The Wolverine: Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
Acme, MI - Gary Player is famous as both a fierce competitor and a generous man. Off the course, Player has worked throughout his career to promote the sport of golf among the young and underprivileged, and his charitable foundation has provided funds to build schools and medical facilities in his homeland of South Africa.
Player's new signature golf course at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, The Wolverine, is remarkable in that it simultaneously reflects both the competitive and kind sides of its talented designer.
First open for play in 1999, the par-72, 7,038-yard Wolverine challenges even the most competitive low-handicappers with some long carries off the back two of the four sets of tees. Postcard-perfect bunkering with pronounced mounding and a vexing assortment of water hazards keep even the best players honest.
Player's generosity and sincere desire for people of all skill-levels and age groups to enjoy the game he loves is most evident in the positioning of the forward two tees on each hole (with some holes sporting as many as six tee boxes to maximize choice).
On every hole, the red tees take all (or nearly all) of the trouble out of the picture, and the whites are often similarly kind. In addition, the view from all of the tees allows golfers to see what manner of trouble awaits: no hidden bunkers or concealed water here - thanks, Gary.
Another feature of the Wolverine that aids higher handicap players is the bowl-shaped design of a number of the greens - for example No. 13, where water rings the backside of the green, has a distinct rise in the back of the putting surface to save all but the most violently topped approaches from Evel Kenieveling into the murky depths.
A further player-friendly characteristic is the gently upward-sloping sides of many fairways, which serve to contain moderate "power fades" (i.e., slices) and "draw pulls" (i.e., hooks). And last but not least, it is important to note that every green here can be accessed via bump-and-run, i.e., no forced carries onto the greens. All told, you have a course that sets up nicely for everybody from tour pros to travel writers with back troubles (ahem).
As you approach Grand Traverse Resort and Spa from either direction on M72, you will catch a tantalizing glimpse of a few of the Wolverine's holes, and will be especially distracted by the imported white sand (imported from Cleveland, anyway), which fills the aforementioned dramatic bunkers.
The resort and Player chose to run a couple of holes along the road in order to give new arrivals at the resort the feeling that they were entering golfer heaven, sort of like the way the Pearly Gates clue you in that you've reached the real thing.
Aside from the few holes along the road, you will feel as if you, the course, and nature are one: The first nine holes meander through low-lying wetlands, while the back nine roll and bend their way through highlands covered with hardwood groves and cherry orchards. The back nine also offers lovely views of the Grand Traverse Bay - one of the most protected and beautiful fingers of Lake Michigan.
Several holes here sport blind tee shots that require you to trust your driver (and yardage book). One example of this feature is No. 6, a gorgeous dogleg left around the wetlands: Aim toward the tower of the resort, which you can see on the distant horizon.
Another example is No. 8, a medium-length par 5 (508 from the tips, 370 from the reds, with the other two tees equally spaced in between), where you should aim to the right of the far electrical pole that you'll see in the distance.
And finally, No. 16 will test your rapport with your driver. A long par 4 (470 yards from the tips), this hole also doglegs severely around a pond off the tee and woods to the right. The ideal tee ball will shoot the gap between the enormous oak on the hill in front of the tee stations and the towering pines to the right of the oak.
If you can muster the courage to go for it, and then actually succeed ("Beers on me!"), you will cut a tremendous chunk off the corner. Of course if you are weak of heart (or running short of golf balls), safer play is to the wide fairway to the left of the oak.
The most dramatic differences between the two forward and two back sets of tees are on No. 4, where the back tees require at least a 200-yard carry from the back sets, while the whites cut the distance in half, and the reds require no carry at all to reach the short grass.
Likewise, on the fabulous par-5 finishing hole - a monster from the tips at 562 yards - those who always choose the wrong tees for their skill level (we know who we are, don't we?) will curse their egos when they are faced with close to 200 yards of carry from the back tees, and less than half of that from the whites (less than a third of it from the reds).
The collection of par 3s on The Wolverine, while perhaps not as threatening as those at some other courses, play long and tough. Water only comes into play on the left side and long, two places where higher-handicappers don't often miss; however, the bunkering can be brutal ("Has anyone seen Tommy? Get some rope and we'll check the bunker."). And the greens, with their deceiving undulations and unique shapes, place a premium on your ability to hit a very specific target.
For example, No. 12, forces you to stick a green as wide and shallow as a supermodel's smile, or else find bunkers front left, front right, and back center.
Lest you walk away from your computer today believing that you can tame The Wolverine, one last piece of warning: The distinct natural contours and features of the land can turn even fairway drives into troublesome seconds. Case in point, Hole 10, an awesome 436-yard par 4 running downhill and lined with trees on both sides.
A giant hemlock tree blocks the right third of the fairway, which itself is a veritable roller coaster of dips and humps, making for many awkward lies.
The Wolverine is the third jewel in the triple-crown of courses at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa (see accompanying reviews), and it is an absolute, unadulterated pleasure to play. The condition of the course is perfect, from the dead-level tee boxes to the bent grass fairways, from the billiard-table smooth greens to the seamless integration of the course into the surrounding naturally blessed countryside.
Both the resort and Mr. Player have a course that inspires and challenges golfers at all levels of the game without sucking the fun out of your round. One would expect nothing less from one of the greatest players and promoters that golf has ever known.
September 2, 2002