Featured

TPC Deere Run in Silvis Brings Tour Dreams to Life

TPC stands for “Tournament Players Club.” The TPC network spans North America, and includes some courses in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia. Over half of them are private, many more are exclusive resort courses, and a handful have hosted PGA Tour events.

TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois, is the long-time venue of the John Deere Classic, traditional PGA Tour stop the week before The Open (British). It is unique among TPC courses not only because it is a regular Tour host that is fully open to the public, but also because it is easily the most affordable of all TPC courses.

And when I say “affordable,” I mean it. Rates at Deere Run top out at $119 – that’s peak time, inclusive of cart and unlimited use of practice facilities. But savvy and flexible players who are non-local residents can find rates as low as $59. Local residents never have to pay more than $69, and they can play for as little as $49.

Let me repeat that for the readers who just joined us: You can play the self-same course where the pros play every year for less than $60.

The tournament that is today The John Deere Classic was born in 1971 as The Quad Cities Open, at a local private course. The ensuing years as a Tour event were tenuous, to say the least, but after Tiger Woods turned pro and made a splash at the 1996 playing, Illinois native D.A. Weibring negotiated with John Deere and the Tour to design and build a TPC on the banks of the Rock River. When TPC Deere Run opened in 2000, the 7,213-yard par-71 layout was ranked as the 8th Best New Public Golf Course by “Golf Digest.” And it’s been hosting the Tour event ever since.

Playing TPC Deere Run

If you watch the pros on TV, they can make it look like a pushover. Paul Goydos carded a 59 here in 2010—and didn’t win, because several other players went ultra-low, too.

But don’t let the super-humans on Tour fool you: TPC Deere Run is all the course amateur players will ever want. Conditions are impeccable, and the variety of holes is outstanding: Long and short par 3s, 4s, and 5s. Some open fairways, some tight fairways. Over 70 bunkers, and plenty of water. Opportunities for both greatness and disaster.

The variety of holes will allow you to hit – or try to hit – a full array of shots off the tees, though most par 4s on the front set up best for fades. There are seven sets of tees, including two sets of blended tees to allow players of all skill level and all lengths to find a fit for their games, from 5,179 yards up to 7,213 yards. Generous landing areas provide opportunities to approach greens from multiple angles, only a few of which are truly optimal.

The 561-yard 2nd is one of the favorites of anyone whose played here before. From the elevated tees, the vista is expansive. The Rock River flows serenely in the distance beyond the huge fairway, which bends gently to the right on the second shot. The green is protected by a small desert’s worth of sand, and a small barn behind it harks back to the agricultural roots of the area and the sponsor of the tournament played here.

The tee shot on the par-5 2nd at TPC Deere Run is a beauty, and all about position and length.
The green on the 2nd hole is a Midwestern classic.

At the 454-yard 4th, you realize that you are in for a day of one gorgeous golf hole after another. The sentinel oak in the center of the fairway makes the tee shot thrilling, and form the fairway, it feels like the river lurks just beyond the putting surface.

The green at the par-4 4th looks from the fairway like it’s ready to fall into the river.

The 158-yard 16th is one of the prettiest short par 3s in the entire Midwest. The green is cut into the bluff overlooking the river. A rock wall runs in front of the green, and the bluff drops away precipitously to the left, making the entire left side a very penal hazard. When the tournament bleachers are still up behind the green, this is a hole that gives anyone the chance to hit a good shot and feel like a pro.

The 158-yard 16th: Can you say, “Aim right?”

The 17th and 18th are two fun closers – the stuff that memories are made of. The 557-yard 17th is a reachable par 5 that plays out of a chute of trees to a wide-open fairway and green complex that allows for run-up fairway woods. The 463-yard 18th has seen its share of drama during the tournament, and amateurs can feel some degree of the same exhilaration by carving in a slight draw to the front of the green and watching their ball trundle back toward the pin. Over-cook it, though, and you’ll find the pond that borders the entire left side of the green; fade it instead, and a tricky pitch or sand save will be required, á la Jordan Spieth’s first PGA win.

The par-5 17th is reachable with two good shots.
Experience the thrill of hitting it stiff on a PGA Tour closing hole.

The word on TPC Deere Run

The front side of the TPC at Deere Run is tighter than the back, with nearly every hole framed by trees on all sides. The back nine is more open, with some room along the fairways, but there are many more fairway bunkers in play on the back. There is not an awkward tee shot on the entire course; all the trouble is laid out clearly before you on the tees and approaches (with the exception of the approach on No. 4).

The greens are ideal – receptive but fast – and many are basically pear-shaped, with narrow fronts that make for some devilish pin positions. Despite some tiers and undulations, though, putts within seven feet are generally flat. Most greens are also surrounded by closely shaved run-off areas that will test all the short shots in your bag.

The clubhouse is a grand fieldstone structure, and houses a first-class restaurant and bar, with a lovely shaded patio overlooking the 18th green. The pro shop is consistently rated one of the best in the country, so take some time to browse. The walls are filled with memorabilia from the PGA Tour event that has been played in one form or another in the Quad Cities area since 1971. It is well worth coming early and staying late not only to avail yourself of the luxury of a TPC, but also to bathe in golf history. After all, how often do you get to play where the best in the world play?

The 14th at TPC Deere Run is a short, lovely, and vexing par 4.

(Photos by Andrew Hollingworth & Kiel Christianson)

Featured

Wilson D7 Irons set pace in “players distance” category

There are a number of iron categories: “tour,” “player,” “game improvement,” “super game improvement.” Then of course there is the distinction between “forged” and “cast” irons.

Another new category has gained steam and fans over the last few years: the “players distance” iron. The target audience for this category is low double-digit handicappers, and maybe even high single-digit players, who find themselves losing distance either on off-center hits or with – ahem – advancing age.

One of the real class acts in this category is the Wilson D7 Iron. The D7s are packed with technology, including progressive “power holes” and progressively thin, very “hot” faces. Best of all, they maintain a more sleek, traditional profile than many irons that straddle the “game improvement” line.

The D7s come in both forged and cast versions. The former, new for 2020, list for $1000 (GW-5), and the latter for a very reasonable $600). It has been many seasons since I switched to forged irons, so I thought I’d take the “working man” version out for a test to see what all the engineering and materials advances over the past decade or so have done to improve feel and performance of more budget-friendly clubs.

Playing the Wilson D7 Irons

I played a set of the Wilson D7s with stock KBS regular flex shafts. I was concerned about that shaft choice, as I normally play stiff shafts. But I have noticed no increase in tendency to hook (which I do at times) or slice (which I almost never do with my irons). The tips of these KBS seem somewhat stiff, so perhaps that’s the reason. To be honest, though, sometimes I wonder whether the differences in stiffness in steel iron shafts is even a thing.

So how did they perform? Let’s cut straight to the chase: I put them in my bag for what I thought would be one test round. Seven rounds later—including a semi-final win in my course’s Match-Play Tournament and my low round of the year just yesterday (75)—they’re still in the bag.

Compared to my usual forged irons (by a major and universally respected iron maker), the Wilson D7s bring several benefits. Tops among these, is their incredible forgiveness. I have mishit a dozen or more shots – fat, thin, toe, high on the face – and on well over half of those misbegotten swings, the ball has ended up on the green (or near it, anyway).

Along with forgiveness, these irons are long. This is expected, given that the lofts are jacked up, averaging 1.5-clubs stronger than “traditional.” In fact, the lofts are even stronger in the D7s than those in the Wilson Launch Pad Irons, which are in the super game-improvement category. This ratcheting up of lofts doesn’t make it harder to get the ball in the air, though, as the center of gravity is as low and as far back as can be managed without sacrificing a somewhat more “players iron” look.

Length isn’t always a plus, though. I was pretty dialed in on my yardages with my old irons. Well, to be honest I was last year. This year, I was feeling like I needed to step on some swings to get them to their “normal” yardages. I blamed lack of practice. I blamed swing changes. I blamed COVID-19. But frankly, it’s probably because (a) I’m getting old, and (b) I wasn’t striking the ball very consistently. The D7s allow me to pull my “usual” club for the “typical” yardage. If I really stripe a shot, it may go long, but aside from on greens that are very hard, this isn’t usually much of a penalty.

The only drawback to the D7 design, as far as I can tell, is their rounded sole (where you’ll find the progressive power holes, configured specifically for each iron). The leading edge of the face is protected from digging in by this sole, which adds a small bit of extra bounce angle to the clubs. Like the Launch Pads, I’m sure the D7s incorporate this design in order to help players avoid fat shots. And, when the turf is soft, it is a useful feature, indeed. But when the turf is baked out, and your swing is a little too shallow, the club tends to deflect off the ground and up into the ball, resulting in thin shots. In dry conditions, you really need to focus on descending into the ball; however, doing so will deloft the face even more and likely add yards. The rounded soles also require some practice with punch shots—a typical strength of mine, thanks to lots of practice—which don’t come out quite as clean as with irons whose leading edges are sharper.

Long story short: “players distance” irons might require some adjustment because they do, in fact, give you extra distance.

Finally, let’s talk about feel. I can’t compare the standard D7s to the Forged D7s, as I haven’t tested the latter. But to be honest, the standard D7s feel plenty soft to me. I can draw and fade them well enough, and I can feel quite clearly when I pure a shot, compared to off-center strikes.

