Gaylord (population 3,730) bills itself as a “Golf Mecca,” a reference to the 24 courses within a 45-minute drive.
The centerpiece of this mecca is the Treetops Resort, owned by managing partner Rick Smith, swing guru to Phil Mickelson. Treetops has 81 holes; four championship courses plus the par-3 Threetops; along with two lodges, several chalets, meeting rooms and spa.
The resort is made up of two distinct properties, with one golf course, Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s Masterpiece, located near the property’s lodging, restaurants and spa that sit on top of a ski hill that has 23 downhill runs. Treetops Inn was the first housing built on the property and it has a distinct ski-lodge feel: a bit dark with lots of wood paneling. Treetops Lodge, where the spa is located, is a newer facility and provides upgraded deluxe rooms. The other three courses, Tom Fazio’s Premier, and Smith’s Signature and Tradition, are located five miles north of the lodge.
In booking our reservations a month in advance of our late-July trip, we were told a deluxe room was not available. So we headed north from the Detroit area a bit disappointed, but also looking forward to 72 holes of golf.
The drive to northern Michigan can have a cleansing effect on the soul. Three hours north of Detroit and you are in another world. Michiganders refer to the area as “up north.”
Arriving at Treetops Inn at noon, we were delighted our room was available for check-in. After dropping our bags we headed to Legends on the Hill, one of the resort’s two restaurants, for a quick lunch before a 1:30 tee time. My burger was cooked to order and a special request salad was easily accommodated. My wife’s whitefish was done perfectly. The service was efficient and the meal, at $24 (including tip), was a bargain. I headed to the golf course while my wife made a beeline for the pool and then the spa.
After a 10-minute drive to the north property (shuttles are available), I went to check in and then get a few minutes on the range, which is included with the golf. I had booked tee times in advance, but the clerk in the pro shop could not find my reservation. I was slated to play the Tradition course, but that was booked. However, he found an opening on the Signature course and off I went. As a single, I quickly played through a threesome and had four open holes before meeting up with a twosome who asked me join them. We settled in for a five-hour-plus round.
The par-70 Signature course, with a slope rating of 140, on paper is the second-hardest of Treetops’ four courses, and features typical northern Michigan golf: majestic, tree-lined fairways that swallow errant shots. On a positive note, there are million-dollar views from many of the elevated tee boxes that can soften the blow of a lost ball. The course has significant elevation changes; some more than 100 feet from tee to the large well-bunkered greens. The course is dotted with “natural” areas that are good only for viewing:
Hit a ball in there and kiss it goodbye. The condition of this course, as with all four courses, was excellent, save for the bunkers. Playing late in the day, the hazards were littered with unraked footprints, but even worse, several had some sort of fabric poking through the sand. Aesthetically, this was really the only downside of the weekend.
Returning to the Inn, my wife reported a pleasant experience at the spa, where a last-minute schedule change was no problem for the staff. For dinner that night we ventured to the Broken Club Pub that was smoky and crowded. We opted for the outside seating, and enjoyed drinks and dinner overlooking the ski hill as the sun set.
My second course was Tradition and I was first off in the morning, playing the course in just a bit more than two hours. Designed by Smith as a links-style walking course, there are few cart paths and little in the way of signage leading you to the next hole. I found my way around the course but on my next trip, I’ll skip this one. There are few memorable holes and playing links golf in northern Michigan is not what I came for.
The afternoon round on Fazio’s Premier course was much better. Much like the Signature course, there are several holes with sharp elevation changes, tree-lined fairways and big, undulating greens. My only real complaint was pace of play; another five-hour-plus round.
As I was on the golf course, my wife checked with the hotel staff and found a deluxe room at Treetops Lodge had opened up, so we moved. It was well worth the hassle. The room was larger with a nicer bathroom, including a Jacuzzi tub.
For dinner that night, having exhausted the resort’s two restaurants, we headed 10 minutes down the road to the Otsego Club’s Pontresina Ristorante. The meal was exquisite.
I saved the toughest course for last: Masterpiece. The 7,007-yard course is a stiff test of golf. Like Premier and Signature, there are some holes with more than 100 feet of vertical drop, making club selection a challenge. The highlight of the round was nearly driving the severely downhill 363-yard par 4 15th hole – with a 3-wood! Many of the fairways have steep slopes and I was disappointed several times to find a shot, which I thought should have been in the middle of the fairway, to have found the rough, or in one instance, nearly out of bounds.
Some local knowledge would have helped my score. After playing the course for the first time, I wanted immediately to play it again.
The staff at Treetops was accommodating and each staff member we encountered made us feel welcome. While this was our first trip to Treetops, we will be back.
– Roger Hart is a writer from Tecumseh, Mich.