Tapping into Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan – This is no secret. Michigan has been a golf hot spot for, well – almost forever. The state has over 850 public courses, more than any other state in the nation.

Grand Rapids is part of the state’s golf mix. The city in the western part of the state has a population of just under 200,000. It has its share of golf courses well worth playing, but there’s much more in Grand Rapids.

Beer, for instance.

There are about 40 breweries in the immediate area of Grand Rapids and over 80 show up on the well-mapped Beer City Ale Trail. That’s why Grand Rapids has earned the designation of Beer City USA in a nation-wide poll and USA Today’s readers have also honored Grand Rapids as Best Beer Town as well as for having the Best Beer Scene.

You could go there for the golf and stay or the beer – or vice versa. Either way you’d come out all right.

Let’s hold off for a while on the golf part. After all, October is the month for Octoberfests. Most every community in and around Grand Rapids honors that tradition in one way or another. Golf can wait.

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.

Brewery Vivant has the most interesting location. It’s housed in a refurbished funeral home.

Founders is the most prominent brewery in Grand Rapids now. It puts on a most informative in-house tour for those interested in more than just how a beer tastes, and Founders for the last six years has run ArtPrize – an art competition that results in the winners getting their designs on the beer cans that Founders produces.

Golf packages play in important promotional role for golf communities and resorts. Well, some of the hotels in Grand Rapids have a takeoff on that. They offer Beer Tour packages. Pub crawls are regular attractions and beer trolleys run most every day. That’s a good thing for those who opt to sample more than than they should.

Beer-drinkers’ hot spots are numerous and varied, but two of the best are The Knickerbocker, known for its pinwheel appetizers as well as its beer offerings, and City Built Brewing Company, which has a unique selection of beers to go with its Puerto Rico-inspired food menu.

As for the golf, the courses aren’t nearly as well-seasoned as the breweries, but they have their charm, too.

One of the best is Pilgrim’s Run, located in the outlying town of Pierson. It has an interesting history. The Chicago-based Van Kampen family bought land for 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 worked with more nationally-known designers Tom Doak and Tom Fazio before tackling Pilgrim’s Run. Teaming 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.

Most notable hole is the short par-4 18th – one of the best finishing holes in the state. 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. The Mines is also in the Grand Rapids area with a history worth noting. Sweeping elevation changes and undulating greens are major characteristics of The Mines and location-wise the course is near the downtown area, where the bulk of the beer-drinking hangouts are located.

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. The only problem with this layout is its blind shots. There’s a few too many of them.

The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe isn’t bad, either. Clearly the locals like this 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.

If a 30-mile drive from downtown Grand Rapids isn’t too taxing, there’s another good track — the Arnold Palmer-designed Ravines in Saugatuck. Ravines 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 at No.17, which accentuates the putting surface as a stage and gives the hole its name.

Playing those courses might give you a thirst to try more of the area golf layouts, but in Grand Rapids it might be more enticing to find more beer drinkers’ hot spots instead – and there’s plenty of them around.