Scorecard

The Wilson D7 Irons are ideal for players who are seeking to maintain distance without sacrificing feel or looks. They’re stable and powerful – so much so that you may find your best shots going a little too far until you recalibrate. Golfers who play well-manicured, softer courses will find the sole design particularly forgiving.

If you’re looking to buy, see below!

Discount Code: WilsonGolf15-8

A few rules to mention:

  • The codes give 15% off all full-priced Golf Items, including Custom. However, outlet items are excluded. 
  • All codes expire 12/31/20

Featured

Wilson Launch Pad Irons elevate the ball and your game

Golf is a lot harder than it looks on TV. Upon hearing of my affection for the game, a friend of mine told me that he had gone to a driving range just one time. I asked him why only once. He said, “I hit a large bucket of balls. Didn’t get one in the air. It just seemed like way too much work.”

It was several decades ago that this friend of mine had tried his hand at golf. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him to give it another go, with more modern, more forgiving equipment. It was just too late for him.

But it’s not too late for your buddy, or you, for that matter. There is a whole new generation of golf clubs – often called “super game-improvement” clubs – whose sole purpose is to help high-handicapper recreational golfers enjoy themselves more. To help them get the ball in the air.

This is the sole purpose of the new generation of the Wilson Launch Pad Irons ($700 steel shafts; $800 graphite shafts), and their sole is their purpose. Let me clarify.

The irons’ moniker refers to the Launch Pad sole, featured throughout the set, from 4i to PW (and other wedges, which you can buy separately to match). The sole of the club is wide, wider in longer irons and narrower in shorter irons, which keeps turf interaction to a minimum. The idea is for the sole design to reduce chunked shots, while the hollow composite heads allow for a thinner, “hotter” face and move the center of gravity away from the face, which will get the ball in the air faster and with more “pop.” Along with the wide soles, the bounce angle serves to “float” the leading edge above the turf, which, according to Wilson, reduces chunked shots by 73% among testers.

Playing the Wilson Launch Pad Irons

All of this sounds great in theory, but how do they play?

Two of the more common mishits by occasional or high-handicappers are the chunk and the blade. After several range sessions with the Launch Pad Irons, it is very clear how they protect against the chunk: those wide soles and leading-edge bounce mimic hitting regular clubs off a mat. If you hit a little behind the ball, the club tends to “bounce” up off the turf, especially if the ground is firm. If you’re hitting off carpet-like bent grass, you can still chunk the occasional shot, but you almost have to try to do it.

Conversely, if you tend to blade shots – hitting them so thin that they don’t get into the air – you’ll still need to work on your swing to impart a descending—or at least level—blow with the Launch Pad Irons. However, even a more “sweeping” swing produces much higher, much longer trajectories than standard clubs.

My son, a high school player who hits the ball a mile high with his regular clubs, found the short irons in the Launch Pad set to be TOO helpful: shots just skied into the stratosphere. But once he worked into the 6i-4i range, he admitted his surprise at the consistency of the Launch Pads, in terms of both trajectory and dispersal. This made me think that for a lot of players, a blended set of more traditional shorter irons and Launch Pad mid- to long-irons would be worth considering.

As for me, I noticed an immediate increase in the height of my shots: about 5 feet higher across the set compared to my normal irons. As for distance, the Launch Pads may have increased center-struck shots just a bit, but any gain was negligible. Off-center shots were improved by several yards, though—noticeably longer.

Are the Wilson Launch Pad Irons all rainbows and unicorn farts? Not exactly, but no club is. The extra “pop” you experience in distance comes with a literal “pop” in sound. It’s sort of a hollow pop, which takes a little getting used to. The sound matches the heads in a way, whose somewhat rotund profile also takes a short while to grow accustomed to.

And if you do struggle with bladed shots, they won’t fix that flaw; however, you’ll be able to work on swinging exactly the same with your PW as you do with a fairway wood – a shallow, sweeping swing will still get the ball in the air.

One final note: it is true that “game-improvement” irons tend to decrease lofts so recreational golfers will think they’re getting more distance. The Launch Pad Iron lofts are a touch stronger than “normal,” but only by 3-4 degrees (i.e., a club stronger). So your 4i is 21 degrees, which is a typical 3i loft. That’s less than many competitor sets, and even less than many “regular” iron sets these days.

And a final, FINAL note: The stock steel KBS 80 shafts are excellent. I normally play stiff shafts, but requested to test regular shafts, as they seemed to fit the overall goals and design of the Launch Pad heads better. To be completely honest, I have noticed no adverse effects from the change in stiffness – I don’t hook the KBS shafts (in the Launch Pads or the new D7s, which I’ve also reviewed), or find them hard to control, even on full-bore swings.

Scorecard

Altogether, if you’re looking for irons to help you enjoy the game, and work less on hitting the “perfect” shot, the Wilson Launch Pad Irons are a solid bet.

If you’re looking to buy, see below!

Discount Code: WilsonGolf15-8

A few rules to mention:

  • The codes give 15% off all full-priced Golf Items, including Custom. However, outlet items are excluded. 
  • All codes expire 12/31/20
Featured

Cleveland Golf CBX Full-Face wedges are forgiving and consistent

Some amateur golfers are just afraid certain clubs. High on the list for most amateurs is the lob wedge. Visions of chunked and bladed shots skitter across the gyri and hide in the sulci of their brains as they address those delicate touch shots over bunkers to tucked pins. And then, well, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

My son, a high-school junior who plays on his school’s golf team, was a victim of those waking nightmares last year. He was missing greens and having to hit mini-flops to try to get close to save par or bogey. But he just didn’t have a club he felt good about: the sand wedge had too much oomph—and bounce—but the lob wedge he was using (one of my old ones) was digging into the turf.

Enter Cleveland Golf and their legendary wedge designers. I ordered a new 60-degree CBX Full-Face wedge ($150) for my son, and when it arrived, I regaled him with the design features that I thought would engender some confidence in him and fit his short game.

First, as the name implies, the Rotex and laser-milled Tour Zip Grooves on these wedges go all the way across the face—all the way to the edge of the toe. This is a brilliant feature, as it ensures spin even on toe-hits (which my son tends to do). These keep the ball from knuckling out of the rough if contact is widely off-center.

The second feature is the half-cavity design, which moves the center of gravity a bit more toward the toe and also provides rock-solid stability no matter the contact.

The third is the high-toe face, which stretches the toe-end of the club higher than normal, in case the club slides a bit too far under the ball. Even if this happens, you can still make decent contact.

Finally, the range of bounces can fit anyone’s game. On my son’s, we went with a 10-degree bounce, which is around 2 degrees more than most lob wedges. This bounce keeps him from digging into the turf and works well for bunker shots, but still allows him to get the club under the ball on those flop shots.

The skinny on the Cleveland Full-Face Wedges

So how did all this engineering work out for my son? After just one round, the quote that sums it up is, “I really like this lob wedge!”

Almost immediately, confidence grew in the quality of the contact he was making, and he was able to swing more freely, even on those more delicate shots. No more fear.

And the joy of telling my son, “Nice up and down!” is, as they say, priceless.

Featured

Sun Mountain 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag

I don’t carry my clubs too often anymore—maybe just for a quick evening 9. I walk most of the time, though, using a push cart. So I’ve been looking for a golf bag that is light but spacious enough for me to stow all my extraneous gear—cigar holder, range finder, lots of extra souvenir ball markers and divot repair tools, rain jacket, beverage or two, etc. The Sun Mountain line-up of golf bags is pretty fertile hunting ground for just such a golf bag.

The new 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag ($230) weights just 4.5 lbs. and has 14 full-length club silos, as the name implies. There are 9 spacious pockets and, best of all, the fiberglass legs are amazingly sturdy. The bottom is cart-friendly as well, including pushcart-friendly. There are elastic cords to keep the legs in place when not using them. This bag allows me to carry 9, walk 18, or hop on a cart for a luxurious round now and then.

The best features of the 4.5 LS is the legs: wide feet, sturdy graphite fiber, and a springy retraction action. If something is going to go wrong with a stand bag, it’s the legs. These feel rock-solid, and the springy retraction ensures you don’t have a floppy leg hanging down to catch on your own leg as you’re putting it on your shoulder or your car trunk as you’re loading or unloading it.

Another critical feature of a stand bag is accessible, well-placed pockets. You want to be able to reach some pockets while the bag is still on your shoulders. You also want to make sure that storage space isn’t sacrificed in pursuit of lightness. The bag has, happily, plenty of room for all the necessities and some extras. I can get a rain suit to the big side bag, loads of balls and tees, various cigar paraphernalia, and valuables in a felt-lined, water-resistant pocket. At first, I was skeptical of the efficacy of the cooler sleeve – as opposed to a cooler pocket (with a zipper) – but the open-top sleeve is quite capable of keeping most drinks cool for most of a side even on 90-degree days with 90-degree humidity.

The Skinny on the Sun Mountain 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag

This is a workhorse of a golf bag. It’s suitable for all forms of on-course locomotion, and constructed well enough to last for many, many years. The straps are nicely padded and perfectly positioned, the handles are well positioned and rock-solid. The silos keep club grips from getting jammed up, and those legs won’t collapse on you. In short, however you like to get around the course, this bag will work like a charm.

Featured

Get in the zone with the 2020 Cobra King SpeedZone Xtreme Driver

Press releases for Cobra’s SpeedZone drivers, new for 2020, tout six different performance “zones” which they claim are based on design features of the world’s best sports cars. I’m not totally sure what that is supposed to mean, but these zones are listed as Power Zone, Strength Zone,  Light Zone, Low CG Zone, Aero Zone, and Stability Zone.

