Black Lake Golf Club: Plenty Tough for Even the Best Golfers

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Onaway, MI - Choosing union-made products essentially assures you of receiving quality for your money. And this quality, many would argue, is what made America great. It's no surprise, then, that the UAW's own golf course, Black Lake Golf Club in Onaway, has just been ranked as the best public course in Michigan and the second-best new upscale public course in the nation.

This superb course, designed by Rees Jones, is part of the 1,000-acreWalter and May Reuther Family Education Center for UAW members, retirees, and guests. The Education Center boasts 400 rooms and all manner of recreational and educational facilities, including, since June 9, 2000, the 7030-yard, par 72 championship course and the 773-yard, par 27 "Little Course" pitch-n-putt across the road.

One thing that makes this layout special among Michigan courses is that it is one of only two Rees Jones designs in the state (the other being Thousand Oaks, near Grand Rapids). Another unique aspect of Black Lake is its atmosphere: From the time you pull up to the bag drop to the time you drive away, you will feel as if you are playing a private course, of which you are one of the most respected members. And you get this feeling whether you're a UAW member or not.

Pam Phipps, Director of Golf at Black Lake, Phipps came to Black Lake from five years as Director of Golf at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Fla., the headquarters of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She was the first woman to attain Master Professional status in the Professional Golfers Association of America in 1994, and her motto is: "Customer Service: Winning with People." So it's easy to see where the staff find inspiration for their high level of service.

In terms of amenities, service, playing conditions, and course layout, Black Lake is on par with any private course in the state. Credit the UAW and its President, Stephen P.Yokich, for working so hard to provide union members - and, fortunately for the rest of us, non-union members as well - with a golfing experience second to none. It took a lot of determination, planning, and money to bring the likes of Rees Jones into the wilderness to "discover" a world-class golf course.

Jones, who had never before worked in the golf Mecca that is Northern Michigan, was immediately impressed by the land. "Simply put," Jones states, "the holes were here, we just had to find them. We were trying to build an old style, classic course. You'll notice we don't have mounds or moguls. We just have sweeps and natural grade. We strive for holes blending with the natural terrain. There is nothing artificial or contrived at Black Lake."

This lack of contrivance coupled with the classic stylings that have become the Rees Jones trademark make the course playable for all levels of golfers. With a minimum of four and a maximum of nine tee boxes on each hole, even high handicappers can find a yardage and angle of attack suited to their games. And if you think that this sounds too easy, consider the fact that the yardage from the tips is 7030 yards, with a rating of 74.3 and a slope rating of 140. Plenty tough for even the best golfers.

What makes this wild, natural 300-acre layout a great classic course are the approachable greens, all of which contain "ramps" in front where short shots or bump-and-run approaches can reach the putting surface (if they can avoid the plentiful bunkers). Another traditional feature can be seen on the greens themselves: Most are two-tiered (sometimes three-tiered), but on the tiers themselves, the undulation is very understated.

So when I asked one of the young golf-management interns working at the course to give me some tips on how to play it (aside from buying a yardage book), he gave me three pointers: One, since the greens are approachable, your iron game can be a bit loose without causing too much harm (as long as you don't go over any greens, most of which fall away dramatically into the woods). Two, don't over-read the greens, as long as you're on the correct tier. Three, be long and straight off the tee, or it could be a long day hunting for errant shots in the woods.

The 353-yard, par-4 2nd is an example of the finesse required here, in addition to strength. A sharp dogleg right, with a forced carry off the tee, an iron or fairway wood is recommended. The fairway bunkers on the right side of the landing area can be murder to get out of if you're close to the lip. So, as is the case with the long natural fescue, if you get in, play smart and get out as easily as possible. Take your medicine and shut up, basically.

The 515-yard 6th is one of the true signature holes on a course without one single weak hole. Here is a fantastic risk-reward for A-players. From the elevated tee, you just need to hit the wide fairway. On the second shot, if you've crushed a drive, you could try to go for it, and stick the green guarded front, left, and back by water and right by woods and bunkers. The more prudent player will lay up right and take the water out of play.

Holes 7-9 are the number 3, 5, and 1 handicap holes, respectively, and the toughest stretch on the course. You'll be glad to see the phone on the 8th hole to call ahead to the clubhouse for sustenance - after the brutal, 590-yard, uphill par-5 9th, you'll need it.

The 10th is another all-world par 5 in terms of visual appeal and risk-reward. At 518 yards from the tips (502 from the blues and 486 from the whites) it can be reached, but there is a lot of water to the left of the green, balanced by lots of fairway to the right. So only a fool would try the left-hand route. (That's Mr. Fool to you, thank you.)

Nos. 14 (par 3, 235 yards, nine tee stands) and 15 (par 4, 375 yards) both deserve special mention. The 14th is called the "Sahara Hole" and exemplifies the way Jones went about "finding" the holes here. Built in a natural sand pit, the 14th features an amoeba-like white-sand bunker sprawling from the back-most tee box to front of the relatively wide green. Oh, and by the way, I saw some VERY fresh bear prints in the sand near the blue tee box here, so you may want to think twice before hunting for that wayward Titleist Pro V1.

The 15th presents golfers with a forced carry off the tee of less than 200 yards - short but nevertheless daunting. The penal traps on the left and the thick trees on both sides make the fairway appear much tighter than it is. When you get to the green here and see the rough around it, you'll understand why Black Lake has been judged as US Open-caliber. According to Pam Phipps, Deborah Massey, past President of the LPGA, has played Black Lake and remarked that it is worthy of hosting a US Women's Open.

Conditions are beyond immaculate from tee to green. You'll notice that there are no rakes on the course to clutter the view: You use the one that comes on the back of your cart. (Evidently they don't provide rakes to the bears, though.) The bentgrass fairways simply don't contain an uneven lie, and the greens are unmatched in the trueness of their roll. Even the range features double blade bentgrass - it's the kind of range you see pros tuning up on at tourneys. And the par-3 Little Course - which even non-golfers will love to play - is maintained at the same level as the regular course.

Of course, the only drawback to this level of maintenance is that it seems like there's a guy on a tractor following you from hole to hole, shot to shot. (Note to grounds crew and rangers: If you don't have anything specifically to say to me, or to tend to, please move along. I do not play for the amusement of others, no matter how comical my game is at times.)

Back at the clubhouse, Executive Chef Mark Phillips and his restaurant staff provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with the most inexpensive breakfast sandwich costing only $2.95, and the most expensive dinner entrée costing $21.95. The specialty of the house is the lake perch, which is delivered fresh every two days.

As you can tell from this rave review and the national attention garnered in the short year since its opening, Black Lake is worth a visit. While UAW members, retires, and guests receive unbelievable discounts, the course is still affordable for the general public at $95 for peak times, peak season (lower rates available as part of Thunder Bay Golf Resort packages, see accompanying review). If this sounds steep to you, keep in mind that some other top-ten public courses charge upwards of $100 a round (one will run you well over $200), and they do not have anything over this Rees Jones masterpiece. That's a Union guarantee.

To sum it all up, Black Lake Golf Club lives up to everything you've heard. The UAW has done a remarkable job providing its members with a world-class course, while at the same time opening their "private" course to the general public. Frankly, I was proud to drive up to the clubhouse and unload my bag from the trunk of my Union-made Ford.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • up date article

    Margaret Fleming wrote on: Feb 20, 2013

    This article should be up-dated since it's over 10 years old.