Pilgrim's Run Golf Club a surprise gem north of Grand Rapids, Michigan
PIERSON, Mich. — In an unassuming location north of Grand Rapids, built by six unknown designers, lies an unlikely pick for the area's finest round of golf.
But Pilgrim's Run Golf Club, about 30 minutes from downtown Grand Rapids in Pierson may be just that, rivaling other upscale golf courses in the area: Thousand Oaks, Boulder Creek and Thornapple Point. But if you're talking strictly golf and value, this place trumps all three.
One of the more remarkable things about Pilgrim's Run's success is how it was built.
Owner's Robert and Judy Van Kampen entrusted six of their employees from their company in Grand Haven to build three holes each, under the supervision of Kris Shumaker, who helped route the course. Designer Mike Devries helped out with the green complexes. Numbers were pulled from a hat, and each worked with the design pros to on their three holes. But there were rules to the design.
"We wanted to keep it 'traditional' golf," O'Malley said. "The design from each was kept within certain parameters and decisions were made by committee."
The result is a golf course that's unique in design and flows well between holes. The original nine opened in 1997, while the back nine was delayed a year thanks to a powerful summer storm that wiped out more than 400 trees — 100 of them on the future 13th alone. The team, who claim head-butting amongst them was minimal also had the benefit of working with 400-plus acres dedicated solely to the golf course.
"You never hear the word 'fore,'" O'Malley said.
Par 3s must not have been popular with the six amateur designers since there's only three on Pilgrim's Run, making it a par 73. The course starts out with a par 5, something done intentionally to help the course's pace of play.
The second hole, named "Difficulty" looks tougher than it is. A pond lies left, but any shot hit right will kick down towards onto the green. There's a good mix of short and long par 4s, and the back nine has three par 4s longer than 430 yards.
The most talked about hole at Pilgrim's Run is the 18th, which is easily the most memorable hole on the course. It's the epitome of a risk-reward finisher: an elevated tee down to a fairway doglegging right around a pond to an elevated green. There's a huge bailout zone left, so water only comes into play if you want it to. Most want it to.
Most also hit more than one tee ball. On the day I played, a foursome had saved a half-bucket of range balls to unload towards the green. Twenty minutes later and about 40 balls later, half their arsenal was wet and none made the green, but that's not to say it isn't possible.
"I was playing with Lee Janzen (who holds the course record of 65) a few years back, and holding my own against him," O'Malley said. "We're standing on the 18th tee and I mentioned we were close. Next thing I know he takes out his driver and greens it."
Pilgrim's Run Golf Club: The verdict
The accolades for Pilgrim's Run have rolled in: including "Fourth Best New Affordable Course in the U.S. and Canada" in 1999 by Golf Digest, as well as a "Top 100 You can Play" by Golf Magazine in 2002. Next spring the course will also host its first U.S. Open Qualifier.
Pilgrim's Run one of the area's finest courses in terms of design, condition and affordability. Downsides include a 3o-minute drive from downtown Grand Rapids and no liquor license (for those who can't play a "dry" round).
But the course itself is in great shape and is one of the area's best, and is also scheduled to host a 2007 U.S. Open Qualifier. It's a very serene round, featuring no parallel holes and the course fits into the wooded, rolling land beautifully. It's a must play and worth the drive if you're in the Grand Rapids area.
Grand Rapids hotels
The downtown Courtyard by Marriott has a great location, right off US-131 and within walking distance to all the city hotspots. It has a sky bridge to Van Andel Arena.
The B.O.B. restaurant and entertainment complex is right across the street as well.
Grand Rapids restaurants
San Chez (616-774-TAPA) is a Spanish restaurant downtown named one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the U.S., featuring a wide selection of tapas and paella. Save room for desert next door at Mezza, where they feature nightly entertainment including belly dancers, who may stop by your table at San Chez to tempt you into swinging by after your meal.
The B.O.B. (616-356-2000) offers a buffet of bars and restaurants all under one roof. Choose from fine dining at Judson's Steakhouse or Gill's Blue Crab Lounge on the first floor, to more casual dining upstairs.
There are also a handful of bars and a patio that overlooks Van Andel Arena. There are 70,000 square feet and 10 different venues in all.
Pilgrim's Run gets its name from a book "Pilgrim's Progress," written by Englishman John Bunyan while in jail in the 1600s. The Van Kampens claim to have the original key to his prison cell, hence the name "Pilgrim's Run."
April 20, 2007