When you think golf-crazy states, you probably think warm places: Florida, Arizona, South Carolina.
The year-round warmth and sunshine -- as well a plentiful supply of incoming tourists and retirees -- are a perfect marriage with golf.
However, in terms of golf courses per capita, it's the American Midwest that leads the way. The seasons may be shorter, but the golfers there get the most out of what they've got.
While I haven't played golf everywhere in the Midwest, Michigan is the best example of this that I've experienced. It feels like you can't go a half-hour driving without seeing a golf course. There are about 1,000 courses in a state of 10 million people. The 10th-most populous state has the fifth-highest count of golf courses. That's pretty incredible.
If you're looking to get a truly representative sampling of all the different kinds of golf available in Michigan, Boyne Resorts are probably as close as it gets to one-stop shopping. Boyne Resorts is a collection of mountain and lakeside resorts with properties running as far west as British Columbia and as far east as Maine.
In Michigan alone, Boyne has 11 properties, and it's where Everett Kircher started the company in 1947. His second resort, Boyne Mountain, opened a year later.
At first, it might seem like a company with a focus on winter sports -- particularly skiing -- wouldn't have a relevant connection to golf. It makes it all the more stunning to learn Boyne Resorts in Michigan have 10 golf courses available to their guests. More importantly, golfers of all stripes can find courses they love, and, as the Boyne folks will tell you, a healthy debate about which course is the best.
After getting to play a half-dozen of what Boyne calls Michigan's Magnificent Ten during a media trip in July, I landed on my favorites, too.
I began my trip by flying into Traverse City airport, whose tiny stature actually makes it awfully convenient. Hop off the plane on one of six gates, walk about 250 steps to the baggage claim, then another 100 steps to your ride or rental car. It's ideal.
Our first stop was Boyne's The Highlands at Harbor Springs, which is about a 90-minute drive from the airport. The Highlands at Harbor Springs resort recently underwent a full renovation of the guest rooms, and they're complete with comfortable beds, modern appliances and electrical, as well as a phenomenal shower, which goes a really long way after a full day of golf.
Four of the 10 courses in Boyne's Michigan portfolio are located at The Highlands, and we played three of them over the course of two days.
We started our tour with a round on the Arthur Hills Course. Hills designed a golf course that fits wonderfully with the varied settings and topography of the land on which it sits. After initial holes that feel more open, players enter the forest section of the course, cut out of a former commercial tree-farming space.
The trees offer an all-encompassing amphitheater for some dramatic holes, including a drivable par 4. The course then shifts to holes that play up to a peak -- a par 5 with stunning panoramic views any time of year (although golf season isn't 12 months in Michigan).
The final few holes play on flatter land but are no less compelling, with the par-4 17th boasting split fairways playing to a central green and the par-5 18th challenging players to bite off as much as they can chew with the second set.
Two of the other three courses at The Highlands are all routed through the same Country Club of Boyne facility as the Hills, which typically comes in as one of the favorites amid the portfolio. The range facility is huge, and it's equipped with TrackMan range, so you can see shot data in real time as you warm up or work through something. There's an indoor fitting studio with state-of-the-art equipment to get your swing and your clubs dialed in. The restaurants in the clubhouse range from casual to fancy, giving golfers and resort guests the setting that's right for their group. In the same day, we ate in the bar and had a tasty, casual experience. Then at night, we came back for a more formal experience that's perfect for a buddy trip.
On Day 2, we came back to the Country Club to play the Moor. After a lively night, that was probably not our best choice. The Moor is easily the most challenging of the four courses on property. It's tight from tee the green, with plenty of doglegs and obscured landing areas that will command your attention. It's a course you can't overpower except in a few rare spots, and target golf requires a discipline that not everyone (particularly me) always has. However, if you buy in to what the course is asking you to do, good scores are possible. Most greens have some kind of defense in front of them, making the Moor particularly tricky for players who don't get the ball in the air too well. The putting surfaces ran at a great speed. For bigger groups, this is probably the course you play in the afternoon as a team scramble. For individuals, be prepared to swallow your pride to score well.
After lunch on Day 2, we also took a field trip through the Donald Ross Memorial Course. The course was open for play, but we stopped by to see work on one of the holes. If you ever get a chance to see a golf course in development or renovation, do it. You'll come away amazed by how much goes into making your experience enjoyable. The drainage is impressive. The land-moving vehicles are just cool to watch. For Boyne, making these investments are to offer guests a better course to play, but the intrigue comes in how they've chosen to approach the tribute holes they've built amid the wave of restoration work across many high-end clubs and facilities Ross designed perhaps 100 years ago. The Ross Memorial will evolve, but it's more or less a capsule in time for those specific tribute holes when they were built at Boyne -- and that might hold some architectural significance as the broader restoration push continues.
