America’s Best Golf Trips – Top 100 Courses, Hidden Gems, Great Values
After three decades of covering golf travel for outlets like Golf Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, LINKS, Forbes, and multiple in-flight airline magazines, I have experienced the top courses across America, the British Isles, Australia, South Africa, Continental Europe, Mexico and many other far-flung locales.
What I’ve learned is that when you go to places like Scotland or Ireland to play golf, you expect to be wowed, and you are. But sometimes it’s more fun to be surprised, and I was recently surprised by how much excellent golf – along with great resorts, famously friendly Midwestern hospitality, and killer values – were to be found in Michigan.
If I had done as much research before I left as after I got back I would have been better prepared for what I was going to see. After all, there are three main rankings in American golf travel, the gold standards of the industry, the Top 100 course lists of Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golfweek. On all three, Michigan ties for third or fourth among all 50 U.S. States in terms of having the most Top 100 public courses (and depending on the ranking, Canada and the Caribbean). That’s staggering when you consider that there are many states with more golf courses, more land and/or more people, and pound for pound only Oregon and Wisconsin are in remotely the same league as Michigan – though the top courses of both are significantly more expensive.
Consider the raw data: Florida has more golf courses than any other state, and more than double Michigan’s population, but according to Golf and Golf Digest, they have the same number of Top 100 courses. Texas, which has more then three times Michigan’s population – and about three times its acreage – manages just one course on Golf Magazine’s list versus six for Michigan, and none on Golf Digest’s versus 7-8 for Michigan (Golf Digest pulled one course off the current list post-publication after deeming it no longer public access).
When most people think of great golf destination states, names that come up include North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii and of course, Arizona, home to the golf-mad Phoenix/Scottsdale region. Michigan beat them all across all three lists (with one minor exception – North Carolina manages a tie on Golfweek’s), and for Arizona and Hawaii it is not even close. Golf Magazine is the only list that includes Canada, and Michigan tied the entire country, which has the luxury of two ocean coasts, more than four times the population, and more acreage than the United States.
But the large number of highly ranked courses you can play is just the tip of Michigan’s golf vacation iceberg. It is easy to get to and very centrally located, within about a 3-hour flight of most of the country, and within driving distance of a huge population base. It also has lots of multi-course resorts, which makes for less stopping, starting, packing and unpacking, and many of them are clustered in a concise region of Northern Michigan around Traverse City, with its own very convenient airport. I’ve been to Michigan a few times before, but this is the area I explored on my most recent trip. Many of these resorts also offer exceptional values.
The leading example is the state’s largest golf operator, as Michigan is home base to Boyne Resorts. Named for the town it began in here, Boyne has grown into a multi-national operator of golf and ski resorts. The crown jewel in Boyne’s skiing collection is Big Sky, Montana, currently the hottest ski destination in the nation (and second largest resort period), but while they have golf courses at their ski resorts across the country, the superstars are here in Northern Michigan.
Boyne operates three resorts in close proximity, and since they are all interchangeable in terms of allowing guests to play, eat and charge, they consider it one destination and as such, the largest golf resort in the nation, an accolade usually given to Pinehurst, NC. How you define a “resort” is arguable, but no one doubts that Whistling Straits is part of the Kohler resort, and they are about the same drive time apart, but in any case it’s splitting hairs, because no matter which Boyne property you stay at, you can easily play them all (they will even shuttle you).
The headliner is famed Bay Harbor, the most acclaimed design by late Michigan architect Arthur Hills, who did hundreds of courses worldwide. Bay Harbor is a Top 100 design that Golf Digest called one of three “new Pebble Beaches” built in the Nineties, on a gorgeous rolling piece of waterfront property overlooking Lake Michigan. Unlike most of its epic coastal peers and unlike just about every other Top 100 layout, it is a 27-hole design with three nines that allow it to be played as three different 18-hole routings, but the most desirable and acclaimed is Links/Quarry.
Bay Harbor also has a second 18-hole course, Crooked Tree, across the street, a marina and a luxury hotel, the Inn at Bay Harbor. It’s Boyne’s top accommodations in Michigan and part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of uniquely individual properties that don’t fit into neat chain brand boxes, so it is also extremely popular with members of Bonvoy, the world’s largest hotel loyalty program. The Inn has multiple restaurants, a lavish spa and fitness center, pool with private cabanas, lawn games, yacht excursions and more.
