Marion Oaks Golf Club in Howell: Slick greens and "wildflower drops"

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

HOWELL, Mich. -- Many golfers in Michigan have grown accustomed to the abundance of golf courses in the state. We almost suffer from an embarrassment of riches, telling folks from New York or California about wonderful local tracts that one can walk on weekdays for less than $25. Sure, these delightful layouts won't be hosting any major tournaments, but they also won't be disappointing anyone, either. A prime example is Marion Oaks Golf Club in Howell.

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The par-70, 6,723-yard Marion Oaks may be one of the most well kept, visually appealing golf courses that you've never heard of. Nestled in the rolling farmland south of I-96 near Howell, Marion Oaks boasts a spacious, timber-frame clubhouse, full-service restaurant, and the slickest, smoothest greens you will ever find at a course this inexpensive.

Tom Patton, course superintendent, stresses that for the price, few courses can offer golfers of all levels the combination of great playing conditions, playability, and challenge that Marion Oaks can. The greens are kept at between a 10 and 10.5 on the stimpmeter, and even during the dry summer months, all of the areas where you're supposed to hit the ball are lush. (The rough often goes dormant, but you're not supposed to hit the ball there, are you?)

Another aesthetic bonus of the course is that it is certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. This means that natural habitats here are preserved through less mowing and the planting of native vegetation, pests are controlled with as little insecticide as possible, water is recaptured and reused, and public groups are invited onto the course for educational programs and nature walks to try to catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife observed here. Veronica Godwin, GM and co-owner, says the land on which the course sits used to be an alfalfa field, "So it's a lot more diverse now than it originally was."

The challenge of Marion Oaks Golf Club

As for the challenge of the course, this Harry Bowers design, the on-site routing of which was done by the owner, Frank Godwin, features four sets of tees: Championship (6,723 yards, 135 slope), Back (6,211 yards, 124 slope), Middle (5,625 yards, 119 slope), and Forward (4,835 yards, 114 slope). But Patton warns, "Don't let the lack of yardage fool you. We usually don't even put the championship tees out, because people inevitably try to play them when their game isn't up to it. And that can slow down play. This course is harder than it looks," says Patton. "It's challenging but not intimidating."

As for the playability, the forward tees make a huge difference in the set-up of the course.

Head Professional Bill Spindler calls Marion Oaks a great couples course. "Sometimes the wives out-drive their husbands," says Spindler, "which doesn't make the men too happy."

Another feature that makes the course more high-handicapper friendly is the aforementioned focus on the environment. Nearly every hole is bordered by patches of wildflowers.

According to local rule, players should not look for balls in these areas, and can instead play them as ground under repair. In other words, free drop! We began calling these "wildflower drops," and they were greatly appreciated on one or two holes. However, if you're playing with Superintendent Patton, be prepared to count those strokes: "As far as I'm concerned, those are lateral hazards when I play. But we use the ground under repair rule to keep people from tromping through the wild areas," he explains.

Wildflower drops or not, the subtleties of Marion Oaks Golf Club's design can snag unsuspecting golfers. The course is not as wide-open as it looks. If you spray your drives here, they will be lost. This layout is lacking a "Wow!" hole. But it is also lacking any hint of the design weaknesses one generally sees in shorter, less expensive courses, namely parallel holes and short par 4s. Despite the appearance of the course from the road, very few holes run parallel, and the ones that do are mainly on the front nine. The back consists of fairly isolated holes.

More importantly, you'll find three par-3s on each side (hence a par 70), rather than a string of short par-4s or fewer than four par 5s. Much to our delight, we discovered only two par 4s measuring under 400 yards from the tips (382 and 390 yards), and four par 5s ranging from 537-605 yards from the tips. In other words, these are some serious golf holes – nothing fluffy or tricked-up about them.

Even though no hole is truly spectacular, there really isn't a weak hole on the course. The par-4, 407-yard 2nd is a swooping dogleg left without too much trouble in the bend, so it's just begging for big hitters to cut some yardage off. The approach here is to a lovely front-to-back titling green with a very menacing bunker front right. You can blast a drive here and still end up with a double bogey (sigh).

No. 4 is 140 yards from the tips, but most men will play it from the back tees, a mere 117 yards. Ho-hum, you say? Consider this: Patton says he'd be willing to offer anyone a three on this hole without teeing off. "If you go over this green, it's an automatic bogey, maybe worse." And our local playing partners confirmed it: "We've never seen anyone stick this green," they said. Sure enough, we were all inches off. What's the catch? Well, in the great tradition of Donald Ross, this green is a turtle back, falling off on all sides. "I'd love to see Tiger Woods play this hole once," says Patton. Maybe he could stick it.

Marion Oaks Golf Club's back nine

Marion Oaks Golf Club's back nine is much more striking than the front, running through more heavily wooded acreage. The 10th is the course's postcard hole: A 181-yard par-3 over water. If the nines happen to be switched, players will find this a vexing opening hole (triple-bogies are SO disheartening on the first hole!).

From 15-17 (a par 5, par 4, and par 3, respectively), players are in store for a wonderful stretch of holes. The 15th (557 yards) presents players with a tricky blind tee shot to a landing area that must be reached in order to see the green. The fairway is very narrow, so anything off line requires a delicate pitch back onto the short grass for a go at the green. The approach shot must traverse a swale and a huge bunker to reach the green, which is tucked into the trees.

The 16th (382 yards) is a severe dogleg left, over which you can actually hit a big enough drive to land beyond the end of the fairway in short rough between it and the green. Not necessarily the best play. And the 17th (203 yards) has an elevated tee from which players hit over a deep valley to an elevated green. A par 3 worthy of any course you've played at twice the price.

Marion Oaks is a well-kept secret in two senses: One, it is immaculately maintained. These bentgrass greens are faster than any I've played this year, short of Elk Ridge in Atlanta and the courses at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, all high-priced "Best in State" tracks. Two, it is a course fighting for name recognition in a crowded market. Yet it is one which certainly deserves more attention than it gets).

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

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


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