Double JJ offers a rollicking good time, both at the rodeo and on the Thoroughbred

By Cynthia Boal Janssens, Contributor

ROTHBURY, Mich. -- As you drive into the Double JJ Ranch and Golf Resort for the first time, you realize you are in for a totally different
vacation experience.

First, you pass the stockade-type entry to the Back Forty Ranch on your right. Then, on your left, you go by boarding stables and a big rodeo ring, complete with bleachers. Then, on the right again, a large paddock filled with horses. Behind that, you can see small brown cabins scattered about like in an old-time resort.

And finally, down the road a piece, you come to the sign for the Thoroughbred Lofts and Golf Course. Just what is this place?

It is the Double JJ and there is no resort like it in Michigan, not to mention golf resort. You kind of have to suspend reality when you arrive here and be prepared for anything.

Because Double JJ offers virtually any and every type of entertainment on its 1,500 acres, including one of the most beautiful -- and toughest -- golf challenges in Michigan.

The Double JJ is so unique that it still survives when most resorts of the dude-ranch type are long gone. It first welcomed guests in 1937 as the Jack and Jill Ranch and has operated continuously since. Largely, it still succeeds because of the dedication of its owners, Bob and Joan Lipsitz, who purchased the resort in 1988 from Walter "Wally" Wojack who continues as a partner.

Over the years, the resort has expanded and today has three distinct parts. There is the original ranch, where the cabins are basic with no televisions or phones. Then there is the Back Forty Family Ranch, which features new log cabins (with satellite TV, no less) and an RV park. And there is the Thoroughbred complex with a hotel, restaurant, conference center, condos and the Arthur Hills-designed golf course that will mark its 10th anniversary this year.

Adult guests are invited to visit all parts of the ranch and partake in all activities, for a fee, of course. Children are limited to specified areas, but there is so much to entertain them that they certainly don't feel deprived.

We arrived early on a Friday so we could play the Thoroughbred before the weekend crowd arrived. We'd heard much about this course. It is one of the toughest in the state with a 147/74.4 rating from the tips, but we were not prepared for its beauty.

It is, quite simply, a stunner. The kind of course where on almost every hole you pause at the tee to say, "This is gorgeous." One after another, cut through the woods, around ponds and marshes, with nary a house in sight.

Bob Lipsitz says Art Hills designed the course on a napkin the very day that he first saw the site. "We had interviewed a lot of architects that day," Lipsitz explained. "When Hills walked in, he told us he had gotten up early that morning and walked it. Then he flipped over a piece of paper and began sketching...we were amazed."

Hills, who is based in Sylvania, Ohio, was present for the anniversary festivities and while he says it wasn't quite that easy, he acknowledges that the site was a natural for a golf course. This design features bent grass greens, tees and fairways.

As a woman, I approached the course with trepidation but was reassured by the 126/69.5 rating (4,851 yards) and surprised myself by shooting a decent score, while I enjoying the entire experience.

Everyone who plays the Thoroughbred will remember two holes in particular: No. 2 and No. 18. After a rather tricky first hole, which winds left and downhill to a small green, No. 2 comes at you with stunning scenery and big decisions. It winds to the left around a cranberry bog (filled with nesting geese, we noted), with a large tree to the center. It poses a big risk-reward decision for the long hitters and par is a great score. There are many who contend this is the most difficult par-4 in Michigan.

No. 18 is a dramatic finishing hole that once again winds to the left, this time around a lake (nesting swans here). Again, big hitters have to decide how much to bite off it they are even contemplating getting there in 2 or even 3. This is a hole that will have you muttering to yourself as you head off to the bar.

Oh, yes, and the scorecard states: "Horses have the right of way."

The Thoroughbred has won its share of accolades: It's been rated by Golf Digest among the top 35 resort courses in the United States, and Men's Journal has recognized it as "one of the 10 most challenging courses in America."

If you wish, you can pretty much stay in the Thoroughbred complex and never partake in the rest of the ranch activities, but that would be missing out on the fun. Especially if you bring your family along and stay at the Back Forty Ranch.

Friday evening my husband and I donned our jeans and boots and headed off to chow down at the weekly pig roast at the Back Forty, and then we went to the JJ Rodeo.

For the past 10 years, from May through October, there has been a rodeo every Friday night, open to the public. And this is the real thing: Young men and women from the area compete for points in all the traditional events like bull-riding, barrel-racing and bronc riding, while there are a number of fairly hilarious audience participation stunts. In one, children chase a calf around the ring trying to get the ribbon tied to its tail.

After the rodeo, many of the adults head on over to the Silver Dollar Saloon to dance and ride the mechanical bull.

The next day, after a hearty ranch-style breakfast, we headed off for another round on the Thoroughbred. We should have taken time to fit in a trail ride (several are offered each day), but we were saving ourselves for the course, right?

Sunday morning we enjoyed brunch at the Sundance Saloon & Steakhouse before heading back to our home in Northern Michigan. This full-service restaurant complements the many buffets that are served at the ranch.

What many people do not realize is that there are actually two distinct programs going on at the same time at the Double JJ. The original ranch is adults-only for most of the year. The ranch has its own stables, swimming pool and spa, archery and rifle ranges, rowboats, canoes and paddleboats on Big Wildcat Lake and its own bar and dining room. For some reason, the ranch attracts large numbers of female guests, almost 80 percent. And they appeared to be having a walloping good time.

The Back Forty Ranch opened in July 1998 and is open to the public and to family guests. It features a large water park with pools, hot tub and water slide. The Main Street has an ice cream parlor and crafts shop and is the site of frequent wild west shows and gunfights. It has its own riding corral. In the fall, it is transformed for Halloween with haunted barn, haunted hayride and corn maze.

The Double JJ's entertainment line-up is also impressive: Comedy improve on Sunday nights, line-dancing on Saturdays, family theater on Thursdays and even a chili cook-off.

Whew! Didn't I say there was something for everyone and just a whole lot goin' on? Families can stay in the log cabins or RV park and enjoy the fact that they can leave their children with ranch counselors while they head off for their round of golf.

Frankly, serious golfers without children in tow probably will be happy playing the course and heading onward. But if you have children or grandchildren that you'd like to bring with you on a golfing holiday, then Double JJ is definitely the place for a rollicking good time.

Double JJ Ranch and Golf Resort

5900 Water Rd. P.O. Box 94
Rothbury, MI 49452
(800) 368-2535

Double JJ is located in western Michigan, near Muskegon. Take the Winston Road/Rothbury exit off US 31 and head east. Turn left on Water Road.

The Ranch offers a wide array of pricing. You can purchase all-inclusive packages or buy lodging, activities and meals separately.

Cynthia Boal Janssens is a former newspaper writer and editor turned freelance writer. She is the former travel editor and Sunday magazine editor of The Detroit News. In addition, she has worked for newspapers in California, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Ohio University.

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