Lake Express takes golfers to land of beautiful courses

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

MUSKEGON, Mich. - The biggest water hazard for golfers in the Midwest has been conquered.

Since opening last year, the Lake Express ferry between Muskegon and Milwaukee has made quite a splash for travelers between the Badger and Wolverine states. During prime travel months, the ferry, which runs three times daily between its ports, books nearly solid every trip.

The Lake Express was created for family vacations and outdoor lovers who strap their canoes to the tops of their cars and their bikes to the back and head toward the northern reaches of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. In reality, though, the boat is the ideal golf cart connecting golfers to two of the world's best destinations - northern Michigan's golf mecca and Kohler's fabulous American Club.

A ferry ride across Lake Michigan is nothing new - the Badger Ferry from Ludington to Manitowoc has been running for 51 years - but the Lake Express cuts the ride time in half, from roughly four hours to 2 ½ hours.

Now there are some drawbacks to the ferry ride - the high cost ($85 for adults and $118 per car) and a sometimes rocky ride - but it sure beats the alternatives. Driving the 280-mile trek will almost ensure a foursome getting stuck in the constant traffic jam of the greater Chicago area. And nobody likes the pitfalls of flying these days -- the waiting at the airport, the cramped seats, the cost of renting a car or worrying that your luggage and clubs will be damaged (or lost) along the way.

The Lake Express, a 192-foot aluminum catamaran that cost $18 million to build, makes the trip more manageable. The ferry can carry up to 250 passengers and 46 cars. Owned by Lubar & Co., a family-run Milwaukee investment firm, the four-engine boat cuts through the water at 40 mph. The speed can create some uneasiness for the slight of stomach, so be sure to bring your motion sickness medicine. Young children seem particularly susceptible to getting sick, but most handle the trip no problem.

To pass the time, passengers can play cards, watch the Disney movies shown on the screens of the main cabin or eat from the boat's deli, which serves hot and cold sandwiches.

Business travelers can use their cell phones or work on their laptops. Golfers, meanwhile, can daydream about the links that lie ahead on either side of the lake. They are some of the best in the Midwest, if not the country.

Golf, Wisconsin style

Although the 7,332-yard Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls and the Brown Deer Park Golf Course, the home to a PGA Tour's U.S. Bank Championship, are good choices, the American Club, just one hour north of the ferry port in Kohler, is one of America's dream golf destinations.

It's got: Four Pete Dye golf courses; the Midwest's only five-diamond resort; nine restaurants; and the world-class Kohler Waters Spa. It's all there. Even a two-hour tour of the Kohler factory, where they make all those fancy commodes, is a unique treat.

While the 36-hole Blackwolf Run complex is fun and demanding, the 36-hole home of Whistling Straits is the real reason golfers might start jumping on the ferry in droves. It's like transporting to another world to the linksland of the British Isles.

The Straits course, home to the 2004 PGA Championship, can only be described as an out-of-body golf experience. The ocean-like coastal views are stunning and some of the manufactured fescue grass dunes are six stories high, tamed only by a flock of sheep imported to eat the grasses down. Every shot seems brutally challenging and the wind off of the lake remains mentally taxing throughout the round. The walking-only policy with a caddy makes it all the more memorable.

The 7,201-yard Irish course doesn't have the picturesque views or the grandeur in its dunes and landscape of its older sister, but the layout is more playable, more affordable and definitely a must-play. Just do it before you try the Straits or you'll feel disappointed.

Your foursome will be talking about the golf, not only the whole ferry trip home, but for a long, long time.

Michigan's west coast

Some of Michigan's best, most underrated golf courses are within a long tee shot of the ferry stop in Muskegon.

The nearest must play is the 6,900-yard Thoroughbred, a tough Arthur Hills design in Rothbury. The course roams through 400 acres of forest on the Double JJ Ranch & Golf Resort, the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi River. The resort is getting ready for a $40 million renovation, so its fame is only sure to grow.

The best stop might be Pilgrim's Run in Pierson. It rates as one of the state's best values. Created by Mike DeVries and Kris Shumaker, the 7,084-yard course opened in 1998 and costs only $52 to play on weekends. In Grand Rapids, Rees Jones created a gem in the 7,128-yard Thousand Oaks.

Farther south in South Haven, the 6,984-yard HawksHead Links rolls in and around rugged sandy dunes.

Wispy fescue grasses and the whipping winds of the nearby lake provide the course's defenses. The charm of the nine-room Inn at HawksHead, a magnificently restored Old English Tudor Mansion, and its fine dining complement the Hills-designed course.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Old Channel Trail G.C.

    William Leeke wrote on: Dec 10, 2005

    Old Channel Trail G.C. is 20 min. north of the Muskegon terminal. It has 27 holes on Lake Michigan and is one of the unknown gems.