That is, indeed, quite a lot of zones. Conspicuously lacking is the namesake “Speed Zone.” But never mind that now. As they say, “the proof is in the pounding.” (Well, no one has said that before now. If you like it, it’s mine. If you don’t, forget you read it here.)

Playing the Cobra King SpeedZone Xtreme Driver

Golf Magazine’s Clubtest 2020 spotlighted the tour-model King SpeedZone ($450) and the SpeedZone Xtreme ($449),  focusing on one specific aspect in which both of them performed better than the competition: ball speed. Specifically, when tested with the swing robot, off-center strikes retained more ball speed than any other driver, displaying nearly no decrement on to-hits compared to center strikes.

When I took the King SpeedZone Xtreme—which is the model geared toward average golfers—out to the practice tee, the feel was what stood out to me first. In particular, the feel was incredibly solid and the sound was remarkable consistent. One thing I really liked about my current driver (at the time) was how well I could tell where I’d struck the ball with it – toe, heel, low, high, center all felt and sounded (and behaved) very distinctly. The King SpeedZone, on the other hand, felt practically the same no matter where I made contact with the ball, and the sound barely fluctuated, either.

So, the question is: do you consider this a good or bad trait? At first, I wasn’t sure. My contact is pretty inconsistent, so the feedback I get from sound and feel help me figure out what my swing flaw du jour is. The SpeedZone Xtreme is SO solid, the differences in sound, feel, and distance are extremely subtle. During my first couple of rounds with it, this sort of threw me off a little.

After playing it six rounds though, I have learned the minute differences between a slight toe-hit and a slightly thin strike. And when I do find the sweetspot, it feels like a perfect hammer strike driving a nail in with one swing. I cannot recall any driver I’ve tested (close to 100) that has felt more rock-solid heel to toe, crown to sole.

What does this solid feel get you, distance-wise? My best swings are rewarded with distances as long or slightly longer than any driver I’ve tested. Honestly though, improvement in overall distance on “good swings” is not dramatic. This said, however, distance on off-center contact—which, much to my chagrin, is a large percentage of my swings—is considerably improved. Where before I’d occasionally toe-hook my driver 200 yards, now even those ugly shots consistently end up 20 yards farther than before. My less tragically awful “bad” swings produce even better results.

The SpeedZone Xtreme has just one extra tungsten weight (compared to two in the SpeedZone), deep in the sole, and it comes in 9.0, 10.5, and 12.0 degree base lofts, with each of these lofts adjustable +/- 1.5 degrees and in draw, fade, or standard bias. My 10.5 degree standard loft really launches the ball high, even when I tee it down a bit. The 458-cc clubhead sets up beautifully behind the ball, without any hint of feeling “oversized” (which it isn’t, but some drivers just look bulkier than others; this one’s sleek). Finally, the stock 60g HZRDOUS Smoke shaft is a powerful, consistent, low-spin engine driving the power.

Cobra King SpeedZone Xtreme Driver: The verdict

I thought I had found a driver last year that would be in my bag for many seasons to come. Well, I was wrong. The King SpeedZone Xtreme is my new go-to, especially on those days when I’m not sure what kind of contact the next swing will deliver (which is, frankly, most days). It’s nice to know that even poor contact will not be penalized as much, and mistakes off the tee will generally be minimized.

Extra Features

The 2020 King SpeedZone Drivers (along with all King SpeedZone irons, fairway woods, and hybrids) include COBRA CONNECT™ Powered by Arccos, the award-winning smart golf system that helps players of all skill levels make smarter, data-driven decisions. Electronically enabled sensors are embedded into the grip, automatically recording the distance and accuracy of every shot so golfers can track performance round-to-round and use analysis to improve practice sessions. Golfers also have access to Arccos Caddie, which utilizes Artificial Intelligence to make better on-course decisions for lower scores.

Featured

“The Old Man and the Green” – Father’s Day Golf Gifts for Dad’s Eternal Pursuit of Perfection

When I was a boy, my dad was always busy working. So busy that he didn’t have time for golf – had never even set foot on a course until he was well into his 70s, when he rode along in the cart with my daughter and me once. He said he really enjoyed that, and it was one of my best later memories of him.

When I was a teenager, one of my strongest memories of Dad was of him growing uncharacteristically sad once and saying how much he envied me for having so much of my life yet in front of me. “There’s so much I still want to do,” he said softly, looking out the car window, “and so little time left.”

Point is, us guys are always chasing something, be it an allegorical giant fish or a literal hole-in-one. We golfers catch our bliss, if perhaps only fleetingly, chasing a little white ball around a verdant pasture for a few hours, spending time with friends or family, pursuing fictional perfection. Really, we’d do about anything just to get back to “even.”

Here are a few gift ideas for the Old Man in your life as he heads out onto the roiling greens and casts his eyes down the fairway in eternal hope.

Good Walk Coffee

Good Walk Coffee is a new coffee company that is specially blended and named for golfers. Does Dad need a tasty, rich pick-me-up to get him out for that first tee time? Try Good Walk’s Dew Sweeper French Roast ($18). If you’re like me, and happy to take a tee time slightly later in the morning, Breakfast Ball Columbia Medium Roast ($15) is ideal. Good walk has other blends, as well as 3-month subscriptions and a nice little shop of swag (hats, tees, ball markers, clubhead covers), all of which is great for decking Dad out in style and taste.

Volvik Marvel and Bridgestone Tour B Golf Balls

One of my favorite activities with my son, besides golf, is seeing superhero movies together. For dads who are fans of the Marvel Universe, Volvik has followed up last year’s wildly popular offering of Marvel Avengers balls with a 5-hero pack, featuring Thor, Black Panther, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk ($22/set). These matte-finish balls are engineered with Volvik’s new oversized high-energy core and are incredibly soft around the green. The colors also really pop against the sky and turf. And he’ll never get confused about which ball is his.

For more traditional dads, Bridgestone’s Tour B line for 2020 ($45/doz.) has been redesigned with the company’s proprietary REACTIV cover to maximize both feel and distance. The Tour B X is played by the likes of Matt Kuchar and Lexi Thompson. The Tour B RX and Tour B RXS are designed for players with swing speeds under 105 mph, which tends to be most amateur dads. You simply won’t find better all-around performance in a golf ball.

Tattoo Golf

Now that Dad is awake and has new golf balls, let’s get him dressed. It’s still chilly in some places, and the absolute best full-zip golf jacket I have ever worn is the new Tattoo Golf Men’s Clubhouse Full-Zip Jacket in black and gray ($70), complete with Tattoo’s distinctive dimpled golf-ball-skull and cross-irons logo. I’ve worn mine for several rounds now, and I have never had a golf jacket that maintained the exact level of comfortable warmth and breathed so well. The price is right, too! Seriously, I cannot overstate how good this jacket is. If Dad would rather have a new pair of shorts, Tattoo has a new line out for 2020 that will ensure Dad looks good no matter how his game is.

Royal Albartross, ASICS, and ECCO Golf Shoes

Next, shoes – because shoes make the man!

ASICS DUAL-COURSE Duo BOA

The growing juggernaut Srixon/Cleveland Golf/XXIO has recently announced a partnership with athletic shoe manufacturer ASICS and the joint development of their flagship golf shoes, the GEL-COURSE Duo BOA ($180) and GEL-COURSE Glide ($130). Both models look and feel like ASICS gym shoes. The BOA features its namesake lacing system, which consists of wire laces that tighten and loosen with a dial on the side of the shoe, and also have softspikes. The Glides are spikeless with traditional laces. Both models are also waterproof. I took my pair of Duos out of the box to walk 18 holes with my son. Conditions were extremely soggy, but my feet stayed dry. Equally impressive, my feet experienced no fatigue or hotspots despite it being only my second round walking of the season. The arch support and padding are what you’d expect from the best athletic shoes. The BOA lacing system seemed to work a little loose during the first 4 holes, but a quick turn of the dial re-tightened them. And after those first holes, they stayed snug throughout the remainder of the round.

ECCO BIOM COOL PRO

Although all golf shoes are becoming more comfortable, ECCO still holds the Number One spot in “Most Comfortable Right Out of the Box.” ECCO doesn’t make the lightest golf shoes, nor the cheapest, but sliding on a pair of ECCOs is one of the great pleasures of the game. The new BIOM COOL PRO shoe ($230) is no exception: it has a wrap-around Gore-Tex design that actively ventilates your feet as you walk. The yak-leather outer is amazingly soft, and the sole features little tunnels running all the way through which make them lighter and “springier” than any previous ECCO model I’ve ever tried (and that’s a lot of them). I wore my BIOM COOL PROS during a hot but beautiful round in the Bahamas in January (before the world shut down) and several times since (walking all the way), and I cannot believe how cool and dry my feet stayed.

