Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Masterpiece Course at Treetops Resort

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

GAYLORD, MI -- When Harry Melling, owner of the successful Melling Tool Company in Jackson, MI, purchased the 179-acre Sylvan Knob Ski Area in 1983, his goal was strictly to be a ski resort.

Astute businessman that Harry was, however, he soon realized that in order to make a real go of the resort business, his Sylvan Resort couldn't close down every summer. As he continuously enlarged the resort, he decided to jump into the golf business with both feet. And in 1985, he hired none other than the most influential golf course architect of the latter part of the 20th century to design the first golf course at his resort, Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

Jones, who designed some 450 golf courses worldwide between the 1930s and 1990s, first walked the property that year with Melling. On the top of the hill that would one day serve as the teeing ground for the 6th hole of his Masterpiece Course, Jones suggested a new name for the resort: Treetops.

In 1986, the Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Masterpiece Course at Treetops Resort opened to critical acclaim, being named the second best new resort course by Golf Digest in 1987. Its combination of elevation changes, spectacular vistas, forced carries, and Jones' own hallmark "difficult par, easy bogey" philosophy set the standard for the Northern Michigan golf course construction boom that The Masterpiece essentially initiated.

Standing on the tees on the 180-yard, par-3 6th, which are 120 feet higher than the putting surface, you feel the same inspiration that Jones and Melling did nearly two decades ago. What an amazing feeling to stare down at the tops of the swaying trees, and to hit an eight iron 180 yards, even if it is all downhill. This is one of the few places on earth where it is actually acceptable to bark, "You da man!" even if you da only man teeing off.

Hallmarks of greatness

Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s contribution to golf course design cannot be overstated. He expanded greens and incorporated distinct tiers, in essence creating several smaller greens on one and allowing for larger variety in pin placements. He introduced multiple teeing stations, the length of which allowed courses to accommodate all players, from scratch to novice. He utilized water hazards more extensively than previous designers. And he developed the idea of a "signature hole" on his courses - one that crystallizes the design of each individual layout.

It is fitting, then, that it is the 6th hole of The Masterpiece, where Jones christened Melling's resort, that serves as the signature hole of this classic northwoods track.

Sporting a rating of 75.5 and a slope of 144, the par-72 Masterpiece ranks as one of the hardest courses in the state. Jones' motto of "hard par, easy bogey" should perhaps be amended here to "hard bogey, harder par," at least with respect to some holes.

J. T. Aude, Head Pro at The Masterpiece, cautions that in order to play well here, "You need to have your complete game on. You don't want to be hitting long irons into these greens, because there are very few bailout areas." Indeed, certain greens, although large (avg. 6,050 sq. ft.), are surrounded by danger on all sides; Nos. 3 and 8 jump immediately to mind, where even slightly pulled or faded shots will find either woods or water, respectively.

Masterpiece holes

First-time players of The Masterpiece should pay special attention to the "Pro Pointers" printed on the scorecard. Elevated greens, semi-blind tee shots, and hidden hazards will bedevil the uninitiated.

It is critical that golfers choose appropriate tees for their skill level. The yardages between the four tee boxes vary rather dramatically: Black 7,060, Blue 6,399, White 5,817, Red 4,972. Certain holes begin with teeing grounds stretching over 120 yards from tip to front. One small gripe about the design is that the tees are so far apart; lots of golfers want to play a course around 6,500-6,600 yards, but the disparity between blacks and blues here precludes that option.

No. 1 (524 yards, par 5) is one of the best opening holes in the entire state. A good drive will find a downhill lie for a big decision right off the bat: Try to go for it in two, and gamble that a long iron or fairway wood from the downhill lie will carry the pond fronting the wide but shallow green and hold the putting surface, or lay up and place a safer bet on a wedge to the pin.

The bent grass/poa greens are lush, and although they are quick (around 10 on the Stimp meter), are usually quite receptive. (Generous rainfall and watering prior to my round provided for some very deep pitch marks.)

No. 3 (419 yards, par 4) is the hardest hole on the course, especially from the tips, no matter where the championship tees are placed. One teeing box is across an 85-foot deep ravine, forcing a 100-yard carry through a tiny V between tree branches. If you stand on this tee and hold your thumb out at arm's length, it will more than obscure the minuscule section of fairway you have to aim at.

No. 8 (452 yards) is a long dogleg right par 4 where long hitters can cut a bit off the corner. But the second shot is downhill to a 44-yard deep peninsular green. If there is a safe play, it's short. But if the pin is back, it is no mean feat to pitch it close.

The course is carved into the Pigeon River valley, and holes 7, 8, and 9 all incorporate the river's headwaters. No. 9 features an island tee box, which doesn't really come into play, except in your head.

The 363-yard 15th is an amazing short par 4. The tees tower at least 130 feet over the ribbon-thin fairway, which turns sharply right to left. Driving the green is an option, and it seems hardly more daring than playing a fairway wood or long iron to the narrow strip of short grass, which looks no wider than a cart path from the tee.

The closer is another gorgeous par 5, reachable in two from the blues (at 516 yards, compared to 579 yards from the tips). I found it extremely pleasant, after being pummeled by a few of the holes to have shortish par-5 bookends on Nos. 1 and 18 that allowed me to redeem my score a bit.

In order to have a chance at conquering Jones' Masterpiece, players must get off the tee well, must know their yardages, and must know their pin placements. In sum, you have to be both strong and smart, and be able to execute. That's all.

The Jones Masterpiece course has its own clubhouse, pro shop, and snack bar. But as with all of the Treetops courses and facilities, the service, merchandise, and amenities are all top-notch. Playing conditions are also near perfect, with the only blemishes being a godly number of unrepaired pitch marks on the greens. (What is it about resort players who feel they shouldn't have to fix their ball marks?)


The resort that the late Harry Melling envisioned 20 years ago has come a long way very quickly. During the 2002 Par 3 Shootout, an annual skins game played at Treetops' Threetops course and televised on ESPN, Director of Golf and swing teacher to the pros Rick Smith announced his purchase of Treetops.

Smith's big name, along with the big-time investors who have partnered with him (including the Melling family), ensure that Treetops will not only continue as the premier Northern Michigan golf and ski resort, but will expand and thrive in the competitive Gaylord Golf Mecca. However, it is certain that without Harry Melling's foresight and Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s masterful flagship layout, Treetops would not be the spectacular golf destination that it is today.

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.

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