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.
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.
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 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 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.