St. Ives Golf Club: Michigan's Most Overlooked Course
STANWOOD, MI -- As I was going to St. Ives I met a duffer with seven wives. Every wife had seven caddies And every caddie had seven bags. Every bag had seven clubs And every club had seven scuffs. Scuffs, clubs, bags, Caddies, duffer, wives, How many were going to St. Ives?
While most Michigan golfers have heard of St. Ives Golf Club, it is a fair bet that few realize just how good - make that great - this course is. St. Ives is perhaps Michigan's forgotten 5-star course. That's right: St. Ives is one of only 16 courses nationwide to have earned Golf Digest's most prestigious award. It also is one of just five courses in America to have garnered both the 5-star rating and to be ranked in the top 100 in pro shops. The other four to occupy this rarified air: Spyglass Hill, Kiawah Island, Pinehurst, and Pebble Beach.
St. Ives represents the prototypical Michigan course, designed by the prototypical Michigan course architect, Jerry Matthews . We're talking risk-reward off the elevated tees, elevated greens that keep you guessing, tight tree-lined fairways, and vistas worthy of the cover of any golf magazine. As Director of Golf Kevin O' Brien warns: "It's easy to get caught up in the scenery here."
The land from which Matthews carved St. Ives forced a "pot and kettle" design - elevation changes with enough wetland hazards to fully deplete your supply of golf balls. The bent grass tees, fairways, and greens have been flawless since the course opened in 1995, and the clubhouse - the closest thing you'll find to an English manor house in Michigan - is nothing short of fabulous.
Yet it is customer service that bumped St. Ives up from the slums of 4 ½ stars to the penthouse of 5 stars. Kevin O'Brien and his staff (55 people between St. Ives and its new sister course, Tullymore, not counting maintenance crews) make every visitor feel as special as one of the 180 members. From the forecaddies at holes 1 and 10 to the cart girl who is willing to bring you out a hotdog so you don't have to break the flow of your round, you feel like royalty.
And this is precisely the effect that owners Norm and Judy Browning and Robert Doerr intended. Owners and developers of the expansive Canadian Lakes real estate development group, these folks expanded in the best possible way into the public golf business: Although they wanted to develop homes along the course, they allowed Matthews to have the best portion of the land to route his design. They didn't choose the best sections for their real estate development. Golf took priority. And those poor bastards suffering in the enormous mansions on the back nine of St. Ives have obviously paid the price. (Warning: Sarcasm at full capacity!)
The 6,702-yard, par-72 layout is classic Matthews: Doglegs, wetlands, elevated tees and greens, and several holes where all but the scratch golfer will need to take a serious gut-check. The flattest spot on the property, according to O'Brien, is where the clubhouse stands. And the rest, as they say, is history: Undulations and sidehill lies make for either ecstasy or agony - the line between the two in golf (as in so much of life, really) is very thin indeed.
The limitations imposed on the layout by the location of the clubhouse (who wants a slanted clubhouse?) are evident on the first hole, where golfers are literally slapped to attention. The 424-yard, par-4 1st hole requires a long iron or short fairway wood off the tee to the end of the first half of the fairway. From there, the hole turns 80-degrees to the left and precipitously downhill. The green is guarded by a tree on the right, bunkers on the left, and a marsh front-left. Double-bogeys are so depressing on the first hole…
The 176-yard second is no more forgiving: All carry over wetlands, with no room for error. Even golfers who stick the green and find themselves on the wrong tier will be left with a potential three-putt. Those hitting from the forward tees here are in for a treat, as this tee box is in effect a small island just off the 140-yard wood-plank bridge leading up to the large green.
Possibly the strongest hole on the front nine is the 3rd, which measures 410 yards from the tips and takes you from the heights of optimism on the elevated tees down to the depths of despair in the fairway, and back up to the peak of loveliness on the putting surface. Simply put, this is one you'll remember (even if your score makes you want to forget it).
The 487-yard No. 7 is one of the most unique short par 5s in the state, with its elevated tees, three-section, three-tiered fairway, and elevated green. This is one hole where the pin placement, yardage book, and "pro pointers" you'll find in your cart come in extremely handy.
Although there is not a weak or average hole to be found here, I didn't care for No. 9. This 348-yard, dogleg left par 4 is "a great tournament hole" according to O'Brien, but it's a thorn in the side of the average golfer. From the tee, golfers can take a long iron off the tee to try to stay clear of the ravine jutting into the left side of the fairway, or they can try to drive it. But if you slam a monster drive, you'll either bust through the far side of the fairway (right), or drop piteously into the ravine (left). And there's no guarantee against pulling a long iron into the ravine if you play it safe. Again, the location of the clubhouse forced this somewhat cramped front-nine closer.
As picturesque as the front nine is, the back nine is the clear favorite of the locals. The 353-yard 10th offers a simply breathtaking vista from the elevated tee box down to a roller-coaster fairway, from which a near perfect approach to an L-shaped green is required.
The 14th (429 yards, par 4) is the most devilish of the course: Players tee over water to a fairway that ends 150 yards from the elevated green. In the best of all possible worlds, you're left with a 6 or 7-iron over the wetlands to an elevated green. A drive of over 265 yards will likely be wet; less than 250 yards will force a long iron approach. A short drive makes it unreachable in two, period. This hole was voted by Great Lakes Golf as the third-best par 4 in the Midwest. And, I suppose, its rating in your book will depend on how you score on it.
No. 16, a short par 4 (369 yards) is one of Matthews' specialties: A breathtaking cape hole horseshoeing right to left around a ball-eating, score-killing wetland. It is every bit as good as the16th at Elk Ridge, another Matthews classic, although the fairway here isn't banked. Those lucky enough to find themselves in A-position off the tee will still have club-selection issues on their approach to the elevated green. Matthews has said that he designs courses to be "fun". My guess is that golfers who think this hole is "fun" are the people who keep the market in lamb-skin riding crops thriving. (Who's a dirty duffer? Say it!)
The 17th (560 yards, par 5) is a classic closer. Only problem: This isn't the closer. Long, tight, and wet on the right from tee to green, this hole is a slicer's nightmare. The final approach over water will mess with your mind, and a right front pin placement instills terror in the hearts of all duffers hoping to break a bogey round. And as deep as the green is, a safe shot to the back does not by any means ensure a two (or three) putt.
In short, St. Ives is close to the best that Michigan has to offer: Palatial, 24,000-sq. ft. Clubhouse (banquet facilities, restaurant, deck, and pro shop to die for), course like a dream (alternating between cold sweat and warm…well, you know), and service like you know you deserve. If this course were located in the heart of the Gaylord-Petosky area, it would run well over $100 a round. As it is, you can partake of the royal feast for $90 on peak weekends, less in off-peak times/seasons. And to cap it all off, St. Ives' sister course, Tullymore, which opened in 2001, is every bit as good - though completely different (despite the fact that St. Ives follows an English parkland design and Tullymore an Irish parkland design).
The final step in making this one of Michigan's premier golf destinations is the addition of the St. Ives Inn. This 44-room hotel, decorated by owner Judy Browning herself, will have all the amenities you would expect of a five-star course. No where in the state will you find two more distinct championship courses combined with luxury accommodations: A special treat for golfers and non-golfers alike.
So just in case you hadn't solved the riddle posed in the bastardized opening rhyme, the answer is "one." But with the addition of Tullymore and the Inn, you can darn well be sure that the number of people going to St. Ives will increase exponentially in years to come.
January 1, 2003