2005: Features - Greywalls: Rock-solid, raw challenge

On my exclusive Yikes-meter scale of 1 to 10, this course starts as an 11. Not that the course stays perched on the edge of doom. Nothing this exhilarating can be sustained. Greywalls, a new course on a stunning site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, starts off like a mythic medieval quest. The golfer might feel like he is battling fire-breathing dragons, armored knights and monsters from the netherworld along the way.

The first hole is amazing, like an elevated launch for an artillery assault. The opening tee shot on this wooly mammoth of a downhill, 579-yard par 5 requires a long carry over a streambed. It’s tough to concentrate on the drive because all you can focus on is the 50-mile long image behind of dense blue Lake Superior, all the way east to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. If you thought Northern Michigan was flat, you won’t when you get done here.

Don’t blame designer Mike DeVries for having created this wild tumble of wetlands, granite outcrops, rocky creek beds, narrow defiles between rock walls and awe-inspiring outlooks. He gets kudos for having made the rugged 230-acre site with 200 feet of elevation change work at all, and on a modest budget – $2.7 million for course construction and irrigation – that by modern standards ranks this as nothing short of a miracle.

DeVries, 41, has acquired a reputation as one of the new breed of classically inspired designers (Doak, Hanse, Coore and Crenshaw, to name a few) who draw inspiration from links and heathlands golf and who are not averse to a scratchy, old-time, shaggy look – a modern incarnation of Alister MacKenzie. DeVries proved that brilliantly at Kingsley Club (No. 22 on the Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern list) near Traverse City, Mich. Of course, those holes sit comfortably on the ground. At Greywalls, the holes cling for dear life.

Let’s just hope the folks up here realize how amazing this design is and respond accordingly.

Although the UP is an attractive tourist destination and second-home area for folks from the Midwest, it is remote and has not been a golf destination. The fate of the club’s established 18-hole course also is instructive. Greywalls is a second course for Marquette Golf Club, now a 36-hole semiprivate facility.

The club’s first course, called The Heritage, dates to a nine-hole design in 1926 by famed Midwesterners William Langford and Theodore Moreau. Their telltale features – high-shouldered greenside mounding and deep, dramatic slopes everywhere – can be discerned amid the tree clutter and shrunken greens. The second nine at The Heritage, by David Gill in 1968, is simply pedestrian, as if the architect never looked twice at the genius and intrigue of the original holes. To ensure mindlessness, it also is lined with your basic dopey conifers.

Greywalls, by contrast, is neither predictable nor linear. It has native wild plants and fescues that give an old world feel. And it brings golfers to the edge and back while demanding they maintain a hold of their golf senses. It’s a lovely if somewhat extreme version of golf. With any luck, it will kick-start a golf architecture pilgrimage to Michigan’s northern hinterlands.

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