Of the 12,000+ public golf courses in the nation, only one can hold the title of National Golf Course Owners Association (NCGOA) Course of The Year.
This year’s recipient, Sweetgrass Golf Club at Island Resort & Casino in Harris, Michigan, is a deserving winner, especially based on the award’s criteria. For the Frank Jemsek Award (named after the Chicagoland golf icon) is so much more than a beauty contest, it’s about what a golf course can mean to its community and beyond. In fact, for a course to even be nominated for this prestigious award, it must meet these four standards: quality of golf course, quality of ownership and management, outstanding contributions to the local community, and significant contributions to the game of golf.
“When we received the Michigan Golf Course of the Year award late last year, we were very excited,” said Tony Mancilla, general manager of Island Resort & Casino. “Michigan has a lot of great courses, so just winning our state was huge. Now to earn the national award and recognition is the cherry on top. I recently talked with other courses owners about how this is a big deal, because it’s more than just about having a great golf course. You have to do more things for the game and help promote golf, and we’re doing that on a lot of different levels.”
One of the areas that Sweetgrass was selected for, and the resort management takes pride in, is its contribution to the community through the Epson Tour’s Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass, which began in 2011 and has become the premier community event in the region. The Strong Kids Campaign – YMCA is the event’s official charity and guarantees that all kids, regardless of income, have an opportunity to receive free YMCA memberships. Other local charities and nonprofits have also received more than $250,000 raised from the tournament’s ticket sales.
And that leads to another reason Sweetgrass is so highly thought of in the Midwest, the course’s unique ability to be a championship course for the pros and a highly entertaining course for the daily-fee player. Designer Paul Albanese had this thought in mind when the course opened in 2008. “The course, in my opinion, has a ton of variety in terms of shot values. We have open meadows, numerous water features, plus bordering trees that all come together to offer a lot of different looks,” explained Albanese. “Sweetgrass also intentionally hits the mark with what many architects strive for: to be fair and challenging for all levels of golfers. Novices can go out and have a great time, as well as the professionals as evidenced by this being the favorite stop on the Epson Tour,” ended Albanese.
At of the heart of Sweetgrass’ success is that Albanese succeeded in designing a golf course that is fun from start to finish no matter how many times you play it. The open layout is highlighted by some of golf’s most intriguing putting surfaces including Redan, Biarritz, Island and even a Double-Green that is shared by holes 9 and 18.
The expansive layout is also home to a series of wonderfully strategic holes, including the potentially drivable par-4 1st, the famous island green at the 15th, and a finishing par-five hole on each side. The result – Sweetgrass is a naturally beautiful property that has an undefinable spirit that calls you back time and time again.
The thrill of winning a huge jackpot has also called patrons back time after time to Island Resort & Casino. So much so that the growing popularity of golf and gaming at Island Resort drove demand for yet another major expansion of $30+ million, making it one of the Midwest’s largest golf, casino, and entertainment resort destinations. Opened in January 2022, the new hotel tower is connected to the south end of the current Palm Tower and features 138 guest rooms, including golf and spa suites. The top-floor Horizons Steakhouse offers fine dining (MGM recommends the 8 oz Sirloin) amidst the region’s best views and the new Splash Island water park has been a big hit with children and adults alike.
Island Resort & Casino is also home to more than 1,200 slot machines, a poker room, various gaming tables, a sportsbook and bingo hall, the luxurious Drift Spa, an RV park, plus a headline entertainment showroom. When viewed in totality, it is evident your group will never run out of things to do if an inclement day happens to invade Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The remarkable topography of Michigan’s northern extension is on full display at the property’s latest golf amenity, Sage Run Golf Course. Located less than 10 minutes from Sweetgrass, the 7,375-yard Paul Albanese design is the perfect running mate to its sister venue. The 300+ acre property, which opened for public play in 2018, is built around a natural scenic ridge that elicits stunning elevation changes and memorable shot values.
