Thunder Bay Golf Resort Course: A Real Sunrise SideSurprise in Hillman

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Hillman, MI - One problem with the phenomenal courses in northern Michigan is that they are simply too pricey for most folks to play repeatedly. They're also a bit salty for local residents, lucky enough to live in God's country, but unlucky that most of the good golf land has been devoted to the "Best in the State" bunch.

An exception to this sad rule is the resort course at Thunder Bay Golf Resort in Hillman, Michigan. This par-73, 6,677-yard sleeper is quite likely the best course up north that you've never heard of, in terms of conditions, layout, and particularly value and service. Perfect for every golfing occasion, from weekly leagues to unlimited play resort packages to personal lessons from Pro Joe Libby, the Thunder Bay Resort Course is a very pleasant "Sunrise Side" surprise.

If you book at Thunder Bay Resort on a golf trip, you've probably been lured to this remote, serene corner of Lower Peninsula wilderness by one of the resort's incredibly affordable "Sunrise Challenge" packages, most of which include one or more rounds at Red Hawk, Elk Ridge, Black Lake, and the resort course. You would be excused, initially, in taking the resort course to be a footnote to the world-class tracks included in the various Sunrise Challenge package options. But only initially: Because after you end up scoring as well or even better on the high-slope-rated famous courses than you did on the resort course, you come to the realization that it holds its own as part of the local golf scene.

Course designer and owner, Jack E. Matthias, incorporated some clever yet solid design features into the layout. Gregarious, down-to-earth Pro Joe Libby notes that Jack took the Crenshaw approach to greenside bunkering: "More than two is just window dressing." And when it comes to par 5s, "Jack hates big hitters to reach his par 5s in two," explains Joe. "So you have to hit precision irons or fairway woods off several tees. And the short par-4 9th [just 310 yards from the tips] is a real equalizer for long-hitters."

Of course, he didn't need to tell this to me and my 9th-hole snowman.

Value and atmosphere are paramount here: Two full-time gardeners add the small touches, such as colorful flowerbeds at turnarounds in the cart paths, and Superintendent Tim Romel keeps the varied, undulating bentgrass greens smooth and true (yet not intimidatingly fast at just 7.5 on the stimpmeter), although a few spots on the bluegrass fairways do show a hint of unevenness. Both Joe's clubhouse staff and Tim's grounds crew greet every player with a wave and a smile, and do a fantastic job blending unobtrusively into the background, unlike certain big-name courses, where the crews seem to surround you on every hole.

Joe was kind enough to countenance my inconsistent game and show me around his recently upgraded track, complete with a few rebuilt greens and tee boxes. The blind tee shot on the par-4, 352-yard 1st hole is the only completely blind tee shot on the entire course, so don't be discouraged if you pull one over the hill and into the pond down the left side of the fairway. (If you chunk your approach into the second pond fronting the green, however, just remember you can't blame the blind tee shot for that.)

No. 8, a 516-yard par 5, is one of the holes requiring precision and strategy right out of the blocks: Play a driver down the left side of the fairway, or fairway wood to be safer. Your second shot needs to stay short of the totally invisible water around which the fairway bends and narrows. The green is deep and tight, so even with a wedge on your third shot, sticking it on the green is not automatic.

The 9th (310 yards, par 4)…well, I just don't want to talk about the hairpin dogleg they call "The Equalizer" (read: score-wrecker).

The 10th and 11th are two par 5s in a row, at 513 yards and 488 yards, respectively. The 10th features the biggest green on the course, at 10,000 sq. ft. (unusual for a par 5). The 11th's rebuilt and newly elevated green perches atop a ledge fronted by a devilish pond and a postcard-quality 1,100-stone revetment. And the third par 5 on the back, the huge 572-yard 15th, demands nothing more than a long, straight drive off the high tees to avoid water right and left.

The 17th is probably "the one they write home about," according to Joe. A slight dogleg right through the trees, this hole sets up very narrow, since you need to be in the center of the fairway to have a reasonably safe approach over yet another ball-eating pond and an impressive, terraced stone wall.

The clubhouse shares digs with the resort's reception and restaurant. Joe has stocked the pro-shop with something for every golfer's tastes and budget - top brands in equipment at very reasonable prices, and some very classy logo-wear. And again, the courteousness of the staff - they literally sprint to your car to help you with your bag - is truly exceptional.

Practice facilities include range, practice greens and chipping/sand area, and lessons from Joe at the Joe Libby Golf School, where instruction plus golf packages run for as low as $161 (two nights lodging, two lessons, unlimited golf with cart). In addition, one of the coolest doohickeys ever is featured on the carts: The Personal Ranger attaches to each cart's steering wheel and keeps track for you of how long you've been playing, and lets you know where you should be on the course at any given time on its LCD display. Golfers of all levels, and all sobriety levels, rave about this system: It keeps human rangers off people's backs, and alleviates bottlenecks even on the busiest days.

After heavily anticipating my own voyage to the Sunrise Side of Michigan to play two of the best-rated courses in the state, I have to admit that my scheduled round at the Thunder Bay Resort Course was not generating as much enthusiasm as the other rounds. Yet after playing it, I can honestly say that I would gladly drive all the way back to play the home course exclusively. And thanks to the remarkably low-priced unlimited play packages at the resort, the rounds would be practically free.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • May/June trip

    Merv Sutton of the Noble group. wrote on: Jun 15, 2009

    12 of us visited Thunder Bay for what I believe is the 4th or 5th time for some of us. As always, the staff and accomodations were fabulous and the golf was great. We were able to visit a number of different courses and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It was especially fun to have Sharon cheer when her beloved Red Wings beat Pittsburg the first 2 games of the finals. Too bad we weren't there for game 7 hey Sharon!!!
    Hope to be back soon & thanks again,