Destination: Try Good Golf: Tri-Cities
by Ken Tabacsko
As far as golfing enthusiasts were concerned, the Tri-City region of Michigan -- Saginaw, Bay City and Midland -- has long been a place to zoom through on the way to well-known courses way up north.
For years, Bay Valley Resort in Bay City was the lone championship caliber layout beckoning travelers to stay and play awhile. New additions to the golfing scene, however, makes the Tri-Cities a great spot for a getaway golfing vacation.
Two courses are near the tourist towns of Frankenmuth and Birch Run. Frankenmuth, of course, is known for its famous chicken dinners at Zehnder's and the Bavarian Inn along with numerous shopping opportunities at Bronner's Christmas Decorations. Birch Run, meanwhile, is home to more outlet stores than even the most avid browser can handle.
What follows are some of the golfing highlights of the region.
The first year for any golf course is somewhat of a learning experience and Andy Bethune, part owner and director of golf for the Sawmill Golf Course, learned plenty.
Approximately 13,000 rounds were played at the Saginaw Township course with an abbreviated season that began with the June 1 opening. The goal is for at least 18,000 rounds this year.
"We learned that we have a good golf course that this area has been looking for," said Bethune. "All the vital signs, all the feedback we've received from customers, has been favorable."
John Sanford Jr. , a course designer from Jupiter, Fla., incorporated natural wetlands, pine groves and a hill creek-side area into the course layout.
"It's deceiving from the road," said Bethune. "It looks open; sort of like a links layout. But the course is very diverse, offering a little bit of everything. The most beautiful part is the wetlands area. It gives you a real up-north and away-from-it-all feeling.
"We like to say that when you tee it up at the 10th hole you're only 400 yards from the heart of northern Michigan."
The par-72 course plays 6,846, 6,398, 5,972, or 5,151 yards, depending on your tee selection.
Bethune said No. 7, a 475-yard par 4 is a fun "swing-away" type hole that can set golfers up to finish their first nine in a favorable fashion. Another popular hole is No. 11, a pretty 215-yard par 3 with wetlands ready and waiting to gobble up any short shots.
No. 12, a 307-yard par 4 looks like a nice hole to score well and indeed it is very reachable as long as you're accurate.
Generous greens -- the average size is 6,500 square feet -- do make things fun if golfers can avoid the trouble.
Holes 15 through 18 have more of a links feel and as Bethune described it, "a chance to swing away a bit after being in the woods for awhile."
This season Bethune will offer a complete instructional program. He previously served as a golf instructor at the Saginaw Country Club and Bay Valley Golf Club.
For more information, call 517-793-2692.
This Desmond Muirhead-designed layout, just a 5-iron off I-75 in Bay City, is the grand daddy of top-quality courses in the area. It opened in 1973 and ever since it has been a popular stop for both Michigan tourists heading north and visiting Canadians.
The Muirhead touch is evident in the course's spacious tees, large greens and plenty of water. Although it is relatively flat_after all, it served as a farm in its first life_it provides a tough but fair and fun test for golfers.
Water comes into play on 13 holes and more than 50 sand traps are scattered about. The greens are large enough, however, to easily hit from the fairway, where there is often room to stay away from trouble. While well bunkered, players generally do not have to clear sand to the green. They can hit short and run up.
Four tees provide enjoyment for golfers of all skill levels. Lengths range from 6,610 to 5,587 yards, par 71. The 157-yard Heather Hole is considered as one of the state's top par 3s. It's a picture postcard hole right out of Scotland that features thick heather for almost all of the "fairway." A ball in the dense mess is a goner and there is little room for error with only about 10 yards from the end of the heather to the green. Club selection is obviously crucial.
No. 17 can certainly wreck havoc on a scorecard. The watery par 4, 447-yard dogleg sports a lake from tee to green on the left and a creek on the right side of the hole. From the tee the landing area looks miniscule with all that water staring you in the face. It's the one that makes its way into a lot of 19th hole conversations.
The Bay Valley complex also features a 150-room hotel, condos, an indoor/outdoor tennis complex and more.
