Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Shines as a Top Golf Destination
Nine times out of 10, if my wife has driven the “bigger” SUV before me, she’s left the radio tuned to either a Pop Hits or “coffee house” station. Surprisingly, this time, she seems to have been indulging in a little SiriusXM Sinatra and that turns out to be the perfect soundtrack to this peaceful nearly-two-hour cruise from Milwaukee across the Michigan border to the Island Resort & Casino in the quaint town of Harris.
Dean Martin’s dulcet melodies on “You Can’t Love ‘Em All” explain exactly the way I feel about playing great golf courses in distinctive destinations around the world. You can’t play ‘em all, but trying can be incredibly satisfying. Dino croons You can’t land each one that passes by / But you can try, you can try, you can try and I realize I may never be one of those guys that checks off every single box on every publication’s Top 100 list, but I’ve been fortunate to play in some amazing places through the years. And from those experiences, this I know, golf in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula always exceed expectations and I can’t get there fast enough.
Passing through idyllic small towns sets the tone for what feels like a trip through a land elegantly suspended in time. Not long after crossing the Wisconsin-Michigan border, we see a nostalgic-looking building with towering letters that bluntly but invitingly spell “EAT.” It’s Micky Lu’s Bar-B-Q, established in 1942 and known for its simple menu of sandwiches (all-beef burgers, mostly) grilled over a vintage charcoal pit oven. From the barstools to the prices and décor, the place is straight out of Norman Rockwell, unchanged for decades and packed with loyal locals. As soon as things normalize and we settle into a collective post sheltering at home sigh of relief, I suspect millions will be eager to take golfing road trips a lot like this one.
Onward for another hour and I reach my destination. Sandwiched between two national forests, Harris is a laid-back setting, 13 miles west of Escanaba, enveloped by towering pines and unspoiled by development. Island Resort & Casino is one of the Midwest’s largest golf, casino and entertainment resort destinations, spanning more 408,000 square feet. The resort has 312 well-appointed guest rooms, including elegant suites. On the spacious casino floor, guests may enjoy an all-new poker room, craps, blackjack, Spanish 21, three-card poker, let-it-ride, roulette and bingo.
The Island regularly hosts headline entertainment in the intimate 1,315-seat Showroom as well as weekly bands and comedy entertainers in Club 41. The Island Convention Center provides the perfect venue for special events, business meetings, and weddings.
The resort has a pleasing array of dining options from the posh 5 Bridges Steak & Seafood House (with regular and seasonal chef-prepared specials), to the 5 Bridges Pub, home to the UP’s largest selection of craft beers, Firekeeper’s Restaurant (home to casual Midwest cuisine), the Coral Reef Grille, Signature Subs & Pizza, T. McC’s Sports Bar (with TV screens everywhere and a late-night menu) and the grab-n-go Coffee & Custard Shop. That’s seven unique food experiences to suit your moods and cravings.
The Island Resort & Casino is immensely popular amongst golf groups and buddy trips looking for a golf and gaming escape. This growing popularity has driven the need for a $30 million expansion that will be completed in 2021. More than 100 new hotel rooms will be added, which will be connected to the south end of the current 11-story Palm Tower. A high-end dining venue and convention space are also planned for the top floor, as well as a pool and water park attractions for kids and young adults. Add in the new Drift Spa, offering a variety of high-end spa services with access to the resort’s saltwater pool, steam rooms and sauna, the destination has become a popular escape for buddies, couples, and now families.
First and foremost, though, we’re here for golf that’s been described as “unforgettable” and “under-rated.” The resort’s original golf course is the exceptional Sweetgrass Golf Club, built in 2007 and home to the Symetra Tour’s Island Resort Championship. Designed by Michigan native Paul Albanese and ranked among the top 20 public courses in Michigan (which is saying a lot since Michigan, overall, is one of the top states for golf).
Sweetgrass features masterfully crafted rockwork with a prairie links style. The course boasts an island green on number 15 and a pair of breathtaking waterfalls that greet golfers as they play up the ninth and 18th holes to an enormous, shared green. Classic green complexes like a Biarritz and a Redan green and bridges rescued from other areas in the state are other compelling design components and part of the story of the course. With six sets of tees, the course plays anywhere from around 5,000 yards to more than 7,200 yards. But what really stands out is its beauty and conditioning. With its wispy sweetgrass billowing around the numerous water features and pure fairways and greens, this is a luxury golf experience. The practice facilities are all that, too, with an expansive perfect grass range with course quality targets, pristine short game area and perfect bentgrass practice greens, which mirror the putting surfaces on the course. The course is first-class in every imaginable facet, including the brats you can order in the halfway house.
To complement Sweetgrass, the resort added another more intriguing test in Sage Run, which is designed by Albanese. Opened in 2018, the course, which Albanese said was inspired by the “rough and rugged” appeal of Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down, is also beautiful, but a definite roller-coaster ride. Sage Run hosted the inaugural Island Resort Intercollegiate last August won by Michigan State’s James Piot, who posted rounds of 68-70-69 (207).
Built on a natural drumlin, which is an elongated hill or ridge formed by glaciers, golfers not only have to find the fairways, but the correct side of the fairways to set up ideal scoring opportunities and avoid the thick rough. There are also scores of bunkers embellished by thick fescue. Sage Run received a major honor last year, being named to Golf Digest’s prestigious list of “Best New Courses, 2019.”
“It’s a great honor to have Sage Run recognized as one of America’s best new courses, especially considering the quality and depth of top architects and courses they had to consider,” Albanese says. “I think the natural flow and fit to the landscape and ruggedness of Sage Run is a fun contrast to the manicured, subtle and very bucolic course we created with Sweetgrass,” Albanese says.
In the words of Golf Digest panelists, “Sage Run surprised me. I was not expecting such dramatic elevations in comparison to nearby, relatively flat Sweetgrass. Sage Run is a breathtakingly beautiful course…” and it’s a “beast of a course that conjures visual comparisons to Shinnecock. Wide variety of green complexes and a number of unique holes. Exceptional conditioning for such a new course, and I expect this should improve.”
The golf course showcases exceptional variety including holes, like the par-3 fifth, which plays significantly uphill or the short par-4 16th which dares you to take on an uphill shot to a blind landing area. In short, Sage Run is beautiful and challenging and built in a thrilling natural setting.
Turns out, great golf in the northern part of the state doesn’t end in Traverse City, Petoskey, or Gaylord. In the endlessly scenic Upper Peninsula, we discovered a bounty of outstanding golf and a bevy of charming tourist attractions. We played both courses then decided to play Sweetgrass one more time before headed back to Green Bay. Like on many standout golf trips in the past, I feel lucky to have found another special destination where the golf delivers distinctive thrills and views you can play over in your mind for years to come. I don’t know when, but I know I’ll be back to The U.P. sooner than later.
Fully customizable packages at The Island Resort & Casino offer 1, 2, 3, and 4-night lodging options with up to four rounds of golf. Package prices range from $95 – $758 depending on the time of year and single/double occupancy. Golfers will also receive $5 promo cash, $5 Bingo coupon, $5 drink coupon, $5 dinner coupon per night, and $5 off spa services at the luxurious Drift Spa.
The destination is also easily accessible via a pair of regional airports in Escanaba and Marquette connecting through Detroit, Saginaw, Lansing or Grand Rapids.
For more information about Island Resort and Casino, visit www.islandresortgolf.com or call 877-475-4733 to book your golf package today.