Thunder Bay Golf Resort: Where You're Part of the Family

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Hillman, MI - Ever wish you had family in the golf business? You know, someone with a course, and a few extra rooms, who you could go visit for some great, relaxing golf, good food, and a little "wish-we-could-stay-here-forever" hospitality? Well, there's a big family in Hillman, Michigan - the management and staff of Thunder Bay Golf Resort - who would love to have you. In terms of value, golf quality, and most importantly atmosphere, any other resort in the state would be hard-pressed to top Thunder Bay.

30 years ago, Thunder Bay Golf Resort owner Jack E. Matthais laid the foundations of what has grown into a 34-unit, year-round resort, featuring 18 holes of solid golf in the summer, and elk-viewing in the spring, fall, and winter. Thunder Bay is still a family operation: Jack's daughter Melanie is the GM, and his son-in-law, Joe Libby, is the resort's golf professional. And since each of the 84 employees at the resort share in the profits, they all have a vested interest in making every single guest feel a part of the family, too.

Occupying 400 acres of pristine countryside about half-way between I75 and Alpena, Thunder Bay Golf Resort offers something for just about every taste throughout the year. The first thing you notice pulling up to the clubhouse/reception/restaurant is the golf course: a par-73, 6,677-yard track laid out by Jack himself and built nine-holes at a time (front nine in 1971, back in 1991). Recently rebuilt tees and greens, meticulous landscaping and gardening, and the loving care of the resort's family/staff make this a real sleeper course (see accompanying review).

Thunder Bay is perhaps most famous for its amazingly affordable stay-n-play deals, such as the 90-Hole Sunrise Challenge, a golf package that allows you to play three of the top seven public courses in the entire state (according to Golf Digest) along with the resort course. That's right: For as little as $85 dollars a day (per person during off-peak season, quad occupancy), you get three nights lodging, two rounds on the resort course, and a round each on Arthur Hills's Red Hawk (East Tawas), Jerry Matthews's Elk Ridge (Atlanta, see accompanying review), and Rees Jones's Black Lake (Onaway, see accompanying review). Even golfers with champagne tastes and lite-beer budgets can savor the very best golf that Michigan has to offer.

And if 90 holes is more golf than you want to play, 72 and 54-hole challenge packages are also available. (Just don't come crying to me later that you wish you'd played all of the courses!)

But golf isn't the only thing to do at Thunder Bay Golf Resort. 150 acres of the property is part of the home range of the Lower Peninsula's wild elk herd, and in the autumn, winter, and spring, resort guests ride out into the bush on wagons and sleighs to within a lob-wedge of these magnificent animals.

If your preferences run toward inside activities, the resort also hosts murder mystery weekends, in which a series of cadavers get carted away in hearses, and guests scour the resort from Friday evening to the climactic Sunday dinner, trying to figure out who done it. (Hint: The elk did NOT do it.) These weekends combining mystery with elk-viewing are immensely popular, drawing groups of elk-watchers and super-sleuths from as far away as South Carolina.

Yet despite the hectic schedule, Jack, Melanie, Joe, and the rest of the resort family always have time for a chat, a smile, and individual treatment for each and every guest. Whether you are staying in the massive, 1400-sq. ft. golf chalets, the 950-sq. ft. golf villa, or the 700-sq. ft. luxury or whirlpool suites, you'll be ferried back and forth from clubhouse and restaurant to your room, just about any time of the day or night.

Most importantly, though, you get all the service and fun for a fraction of what resorts on the crowded, over-booked western side of the state charge. For as little as $57/night (per person, quad occupancy), golfers can stay in a whirlpool suite and play unlimited golf on the resort course. The hearty, local specialties of the resort's Loft Restaurant (featuring whitefish, smoked pork chops, duck, and walleye) also come at a reasonable price, with entrees from $12-20.

The only caveat at Thunder Bay is that at present, it is geared towards adults. By late 2002, the resort will be expanded to include a hotel, indoor pool, recreation center and bowling alley, but for now, young children may find themselves a bit adrift at the resort. This isn't to say the staff isn't accommodating toward kiddies - grill manager Terry Smith is armed with a variety of sugary breakfast cereals and coloring books. And after the cart girl took my two-year old daughter on a cart ride, my little girl begged me never to leave - she even cried when we drove away.

After all, it's always sad to say good-bye to family.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for, 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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