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Len Ziehm On Golf

A swing through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich. — Michigan, as any avid golfer knows, is loaded with great courses. While the golf season isn’t as long as it is in some other warmer weather places, there’s an abundance of daylight in Michigan when its season is in full swing.

The problem with Michigan is its abundance of riches. Most any part of the state has a notable golf facility — and that includes the Upper Peninsula. The UP isn’t Michigan’s most popular region for golfers, but it bears consideration.

“When we do the golf shows we can tell that most people know about the UP if they’re skiers,’’ said Dave Douglas, director of golf at Sweetgrass Golf Club — the first of our stops in a sweeping tour of Michigan. “We’re so remote up here. From downtown Chicago it’s a 5 1/2-6 hour drive.’’

Like the rest of Michigan, though, the courses in the UP are first-rate and some of their organizers have established the “Perfect Four’’ package, which ties together three of the best. (The fourth in that slogan is the participating golfer).

Our venture with the “Perfect Four,’’ called for rounds at Sweetgrass, Timber Stone and Greywalls with two nights lodging required in between. Each course was distinctly different from the other two and the side attractions at each destination provided nice variety as well. There’s plenty of highway signage promoting the three-course package.

DAY ONE — A comfortable six-hour drive brought us to the Island Resort and Casino, which is located in Harris, Mich. That’s 14 miles from the bigger city of Escanaba. While the casino is a major attraction, the Sweetgrass course definitely spices up the facility.

Sweetgrass got its name from history, with sweetgrass being the first grass to grow on mother earth. It’s one of four medicines used in ceremonies by the Potawatomi Indians. The course is only two years old, the creation of Michigan architect Paul Albanese.

This links-style course has generous fairways, almost 40 acres of them. (Most courses devote only about 30 acres to fairways).

Given that the general facility is called the Island Resort, it’s almost mandatory that the course has an island green. It’s at the 15th hole. The 10,000-foot putting surface culminates a short hole, with the five tee placements allowing the hole to play anywhere from 102 to 164 yards.

Most striking feature of the course, though, is the shared green for the Nos. 9 and 18 holes. Both fairways wrap around water the incudes waterfalls with the casino providing a backdrop.

For relaxation afterwards there’s always the casino and it’s array of restaurants, but the short dive into Escanaba will bring you to Stonehouse, which provided the best fine dining of the trip.

Sweetgrass has climbed in stature of the years. In 2015 it climbed six places, to No. 20, in Golfweek magazine’s rankings of Best Casino Courses.

DAY TWO — A 40-mile drive from Sweetgrass brings you to Timber Stone, in Iron Mountain. Sweetgrass and Timber Stone have one thing in common. Albanese worked on both, but the long-respected Michigan architect, Jerry Matthews, was in charge of this layout. It opened at Pine Mountain Resort in 1997.

Timber Stone, cut through some beautiful forests, presents a much different challenge than Sweetgrass. One of the most pronounced is the elevation changes. The vertical drop from the back tee on the 17th hole — the highest point on the course) to the lowest spot, at the driving range, is 310 feet. The drops on the 17th (110 feet) and 18th (200 feet) present a spectacular finish to a round.

Elevation changes shouldn’t be surprising, since Pine Mountain is also a ski resort. In fact, it’s one of Michigan’s oldest with roots dating back to 1939.
The 14th hole has eight tee placements, which is also extraordinary.

DAY THREE — A 90-minute drive from Iron Mountain brings you to the lively college town of Marquette. Golf-wise the home of Northern Michigan University offers the Marquette Golf Club, which was established in 1926. Its original course, the Heritage, was designed by William Langford and David Gill.

While Heritage is a scenic layout it’s nothing like Greywalls. This one is loaded with the “Wow’’ factor, thanks to its views of Lake Superior. The first nine holes opened in 2004 and the 18-hole ribbon-cutting was in June of 2005. Mike DeVries designed this 6,828-yard layout that has — for better or worse — plenty of blind shots but it is definitely fun to play.

Marquette has plenty of nice off-course attractions, and two of its restaurants are noteworthy. The Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery dates back to 1883, and Elizabeth’s Chop House — which is on the same block with lake-front viewing — provides more upscale dining. Unlike the first two stops on the “Perfect Four’’ tour, there’s plenty of lodging available in Marquette.

Need something to top off the trip? How about a three-hour boat cruise. The Picture Rock Tour in nearby Munising provides some unusual scenic views as well as some interesting history of the region.