar & Grill where super chef Lyle Broussard gave us a backgrounder on each offering.

We learned how Tabasco has been made on Avery Island for the last 150 years and we had both a French-style breakfast and spirited musical pre-dinner entertainment at Mouton Plantation Bed and Breakfast in Lafayette. We also enjoyed a scenic boat cruise and another great meal on board at Lake End Park in Morgan City. Obviously there’s plenty to enjoy in Louisiana besides the golf.

No. 17 may be the easiest hole at The Wetlands, but it is also the prettiest.

What intrigued us the most was the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette. It’s famous for more than its cuisine. The food is served amidst a collection of artworks by artist George Rodrigue, who became famous after he started including blue dogs with haunting eyes in his creations. This side trip was made even more memorable when we met Jacques Rodrigue, son of the famed artist who passed away in 2013. Jacques gave us an inside look at the work his father had done.

Lafayette was declared “America’s Happiest City’’ by the Wall Street Journal and you get a hint why as soon as you see the city’s welcome sign. The “Y’’ in Lafayette is missing – and for a good reason. The missing letter creates a great photo opp. Stand in the spot of the missing letter in the “Welcome to Lafayette’’ declaration, which is near a fountain in the middle of town, with your arms upraised. That’s where you realize that the “Y’’ stands for “You.’’

You can’t help but smile after learning that tidbit. Indeed, Lafayette might be America’s Happiest City, but everyone we encountered in Louisiana seemed happy with their surroundings, too.

Appreciating the “Welcome to Lafayette” marker requires personal participation.

The plantation-style clubhouse at Audubon Park is the center for all kinds of activities every day.