Royal Albartross

When the name Royal Albartross appeared in my inbox, I had to admit that I’d never heard of it before. Wow, was I missing out! Royal Albartross is a premium golf and lifestyle brand from London that offers handmade golf shoes, belts, and bags. And when they say “handmade,” they mean it. Their products are constructed of the finest Italian leathers and stitched together by craftsmen in Italy and Portugal. The results are exquisite. When I got my peasant paws on a pair of Cutler Greys ($230), I literally ran around my house and showed my wife and two kids how gorgeous they are—they even came with their own cloth shoe bag! With leather outsole, insole, and trim, The Cutler represents a brilliant blend of fashion sneaker and spikeless golf shoe fit for the fairways and grill rooms of even the poshest private club. I have taken to wearing them on walks around my neighborhood during this time of social distancing, because they honestly make me feel better about myself. I will wait to wear them on the course until the vernal pools dry up and, I hope, fellow golfers can get close enough to admire the workmanship. In the meantime, I’ve got my eyes on the Saxon Claret model ($259), new for 2020—absolutely beautiful. I guess I’m a shoe person now.

Dune Jewelry Divot Repair Tool

Time to get a little sentimental. Do you and Dad have a favorite course? Or maybe a special beach? Dune Jewelry has an ever-expanding “bank”of sands from around the world, including golf course bunker sand, that they use to fill all manner of gorgeous women’s jewelry. The Hamptons Rope collection, a co-collaboration between Ann Liguori and Dune’s founder Holly Daniels Christensen, make great Father’s Day gifts. Dune even has some treasures just for golfers. The new Divot Repair Tool ($30) is both sleek and functional. Fill it with sand from St. Andrews Beach to commemorate a trip to The Birthplace of Golf. Or with sand from Hawai’i to remember a wedding or honeymoon. Or even send in your own from the beach at a family cabin. There are ball markers ($30) and wine stoppers ($40) too, which are all also very cool. Speaking of weddings in Hawai’i, I have a ball marker with sand from the beach where I got married over 25 years ago. Reminds me to keep things in perspective on both good and bad days.

Sun Mountain 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag

Lots of states are limiting playing groups to twosomes. And some are not allowing carts. What better time for Dad to start getting more exercise and walking 9 or 18 holes? The Sun Mountain line-up of golf bags is tough to beat. You can find something for pretty much any golfer’s needs. My new 4.5 LS 14-Way Stand Bag ($230) weights just 4.5 lbs. and has 14 full-length club silos, as the name implies. There are 9 spacious pockets and, best of all, the fiberglass legs are amazingly sturdy. The bottom is cart-friendly as well, including pushcart-friendly. There are elastic cords to keep the legs in place when not using them. I love carrying 9 for exercise and walking 18 with a pushcart. This bag allows me to do both without undue burden on my back or shoulders.

Arnold Palmer Framed USPS Stamp

What better way to tell day that he’s “The King” in your eyes than with the Arnold Palmer Framed Stamp ($40)? The USPS introduced Arnold Palmer stamps this year, and this framed artwork features an enlarged version of the stamp along with an insert of one of the actual stamps. It also includes day-of-issue information. I’ve got mine hanging in my office to remind me to “Swing my swing.”

Flying Dog Night Putting Pale Ale

This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of “Caddyshack,” a movie that taught us how integral wise cracks, obscene amounts of cash, and a cart full of C4 are to golf. Also integral to the game is a nice, cold adult beverage. Flying Dog, America’s most disobedient brewery, has introduced Night Putting Pale Ale in honor of this monumental anniversary. Night Putting is a medium-hopped ale with a 5.5% alcohol content. It’s crisp and light and easy to drink by itself or with a hot dog at the turn. Dad will thank you after every delicious sip.

Mr. Wizard by Jeff Wallach

For rainy days—or as a companion to Night Putting Pale Ale on a quite evening at home—how about a great golf read for Dad? Golf fiction can be hit or miss, but the debut novel by veteran golf and travel writer Jeff Wallach is a definite hit. It interweaves a story of two brothers trying to unravel their genetic history, deal with their wild mother, and figure out who they are along the way. Lots of twists and turns along a rich golf backdrop (Open Books, $18, paperback).

I hope by the time it’s Father’s Day, we’re finding ourselves and our nation to be safer and progressively more widely opened. After all, there’s a lot of golf to play in this world, and precious little time. My golf rounds with my own kids are one of the few things keeping me sane over the past months. I wish nothing less than that sort of joy for every one of my fellow fathers out there as we chase the sun, trying to stay as close to even as we can.

Be well, play good golf, and keep in touch.

Featured

Mother’s Day golf gifts fit for the Queen of the Pandemic

We’ve been stuck inside for a while. And for the good of everyone, we should largely remain inside for some time to come. But golf is one of the few social activities that lends itself to social distancing. Stand apart at the tees, hit your tee shots, walk after them, see you at the green. Maintain distance putting. Simple.

Now that courses are opening up in a majority of states, Mom deserves some time away from you—some time with her friends on a nice walk under the late-spring sunshine. And she deserves a little thank you from you for holding the realm together during this pandemic.

Here’s a list of our favorite golf gifts for Mom this Mother’s Day.

Good Walk Coffee

There’s a foursome of ladies at my home course that usually get the first tee time of the day on weekends. They always walk. We call them The Borg, after the inexorable, unstoppable alien foe on “Star Trek: Next Generation.” Heaven help you if you’re in front of them, because if you dawdle to look for a lost ball, they will catch you, and you will be assimilated.

These fast-walking, straight-hitting, never-stopping women always have their coffee travel mugs with them. Good Walk Coffee is a new coffee company that seems to be specially made for golfers like The Borg. You want that tasty, rich pick-me-up to get you out for that first tee time? Try Good Walk’s Dew Sweeper French Roast ($18). If you’re like me, and happy to take a tee time safely behind The Borg, Breakfast Ball Columbia Medium Roast ($15) is ideal. Good walk has other blends, as well as 3-month subscriptions and a nice little shop of swag (hats, tees, ball markers, clubhead covers), all of which is great for decking mom out in style and taste.

Volvik and Bridgestone Golf Balls

Is Mom a fan of the Marvel Universe? Maybe she just likes seeing some of the actors all heated up? In any case, Volvik has followed up last year’s wildly popular offering of Marvel Avengers balls with a 5-hero pack, featuring Thor, Black Panther, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk ($22/set). These matte-finish balls are engineered with Volvik’s new oversized high-energy core and are incredibly soft around the green. The colors also really pop against the sky and turf.

For more traditional Moms, Bridgestone’s Tour B line for 2020 ($45/doz.) has been redesigned with the company’s proprietary REACTIV cover to maximize both feel and distance. The Tour B X is played by the likes of Matt Kuchar and Lexi Thompson. The Tour B RX and Tour B RXS are designed for players with swing speeds under 105 mph, which tends to be most moms AND dads. You simply won’t find better all-around performance in a golf ball.

TecTecTec ULT-X Rangefinder

Rangefinders have really grown on me over the years. I used to love the thrill of the guess, but now I enjoy verifying the yardage with laser precision. One of the more advanced rangefinders on the market is the ULT-X by TecTecTec ($250). It’s lightweight, uber-precise, and has an elevation mode that is easy to turn on and off. Doing so is accomplished by pulling the lens housing out or pushing it in. When the elevation mode is engaged, a bright yellow band is revealed, so players like my son, who play in tournaments in which measuring elevation is not allowed, will be less likely to forget to turn it off. I’ve also recently found that another handy use of the ULT-X is keeping an eye on other golfers around the course to maintain social distancing. You can ID friends from 100+ yards away and wave – that’ll have to do for now.

Royal Albartross Golf Shoes

So I received a pair of Royal Albartross golf shoes earlier this year, and I literally ran around the house showing everyone. I mean, they are hand-made in Italy of the finest leather – seriously the nicest shoes I own of any kind. Now, I don’t want to play into stereotypes, but if I get this excited about Royal Albartross golf shoes, Mom is going to go crazy.

Royal Albartross of London has three new styles for this Mother’s Day. The Amalfi ($299) is a laced sneaker with perforated upper leather.  The soft, breathable leather lining and the lightweight Apex sole is designed for multi-directional traction. Available in white, black and navy, the Amalfi is handmade in Portugal.

The Chelsea ($199) is a slip-on loafer with tassel fringe available in tri-color patterns with white and black base colors. The ergonomic insole is designed to provide support and breathability, and is extremely resistant to lateral slipping. 

The Sahara ($299) features a snake print, leather upper with gold/rose eyelets.  Its ultra-cushioned insole unit and lightweight VIBRAM® Pro Golf out-sole provide excellent stability.

Swiftwick Golf Socks

Mom’s going to need some socks under those posh shoes. The best golf socks on the market are by Swiftwick, and my favorites (which also come in women’s sizes) are the new Maxus Zero-Tab golf socks ($12), but the ASPIRE and FLITE XT (pictured) are pretty sweet, too. Swiftwick’s offerings are all compression socks that wick moisture, improve circulation, and promise no blisters.

AHEAD’s Kate Lord Line for 2020

Well, shoot. Now that Mom’s going to need a couple of new golf outfits to wear with her posh kicks and comfy socks. AHEAD’s Kate Lord Line introduced a number of new styles for 2020 at the PGA Show in Orlando. “Our Kate Lord styling is perfect for the customer who wants great, easy-to-wear pieces for both on and off the course,” said Scott Stone, National Sales Manager, Golf. Colors include Iris, Limelight, and Poppy, and styles include sleeveless and sleeved polos, skorts, quarter-zips, and shorts. It’s pretty easy to mix-n-match an entire month’s worth of outfits on their website.

