Southwest Michigan is worth all the trouble

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- If you want to get to Southwest Michigan from anywhere in Illinois, especially from Chicago, you better really want to get to Southwest Michigan. Far away? Hardly. From downtown Chicago it's fewer than 70 miles and from the Illinois/Indiana border it's just 25 miles. What makes the trek like trudging through mud? It's the traffic; Chicago's residual rush-hour derby and that darned Interstate-80/94 stretch through the Gary, Indiana area. Combined they are simply brutal.

So why do so many people from the big city, including Chicago's Mayor Daley, Oprah, members of the Chicago Bears, players from the Cubs and Sox, and everyone in between head for that little corner of Michigan whenever they get a chance? There are several answers. Some have summer homes, some find the bed-and-breakfasts, the slower pace, and the Lake Michigan shoreline charming and quaint. Others? Well, they go for the golf. Golf that makes fighting your way through Traffic Hell worth it.

Now, granted, once you're survived the nightmare, the traffic becomes a non-issue on the other side of the border and the only thing holding you back is the Michigan State Police. There are usually plenty on Interstate-94 south of Benton Harbor. They know Chicagoans have little patience.

The best route for a full-fledged Southwest Michigan golf bender is to start in the New Buffalo area, just over the Indiana border, then move up to Holland and Saugatuck, west to Augusta, (yes, Augusta, Michigan) and then south to a little out-of-the-way place called Centreville. From there you can head southwest back home. Give yourself extra time for a few stops along the way, and don't forget, Michigan is on the Eastern time zone. You don't want to miss a single tee time.

Must Plays

Whittaker Woods Golf Club off I-94's Exit-1 in New Buffalo is a unassuming, yet quite charming log home clubhouse. Inside is a great restaurant, O'Brien's, a sister restaurant to the O'Brien's in Chicago 's Old Town neighborhood. And next to the clubhouse sits a putting green and a golf cart path that leads its way to one of the finer places to play in Michigan. Whitaker Woods is a Ken Killian design that holds your hand and guides you through the first few holes, relatively gentle ones. But then gets tougher with five, six, and seven measuring out at 532 yards, 450 yards and 464 yards. The back also starts with ease, but finishes with gusto. The 15th hole is a 233-yard par-3 with a pond on the left side and a clover shaped green. The 16th is a long par-5, and 18 is a rough and tumble dogleg left with a green guarded by water. Green fees are $55-$80, carts included.

Lake Michigan Hills Golf Club: The club sits just off Interstate-196 in Benton Harbor, in fact you can see the course from the road. You know what that's like when you see a good golf course from the highway, you just want to go take a look. No reason not to. There were times this course was a little rough around the edges, but that's no longer the case. It's been given some loving care and remains one of the toughest courses you'll play in the region. From the first hole, a 449-yard par-4, you know you have your hands full. Good players always talk about Lake Michigan Hills. It's demanding from start to finish. Green fees are a steal - $30-$50.

The Ravines Golf Club: Can you guess the terrain from the name? Sure you can. The Ravines, has, yep, plenty of ravines. This Arnold Palmer designed course is simply on a tremendous piece of land just off the northern section of I-196 outside Saugatuck. From the tips is golf course is the Godzilla of Michigan. It stretches out to 7132 yards, has a rating of 73.9 and a slope of 142. Out of breath yet? How about a par-5 that measures 623 yards form the back tees to knock that last bit of wind out of your lungs? Or how about the daunting 12th hole? It's a 165-yard par-3 that demands a tee shot over a gorge. You'll hold your breath to see if the ball lands safely. Green fees are $39-$69 with the cart part of the deal.

Drive south and east into Kalamazoo County and lock your sights on Augusta, Michigan. This is the perfect name for two of the regions best resort golf clubs. Both have their own unique flavors, and both are certainly worth the golf and at least one overnight stay.

Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort: This place simply doesn't get enough attention, and maybe on second thought, that's a good thing. Gull Lake is certainly not a secret. It's been around for more than 40 years, but in all that time it has never received the publicity of some of the heavily marketed Northern Michigan resorts. It should. There are five golf courses at Gull Lake, fishing and boating, great accommodations geared toward families and golf groups with Fairway Villas available. Gull Lake East and West are the older of the five courses and remain good, strong tracks. But the real eye pleasers are Stonehedge South and North. Both courses are nestled in thick woodlands, sit on rolling terrain with big elevation changes, and strike one as courses that would fit in quite well up north. The fifth course, Bedford Valley, is the testy one. It's the more challenging of the bunch with fairways lined by huge, old oaks. Two day-one night golf packages start at $142.

Yarrow Golf and Conference Center: This retreat has been around for more than 10 years, but the golf is new, and it came to Yarrow in a most unique way. The retreat opened with just nine guest rooms and dining for fewer than two dozen people. It was meant to be a serious getaway for relaxation, spiritual renewal, and inner growth. But in 2001 a tornado ripped through the property and wasted thousands of mature pines and hardwoods. The owners weren't about to let this act of God destroy their vision for Yarrow. They hired architect Ray Hearn and turned the devastated land into a monument to the areas natural beauty; an 18-hole golf course that fits seamlessly into the make-up of this secluded resort. One night stay golf packages start at $144 per person.

Island Hills Golf Club: South of Kalamazoo in the town of Centreville you'll find another Ray Hearn design. Not unlike Yarrow, Island Hills is a lonely man's heaven. The solitude here is inspiring. No two fairways run parallel and thick woods between holes allows for undisturbed beauty giving each hole it's own showcase. Recently, Island Hills redesigned some holes to accommodate a new development of homes. Although homes around a golf course are not popular things to the purist, this development is far from intrusive and has actually helped to lower the green fees. It will cost you between $39 and $52 to play depending on the day of the week.

Eating Out

Not only can you get a taste of a Chicago steak in New Buffalo at O'Brien 's at the Whittaker Woods clubhouse, but not far from there you can experience historic New Buffalo. The building where Hannah's Restaurant sits was constructed in 1895 as a private home, it became a hotel in the 1920's and then a restaurant. Today is it one of the most popular places to eat in the area. In Saugatuck there are two spots you mustn't miss - Phil's Bar and Grille, for a lively, high energy atmosphere, and The Mermaid for good waterfront seating and boat watching. In Kalamazoo, there are plenty of choices, but a stop at the Olde Peninsula Brewpub Restaurant is one of the best.

Stay and Play

Depending on how much time you want to spend in the area, consider staying at the Gull Lake View Resort or the Yarrow Conference Center. Gull Lake has its very comfortable Fairway Villas and Yarrow offers 42 upscale rooms in two buildings just off the main lodge. There's the Days Inn in Benton Harbor, the Comfort Suites outside Kalamazoo, and other similar hotels all around area, but but much of the charm that is so much a part of the area comes from the dozens of memorable bed and breakfasts. The Chestnut House in St. Joseph is elegant with a great view of Lake Michigan and the Twin Gables Inn in Saugatuck has a great sun porch, fireplaces and gourmet breakfasts.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Lake Michigan Hills Stay and Play

    Jeff Munchow wrote on: Jul 7, 2009

    Lake Michigan Hills is now offering stay and play accommodations, details can be found at


    • RE: Lake Michigan Hills Stay and Play

      JIM JUSTICE wrote on: Jul 6, 2013