Golf and more in Grand Rapids: Grander than you might expect

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- By just about any metric, Michigan can make a strong case as "Golf Capitol of America:" number of courses per capita, sheer number of public courses, affordability of golf, quality of courses, number of golfers per capita. Michigan ranks at or near the top in each of these categories.

Pilgrim's Run Golf Club - 7th
The long, downhill, par-3 seventh at Pilgrim's Run Golf Club threatens trouble all around the green.
Pilgrim's Run Golf Club - 7thThousand Oaks Golf Club - hole 2Thousand Oaks Golf Club - hole 9St. Ives Golf Club - hole 2Tullymore Golf Club - 18thPilgrim's Run Golf Club - 6th
If you go

Despite Michigan's prodigious golf resume, many people outside of the upper Midwest might be surprised that a state with a relatively short golf season is so richly studded with world-class courses.

Even golfers in Michigan and nearby states might not fully appreciate the number of golf hot spots throughout the state.

While praise is lavished on Upper Peninsula and "Northern Michigan" courses -- and courses that line the shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron -- other inland and down-state destinations can get overlooked.

One of the grandest of these destinations -- and perhaps one of the more surprising ones -- is Grand Rapids.

Although Grand Rapids is the second-largest city in Michigan, it often flies under the radar when it comes to Michigan destinations. But the city's recent evolution into a craft brewing Mecca and impressive line-up of nearby golf courses makes it a "must see" for both in-state and out-of-state golfers -- especially those willing to drive just a few hours north of Chicago.

Grand Rapids golf courses

Like most places in Michigan, in downtown Grand Rapids, you're within 15 miles of literally dozens of public tracks. One could plan many, many golf trips exploring them all.

Ask the locals, however, and one course right in town that stands out among the crowd is Thousand Oak Golf Club. The first Rees Jones design in Michigan, Thousand Oaks debuted in 1999 at a time when it seemed like a new course was opening every day.

Thousand Oaks ($40-$87) has distinguished itself, however, with consistently excellent maintenance, a northern-Michiganesque layout replete with elevated tees and long doglegs, and, now, a new members-only policy on Saturdays and Sundays. (So make sure to visit on a weekday!)

Although the front nine gets a little redundant with its numerous doglegs with bunkers in the "knees" of the fairways, the grand vistas from the tees and closing holes on each nine keep regulars coming back (and make the 230 members proud).

Twenty minutes or so from downtown Grand Rapids, in Pierson, you'll find one of Michigan's perennial "Top 10" courses, Pilgrim's Run Golf Club ($39-$65). Or, rather, you'll find it if you're lucky -- it's in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

The first nine holes at Pilgrim's Run were opened in 1997, the back nine in 1998. Designed by Kris Schumacker and Mike DeVries (DeVries Designs, Inc.) originally as a sort of church recreation facility, the owners soon realized what a great facility they had and began marketing it to the general public.

Measuring between 4,836 and 7,093 yards, Pilgrim's Run features numerous elevated tees and greens, plenty of water and a wilderness-worth of towering trees. One great feature is that the underbrush among the trees on most holes is so sparse that you can usually find wayward balls. Getting them out cleanly is a different story.

Approximately 45 minutes from Grand Rapids lies Stanwood, where you'll find two of the most critically acclaimed courses in the state, Tullymore Golf Club and St. Ives Golf Club. It's been years since I was last at St. Ives, and even longer since I attended the grand opening of Tullymore.

While St. Ives is still much the same picturesque, if somewhat quirky, Jerry Matthews layout that has garnered five-star ratings from major publications, Tullymore's surroundings have somewhat changed the atmosphere of that Jim Engh design. But it is Tullymore that now shines the brightest of these two stars.

St. Ives ($65-$125) plays from 4,821 to 6,702 yards over rolling, meandering woodlands and wetlands. After a start that is, in my view, uncomfortable -- with a short, downhill, lay-up opening tee shot on a long par 4 with trouble left, right, middle and short -– the routing becomes more appealing. The up-and-down jaunt culminates in a 429-to-560-yard par 5 and 332-to-448-yard par 4 that reminds you of the old saying about not counting your chickens before they're hatched.

Ever since its opening in September 2001, Tullymore (4,668 to 7,250 yards, $75-$160) has been ranked in the top 5 courses in the entire state (public or private) and has also received a five-star rating and was named in 2010 by Golf Digest as the 15th-best public course in the entire nation.

The creeping, white sand bunkering is like none other in the state. In short, Tullymore is one of a few true "must plays" not only in the Grand Rapids area, but in all of Michigan, and, indeed, the entire nation. And at rates that are on average 1/2 the cost of other "Top 20 You Can Play" courses, it's arguably the best value in public golf in the country.

Grand Rapids accommodations

Tullymore and St. Ives both now have their own lodges and villa accommodations, which is good, because prior to the opening of these first-class digs, there was not really any place of quality to stay closer than Grand Rapids. In fact, the readers of Golf World voted the resort facilities at Tullymore as the top golf resort in Michigan in 2010.

The clubhouse at Tullymore, opened in 2008 as part of a $53 million investment in the facilities, boasts one of the best menus you will ever find at a public golf course. Every dish is bursting with flavors from ingredients you wouldn't expect to find in back-woods Michigan. I enjoyed the most exquisite mussels in garlic and Parmesan sauce, and chicken picata on a bed of red quinoa in a langostino lobster sauce that still makes my mouth water every time I think about it.

If you'd prefer to stay in downtown Grand Rapids, the apex accommodations are found at the Amway Grand Plaza. So-named because it (like many of the attractions in Grand Rapids) sprang from the deep pockets of the Amway empire, the Amway Grand Plaza offers wonderful views of the city and the Grand River, as well as world-class amenities and service. The hotel is within walking distance of most of the best restaurants, bars, and attractions in the city.

Grand Rapids dining, drinking and diversions

Grand Rapids was recently voted "Beer City USA" in a nation-wide online poll (tied with Asheville, N.C.), so there is no shortage of watering holes in town, several of which brew their own craft beers. Two of the most famous are the Founders Brewery Taproom and HopCat.

The Founders Taproom offers all of the revered craft-brewer's ales and lagers, along with twice weekly music and a beer-inspired menu of hearty pub fare.

HopCat serves up a legendary selection from around the world, consisting of some 48 beers on tap and more than 150 bottled varieties. If you're feeling adventurous, try one of the Belgian sour ales on tap -- this is one of the few places in the entire U.S. that I've ever seen these distinctive, delicious ales fresh from the cask.

The quality of Grand Rapids's beers has brought with it a burgeoning food scene. The crème de la crème of the local foodie culture is Bistro Bella Vita ("The Bistro" to locals). Located right next door to Van Andel Arena (which draws nearly as many concerts and shows as any place in Detroit), serves up dishes spotlighting fresh, local ingredients with delicate, subtle flavors that pair well with local brews, of which many are on tap.

Grand Rapids may be short on name recognition, but it has no shortage of golf, beer, or fun. Golfers from Chicago to Indianapolis to Detroit to Cleveland will find it easily within reach and more than worth the drive north.

For more information, visit experienceGR.com.

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, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


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