Dune Jewelry by Ann Liguori

I’ve written about Dune Jewelry before, and it’s still the most innovative line of keepsake jewelry I know of. Dune has a massive and ever-increasing Sandbank from which they draw sand and stone and crushed shell from beaches, lakes, and other landforms all over the world and incorporate into their fine jewelry. This year, there’s also a Dune Golf Collection, which includes ball markers and divot repair tools also filled with sand. You can search their giant repository for locations or send in your own sample (you know, that little vile you snuck out of Augusta National that one year?) and have it used in Dune’s stunning creations. In the past, I’ve gotten a ball marker for me and a necklace for my wife (The Hamptons Rope Collection) with sand from the beach where we were married. This year, I’m getting her the new Luxe Marquis earrings ($180) filled with sand from Japan, where we used to live. Seriously, there is nothing more meaningful than giving her not only beautiful jewelry, but jewelry filled with a little piece of a place that the two of you have shared.

Mr. Wizard by Jeff Wallach

Golf fiction can be hit or miss, but the debut novel by veteran golf and travel writer looks intriguing. It interweaves a story of two brothers trying to unravel their genetic history, deal with their wild mother, and figure out who they are along the way. Lots of twists and turns along a rich golf backdrop (Open Books, $18, paperback).

They you have it. Gifts to pamper the Queen of the Pandemic from the time she wakes up until the time she goes to sleep. This is the least you can do for her.

Pfau rhymes with “Wow!” Indiana University’s new home course dazzles

Big-league universities should have big-league golf courses – at least they should if they dream of competing at the top level of college golf. Indiana University in Bloomington is a stalwart of the Big 10 Conference in many sports, but their men’s and women’s golf programs have historically lagged behind many of the conference peers. A handful of IU alums can be found on the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour, but none are currently on the LPGA or Symetra Tours. Perhaps one reason for this is that, prior to 2020, Indiana University’s home course was “tired.”

The clubhouse at The Pfau Course is all new, too.

“The old course was extremely tight and tree lined with not a whole lot of trouble,”says Pete Nelson of Visit Bloomington. “But mainly it was tired – in desperate need of some attention, and upgrades.” So the choice was to “upgrade,” or to dig it up and start all over. IU chose the latter.

The sad state of the former “IU Championship Golf Course” was not due to the land it was on. Southern Indiana has rather magnificent topography for golf, reminiscent in some ways of Northern Michigan, with its mix of hardwoods and grassland, plentiful water, and rolling hills. The property on which The Pfau Course is now located is no exception.

Behind the 2nd green of The Pfau Course is a good vantage point to get a feel for the rolling topography of the course.


Enter Steve Smyers and two-time major winner and Hoosier hero Fuzzy Zoeller. Thanks to generous gifts from alumni, especially the Pfau family, Smyers and Zoeller took the 265 acres that used to house the old IU course, a par-3 course, and the IU cross-country course and completely reimagined, reworked, and resurrected it. In 2020, The Pfau Course at Indiana University opened to rave reviews from college players, visitors, and golf media alike. It has already cracked the Golf Digest list of the “100 Greatest Public Courses,” debuting at #83 in 2022.

What qualifies The Pfau Course as one of the top 100 public courses in America? Smyers has been at the golf course architecture business for over 40 years, so a great deal of his work has been done on relatively flat land. Being of the “natural design” school, Smyers has become a master at tricking players’ eyes and manipulating angles so that power and precision cannot by themselves unlock a low score; strategy and course knowledge are also required. On numerous holes, you think your range finder must be wrong – the target looks so much closer or farther than the laser says. And many of the lines that look appealing are, in fact, not the ones you should take.

Favor the left side on the 460-yard, par-4 4th hole.

As Nelson, a proficient stick and regular at The Pfau, says, “If you’re playing a tournament here and you’re not playing a practice round, you’re in trouble.” In fact, high school and college coaches are generally required to schedule practice rounds for their players before tournaments, or the pace of play would grind to a near halt.

From the tournament tees, The Pfau plays 7,908 yards, with a par of 71 and a rating/slope of 80.2/155. Hoosier Daddy, indeed. Fortunately for mere mortals, there are seven sets of tees, ranging all the way down to 4,648 yards. The zoysia fairways are relatively generous where less-skilled players tend to land their tee shots, but fine ribbons where better players would prefer to be. The bluegrass rough is juicy, and the plentiful fescue beyond the rough is wispy enough to usually find your ball, and wiry enough to grab your hosel. Fairways are often sloped toward woodsy trouble, and the 147 “eyebrow” bunkers – circled with that same fescue – are ingeniously positioned for both strategic and visual effect. Despite the rising and falling landscape, the course is walkable, perfect for college and, maybe someday, professional tournaments.

The 470-yard, par-4 6th hole is probably the hardest on the course, despite what the scorecard says.

Playing The Pfau Course

The Pfau Course honestly has 18 great holes, so choosing a few to highlight is a daunting task that I will shy from in admitted defeat. Instead, I’ll focus on the many brilliant intrinsic traits that make each hole so great.

Trust me — you’d rather be in the bunkers than in their grassy “eyebrows.”

Aside from the flash-faced eyebrow bunkering, fist-time visitors will discern the subtly unique playing characteristics of the zoysia fairways. Zoysia is a firm, dense grass that sort of tees the ball up for you, promoting good contact with your irons. The imaginatively contoured bentgrass greens run around 11 on the Stimp meter, and although still young, they roll smoothly. Many pin positions require you to be on the proper side of the hole, or even short putts become testers.

The 630-yard, par-5 9th hole tests from the blind tee shot to the steep approach. Angles are everything here.

Throughout, the combination of topography and architectural flourishes calls to mind features of a couple of famous courses about 60 minutes away – The Dye Course and The Ross Course at French Lick Resort and Spa. Similarities to The Dye Course include infinity greens and ridge-back fairways that funnel into trouble. Similarities to The Ross Course include elevated greens and some geometrical greens – rectangular, triangular, and square. Nelson pointed out to me that the rectangular green of the 615-yard, par-5 1st hole is just five feet longer than a regulation basketball court. I personally would shorten it by that amount to pay homage to IU’s rich roundball tradition.

If there’s another weakness to the design, it’s the large gaps between yardages from the tees – about 600 yards between each set. The 6,153 yards of the middle tees (still with a slope of 140) prods the egos of many first-timers to jump up to the 6,736 back tees. But these play more like 7,000 yards, according to Nelson, when you take angles and elevation into consideration – a recipe for a lot of 15-handicappers having long days. The solution here is simple, though: rate the course for some combined tees.

This is not where you want to be trying to get up and down for par from on the par-5 13th. But you get a nice view of IU’s new University Hospital.

Wherever you play from, when you get to the 517-yard, par-4 18th, you’ll experience one of the best closers in a golf-rich state. Although it plays downhill, even a big power fade must carry a long way over scrub from the tips. From the middle tees, that same power fade still leaves a demanding uphill approach to a mostly blind putting surface over a sea of fescue dotted with a dozen bunkers. I could have broken 40 on the backside, if not for a deflating double-bogey here.

All that’s lying between you and the perfect approch shot on the par-5 18th is 7 bunkers and all that fescue.

Take a Hoosier Golf Swing

In sum, The Pfau Course, with rates that topped out in 2022 at $95 riding holidays and weekends, is a spectacular playing experience at a spectacular price. If you want to try to score well—and to really appreciate the architectural brilliance—play it more than once. And if you want to dive deeper into the world-class golf that the Hoosier State has to offer, Nelson and his staff have a golf trip for you:

Fly into Louisville, KY, and drive about an hour north to French Lick, IN. Stay at the French Lick Resort and Spa or West Baden Hotel and Spa (same ownership) and play The Dye Course (#19 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Public list), and The Ross Course (see link above). Enjoy the fine dining and casino at French Lick Resort, and peruse the astounding history of the place. If you want a bonus round, take a 20-minute side-trip to Jasper, IN, to play Sultan’s Run, which also ranks annually on the list of the state’s best courses.

Then drive a little over an hour north to Bloomington to play The Pfau. Stay over in one of the many affordable hotels in Downtown Bloomington (which are extremely reasonable if there is not an event in town)—Spring Hill Suites and Graduate Bloomington are both highly recommended. Walk around the charming Fountain Square area and enjoy a meal at the upscale Uptown Café (literally the classiest upscale “café” you’ve ever seen) or grab a brew and a delectable smoked pork chop at Upland Brewing Co.—all within walking distance.

Downtown Bloomington is both historic and hip.

If you want another bonus round, drive about 25 minutes to The Golf Club at Eagle Pointe, a 1970s-era golf-community design with some quirky, memorable, remarkably fun holes. The 207-yard, par-3 10th hole is worth the visit alone, with its uphill tee shot over a multi-tiered waterfall.

The par-3 10th hole at Eagle Pointe is worth the price of admission all by itself.

From Bloomington, head about another 90 minutes north to Indianapolis, and choose from famous tracks like Brickyard Crossing – the Pete Dye track with four holes inside the track of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – The Fort, Purgatory, and The Trophy Club. Seriously, Indianapolis might offer the best selection, quality, and affordability of golf of any urban area in America.

Then fly back out of the Indianapolis International Airport. Of course, you can fly into Indy and out of Louisville, too. Either direction, it’s win-win-win-win-win… Well, you get the idea.

Golf in the Midnight Sun at Iceland’s Brautarholt Golf Course

The clubhouse at Brautarholt Golf Course outside of Reykjavik, 2 a.m. on the Summer Solstice

It was 9:30 p.m., June 21—Summer Solstice, 2019—when Gunnar Pálsson picked me up at Hotel Frón in Reykjavik. Soon joining us in the Brautarholt Golf Course shuttle were four test pilots from Phoenix and a couple from outside Toronto. We were all heading to the course to play a round of golf under Iceland’s never-setting Midnight Sun.

