From Alpena to Oscoda, Michigan's 'Sunrise Side' is brimming with quality golf courses
The tiny towns of Hillman, Alpena, East Tawas and Oscoda don't register too often when talking about northern Michigan's best golf destinations.
That distinction belongs to Gaylord, Petoskey, Harbor Springs and Traverse City.
But collectively, these small stops along U.S. 23 can make for a fun, affordable golf vacation.
Let's get one thing straight up front. Golf on the "Sunrise Side" of the state doesn't measure up to Michigan's trendy, touristy west coast. Courses and resorts on the east side lack many of the bells and whistles of the competition near Lake Michigan. And none of the courses on the east side kiss the shores of Lake Huron or even offer water views. The region's terrain wasn't dramatically altered by glaciers centuries ago, either, so the courses tend to be flatter and less dramatic, with fewer hills, valleys and scenic vistas.
The two biggest resorts here -- Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman and Lakewood Shores Resort in Oscoda -- lack multiple restaurants and spas. Even a simple necessity, such as Wi-Fi throughout the resort, can be missing.
So what's the draw? This region delivers golf as affordable as it gets in Michigan.
"The (courses) over here are more player friendly, and they are better from a price standpoint, too," said Ken Bott, an Alpena resident. "Some over on the other side are just ridiculous."
"We are on the blue collar side of the state," said Steve Ashford, co-owner of Loggers Trace at Springport Hills in Harrisville. "We have General Motors, Ford, Chrysler retirees. They have the executives on the other side of the state."
Must-play golf courses along U.S. 23
U.S. 23 stretches roughly 100 miles from the split from I-75 north to Alpena. Along the way, there are plenty of tee times to make.
The first must-play course heading north on U.S. 23 is Red Hawk Golf Club in East Tawas. Arthur Hills has built more than a dozen golf courses in the state, including the celebrated Bay Harbor Golf Club, but Red Hawk might be his best.
Red Hawk lacks championship length at roughly 6,600 yards, but a pristine setting and a unique mix of holes make up for any lack of girth. The third hole, with an elevated tee box that sits high above a green and wetland, would look at home at Treetops Resort or Boyne Mountain Resort.
A half-hour from Red Hawk is Lakewood Shores Resort, which is home to some of the most affordable golf packages in the state.
The Gailes at Lakewood Shores Resort is ranked No. 24 by Golf Digest on its list of the state's top 25 courses for 2011-12. Before building The Gailes, rookie designer Kevin Aldridge and his father, Stan, walked many of Scotland's best courses to get a better understanding of links golf. The Gailes opened in July 1992, featuring the best attributes of Western Gailes, Carnoustie and Royal Troon. All of the nuances of links golf -- double greens, sod-wall bunkers, fescue and pot bunkers -- apply.
Aldridge's encore came at The Blackshire at Lakewood Shores Resort, which opened in 2001. Sandy soil was ideal for the long waste bunkers that frame the wooded corridors at this underrated layout. There's also a more family-friendly parkland course called The Serradella at Lakewood Shores Resort and a cool little "wee links" with 18 holes, most less than 100 yards long. The dinner menu at the resort's main dining room offers variety and flavor.
The next stop, halfway to Alpena, is Harrisville, the home of Loggers Trace at Springport Hills, a 27-hole mom-and-pop business with some interesting holes and great topography. Ashford bought the original nine holes in 1984 before designing two other nines in 1996 and 2004. Loggers Trace is a quirky kind of place that some golfers learn to love and others loathe. Stop by and decide for yourself.
Alpena used to be home to two courses that created constant confusion because of their names -- Alpena Golf Club and Alpena Country Club. The 6,583-yard country club, now called River's Edge Golf Club, went public in 2008 after an ownership change. It's considered the tougher of the two designs. The front nine of the 6,455-yard Alpena Golf Club dates to the 1930s, and it remains a throwback to the days of classic, tree-lined designs. The back nine, designed by Warner Bowen, is replete with longer holes, larger contoured greens and several ponds.
Venturing inland toward Gaylord on M-32 is Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman. Owner Jack Matthias is one of the state's great golf entrepreneurs. He built this 6,712-yard, par-73 course, which opened in 1990, by hand during an era when a tougher course was considered a better one. Matthias' layout feels constricted off the tee at times, especially the ninth and 10th holes. Most of the course, however, is well-conceived and interesting to play. The signature shot is the approach on No. 17 -- over a rock wall and pond to an elevated green.
"I deliberately made it tougher," Matthias said. "I regret that we are a little tougher. They (golfers) don't score as well as their home course."
The deluxe suites in the lodge are spacious with kitchenettes and a separate living area, and it's all just a short walk from the clubhouse and restaurant.
Matthias built an RV park for big rigs and hosts theme weekends for quilting and wine lovers. His signature events are fall and winter elk viewing rides within the 160 acres of woods he owns. These dinner retreats end with a spectacular meal in a well-appointed hunting cabin. In the fall, golfers can play a round before the ride. The winter trip ranks among the top 10 sled rides in the country by USA Today.
"The rides are literally over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house," Matthias said. "The quality of the food is exceptional. It's a world-class experience."
Not bad for a region of the state that is too often overlooked.