A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort expands with The Torch

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

KEWADIN, Mich. -- What would you do if you owned the busiest golf course in northern Michigan, complete with golf condos, along with a couple of hundred additional hilltop acres overlooking one of the three most beautiful inland lakes in the world? You'd build another 18 holes!

This is precisely the fortunate position that the owners of A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort, find themselves in. According to GM Mike Brown, the crowded market and flat economy haven't deterred die-hard golfers from flocking to A-Ga-Ming. "We do 22,000 to 25,000 rounds a season," says Brown. Not bad considering the typical season is less than six months long. "That's why we need the second course."

Overlooking beautiful Torch Lake

For all of the first-rate golf located in and around the Traverse City area, there is no overabundance of bona fide golf resorts. Among knowledgeable golf-trippers, though, A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort is a top choice for several reasons.

First, there are the condos, which boast Jacuzzi tubs and views of Torch Lake, one of the three most beautiful inland lakes in the world, according to National Geographic Magazine. The one-, two-, and three-bedroom units sleep a total of 100 guests at present, and plans are in the works for another 50 units to go with the new golf course.

The condos are perfect for groups and couples, and the rates cannot be beaten. Package deals run from $199-$249 for three rounds of golf and lodging per person. According to Mike Brown, 75% of business is return guests, who know a great value when they see one. In addition to the new course and expanded lodging, the resort is putting a new focus on family groups. One plan, says Brown, is to install an indoor simulator in the clubhouse for use during the long winters, and to begin offering cross-country skiing and snowshoeing during the off-season as well.

Another recent offering is a golf package called the Traverse City Triple Play, which includes lodging and golf at A-Ga-Ming, and rounds at The Chief in Bellaire and High Pointe Golf Club in Williamsburg. "A-Ga-Ming is already among one of the big resorts [in the Traverse City area]," explains Brown, "but we needed to pool our resources to play with the bigger multi-course resorts."

The second reason to love A-Ga-Ming is the current 6,667-yard, par-72 layout, which is the sort of course that makes northern Michigan golf some of the best in the world. The classic Jerry Matthews design was built in stages, with the first nine opening in 1976, and the second in 1986 (along with a renovation of the original nine). Matthews is underrated by some in the Michigan golf press, who find his reticence to move large amounts of dirt and his affinity for elevated tees and visually intimidating but eminently playable holes to be out of step with the current push to make courses longer, tougher, and tricked-up.

It's hard to argue with Matthews' success, however. His philosophy of "natural course design" has earned his creations numerous awards, including two 5-star ratings from Golf Digest. A-Ga-Ming is cut from the same cloth as the best Matthews designs: Lots of naturally elevated tees and greens, devilish cape holes that force sound club selection, and signature par-3s.

The architect's trademark attention to detail is also evident in the yardages and positioning of the four tee boxes. Even from the most forward tees, the shortened holes remain interesting, unlike some courses where the "ladies'" tees get stuck into the ends of the fairways as an afterthought. This, along with the condos, explains why the course is so popular with couples looking for a romantic golf getaway.

The only major weakness in the routing is the first hole, which is rated as the hardest on the course. The fairway careens downhill toward a shallow green guarded by water in front and trees on the right. The required approach from a downhill lie is a bit too much to ask of your average player on the first hole.

Things quickly, and mercifully, improve, however. Both of the par-5s on the front side offer birdie or even eagle opportunities at just over 500 yards each from the tips. Still, one needs to stay in the fairways and choose clubs wisely because the greens are small and well-fortified with hazards.

The closing three holes offer magnificent vistas out over Torch Lake. The 209-yard 16th has all the characteristics of a Matthews par-3. It plays longer than you think from any tee, especially the tips, and even with just a slight breeze off the lake, your ball will get knocked down short of the putting surface. From the gold and red tees, the tee shot is uphill, making it a completely different, but no less enjoyable hole.

The short par-4 18th requires more strength than most 360-yard holes, because it rises steadily from the tees up to the amphitheater green, which gives you one more on-course view of the lake. The real treat is up at the crow's nest clubhouse, though, where you can enjoy a million-dollar vista and a locally brewed beer on the deck.

The Torch

Rumor had it that Matthews might be retiring upon completion of the new 18 at A-Ga-Ming, the working name of which is The Torch. A quick phone call to Matthews' Lansing office, however, laid that rumor to rest.

"I don't think so," chuckled Matthews in response to the rumor. "The [golf course building] business is drying up, and I'm getting up there in years, but I'm not hanging up my shoes yet. I enjoy poking around in the dirt too much."

Nevertheless, Matthews said he wants The Torch to turn out just right: "I want it to be special. From the ridge [upon which much of the course is perched], you can see Torch Lake and all the way back to Highway 31. You can see 14 of the 18 holes from the [new] clubhouse. It's a huge, sweeping valley, and the panoramic view will be spectacular."

The process of fine shaping has begun, overseen by Steve St. James of Northern Golf Development, a long-time associate of Matthews who started in the course-building business with the legendary Robert Trent Jones, Sr. "The Torch will be very playable without being boring," promises St. James.

Present plans are for The Torch to stretch out to around 7,000 yards. Like A-Ga-Ming, there will be four separate teeing areas on each hole. Unlike A-Ga-Ming, the greens at The Torch will be large, averaging between 6,500 to 7,000 square feet. Like the best Matthews layouts, the dramatic naturally occurring landforms on site will lend themselves to easy-flowing routing and memorable holes. "I like taking advantage of what the land has to offer," says the not-soon-to-be-retiring Matthews.

Fortunately for him and for golfers the land at A-Ga-Ming has so much to offer.

Course vitals

Mike Brown, General Manager
Greens fees: $49-$60/18 holes w/cart, peak season; twilight and off-season rates; golf packages from $69 to $249 per person/night
Yardage/Rating/Slope: 6667/73.2/133; 6283/71.5/128; 5494/71.1/127; 5135/69.2/124

Click here for more information about Traverse City on- and off-course highlights.

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, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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