“This is a bucket list experience,” said the woman from Ontario. “I’ve been planning this since October last year.”

“We decided to do it last night,” said one of the test pilots, clearly more comfortable flying by the seat of their pants, as it were.

If you’ve never thought about golf in Iceland, you wouldn’t be alone. You also wouldn’t be from Iceland. In fact, there are some 65 golf courses in Iceland, according to Gunnar, including the Golf Club of Reykjavik, which has over 3,000 members, making it one of the largest golf clubs in Europe.

“But what sort of season do you have here?” I ask Gunnar, exposing the depths of my ignorance about golf in Iceland.

“At Brautarholt, because we are on the coast, we usually open on the first of May and close at the end of October,” he says to my obvious surprise. That season’s not so different from some of the fabulous courses in northern sates like Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

When the shuttle pulls into the gravel Brautarholt car park, we see what Gunnar means by “on the coast”: the North Atlantic is literally a driver and a mid-iron from the first tee (driver, 7-iron to be exact – trust me, I know, though I wasn’t trying).

Brautarholt Golf Course opened its first 9 holes in 2012, with three more opening last year. “We have 12 holes so far,” explained Gunnar in the shuttle, “with plans for 18 and land for 36.”

Out on the course, Gunnar provided a bit more history: “Before the financial crash in 2008, my brother-in-law was bought out of two businesses. Then the crash came and prices fell. He said, ‘When are we ever going to be able to build a golf course this cheaply again?’ So we began building the course.”

The former hay fields, most of which had been in the family for 100 years, occupy stunning headland – with the look, feel, sound, and soil of true linksland – along the shore about a 30-minute drive west of Reykjavik. The clubhouse is modest but modern and sleek, with large windows looking out toward the sea and onto the rocky outcroppings that define many of the holes. The air inside the cozy space is redolent with the aroma of homemade soup, simmering in a pot for golfers making the turn or ending their round. A delicious bowl of soup with some crusty bread seated in the clubhouse seems far more civilized than scarfing down a hotdog in the golf cart as you race to the 10th tee. But I digress.

First tee, Brautarholt Golf Course, 10 p.m. — An impish par 5, elves or no elves.

10:00 p.m. seems like a reasonable time to tee off when the sun is still high in the southwestern sky – in fact, from the elevated westward-facing first tee, the solstice sun is fairly blinding. Although not yet complete, Brautarholt has already been nominated to the Top-100 in the World list by Golfscape website, and 40th among Scandinavian courses by Golf Digest. All comments I’ve read about it online say, “Bring a lot of balls!” and I have brought a new dozen with me; there will be only two survivors.

From the back tees, the 2012 Edvinn Roald and Michael Kelly design plays 2,674 yards for 9 holes, 5,348 for 18, and 3,424 for 12, to a par 70. The total yardage, at present, doesn’t seem overwhelming, but between the ocean winds and heavy maritime air, cool temperatures, copious expanses of knee-high fescue, and wildly shaped greens that often drop off into the sea, there is plenty of challenge here. This is all especially true for all first-time international visitors; it’d take a good half-dozen rounds to figure out the optimal angles and landing areas, not to mention the club selections.

That final task, club selection, is especially tricky if you’re using one of the many sets of rental clubs at Brautarholt, all of which were top quality (Callaway, PING, TaylorMade, etc.). Still, you’re never quite sure how far strange clubs will go, and distances are tough to judge against backdrops of water and mountains.

The 437-yard par-5 1st hole is a perfect example. The hole plays from an elevated tee down to a fairway the angles to the left, with the ocean on the right and a marshy pond on the left and cross-bunkers just beyond the pond. Now, the ocean on the right is out of play, but it’s hard to judge this, and my tee shot ended up too far left, catching the pond. The second shot is to a blind green up above the fairway, with a rock outcropping on the left and a cliff on the right. After playing it once, you realize to favor the left – a lot – because everything funnels left to right once you get up to the green, and if you aim left but push it, you might miss the ocean.

First green, from the cliffside above, on the way up to the 2nd Hole

From the first green it’s quite a hike further up the cliff to the tee of the 125-yard 2nd. But players are rewarded generously upon arrival. From the elevated tee on a clear day (or clear middle of the night, during summer solstice), you can see off in the distance the dormant volcano Snæfellsjökull, which appeared in the Jules Verne novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as the passage into the center of the earth.

The green at the 125-yard 2nd Hole features a prominent hump in its middle, and a severe drop-off behind

After you’ve been sufficiently impressed by the view, you tee off with a wedge to a green in whose middle lies a rather imposing hump. “There was a huge boulder there. Michael Kelly decided to leave it. He’s a proponent of laying the golf course on the land and using the natural hazards.” If your tee shot finds the opposite side of the pin location, traversing the turfed-over boulder makes a three-putt a distinct possibility. If the pin is in the back, and you go long, you might find your ball in shin-high fescue. (It’ll be there, but you might not find it.)

The 223-yard, par-3 5th is a left-to-right cape hole that dares you to challenge a small bay and rocky beach with your tee shot—a challenge almost worthy of its own Icelandic saga. The prevailing wind balloons shots, and the green is partially encircled by rocky shoreline. I happened to land on the beach, from which I knocked a recovery sand wedge to 12 feet and sunk the putt for one of my favorite all-time scrambling pars.

The green of the 223-yard, par-3 5th Hole at Brautarholt Golf Course delivers a gorgeous, rocky view of Reykjavik across the bay.

The 359-yard 7th is brutal. It plays back up away form the ocean to a snaking sliver of fairway that angles awkwardly away from the tees. On either side lurks water and knee-high grass. To top everything off, there’s a ditch bifurcating the fairway pretty much exactly where you hope to land your drive. Things don’t get any easier on the green, which is sloped severely uphill, and if you don’t get your ball back to the top level, it’ll come back to your feet.

“Michael Kelly believes every green should be special,” says Gunnar with classic Icelandic stoicism as we both wait to see of our balls are actually going to stay up on the green.

The 491-yard par-5 9th plays from an elevated tee down to a fairway that is only partially visible from the longer tees. Favor the right side here, as the fairway cants to the left toward high grass and a stream. There is a pot bunker in the middle of the fairway, though, where even well-positioned drives can find themselves. Approaches to the green must carry a deep swale fronting the putting surface.

The tee shot on the par-5 closer must navigate fescue right, more fescue and water left, and a pot bunker in the middle. Aim right side of the fairway off the elevated tees and hope for a favorable bounce.

The 9th green is a memorable finish, if you decide not to play 12 or 18.

Behind the tee of the 262-yard par-4 11th, you can see in the distance the location of the first Christian church in Iceland (there’s still a church on the spot, but the original, and several replacements, have long since burned down). Then off to the right a way, if you know where to look, you can see an old house on the former site of a temple to Thor. There were, according to Gunnar, epic battles between the keepers of these two houses of worship around, which served as the basis for one of the Icelandic sagas.

“This is elf land, according to folk history,” says Gunnar, as I realize how many balls I’ve lost in just 12 holes. “Perhaps elves took some of them?” Gunnar wants to put up a sign that tells golfers to behave or the elves will get them. It used to work on Icelandic children to keep them away from dangerous places. And who knows, supposedly you can meet elves at midnight on the summer and winter solstices.

10th green at Brautarholt, about 12:45 a.m. The sun is behind that mountain, but visibility is still just fine on the solstice.

I saw no elves, but experienced perhaps the pinnacle of unique golf experiences at Brautarholt Golf Course this solstice. We concluded our round (and I played a couple more holes because I didn’t want to leave) close to 2:00 a.m., and even though the sun was low behind a distant mountain, there was plenty of light. The word “magical” came to mind again and again. Indeed, if the entire cast of “Game of Thrones” showed up in full costume to play Brautarholt, they would fit right in.

I took another crack at the 1st hole, but still bogeyed. On the plus side, I captured this nice view of the flag and sea at 2:00 a.m.

Midnight golf packages at Brautarholt run about $200 total, including rental clubs and transportation to and from any hotel in Reykjavik. Even if you’re not lucky enough to be in Iceland during summer solstice, any trip to Iceland between May and November should include a round of golf here. The views of the sea, of Reykjavik itself across the bay, and the surrounding mountains are imminently memorable. 12-hole fees are around $70, 18-holes run about $85. Both pull carts and golf cars, along with rental clubs, are available.

“I can check ‘midnight golf in Iceland’ off my bucket list,” says the woman from Ontario as we load into the van to head back into town. “This was perfect.”

Magically perfect? Perfectly magical? Either one works just fine, for us and the elves.

Author selfie, 2:00 a.m., 9th green, Brautarholt Golf Club, Summer Solstice 2019

If you find yourself in Iceland during the summer and want to do something besides play golf, I recommend Happy Tours for some excellent cod fishing (which they cook up on the boat for you–delicious!).

Sandals Emerald Bay Resort and Golf Course are Bahamian Gems

The view from our room was awfully hard to say good-bye to when it was time to head home.

The water around Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas is one of the most recognizable landmarks to astronauts 249 miles overhead. The irradiant blue-green hues are unrivaled elsewhere on the plant, as tides rush in and out through shallow channels between Exuma’s 365 islands and cays. The ocean seems to glow, as if lit from below.

