2002: Golfweek Preferred - Up in Michigan

Walloon Lake, Mich.

Ernest Hemingway, who was to the great American novel what Bobby Jones was to great American golf, arrived with his parents in this part of the world when he was still an infant. By the time he was 3, young Ernest had learned to fish the clear, cold lakes that decades later would provide the stunning backdrops for an explosion of designer golf and a proliferation of resort development.

Hemingway summered here as a boy and took from his experiences the inspiration for one of his more famous short stories, “Up in Michigan.” At the age of 15, Hemingway, the educable outdoorsboy, had graduated to firearms. When he, quite illegally, shot a blue heron, the game wardens began tracking him. After a brief stint on the lam, Hemingway surrendered and paid a hefty $15 fine. Eventually he turned to his life’s work, literature.

It is interesting to note that Bobby Knight, the notorious college basketball coach who shoots rabbits in the name of recreational sport, once said most of us learn to read and write in the second grade and then move on to other, more important things. Hemingway, by way of comparison, learned to hunt and fish before he was 10 and moved on to writing.

There are no early accounts of Hemingway playing golf during his youth in Northern Michigan, although five-time British Open champion Tom Watson polished many of his short-game skills as a vacationing youngster at Charlevoix’s Belvedere Golf Club, just up the road from Walloon Lake. Scotsman William Watson designed Belvedere and Gene Sarazen once told Ken Venturi he must play the course just to see the 16th hole. This was long before golf in Northern Michigan – more specifically the upper portion of the lower peninsula – became a moveable feast.

On a recent late spring Saturday evening at the under- statedly elegant Walloon Lake Inn, four men in their early 50s selected two bottles of Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River chardonnay and ordered from a menu that included “Ruby Trout Hemingway,” “Pumpkin Seed Crusted Whitefish” and “Grilled Venison Chops.”

They had played the nine holes of “The Preserve” at Bay Harbor in Petoskey that afternoon after hustling their way around Tom Fazio’s “Premier” course at the Treetops Resort at Gaylord in the morning. The previous evening they had arrived by minivan from Chicago and squeezed in a predinner nine holes on Rick Smith’s “Threetops,” one of the tastiest little short tracks in the world and home to ESPN’s Par 3 Shootout, where Lee Trevino made a hole-in-one worth $1 million last summer.

One table over, two couples in their 70s wined, dined and laughed uproariously over a series of jokes that embraced, as their common thread, the vagaries of Viagra. They, too, had played golf that day. But they weren’t as serious about it as the four men from Chicago.

Hemingway hadn’t exactly had them in mind when he wrote “Men Without Women.” But on this ambitious, five-day golf trip, that’s exactly what they were. There was little time for anything but golf, sleep, food, drink, travel and the anguish – death in the afternoon – that accompanies the loss of a Pro V1.

The morning after dinner at the Walloon Lake Inn, they drove, at the crack of dawn, two hours east to Grayling for a go at Tom Weiskopf’s enchanting and as-yet undiscovered Forest Dunes. Forest Dunes is a remote and hidden gem that will be open for limited public play just as soon as its membership settles its in-court differences with the union officials that bought the property at auction from the original owners. The tentative fate is August 1.

“The most silent site I’ve ever been on,” says Tom Fous, the former University of Michigan golfer left behind in Weiskopf’s wake to serve as Forest Dunes’ steward. To the immediate north of Forest Dunes are 400,000 acres of the Huron National Forest. To the south and west is the vast George Mason tract. There isn’t a bad hole on the routing. The course is almost empty.

Adds Fous: “This is basically a sacred environmental area.” It also is a must-play.

The four men complete their “Weiskopf double” that afternoon at Cedar River Golf Club, Weiskopf’s stout resort design at the Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire. The jewel in Shanty Creek’s golf crown used to be “The Legend,” a handsome Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay creation. Now it shares top billing with Cedar River.

“People say The Legend is beautiful and Cedar River is fun,” director of golf Rodger Jabara tells the Chicago Four over drinks at “Weiskopf’s Grill” overlooking Cedar River’s 18th green.

To be sure, the differences between Forest Dunes and Cedar River are the differences you might expect between a championship track built for a private membership and one designed for resort guests. Still, Cedar River was a bear on this day. Literally. The ranger had spent much of the afternoon warning groups that a bear had been spotted rummaging around the 17th and 18th holes.

There was a joke in there somewhere about “Rifle” shafts and “Bullet” golf balls. But it was left alone. Similarly, the bear didn’t bother anybody. But its presence begged at least two questions as the cocktail hour grew longer: Does a bear sit in the woods? And if he does and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Soon enough it was time for sound and blessed sleep – the kind of sleep which, in the words of Shakespeare, “knits up the raveled sleave of care.”

From there, it had been arranged for the four men to play the next afternoon with members at Alister MacKenzie’s very private design, Crystal Downs. Crystal Downs ranks sixth on Golfweek’s America’s Best list of classical courses and features greens that rival MacKenzie’s work at Augusta National for subtlety, purity and severity.

