Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – known as The UP – is thought of as a dense wilderness inhabited by more black bears, gray wolves, and white-tailed deer than people. There’s a reason for this: there are actually far more bears, wolves, and deer than people in the UP. So naturally, the UP is a paradise for campers, hikers, hunters, and anglers. But it’s also home to more domesticated attractions, including golf – that paradoxical outdoor sport that is played by millions of indoorsy people. And there is no more luxurious home base for golfers looking to sample the rugged beauty of the UP while batting a tiny white ball around manicured fairways than Island Resort and Casino in Harris. With two of the state’s top courses on-property, Island Resort and Casino is the perfect place to “tee UP.”
Sweetgrass Golf Club
Sweetgrass Golf Club – named after the traditional Potawatomi medicinal herb that is planted bountifully throughout the course – opened in 2007 to rave reviews. The Paul Albanese design, which measures from 5,075 to 7,275 yards, was named as one of America’s Best New Courses in 2009 by Golf Digest and is routinely found on lists of the top-ten courses in the state. In 2022, it was named the 2022 National Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association.
Sweetgrass lies adjacent to the resort and casino and is visible from the rooms on the top floors. Generous bentgrass fairways are bordered by juicy bluegrass rough and tufts of sweetgrass and fescue. It is relatively flat and windswept – infrequent characteristics for UP golf courses – and is also perfectly walkable, which is likewise not usual for UP courses, where the landscape often necessitates long walks between holes and steep climbs to tees. Not here, though, which is one reason Sweetgrass hosts the EPSON Tour’s Island Resort Championship, a major stop on the Road to the LPGA.
The other reason is the masterful architectural flourishes Albanese incorporated into the design. These features, which hearken back to some of golf history’s most iconic holes, are prominent in the green complexes. At the 469-yard, par-4 4th, you’ll find a reverse Redan green, running downhill from front to back right, away from what will likely be a very long approach shot. At the 230-yard, par-3 7th, the traditional Redan runs front-to-back again, but this time off to the left.
On the back nine, golfers are treated to a classic Biarritz green on the 214-yard 12th, with a six-foot deep swale between the front and back portions of the massive putting surface. Hope that the pin is cut in that swale or at the front when you play, because it is incredibly difficult to get your tee shot all the way to the back of the green. At the 168-yard 15th, precision is required to land and stop your ball on the island green that players access via a picturesque trestle bridge.
Sage Run Golf Course
Named after another traditional Potawatomi medicinal herb, Sage Run Golf Course opened in 2018 and was selected as one of the “Best New” golf courses in America by Golf Digest. Sage Run is located just five minutes from the main resort property, and tumbles and heaves through dense stands of towering hardwoods. Measuring between 5,231 and 7,375 yards, it is a staunch test for some of the nation’s top collegiate golfers as the annual host course of the Island Resort Collegiate Championship.
Sage Run was also designed by Paul Albanese. It is rare for a resort to have two courses by the same architect, as golfers enjoy variety. But Albanese has done a truly brilliant job executing two completely different design philosophies and styles. Whereas Sweetgrass has traditional features and incorporates historical aspects of design, Sage Run has a rugged, even wild, feel from the first tee to the final green. “Ribbon” teeing grounds run in long strips from the back to forward tees, allowing for enormous flexibility in yardages. Both fairways and rough are hearty bluegrass, while tees and greens are creeping bent. These turfgrass varietals combine to create a pristine yet natural look, and allow for a maintenance budget that is some $200,000 lower annually than Sweetgrass’s, while still maintaining impeccable playing conditions.
Sage Run’s greens are among the most difficult to navigate that I have ever played. They are firm and fast – running around 13 on the Stimp meter. By the time I had finished the 5th hole at Sage Run, I had already three-putted four times – as many as I had in my previous two rounds combined. Along with being firm and fast, the greens here are devilishly contoured, with multiple run-offs and false fronts and sides (see the photo of Hole 3 below). My playing partners and I all putted off the green at least once.
Perhaps most vexing – and masochistically enjoyable, I admit – is the fact that most of the putting surfaces are blind or semi-blind. Several of the par 3s are “surprise” holes, straight uphill: Hit your shot and then go see where it’s ended up. Who knows? Maybe in the hole!
In fact, if there’s one defining feature of Sage Run, it is the element of surprise: Nearly every hole consists of a blind landing area from the tee, a blind approach, a blind green, or all three. The 348-yard, par-4 16th, for example, presents an uphill tee shot to a saddleback fairway to a completely occluded green you can actually hit with a big drive. At the colossal 635-yard, par-5 18th, you can actually see the landing area off the tee (this is so rare that it made my notes), but the landing area for your lay up (and you will be laying up, no matter the tees you play) is totally blind.
Island Resort and Casino boasts two courses named to Golfweek’s list of “Top 50 Casino Courses in America.” They stand in sharp contrast to each other in terms of style and playing characteristics. You may love one or both, but you will definitely remember both. My advice would be to start with Sweetgrass to get warmed up, and then tackle Sage Run, where bad shots—and maybe even some good shots—can be harshly punished.
But hey, that’s the nature of the rugged spit of land they call The UP. It’s wild, it’s rough, it’s beautiful. Most of all, it’s fun—so “Tee UP!”