The other two Boyne properties are sprawling ski and golf resorts with multiple dining and accommodation options, and are actually busier in the winter, one of the reasons why golf here is such a great value. They have six 18-hole courses between them, a par-3 executive course and another short course – the newest rage in golf – on the way. There really is not a weak link, as all are above average or well above average resort courses. In addition, Boyne prides itself on maintenance, and rightfully so, as they have one of the most elaborate superintendent and quality standards programs in the industry, exceptional greens on every course, and you can expect tournament conditions daily.
The Highlands at Harbor Springs has four eighteen-hole courses, a large main hotel, the Lodge, a second option, the Inn, with both hotel rooms and condos, and lots of rental condos and townhome rentals. The standouts are the Donald Ross Memorial Course, Hills Course and Heather, with the Moor being the least played. I loved the Ross course, which is the best example of a “tribute” or “replica” design I’ve played (such as Royal Links and Bear’s Best), with replicas of the top holes by one of the most acclaimed and respected designers of all time.
It was also the world’s first, opened in 1970. Boyne’s founder loved playing Ross courses (there are some top private examples in Michigan, including U.S. Open venue Oakland Hills), and came up with the tribute concept, then spent six years visiting the top Ross courses worldwide, more than 100 of them, and selecting 150 favorite holes before whittling it down to the 18 that best fit the property. But when the course was built there was no GPS or drones, and they used a lot of pictures and guesstimates. Today they have embarked on a renewal plan to make every hole as perfectly accurate as possible, including using original blueprints provided by some of the nation’s toniest private clubs. You may never get to tee it up at Oakland Hills or Seminole, and you may not be able to afford a tee time at Pinehurst Number Two, but you can experience their best holes right here – including the one from Seminole that was legendary golfer Ben Hogan’s favorite par-4 in the world.
Boyne Mountain is also a ski resort with two mountain courses, Alpine and Monument, both of which start with first tees atop the ski hill, a 10-plus minute cart ride from the pro shop. I live in ski country and many ski resort courses on mountains are notoriously bad designs where fairways run canted and balls collect in weird spots, but these are excellent exceptions to that paradigm, among the best ski mountain courses I’ve seen. This is where the new short course is being built, along with an impossible to describe new attraction opening this winter, SkyBridge Michigan, the world’s longest timber-framed suspension bridge (foot traffic), which you can read about here. Suffice to say that starting next spring it will be an extra activity no other golf resort in the world will rival.
Boyne Mountain is home to the Grand Lodge and Spa, and the spa was just extensively redone and is first class. There is also the Clock Tower Lodge, European-styled Boynehof, villas, cabins and condos, as well as the unique Chalet Edelweiss. This small ski-in/out property is the oldest Boyne lodging and closest to the slopes but was just gutted down to the frame and reopened after a multi-million-dollar renovation. The upgrades were aimed at skiers, but the Swiss alpine themed boutique property has quickly become a coveted accommodation by returning golfers.
In this vein, the main accommodations at the largest Boyne golf resort, Highlands, is undergoing a major transformation for the better. They just redid the guest rooms, and these new digs are what owner Steven Kirschner described to me as “four and a half stars.” I’ve rarely seen such good room product for these prices, with every little detail executed perfectly, from the automatic light that come on when you enter the bathroom at night to the fixtures in the oversize walk-in marble showers to the Swiss espresso machines to the way the storage is designed to the custom mattresses. I absolutely loved my room at the Lodge, and next is a complete rebuild of the spa and fitness center, plus new restaurants.
Here’s the kicker – with so many lodging options and so many courses, Boyne’s stay and play packages are bargains. The very top tier luxury option is unlimited golf for two people at their most expensive hotel, the Inn at Bay Harbor. It begins at $533 a night – for two people including lodging and greens fees (one round daily) plus extras like breakfast, valet parking and unlimited range use. There are also far less expensive iterations with other lodging and tee times on the other seven courses, all of which are less than Bay Harbor. I just checked the online tee times and morning rounds for Links/Quarry this Saturday were $370 per player, making a la carte golf alone ($740) more than the entire vacation package. Those greens fees are typical of a famous waterfront Top 100 course, but the bargain packages are very unusual – except in Michigan.
The region has much more than Boyne, and in terms of travelers knocking Top 100 courses off their lists, the big hitter here is Forest Dunes, one of only a very small number of properties across the nation with three Top 100 designs under one roof – plus an acclaimed 9-hole short course. This trio includes the totally unique Red and Black courses at the Loop, the only “reversible” course in the nation. This means there are eighteen greens, but each anchors two holes to be played from two different sets of tees in different directions, and the routings alternate daily. I preferred Black, but if you come you sort of have to play both, and they are by one of the most desirable big name golf course architects in the world, Tom Doak – a Michigander. Doak is known for his retro links style, most famously at Oregon’s Pacific Dunes, and these are prime examples of that currently ultra-popular style being utilized by Doak, David Kidd, and Gil Hanse around the world. In fact, a fourth eighteen is expected here at Forest Dunes, and Hanse is the leading rumor mill candidate (no official word from the resort).
