Shop & Golf 'Til Ya Drop
by Ken Tabacsko
It seems like an unlikely mix. The Frankenmuth/Birch Run area off I-75 Saginaw Country draws more than 3 million folks a year to browse and buy at the popular Bronners Christmas Decorations and the Outlets at Birch Run and eat famous family-style chicken dinners at Zehnder's and the Bavarian Inn.
But not everyone is a shopaholic. One spouse might enjoy pushing a shopping cart while another might prefer a golf cart. That's why two top-quality courses in the area are catering to visitors with resort-style layouts. In addition, a driving range and practice facility will open this year in the shadows of the outlet mall.
Here's a look at the facilities and what they have to offer.
This is the veteran of the group, owned by the Zehnder Corp. since 1985 and open for play, originally as a 9-hole course, in the middle 1960s. Currently, the Frankenmuth course plays as an 18, par 72 at 6,813 yards at the back tees. Two other tee positions -- 6,271 and 4,837 -- help make the layout an entertaining challenge for anyone.
According to Mark J. Black, club pro, the course is "player-friendly." "The fairways are generous and the greens are big," said Black. "When we designed the course we made large landing areas for beginners' drives." Black said about 75 percent of the Fortress' clientele comes from metro Detroit.
"A lot of people play when they are visiting Frankenmuth or Birch Run, or they stop by for a round on their way up north or on the way back," he said. "More and more, people are making Frankenmuth an overnight stop.
"Frankenmuth never really meant golf and now it does. A lot of people didn't know what was available."
Black said visitors most often comment about the course's excellent condition and the nice service provided. Black said his staff does everything it can to make the experience as enjoyable as possible.
The Fortress pro said he increasingly sees more ladies coming out. "Groups of women will come up, say from Detroit, and have an outing," he said. "They'll play golf, have some nice meals and do some shopping. They really seem to enjoy themselves."
The 153-yard (middle tee) 17th is a picturesque island hole that is a favorite of many, said Black. No. 13, a 410-yard, par 4, also is a challenge with a pond on each side of the green.
The following hole, No. 14 (par 5, 496 yards) makes a hard right turn with the historic St. Lorenz Lutheran Church steeple in the background. "Those holes are great for after-golf conversations," said Black. "It's sort of funny -- people want a challenge so they can talk about it but they don't want holes that are too tough, super-tight or super-hard so they're frustrated. You try to design something that is challenging, but playable."
Rates for the Fortress range from $25-$41 for nine holes with cart, and $39-$65 for 18 holes, including cart. For more information call 1-800-863-7999.
Jim Ankenbrandt, director of golf at The Timbers, says the new course offers the feel of an up-north layout without all the driving.
"We're unique in that we're cut right out of the woods," he said. "We're like a northern Michigan course but right in mid-Michigan." Beech, maples, oaks, birches and Austrian and American pines fill the gently rolling terrain.
The layout, just 5 miles east of Frankenmuth, plays 6,674-yards, par 72, from the back tees. The front nine opened in July of last year with the back nine getting only minimum traffic as it hosted golfers starting in October.
"People are coming to us raving about the course's natural beauty," he says. "The back nine didn't get as much exposure but it's probably twice as nice as the front nine. It's really quite spectacular."
The course features eight man-made lakes, 47 bunkers and more than 8 miles of wetlands to create tight fairways and plenty of challenges. If you spray your shots, the Timbers can have ball-eating tendencies.
"We're working hard to develop a local base," said Ankenbrandt. "The I-75 corridor is obviously going to be important for us. You can play a great course without all the driving."
Ankenbrandt is certainly using the draw of Frankenmuth and Birch Run to attract golfers.
"We saw a lot of spouses drop off their husbands, they'll play 18 or 27 holes, the women will go shopping and then pick them up and have dinner," he said. "That's not to say women aren't playing our course, too. There's no question the popularity of the region has got to help us."
Ankenbrandt said the Fortress and Timbers are planning to do plenty of joint promotions.
"People can make it a weekend outing and play at both courses," he said. "The success of Gaylord promoting itself as a golfing destination shows that cooperative arrangements draw players.
"Both courses are top-quality but different. We have more of the up-north woods feel while they are more of a links-style course."
For more information call 1-888-617-1479.
Just about a seven-iron from the Outlets at Birch Run is a prototype for what might become a nationwide chain of golf learning centers.
Rick Smith, the esteemed pro at Treetops Sylvan Resort, is putting together a facility that will allow golfers to spend an hour or so and get some work on whatever aspect of the game they desire.
Work has begun on the center, south of the mall, and should be completed sometime this summer.
Plans call for a driving range, a short-game course, a huge putting green and a nine-hole, par-3 layout.
The short-game course will include holes of about 50 yards with a handicapping system for scoring. Instructors will be available as will a computerized video swing analyzer.
Smith says the center addresses two obstacles golf faces -- the amount of time it takes to play and the difficulty learning the game.
Guys with shopping wives are going to have a reason to bring their clubs along.
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