Rick Smith Tradition

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Gaylord, MI - Ask many golf purists about the effects of posh American golf resorts on the game, and they will lament that it has made the game "soft." Lush, soft fairways. Receptive, soft greens. Cart-ridden, soft golfers. Seeking to address this state of affairs, Treetops Resort in Gaylord and it's own world-class instructor-cum-course architect, Rick Smith, have built something special at Treetops. Something intended to entice your average resort golfer back to the tradition of the game.

And fittingly, that something is the Rick Smith Tradition Course, a 6,467-yard par 71/70 course that has a generous spirit, an impish nature and a historical feel, even though it is the newest of the four 18-hole layouts at Treetops.

The Tradition is the least flashy, and least difficult (70.3 rating, 122 slope from the tips), of the Treetops courses. But don't let the lack of flash turn you off: The subtleties here can beguile the best players. The fairways are HUGE, which makes it all the more depressing when you miss them. (Note to Self: Restock golf bag with Prozac.)

The greens are quite small, and far less undulating than those
on the other Treetops layouts. Here, however, is where the term "subtle" takes on a new, exquisitely painful meaning: No less than five of my putts looked good until the last instant, when they died and missed by centimeters. (Note to Self: Double the Prozac.)

Along with the wide fairways, there are no forced carries to the greens. Treetops PGA Pro Jeff Goble points out that, "there are plenty of options on approaches to at least part of each green." So with wide fairways and accessible greens, what's the big deal?

Well, aside from the manic nature of the Providence bent grass greens ("Nice putt!…Aw, nuts!"), which is a different strain than is used on the other courses, the exceedingly cool thing about the Tradition is that it is laid out with the walker in mind.

Now, before you get your silk shorts in a bunch, we need to clear up a huge misconception: THE TRADITION ALSO HAS CARTS, and has had them for the last couple of seasons. Personally, I think this is a shame, since it is rare indeed to find a northern Michigan course that allows, much less is built for, walking.

It is true that the course was originally for walkers only, with a caddie program instituted to help initiate young people into careers in golf. But sadly, more people seem to be looking for pampering than real golf, even at one of the top golf resorts in the nation. Sigh.

So, as already mentioned, there are carts at the Tradition. But I will add that if you want to get the full effect of the course, and appreciate the nuances from tee to green, you should walk. In fact, since there are no cart paths, it is actually a bit hard to navigate around on a cart, as it's not always clear where to drive. It is not in the least confusing when walking, however. OK, I've stepped off my soapbox (for the moment).

The overall design of the Tradition speaks volumes for Smith's desire to provide a playable, walkable, yet challenging course. As already mentioned, the fairways are huge, and the greens all have "ramps" up which decent bump-and-run players can put to excellent use. One of Smith's tricks, though, is that many of the greens (about eleven of them) are tucked to the left of the fairways. There are generous landing areas short right of each of these for sliced approaches. But, if you tend to move the ball from left to right (as most average players do), and you want to sit the greens in regulation, you'll need to fire directly over several gaping bunkers on each hole.

No. 5 is a wonderful hole, especially from the tips, where it measures 545 yards and is a par 5, whereas from the blues it's a 410-yard par 4. From the tips, players face a long carry from a dramatically elevated tee to what looks like a narrow ribbon of fairway. The landing area is actually about twice as wide as it looks, though it is about half as wide as many of the fairways on other holes.

The par-3, 167-yard 9th is the best par 3 on the course: It is all uphill, with trees right and a hill from tee to green on the left. Pay attention to the pro tip on the card, which advises players to take plenty of club. (Note to Self: Read pro tips BEFORE hitting the ball.)

The back side starts off like an absolute monster. The 537-yard 10th plays longer than the card says from the tips. And the 491-yard, par 4 11th (458 from the blues) is a nut-buster. Tighten up your truss and swing like your life depends on it, because a 280-yard drive still leaves a fairway wood into the green. Or, if you're smarter than your average golf writer, you'll just play it like a par 5 and shut up.

Finally, No. 18 (540 yards, par 5) is the kind of finishing hole that all but the snobbiest scratch players among us enjoy: Its fairway is wide, but there is deep trouble in the form of trees, bunkers, and fescue on both sides. If you're erratic, expect a high score. If you're controlled, hope for a birdie.

Obviously, the Tradition was a labor of love for Smith and for the Melling family, who own Treetops. It is the least dramatic on the property, but it is also the most accessible and least expensive. In fact, resort guests can walk the Tradition for almost half of what it costs to play the other resort courses. And Otsego county residents can walk on for $25, a price that represents possibly the best golf bargain in the state.

Now, I won't pass judgment on the resort guests who've come for pampering rather than playing the game as it was meant to be played. But shame on anyone who goes to Treetops and passes on the Tradition just because of its "walking" reputation or the lower rating/slope. If you put your ear to one of the cups, I swear you can hear the wind whistling through the gorse in Scotland.

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, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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