The fourth and final course at The Highlands in The Heather, a Robert Trent Jones jam from 1966 that is the original course in the Boyne family. The Heather, which we played in the afternoon of Day 1, has hosted scores of Michigan's most prestigious championships, and it now is almost kind of counter-cultural to an architectural philosophy that preaches wide-open spaces and sprawling views across the course. The Heather fits the land well, and it allows a golfer to take on as much challenge as they can stand. The variety of shots a player has to hit -- and at the right times in the round -- make the course a comprehensive test, and, as we learned, a great match-play course.
After a day and a half at The Highlands, it was time to make our way toward The Inn at Bay Harbor, which was about a half-hour drive south and west, around the coast. We were less than 24 hours away from the pinnacle of Boyne's golf offerings, but we first played Crooked Tree Golf Club, which looks down toward the Inn from on high.
Crooked Tree isn't a mountain course, but it has the ups and downs you'd associate with one: plenty of elevation change from shot to shot, requiring a player to really think. With greens that often had false fronts and sides, Crooked Tree could lull a golfer into a false sense of security before swatting them down with three-putt after three-putt. The views, particularly on the back nine, are delightful and, for us, were just a glimpse of what we would experience the next day.
That night, we dined at The Inn, where the upscale menu and views combine to make for a wonderful meal. Call your shot on the menu, with home-style classics and Wagyu steaks all part of a diverse offering. The wine list is great, and the beer selection is ideal, too (hard to beat Michigan beer). If you were coming to this part of Michigan with your spouse or partner, this is absolutely the place you'd splurge for a night.
However, we had to get going a little further south to our accommodations at Boyne Mountain, which is a half-hour drive due south of Bay Harbor. In my life, I'd never been to a ski resort, so imagine figuring out that my first would be in Michigan, which frankly I didn't know had skiing until this trip. But Boyne Mountain is fantastic. The lodges and accommodations lean into the idea of being located in the Alps, and though I don't have a comparison point, it felt warm and welcoming and complete with modern amenities and finishes.
We wrapped up the trip with one final round on one of two courses at Boyne Mountain. The Alpine Course is an absolute blast. It's a course you feel like you could play every day of the year. There's a great mix of demanding tee shots and wide-open corridors, allowing players to enjoy the course while not having to worry about massive penalties for not executing. The greens command your full attention, with some putts rolling with a shocking amount of break and speed. I would have paid good money to ride a ski lift to the top of mountain to start on the Alpine Course, but that may not be in the cards despite my polite suggestion. (They know what they're doing; I don't.)
But before the concluding round on the Alpine Course -- which featured one of the greatest lost-and-found golf-ball stories I've ever seen or heard -- our trip around all things Boyne came to a tremendous crescendo.
I'm the kind of golf traveler who doesn't like to look into a place too much before playing there. I want to be surprised and delighted by the whole experience instead of coming in with pre-conceived notions about the place and knowing what's coming next. That approach paid off once again. Bay Harbor Golf Club is amazing.
Bay Harbor is a 27-hole facility that was built from a former cement quarry, with Arthur Hills coming in to turn depleted land in one of the most beautiful places in the country into a stunning golf experience.
Several green sites sit right on Lake Michigan, including the par-3 fourth on the Links nine, which is a short iron played downhill to a sloping green just begging for an ace. The two par 5s on the Links are stunners, with golfers asked to bite off as much as they want on both the tee shot and second shot. The seventh, the first par 5, offers amazing water views from the tee but a largely blind approach shot to a deceptive infinity green. The closer plays back into a wooded area, serving as a transition hole to the next part of the property featuring the Quarry and Preserve nines (we played the Quarry next).
The Quarry nine's four-hole finish includes two drivable par 4s (at least with the right wind). The sixth hole is a 270-yard, downhill hole playing to a tiny green with scrub all the way on the carry -- and a fairway to the left that is really the right play. The seven requires the golfer to take on a blind tee shot and execute without any faith that their ball land in a good place. The next-to-last hole is a slightly downhill par 3, playing to a partially shrouded green with Lake Michigan in the background. The closing hole is just an iron off the tee for a better player, but the second shot opens up to a sunken green just steps from the crystal-clear water.
Playing Bay Harbor is as high-end of a golf experience you can expect. The facility is in tremendous shape, with pure-roll putting surfaces and great manicuring. It's the kind of golf course where you just stop playing several times in appreciation of the surroundings. Golf is truly played on some of the most incredible land -- even recovered land -- and sometimes it's just worth it to stop for a minute of gratitude, even when a three-club wind threatens to blow your ball into one of the Great Lakes.
Michigan is one of my favorite states for golf. It definitely doesn't have the longest season, but their peak is as good as anywhere in this country. Boyne's diverse offering, convenient accommodations and excellent service augment and elevate Pure Michigan golf. If you haven't been there to play golf, you're missing out.