Sandals Emerald Bay Resort and its championship Greg Norman-designed golf course boast panoramic views of these waters – vistas that look like they’ve been filtered by some hyperbolic Instagram photographer. But there is no smart-phone trickery here. Only paradise wherever you look.

Sandals Emerald Bay Resort

Sandals has been synonymous with “all-inclusive resort” since the first one opened in 1981.

The name Sandals is synonymous with Caribbean getaways. The first Sandals opened in 1981 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and pioneered the concept of the all-inclusive couples resort. Sandals Emerald Bay opened in 2010 when the company took over and expanded the Four Seasons on Great Exuma. Sandals Emerald Bay is the larger of two Sandals in the Bahamas and is expansive by any measure. Sandals employs 650 on this island of 4,000 residents. Many of the staff come from other Bahamian islands other Caribbean locales (we met several from Jamaica). There are 11 restaurants on property, two large pools, and a nearly mile-long private white-sand beach.

From the 16th Hole of the Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course you can see the full expanse of the resort’s private beach.

Service at Sandals is outstanding. Guests have the option of upgrading to butler service, complete with a private cell phone to call their butler any time of day or night. Our primary butler, Kevin, seemed to anticipate our every need: surprise charcuterie boards were waiting for us in our room. Hot bubble baths were drawn to meet us when we returned from our strenuous days of sightseeing, golf, and laying about. Prime lounge chairs and cabanas were saved for us by the pool. Signature cocktails magically appeared in our hands precisely when we started thinking, “Hmmm…I might go get a drink.”

Our butler Kevin made sure treats and snacks were always waiting for us in our room.

Food at all-inclusive resorts sometimes takes a back seat, given the “captive” audience. My wife and I tried nearly every restaurant at Sandals Emerald Bay and were struck by the consistent quality, ranging from very good to excellent. The Jerk Shack chicken and yams were my favorite casual fare (perfect by the pool with a cold beer). For dinners, Soy sushi, Bombay Club Indian, La Parisienne French, and il Cielo Italian were frankly neck and neck in terms of our favorite meals—all excellent, all very different. Dinner at il Cielo was especially opulent, as we attended a small private dinner with Adam Stewart, Deputy Chairman of Sandals Resorts, whose father, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, is Founder and Chairman of Sandals Resorts. Also in attendance was Greg Norman, World Golf Hall of Famer and designer of the Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course.

Dinner with Greg Norman and Adam Stewart, Deputy Chairman of Sandals Resort

Sandals amenities are legendary. From the boisterous main pool with swim-up bar to the Quiet Pool, from the bountiful hammocks strung between palms around the property to the nearly mile-long beach complete with complementary watersport equipment, there is plenty to do. Treatments at the sumptuous Red Lane Spa are extra but highly recommended.  If you feel like exploring off-site, Island Routes has a desk opposite reception, where you can book island tours, bone fishing trips, or excursions to swim with the famous pigs of the Bahamas (as seen on “The Bachelor” and soon to be a feature-length film), feed grapes to endangered Bahamian rock iguanas, and snorkel in the crystalline waters of Great Exuma.

Swimming with the famous pigs and scratching some iguanas behind the ears.

Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course

The Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course is a stunning 7,001-yard championship Greg Norman design that has hosted the Korn Ferry Tour’s Bahamas Great Exuma Classic since 2015. The six-hole stretch from hole 11 to hole 16 are some of the prettiest oceanside holes I’ve ever seen. There are no dramatic forced carries over frothing coves, but with the electric sea as a constant companion, the vistas are nothing short of heavenly.

Players in the Korn Ferry Tour Bahamas Great Exuma Classic had to block out the crashing waves.

During an exclusive one-on-one interview with The Shark himself, Norman shared the history of the course, and how those stunning views were nearly hidden from golfers.

“I became involved with the course in 2002/03. The original developer was from South Africa. Originally, it was a real-estate constrained designed. That’s why some holes are short. All those holes on the back along the ocean were supposed to run between houses, which would line the shore on both sides. Boring! Then they realized how expensive it would be to run utilities down two sides of the property. I convinced them to save money by running it just down one side and allowing for seaside holes. Then Four Seasons took over, and the course sat fallow for a while. When Sandals took over, Butch [Stewart, Sandals’ Founder] listened and carefully protected and managed this course back to life.”

It would have been a shame to hide views like this from golfers. Good on ya for bringing them to us, Shark!

Thanks to Stewart’s stewardship and Norman’s aesthetic, the course today not only hosts the Korn Ferry Tour Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, but also offers Sandals guests one of the best golf deals in the Caribbean. Non-guest green fees are $155, with cart fees $25-$35. Sandals guests pay no green fees, so a golf-addled vacationer could play 36 holes (or more!) of tournament-quality seaside golf—every day—for practically pennies. (Rental clubs and shoes are also available for the more casual player for $65 and $15, respectively.)

While the ocean features on six holes of Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course, the trade winds feature on all eighteen, though the inland holes are somewhat sheltered. This is especially true at certain times of the year, including the week of the Korn Ferry Tour tournament. According to Brooks Downing of BD Global Sports, who runs two Korn Ferry Tour events in the Bahamas (Exuma and Abaco), the week of the tournament has been extraordinarily windy every year so far.

“The first year,” says Downing, “the tail of a nor’easter hit us. That tournament had the highest scoring average in the 30-year history of the Tour. The par-4 12th had a stroke average of 5.8. Guys couldn’t bring themselves to aim 30 yards out over the ocean and let the wind bring it back. So their tee shots kept landing OB right.”

The green of the par-4 12th is the only safe place on the hole when the wind blows hard.

Because of the tempestuous winds, the course plays differently every day. Even the gorgeous par-3 11th, which stretches to only 148 yards even for the pros, can be a demon if the wind is in your face. My pro-am partner, Paul Barjon, who was 2019 leading money winner on the Canadian PGA Tour, hit a 6-iron into the 11th in the pro-am. I tried a 9-iron from 100 yards…and failed to make the green.

The 148-yard 11th Hole is not a pushover if the winds dictate a mid-iron from the tee.

For all the postcard beauty of the seaside holes, the real test of an oceanside golf course is the inland holes. At Sandals, Norman has hewn memorable holes from scrub brush and wetlands, and incorporated several water hazards that aren’t the Atlantic Ocean. One of the real beauties is the 165-yard 6th, a downhill par-3 to a peninsula green that is wide but shallow.

The 165-yard 12th (top L), 228-yard 2nd (top R), and 460-yard 10th (bottom) have their own non-ocean water hazards.

For visitors, the secret to enjoying your round (or rounds) here will be choosing the right tees not just for your skill set, but also for the conditions. If the wind is whipping, play up. In addition, always prioritize hitting it in the fairway over hitting it a long way. On nearly every hole, you will find water, rocks, brush, or waste areas 10 yards off of nearly every fairway and green. What you likely won’t find is your ball if you hit it in these places. So make sure to bring or buy plenty before your round, or you’ll be re-stocking at the turn.

No matter how you play, take plenty of time to soak in the sun and sea, along with plenty of photos of what might just be the most beautiful corner of the Caribbean. There may be astronauts overhead wishing they were playing golf in the midst of that otherworldly blue.

The 572-yard 15th (top L), 401-yard 16th (top R), and 122-yard 13th (bottom) holes all dazzle with ocean vistas.

Any list of greatest Midwest golf resorts must include French Lick Resort

Golf resorts in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions are often overlooked in favor of southern or coastal golf getaways. But some of the best family golf vacation spots in the nation – and some of the best deals – can be found in America’s heartland.

One Midwest golf resort that arguably more history and pedigree than any other is French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. French Lick Resort (which includes the historic French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel) is the only golf resort in the world at which masterpiece courses by both Donald Ross and Pete Dye co-exist. And it has a history like no other.

West Baden Springs Hotel was dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” when it was opened in 1902. Looking like a fantastical drawing from a Jules Verne novel, the hotel had been built on a budget of $414,000 in just 277 days, and it was the largest free-span dome on earth until the Houston Astrodome opened in 1969.

From the outside, West Baden Springs Hotel looks like a cross between a circus tent and The Taj Mahal. From the inside, it looks like a grand Venetian Palazzo.

Along with the French Lick Springs Resort and its acclaimed Donald Ross golf course, West Baden Springs Hotel was literally one of America’s most popular vacation retreats from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. What happened in the 1930s? There was a little dip in the economy called The Great Depression. The resultant privation triggered a morality shift as well. Gaming was outlawed, and the casino at French Lick closed up. Railway lines, which carried five trains full of visitors per day to French Lick from Chicago, were usurped first by state highways and then by interstate freeways, none of which came near the area. No longer would major golf tournaments be played on the classic Ross course, and the once-steady parade of Hollywood stars and U.S. presidents escaping to southern Indiana ended with little fanfare. At one point, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” West Baden Springs Hotel was sold for one dollar, and then allowed to slouch for decades into a dangerous state of disrepair.

2005 was a turning point for French Lick, though. The Indiana-based Cook Group purchased both hotels and facilities (including the Ross Course). Gaming laws changed, allowing the Cook Group to open a casino again in the French Lick Springs Hotel. Gaming revenue funded a $500 million renovation of French Lick Springs, West Baden Springs, their lavish spas, and the Donald Ross Course.

The pièce de résistance of the renovation—as far as golfers are concerned, anyway—was the contacting of Pete Dye, who gladly accepted the task of turning a hilly, forested swath of land on the hilltop overlooking French Lick Springs Hotel into the one—and only—course bearing his name: The Pete Dye Course at French Lick.

