ESCANABA, MICH. - As our small jet dips its wings on approach to this Northern Michigan outpost, I’m struck by the sight of puffy white clouds being reflected in a crystal-clear lake that’s framed by an evergreen forest. It’s a masterpiece only Mother Nature could paint.
“That’s quite a sight, isn’t it?” says my seatmate and a “longtime resident” of this place they call the Upper Peninsula or UP for short.
“It’s pure Michigan magic and it’s a scene I never get tired of seeing when I fly home.”
The Upper Peninsula is truly a magical place — a vast natural wonderland that contains just 3 per cent of Michigan’s population but 29 per cent of the state’s land mass.
It’s bordered by three of the Great Lakes (Superior to the north and Michigan and Huron to the southeast), the St. Mary’s River to the east and Wisconsin to the southwest.
Early settlers were drawn here by mining but now logging and tourism are the main industries. Outdoor enthusiasts love the unique hunting, fishing and hiking experiences and golfers are drawn by a troika of championship courses that regularly earn high marks from industry experts.
The best of that group is the Sweetgrass course that winds its way around the Island Resort and Casino, a tribal gaming venue on the outskirts of Escanaba that straddles two time zones — Eastern and Central.
Above: Sweetgrass has that Scottish links look.
The trip here — about three hours from Toronto via Detroit — is well worth it mainly because of what you get for your efforts. Three-night golf packages at the Island Resort start around $275 U.S. and include two nights’ stay, up to three rounds of golf and other incentives. Packages combine rounds at Sweetgrass with two other great area courses, Greywalls in nearby Marquette and Timber Stone at the Pine Mountain Resort.
Sweetgrass, however, is the only incentive you need to come here.
The 6,829-yard parkland beauty features hints of links golf and is a treasure to play for both the skilled and recreational golfer. Its greens, which are always kept lightning fast, are challenging but fair and the course comes with some unique features, such as island and shared greens.
Fairways are bordered by natural wetlands and the course features a number of reclaimed road bridges rescued from destruction.
Sweetgrass is so good that the LPGA uses it for one of its developmental Symetra Tour events and the course is regularly ranked among the state’s best — high praise since Michigan is home to some of the best public golf courses in the United States.
The course and casino are built on land owned by the Potawatomi Nation, members of the Algonquin family whose name means “keepers of the fire.” An open fire pit on the 9th tee pays homage to that tradition. In fact, all the holes at Sweetgrass correspond to a Native American name or legend. Many golfers stop at a beautiful carved statue of eagles in flight off the 13th green to snap a photographic keepsake of their very special golf experience.
Holes at Sweetgrass range from short, tricky par 4s to monster par 5s and a round starts on the par 4, 305-yard 1st known as Cedar, one of the four traditional medicines used by the Potawatomi people.
Left: Bridges on the course are old Michigan state highway bridges. Right: Holes honour the native land the course is built on.
The first is your introduction to Sweetgrass’ fast, sloped greens and what this hole lacks in length, it more than makes up for in challenge.
Two through five cut across a gently rolling landscape that’s flanked by high brown grass that looks like a silk scarf when the wind blows. The high grass gives Sweetgrass that Scotttish links feel.
The first five holes set you up to meet one of the best par 5 challenges in North America —the 599-yard 6th is the hole known as Sacred White Deer, but don’t let the lyrical name fool you, this is a monster and should have been called Angry Bear because it eats you up and spits you out.
Off the tee at No. 6 golfers face a few intimidating visuals — a small lake and man-sized bunkers require an accurate tee shot to a narrow landing spot. More bunkers are placed about 120 yards out to protect the green and then a little bunker on the right side gobbles up a lot of approach shots and any hopes of a birdie.
Golfers who love to debate which nine is more challenging at a golf course will be pleased to hear that all 18 holes at Sweetgrass are equally impressive.
The back nine starts off with another short par 4, the 10th named Firecracker is a 351-yard beauty with bunkers strategically placed on both sides of the fairway at the landing spot. Three more bunkers protect the smallish green that’s bordered by lots of trees.
The signature 15th is an island hole named Turtle and golfers access the green over one of those reclaimed Department of Transportation bridges and, depending on the pin placement, this can make or break your day at Sweetgrass.
Your knees shake in the gate of this 152-yard, par-3 test that equals the famed Island Hole at TPC Sawgrass for nerve-racking thrills.
Your game at Sweetgrass finishes on a trio of holes that are among the best this duffer has ever experienced. The 16th and 17th are very different looking par-4s, but each tests every aspect of your game.
An accurate tee shot over a large lake on 17 sets up an approach shot that requires you to fly four bunkers before navigating a sloped green. This hole is aptly called “Wisdom” and you’d better play it smart.
The 18th shares a green with the 9th and locals say designer Paul Albanese made it in the shape of the Upper Peninsula. Known as the “Seven Grandfathers,” the 530-yard 18th is uphill all the way off the tee, but is reachable in three and sets up a birdie opportunity — a sweet way to end your round at Sweetgrass.
Afterwards, golfers head to the casino to test their luck at the tables and slots or take in a show at one of the resort’s award-winning live entertainment venues. The walls of the casino are lined with pictures of the A-list entertainers who have performed here— there’s so many that it looks like a Hall of Fame.
The rooms at Island Resort are spacious and come with first-rate amenities, but with so much to do there’s little time to rest.
Being just a two-hour drive from Green Bay, golfers have been known to drive over to see a Packers game or just tour famed Lambeau Field, where the legendary NFL team plays.
Escanaba is easy to reach from Toronto via Detroit – Delta Airlines offers daily service to the Upper Peninsula / Rounds at Sweetgrass with cart start around $65 U.S. / The slope rating at Sweetgrass from the Blue Tees is 137 / To make a tee time, go to www.sweetgrassgolfclub.com / To find out more about the Island Resort and Casino, go to http://www.islandresortandcasino.com / Green Bay is a 2 hour drive from Escanaba. To get tickets for a Packers game or to tour Lambeau Field, go to http://www.lambeaufield.com / Stadium tours start at $10 U.S.