Former Treetops assistant pro Kevin Frisch describes the uphill, par-4 17th into the wind at Crystal Downs as “300 yards of sheer terror.” And during this round, the wind was howling like Bo Schembechler after a procedure penalty on third-and-goal from inside the 1.

The members couldn’t have been more accommodating, even though they hadn’t met the guests until minutes before the round. (Crystal Down’s rules dictate there must be a member in every group.) When the 18 holes were completed, the visitors drooled about the prospect of getting to play such a course on a regular basis. The appropriate Hemingway allusion: To Have and Have Not.

Finally, on their way home, the Chicago Four stop north of Grand Rapids for a wakeup call named “Tullymore.” This engagingly precise Jim Engh design appears friendly enough from the black tees at 6,547 yards. The course rating is 71.2.

The tipoff is the slope. It is 142 and the danger around the second and third greens immediately grabs your attention. Engh, who formerly toiled as a “shadow” designer for IMG clients who included Isao Aoki, has somehow turned a wetlands property into a very Irish-feeling layout with plenty of opportunities for links-style bumps and runs. The conditioning is superb. And the staff, – overseen by the tireless Kevin O’Brien, who doubles as director of golf at nearby St. Ives – is painstakingly attentive without being officious.

O’Brien’s wife occasionally drives the beverage cart. His son takes shifts in the bag room. And his father serves as a spotter. But Tullymore is much more than just a mom and pop operation. Much of what O’Brien knows he learned from golf renaissance man Tom Stewart. Stewart is the former Michigan club pro who once ran for Congress and now operates the “Old Sport” collectibles emporium in the village of Pinehurst. Stewart is as influential in Pinehurst today as Donald Ross was when that part of North Carolina was little more than a refuge for consumptives.

O’Brien arrived here seven years ago and immediately began marketing his golf property in Chicago, four hours away by car. He was not going to be guilty of thinking small. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. “But it has paid off.”

Tullymore and its sister course, St. Ives, are expected to do 42,000 rounds between them in 2002. O’Brien’s boss, owner Norm Browning, is like most owners: He expects to make money even in a tough economy. But Browning is a rarity in at least one respect: He gave his course architect a long leash.

“When we hired Jim Engh for Tullymore we asked, ‘Just don’t do the same thing everybody else has done,’ “ Browning says. “Turns out we couldn’t have gotten him to do the same thing if we had wanted to.”

Tullymore got its name from the Irish village of Tulaigh Mohr where, in 1998, Tomboy Films produced a clever and unpredictable delight of a movie called “Waking Ned Devine.” The plot of this film revolves around how the 52 residents of Tulaigh Morh will divide a winning lottery ticket worth seven million pounds.

The four men from Chicago play Tullymore, much of the round in the rain, without knowing in advance how good it really is. Afterward, they are wet but rewarded. Hemingway once wrote a book entitled, “Winner Take Nothing.” The Chicago Four took much more than that from Tullymore. They feel as if they have hit a golf lottery of sorts.

Ever since Michigan Gov. John Engler and the state tourism board recognized the revenue potential of golf in Michigan, players increasingly have been discovering how much good golf there is in the northern part of this state.

That doesn’t mean all is seashells and balloons. The national economy is stressed. And the experts say corporate America, not the individual consumer, is going to have to spend us out of this recession. Meanwhile Sept. 11 jitters still have everybody on edge, and a different kind of terrorism – ”book cooking” by firms such as Enron and WorldCom – has eroded faith in American fiscal responsibility.

Nobody is more aware of the short-term economic problems facing high-end public golf in Michigan than O’Brien, Jabara, Scott Head at Treetops and Brad Dean at Crystal Mountain.

“Right now everybody is struggling for business,” Jabara says. “People are calling now and not asking what the price is; they’re saying, ‘we’ll play for this price.’ That’s where it starts. And you hate to cut prices. Once you do, it’s hard to get back.”

“A lot of places in the area are cutting prices,” adds Dean, Crystal Mountain’s director of golf. “We’re holding the line. We’ve all just got to get through this time. We’re not going to change our focus.”

Their trip concluded, the Chicago Four vow to return to Northern Michigan for more golf and more (start ital.) bonhomie (end ital.). There have been so many highlights: the unspoiled feel of Forest Dunes; MacKenzie’s green complexes at Crystal Downs; the amenities at the Inn at Bay Harbor; the comfort at the lodge at Cedar River; the routing and conditioning at Tullymore; the choices at Treetrops; the cuisine at the Walloon Lake Inn and the candor from the people who own and operate the facilities that comprise this delightful universe.

Present economic realities are hard to ignore. But the consensus among the four men is that these things run in cycles. They are not without experience in these matters. One is a banker; one is a commodities broker; one is a journalist; and one runs an insurance business. They talk at length about all of this on the drive back to Chicago.

The hope is that what looks dark today will brighten tomorrow. Exactly when “tomorrow” will arrive “up in Michigan” is unclear. Yet one more Hemingway title serves as a reminder:

The Sun Also Rises.

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