HARRIS, Mich. – The nice thing about not having expectations is that you have a chance to be surprised. And that’s exactly what makes a round at Sweetgrass Golf Club in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula worthwhile.
OK, the drive through the wooded flatlands here, 115 miles northeast of Green Bay, Wis., gets a little numbing. And the first thing you see upon arriving at the Island Resort & Casino is an 11-story building that’s best described as nondescript. But once you make your way through the casino (as I did, wearing golf shoes and toting my clubs) and get to the golf course at the back of the building, the scene changes for the better. Turns out this is a pleasant stroll through 300 acres of prairie, meadow and cedar forest.
• Island Resort & Casino
W399 Highway 2 & 41,
Harris, Mich. 49845
800-682-6040 (ext. 2251)
• Par 72, 7,275 yards; 75.2 rating; 143 slope
• Green fee: $75 (peak season rate, with optional cart); discounts for various levels of casino clientele
Architect Paul Albanese worked closely with the Hannahville Indian Community, Band of the Potawatomi, in converting its tribal land into elegant golf ground. Minimal earth-moving was involved, native prairie grass was grown back onsite, and a half-dozen old railway bridges rescued from the state’s Department of Transportation were incorporated into cart paths and wetlands crossings to convey a historical sense of rural landscape.
The course name derives from an aromatic, perennial long-stem plant called sweet grass. In its native prairie form, sweet grass comprises one of four traditional Potawatomi medicines (along with cedar, tobacco and sage). It has a less therapeutic effect on the golf course, where it serves as knee-high rough. It’s one of many understated ways in which Albanese has woven themes from the local Native American culture into the layout.
The yardage book does a fine job of explaining how the hole names establish a link between modern golf and traditional Potawatomi culture. The 400-yard, par-4 second hole, “God’s Kettle,” features a natural depression on the right side that symbolizes a great copper kettle used centuries ago for boiling maple sap into sugar.
This is not a case of complex explanation decoding what would otherwise be mysterious. The cultural gesturing only works because the golf holes already make good sense on their own and comprise a coherent picture. The one glaring drawback comes at the end of each of the returning nine-hole loops; they feature virtual mirror-image par 5s that ascend with baffling complexity around a central water hazard and waterfalls, then end at a double green. Both holes jangle the nerves when the softer tone of the preceding holes would have done just fine.
Rater’s notebook: Sweetgrass Golf Club
1.) Routing: 7
Returning nines, each one out and back in a counter-clockwise loop, except for the crossovers to the final holes on each nine.
2.) Quality of feature shaping: 8
There’s a fascinating mixture of long and soft flow lines and the occasional abrupt vertical element for emphasis, whether a cedar plank edge or a disguised leading slope to denote the start of a fairway.
3.) Overall land plan: 7
Golf course sits in its own rolling enclave, with no evidence of homesites or roads. The towering image of the casino/hotel on the ninth and 18th holes is the sole intrusion.
4.) Greens and surrounds: 8
Generous greens – 7,000 square feet on average – provide lots of room for slopes, contours and outfalls into chipping areas.
5.) Variety and memorability of par 3s: 7
From blue tees (6,829 yards), club selection runs the gamut from 8-iron at the 152-yard, island-green 15th hole to a 3-wood at the uphill, 206-yard, heavily bunkered seventh hole. Bonus points for the downhill 214-yard 12th, the first dogleg Biarritz I’ve ever seen.
6.) Variety and memorability of par 4s: 8
Great variety of distance and shape shots, though its too bad two of the three short par 4s come at the first and 10th tees and thus don’t create as much rhythm mid-round as they could. The long, demanding fourth is that rarity in golf, a reverse-camber hole that works. Careful use of multiple teeing grounds and mid-fairway bunkering make the 17th fascinating to play.
7.) Variety and memorability of par 5s: 3
The two interior long holes (sixth and 11th) are fine for their multiple demands on the second shot, but the water-logged ninth and 18th are simply cheap clichés.
8.) Tree and landscape management: 7
Good mix of open-meadow holes and those cut through mature woodlands.
9.) Conditioning: 8
Beautifully layered textures, with L93 bentgrass fairways and greens, bluegrass main roughs and fescue/native prairie grasses for outer roughs.
10.) “Walk in the park” test: 6
The farther you go from the hotel, the more enjoyable the walk.
Solid, enjoyable, and with surprising width that emphasizes one side of the fairway over the other. Sweetgrass, openedin fall 2008, is ranked No. 14 among all public-access courses in Michigan.