For more information call, 517-686-5400.
This handsome course, located in the heart of the tourist town of Frankenmuth, is a player-friendly layout owned by Zehnder's of chicken fame. Packages, for example, include golf, a meal at the restaurant and lodging at the Bavarian Haus, also owned by Zehnder Corp.
The Dick Nugent-designed layout features generous fairways and large greens. There are three sets of tees -- 6,813, 6,271 and 4,837 yards -- so experienced and new players will enjoy a great time together.
In his design, Nugent used gentle contours and different native grasses to give The Fortress a links flavor. Fescue areas are pretty, but they offer plenty of challenges to hit out of.
Pro Mark J. Black says metro Detroit is a key source of players with a lot of folks stopping for a round on their way up or back from the northland.
A pretty island hole, No. 17 is a 153-yarder that always gains attention. No. 13 is a par 4, 410-yarder with water on each side of the green. Prevailing winds play a role here. Normal southwest winds require a shot on the left side of the fairway. Some consider this the toughest hole on the course.
The following hole, No. 14, resembles a painting as the par 5, 496-yarder features the steeple of the historic St. Lorenz Lutheran Church in the background.
Black says holes like these give golfers something to talk about. He said his course provides a nice blend of challenging golf while not being so tough that the experience is frustrating.
Black and his staff offer a top-notch manicured course and do everything possible to make golfers' experiences positive ones.
For more information, call 800-863-7999
The Timbers, entering its second full season, is another resort-style course in the region, just 4 miles from Frankenmuth. It's shaved out of dense woodlands, giving an up-north feel in mid-Michigan.
Lorrie Viola, who became the first woman to entirely design a course in Michigan when she did the Timbers, carved the course out of wetlands with beech, maples, oaks, birches and pines filling the gently rolling terrain and playing a major role on 14 holes.
Golfers call the fairways extremely tight. Director of Golf Jim Ankenbrandt says landing areas are often generous but can look intimidating to the eye. He added that players rave about the course's natural beauty.
There are three sets of tees, measuring from 4,900 from the forward tees to 6,674 from the championship set. The course features eight man-made lakes, 47 bunkers and more than 8 miles of wetlands. From the back tees, golfers often can't see the danger that lurks ahead. You need to think before you hit.
The Timbers signature hole is the par, 5, No. 16, a 560-yarder from the back tees. It's a dogleg left and from the tee you're staring at six bunkers. An island green makes the hole all the more memorable.
The 375-yard No. 7 is a dogleg left, featuring wetlands and lots of bunkers on the left side. It requires precise shot-making if one hopes for a par.
A complete academy-style practice area includes numerous target and practice greens, bunkers and even areas to practice shots from uphill and downhill lies.
For more information call 517-871-4884.
This rolling course in rural Bay County offers three distinct nines.
The West Course is open and usually plays as a single 9-hole outing, while the North and East Courses are more wooded with water coming into play on seven of the nine holes on the North.
The two combined play at 5,301 from the middle tees at par 71. The most notable hole is the 100-yard, par 3, No. 8 on the North layout. Heavy woods line one side of the fairway with a stunning island green to shoot for. This course is a favorite for leagues and one of the best bargains in the region.
For more information call 517-697-3531.
This summer golfers visiting the Birch Run-Frankenmuth area can enjoy their sport while their spouse or friends shop.
The Rick Smith Golf Center near the Outlets in Birch Run is a facility that will allow players to practice all facets of their game. Plans call for a driving range, a short-game course, a huge putting green and a nine-hole par 3 course. Instruction will be available using modern computerized video swing analysis. For pure family fun there will be a miniature golf layout, with all the usual "hazards."
The project, if successful, might spawn a host of similar facilities around the country.
This municipal facility, owned by the city of Midland, offers something for everyone.
The East course is a par 72 layout that plays 6,523 yards, while the West is a nine-hole walk-on course (3,220 yards, par 36). There is also a driving range, instruction and a neat little par 3 layout that's great for kids.
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