Golf Magazine’s highest ranked course you can play in Michigan is the Loop, but they got that one wrong, The best course at Forest Dunes is the oldest, the original layout by Tom Weiskopf, who passed away last month, and this is his highest ranked public course in the nation. While Doak’s specialty is links style homages to Scotland and Ireland, Weiskopf’s Forest Dunes course is a stunning example of just how good a parkland course can be, beautifully carved from the traditional Michigan pine forests – and it is another bargain.
Forest Dunes has a hotel-like Lodge as well as low rise clusters of residential villas, perfect for foursomes, and has quickly become one of the nation’s pilgrimage “pure golf” golf destinations along the lines of Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley (a personal favorite of mine, read more here). In that model it is self-contained with limited (but tasty) dining and drinking options, little else to do (no gym or pool), but unlimited golf fun, a great 10-hole short course and lots of stay and play packages.
In a golf travel landscape where top ranked courses routinely command over $300 a round (or much more) and even mediocre Florida factory-style resort courses charge this much in winter, Forest Dunes punches way below its weight class when it comes to greens fees. If you are staying here, any of the three Top 100 routings cost just $135 on weekdays and $165 weekends in the heart of summertime peak season, and are substantially less in the spring and fall. Even if you stay offsite, the golf only rates are $150 and $185 respectively, and is hard to hit a resort of this stature for those prices. All the courses are walkable, the best way to play golf.
You could spend two weeks just playing the courses at Boyne and Forest Dunes, anchored by the four Top 100 routings, the bulk of Michigan’s prize gems, but there are also other local standouts, including the classic Belvedere, an understated 1925 gem by Scottish architect Willie Watson, famed for designs such as San Francisco’s Olympic Club and Minnesota’s Interlachen. In 2016, the long-lost original plans were rediscovered, and the club hired Tom Doak disciple Bruce Hepner to do a renovation, bringing back the original shot strategies that had been affected by time and trees growing. It has hosted the Michigan Amateur 40 times, more than any other layout, and is charming, welcoming, and very accessible – 18 holes run from $55 to a max of $135 – with cart, though you can walk for less.
For those who belong to private clubs, another key to the regional puzzle is the highly acclaimed Kingsley Club, a pure golf links-style experience by another Doak disciple, Mike Devries. While private, Kingsley is quite laid back (since it opened in 2001, they have never built any homes or made significant additions, and the clubhouse is still a double-wide trailer) and welcomes calls from club pros on behalf of members seeking to visit. I got out and loved it, and Kingsley is ranked on just about every “best” list there is including Golf Magazine’s Top 100 for public and private course, which is much harder to crack, as well as Planet Golf’s World Top 100 and Golf Digest’s “Best Damn Clubs Around.”
I would be remiss not to mention the final pilgrimage resort in Michigan, Arcadia Bluffs, even though I didn’t visit it on this trip. It sits on the shore of Lake Michigan south of Traverse City, near Frankfurt, and has two more Top 100 courses. I’ve previously played the original Bluffs course and personally found it underwhelming, with the main appeal the lakefront location – in golf, gorgeous coastline is hard to beat. But since then, they added a second layout, the South course, by respected architect Dana Fry, and everyone I talked to in my Michigan travels thought it was even better, though all three major publications rank it slightly lower. No matter what order you put them in, to have two Top 100 courses under one roof is nothing to sneeze at, and given its setting and prestige, Arcadia Bluffs is surprisingly affordable – like most Michigan golf. The peak summer tee times never crest $230 on Bluffs or $160 on the South, including carts (with caddies optional).
There are countless nondescript resort courses that charge rates like these (or higher) for a completely forgettable round, and the greens fees are substantially lower than regional peers like Wisconsin’s Erin Hills ($330) or the Irish Course, which doesn’t even make most Top 100 lists ($380 with cart). The bottom line is that in Michigan you can play a lot of exceptional golf courses that are close together for less than just about anyplace else, and if you are not a design or ratings junkie, you can play a lot of much better than average resort golf and have a lot of fun doing it, all while staying in nice accommodations, for rock bottom prices.
Hit ‘em straight!