Not only must golfers find the fairways to score, but they must be aware of the best angle to attack the pin. The fescue-laden layout showcases exceptional variety, including holes like the significantly uphill par-3 5th or the short par-4 16th that dares you to take on an uphill shot to a blind landing area. Every time I’ve played the course, I’ve enjoyed it more – a true testament to the quality of design and routing.
Albanese said the renowned Royal County Down in Northern Ireland served as inspiration for Sage Run’s bunkering and overall “rough and rugged” aesthetic. The course also hosts the Island Resort Collegiate Championship, a two-day, 54-hole stroke-play invitational featuring some of the top college teams and players in the country.
The awards and accolades keep coming for any property associated with Island Resort & Casino, as in early June Sage Run cracked Golfweek’s Best Public Course in State list. “It’s a great honor to have Sage Run recognized among the best courses in Michigan, especially considering the quality and depth of top architects and designs Michigan offers,” Albanese says. “It was my goal with Sage Run to create a completely different golfing experience for resort guests. The rugged land, with the ridge running through it, was completely different from Sweetgrass, allowing us to be bold and creative with some fun and exciting shot options,” explained Albanese.
The once out of the way destination is now easily accessible via two regional airports in Escanaba and Marquette – connecting through Detroit, Saginaw, Lansing or Grand Rapids. That addition couldn’t have come at a better time, as Island Resort & Casino’s Perfect Foursome Package gives patrons the opportunity to play four of the top 20 courses in the Wolverine State. An ideal 3-day, 2-night trip should include a round each at Sweetgrass and Sage Run paired with rounds at Timberstone Golf Course in nearby Iron Mountain, MI and Greywalls Golf Club in Marquette, MI. A planning tip – Timberstone resides in Central Standard Time, while the other three courses are in Eastern Standard Time. Our group always plans a round at Timberstone around 9 a.m. so you can get on the road at 8:30 a.m. EST and arrive at 8:30 a.m. CST for your tee time. Then head to Marquette where you can chase daylight until nearly 10:00 p.m. EST during the summer months. It’s an aggressive play, but well worth it when you experience the quality of these two gems!
If you are a frequent reader of Midwest Golfing Magazine, you may recall an insightful article Paul Albanese wrote in 2019 where he compared creating a golf course to the making of a movie. Winning a national honor of this magnitude can be likened to winning an Oscar Award, and with all team endeavors, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes stars who deserve acknowledgement.
“Winning this award and creating this type of golf product truly takes a team,” began Albanese. “I just finished watching the series Ozark on Netflix, and they ended the series by having a recap about how the show was created and all the talent and hard work put forth by everyone – not just the stars and directors. The same is true in this situation at Sweetgrass GC. Everyone played a key role, and we all had a good time making it. John Holberton the superintendent is truly critical to why this course won this award, along with Dave Douglas, (Director of Golf). John has the course looking immaculate and Dave’s people treat everyone like VIPs. I say all the time that no matter how good a design an architect does, it is the superintendent that will make the course successful or not. And not to mention, John does this in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, maybe one of the coldest places to grow turf,” iterated Albanese.
The aforementioned Douglas, who has been at Sweetgrass from the start, is noticing first-time groups are ascending to Island Resort & Casino once they learned it’s the NCGOA Course of The Year. “The publicity of winning this award has been amazing,” began Douglas. “The honor comes at a perfect time because now we have our new golf suites that sleep between 3 to 6 people. The suites, when combined with Horizons Steakhouse and Drift Spa, really create a VIP golf experience that won’t break the bank,” concluded Douglas.
Any golfer who has played Sweetgrass since 2008 will agree that the property is eminently likeable. And now thanks to winning the NGCOA 2022 State and National Golf Course of Year honors, Sweetgrass has two prestigious trophies for validation. For more information on booking your next trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, visit www.islandresortgolf.com or call (800) 682-6040.