Gaylord Golf Mecca offers many hidden gems

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

GAYLORD, Mich. - The Treetops name is everywhere these days.

There's a long list why the Treetops Resort is so nationally recognized:

  • Managing partner Rick Smith's reputation as one of the nation's top teachers.

  • Smith's relationship with Phil Mickelson, whose win at the Masters and runner-up finish at the U.S. Open have made Smith all the more revered.

  • The recent million-dollar renovations to some of the resort's accommodations.

  • The Tylenol Par-3 Shootout, a made-for-TV special that brings in big names like Mickelson, Trevino, Couples, Floyd and Palmer to ESPN every July.

  • The Big Break, a popular reality series featured on The Golf Channel last year.

With such name branding, Treetops' national image dominates the golf scene in the Gaylord Golf Mecca. But don't get caught up in all the hype. As good as Treetops' five courses are, there are plenty of wonderful, underrated gems in this diverse 24-course golf destination.

There's usually one reason or another why these other courses aren't in the national conscience -- a design flaw here, a lack of yardage there or a no-name architect.

But, with 15 of the mecca's 24 courses right in Gaylord, it's clear Treetops isn't the only place to play in town. Give these courses a shot, and you're bound to come away impressed.

Must Plays

When The Tribute opened at the Otsego Club in 2001, suddenly there was a great design able to hold its own with the Treetops' twosome of the Masterpiece and the Fazio Premier.

Otsego Club owner Keith Gornick allowed architects Gary Koch (TV analyst) and Rick Robbins to handpick their favorite locations for holes from more than 1,100 acres. Cut from the trees and sprawling landscape of the Sturgeon River Valley, the 7,347-yard Tribute dazzles the eye and challenges the mind.

Its fairways are some of the widest in the state, making it incredibly playable, but the greens are elevated and well-bunkered. The course has too many good holes to single out, but the view from the perch on the 430-yard par-4 third hole will stick with you.

With the Tribute on board, Otsego's third course, The Loon, became expendable. In a strange twist of fate, Mike Husby, the man who designed the course and sold it to Gornick soon after its opening in 1994, bought the 6,701-yard course back in 2003. He immediately refurbished the clubhouse and restored the bunkers with new sand.

The Loon enjoys a reputation as the area's best championship test. It will host the Michigan PGA Senior's Championship and the Golf Association of Michigan's Net Championship in 2004. The only thing it lacks is the Tribute's heavily forested, scenic terrain.

One of the mecca's toughest courses, the 7,044-yard Black Forest, designed by Tom Doak, teams with its sister track, the 6,519-yard Wilderness
Valley, as the best resort twosome in town (excluding Treetops, of course).

Solid Seconds

A second-tier course in Gaylord often equates to a first-rate course almost anywhere else.

The Natural at Beaver Creek Resort, an early Jerry Matthews design opened in 1992, thrives on a distinct piece of property. The property only allowed for 6,355 yards from the tips, but its personality overshadows any lack of length. The approach shots on the par-5 first hole and the 445-yard 18th demand two of the toughest carries over wetland in the Midwest.

Less than a mile from Beaver Creek, both the courses at Michawye, the Lakes and the Pines, are amazingly different. The Pines, opened in 1973, recently underwent a $1.5 million renovation by original architect Don Childs. Childs reshaped every bunker and shouldered them with bluegrass sod. Tees and greenside grasses were carpeted with bent grass. The irrigation system was also completely replaced. The 7,007-yard Pines, which is one of the flattest and easiest in the mecca, needs time to grow in, but there's no doubt the changes were important to the course's future.

The Lakes, opened in 1987, features six dramatic holes cut around a former ski hill, but with space limited, the 6,310-yard layout is too tricked up for many players. The greens have a number of unfair undulations and the 429-yard ninth hole is messy. Better choices would be the 6,477-yard Gaylord Country Club or 6,100-yard Marsh Ridge. The Classic, the Otsego Club's other course, is solid as well, despite its lack of length (6,348 yards).

Where to stay

The Beaver Creek Resort, adjacent to the course, was recently sold to new owners.

Cozy cabins, some that sleep up to 16 people, and an RV Park offer some of the most diverse accommodations in the mecca. Families with children will love the indoor pool, hot tub and northern Michigan's longest outdoor water slide, which twirls its way 200 feet down the side of a hill.

It doesn't get classier in northern Michigan than the Otsego Club, formerly the Hidden Valley Resort. The club feels like a luxury Bavarian mountain hideway, but it's actually right off of Gaylord's main drag. All the quaint lodges are within walking distance of the ski and golf pro shop and one of the best golf bars anywhere, the Logmark. Rumor has it "Liquid Louie," the Logmark's legendary bartender, is getting close to retirement, so get there before he quits pouring.

Off the Course

The city of Gaylord is one of northern Michigan's top tourist havens. There's mini-golf, restaurants and shops to spare. The area's rich forestland and lakes attract mountain bikers, boaters and fishermen from around the Midwest. Canoeists flock to the swift, scenic AuSable River. But golf has always been king. Nearly 350,000 rounds are played in the mecca's six-month season.

Where to Eat

Your taste buds haven't lived until they experience the Pontresina Ristorante, the Otsego Club's premier eatery. The 20-mile views of the sprawling Sturgeon River Valley are good, but the lamb and the dessert steal the show. The Duck Blind Grille keeps golfers happy with an early morning buffet.

Michawye's feature restaurant, Inn The Woods, might not have the reputation of the Otsego Club's Ristorante, but its chefs can hold their own.

The Verdict

Taking Treetops out of the equation, the only true must-play golf course in Gaylord is the Tribute, a stunner where pure golf meets pure bliss, and possibly Black Forest. But all the other courses in Gaylord are outstanding in terms of shot values and views, with just a wacky hole or two holding them back. For the value, though, they might always trump Treetops.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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