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick sits atop some of the most beautiful ridgelines anywhere in the Midwest.

Whether you’re a golfer, a gambler, a rider, or a relaxer, there’s a wealth of activities available in at this surprising luxury resort.

Golf

When I first visited the French Lick Springs Hotel (around 1999), there were two courses, the Valley Course and the Hill Course. The Valley Course was a Tom Bendalow design that has since been remade as a 9-hole family, learner’s, and instructional course. The teaching and practice facilities at the Valley Links and Learning Center, directly adjacent to the hotel, are now first-rate.

The Hill Course, renamed The Donald Ross Course, is a 1917 Ross classic on which Walter Hagen won the 1924 PGA Championship. Measuring 7,030 yards from the tips (par 70), the Ross Course benefited from the resort-wide renovation, including a $1 million-dollar upgrade of the clubhouse alone. The original Ross design was restored, including 30 previously filled-in bunkers, squared off greens, and completely rebuilt tee boxes. The black tees (6,517 yards) are the original tees, and aside from a pond on holes 11 and 14, the present-day design is as close to the Ross original as ever.

The sinusoidal landscape upon which The Donald Ross Course is situated makes for some wonderful vistas (here, on the 10th tee) and difficult club selections.

After your round, take time for a cool drink on the Ross Clubhouse veranda.

The hallmark of the Ross design is the elevation change from fairway to green on just about every hole. This old-school defense is extremely effective – at least against golf writers who can’t figure out to add one to two clubs on every approach shot until, oh, the 17th hole or so. If you’re as dense as me, you’ll come up short time and time again. Add this to the one- to two-club penalty from the thick rough, and you’ve got some serious issues with choosing the right stick. And if you don’t take enough club, balls can roll 40 yards from the front fringes back into the fairways.

Besides deceiving distances, the Ross Course features devilish greens with some radical slopes and mounds and wonderful vistas across the valley. Visitors to French Lick may be mesmerized by the Pete Dye Course, but they shouldn’t overlook the Ross Course, which holds its own against the modern masterpiece in terms of shot value. The collection of par-3s is especially beastly; three of the four require at least a hybrid from most players, even from the regular men’s tees.

The 8th green on The Ross Course has three levels. Putts from above the hole to a front pin can easily roll off the front and down into the valley.

The 10th hole on The Ross Course (left) plays down from the tee and then back up to the green. The 14th (right) plays uphill off the tee, over a hill, and then steeply down to the green.

As for the Pete Dye Course, according to pretty much every American golf publication, Dye’s eponymous gem was the best new course of 2009. Over 2 million cubic yards of earth were moved in the creation of the course, which hurtles and dips across a landscape that, according to Dye, “was as severe as I’ve ever worked.”

The view from the Dye Course clubhouse really brings home the severity, and serenity, of the course setting.

The result is an 8,102-yard brute with a rating and slope of 80.0/148 from the tips. Golfers who want to experience the best course in Indiana, and arguably one of the best in the nation, will need to pony up some serious cash for the pleasure of being thrashed about by a design that is arguably Dye’s most difficult track. But the challenge and views are so marvelous, that the splurge is recommended for all devoted players. There are also a number of stay-and-play packages that allow for play at one or both Ross and Dye courses, and even the nearby Sultan’s Run in Jasper, Indiana, at rates that may not be cheap, but also won’t break the bank.

The Dye Course is not only a darling of the media, but also of the USGA and PGA. The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship was played on the course, and the U.S. Women’s Senior Open has been played here the past three years (ever since the long-awaited championship was first sanctioned). The one barrier to hosting a larger tournament is the location, which is still nowhere near a major highway. And despite the 243 guest rooms in the West Baden Springs Hotel and 443 at the French Lick Springs Hotel, and 71 new rooms in the just-opened Valley Tower (see below), there wouldn’t be sufficient accommodations to host a regular PGA Tour stop, much less a major…yet.

Based solely on the merits of the Dye course, though, the various tours are still figuring how to work out logistical concerns. At the press conference for the 43rd PGA Professional Championship, Dye was asked whether this course or Dye’s Straits Course at Whistling Straits—site of three PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup—is the better design.

“Since Mr. Kohler isn’t here,” said Dye in his inimical deadpan, “this is a much better course than Whistling Straits.”

What makes the course so special? First of all, according to Dye, there’s a “new kind of rough here—fairway fescue.” This rough is “meant to be kept short and played out of, so the fairways can be made much more narrow if necessary.”

Second, there is literally every sort of bunker I’ve ever seen on any other course in the world: pill box, pot, coffin, flashfaced, waste—you name it.

Dye Course, 4th Hole — you do NOT want to be in the bunker to the left (and well below) the green.

Third, taking full advantage of the hilly landscape, Dye has dabbled with elevation changes from tee to green like a wizard dabbles in the Black Arts. Many of the elevated greens appear from the fairway to simply disappear into nothingness, making the approach shot on nearly every hole nerve-wracking.

Holes 2, 6, and 12 (left to right) are some of the best examples of the many “infinity greens” on The Dye Course.

In Dye’s own words, “It is an entirely different kind of course than anything I’ve ever done.”

For the first-time visitor, it is a course that grabs you by the collar on the opening hole and doesn’t let go. The 519-yard, par-4 1st features a 50+ foot drop from the tees to the fairway, which curls right to left around a pond.

On the tee of 1st Hole on The Dye Course, you feel like you’re perched on the edge of an abyss, and there is nothing to do but swing.

You’re thrown directly into the fire on the first tee, and the challenge doesn’t end until you’ve successfully navigated the 657-yard, par-5 18th, whose ribbon-like fairway snakes along a ridge to a massive elevated green.

The 18th on The Dye Course is a long par 5. Don’t try to carry the ravine to reach in two. Just. Don’t.

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick anchors a seven-course Dye Golf Trail, which stretches from the Purdue Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., in the north down to French Lick. Golfers not familiar with the fine courses in the Hoosier State will be bedazzled by the variety, depth, and quality of “Midwestern” golf.

Activities

Should you be one of those weirdos who needs more than golf to make you happy, French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs can satiate any craving for non-golf entertainment that may possess you.

The spa culture in French Lick has its roots at the very founding of the resort. “There must be something in the water” is literally the explanation for why the resorts even exist. Both the French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel sit atop natural springs, as the names suggest. The Pluto Water of French Lick and the spring water of West Baden were strongly laxative and believed to cure whatever ailed you. Eventually, the Pluto Water was also outlawed, however, when it was discovered that it contained such high levels of lithium so as to be beyond “restorative” (to put it mildly). But man, was that water popular back in the day. Author Chris Bundy likened French Lick to the Disney World of the late 1800s, saying that if Europeans could afford to visit the U.S., “it was assumed that they’d come to French Lick.”

Today, both hotels have world-class spas, featuring treatments with the famous, magical water (lithium removed, for your safety and sanity).

One mania that not even lithium could cure is gambling. The casino at French Lick was Indiana’s first land-based casino, and just about any game of chance you can imagine can be found on the 51,000-square-foot single-level gaming floor. My biggest slot-machine win ever happened here ($75!). I cashed out and had an excellent dinner in the Power Plant Bar & Grill (one of my favorite pubs in all Indiana). The casino now also offers a sportsbook along with an adjacent sports-viewing lounge. All of these new features complement the new Valley Tower, which houses 71 palatially appointed rooms and suites, and a new bar, within easy reach of the casino and aforementioned sportsbook.

Other activities include horse-back riding at the resort’s stables, bowling in the basement alleys, kids’ activities in the Just for Kids hangout, bike rentals, swimming pools (the original mechanical retracting glass dome is sadly gone, however), golf academies, and any number of concerts and shows hosted by the casino. French Lick Springs and West Baden also house boutique shopping, wineries, and many options for dining and drinking.

The verdict on French Lick Resort and West Baden Hotel

As you drive into the still rather isolated valley that holds West Baden and French Lick, you can almost feel the hands of time turning back. Strolling through the historic grounds of the hotels, taking a treatment at the spas, or rocking on the front porch with an icy beverage transports you fully back in the early years of the past century. You almost expect Al Capone or Diamond Jim Brady to wander past. If the ghosts of Gilded Age Past start rattling at your heels, though, the new Valley Tower surrounds you with modern comforts. And the immaculate, unique golf links are literally timeless. No other Midwestern golf resort feels quite like this, and no other resort anywhere pairs Donald Ross with Pete Dye.

TimberStone Golf Course at Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort: Gateway to the UP

Iron Mountain sounds like a name borrowed from a fantasy novel populated with elves and titans and dragons. But Iron Mountain, Michigan, is a real place. It lies just across the Menominee River, which marks the state line between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or UP). Instead of mythical beings, Iron Mountain is populated with sports legends, or at least so it seems, given that it is the hometown of Michigan State Men’s Basketball coach Tom Izzo and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci. Iron Mountain’s location allows it to bill itself as “Gateway to the UP” – in fact, it is one of the few towns in Michigan that is in the Central Time Zone.

So Iron Mountain is real, as is the somewhat far-off land called The UP. But Michigan golf actually is fantastic, with over 650 public golf courses occupying some of the most dynamic landscapes you will find in the US. For golfers venturing into this fantastical world of Michigan golf—and in particular UP golf—TimberStone Golf Course at Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort in Iron Mountain is an ideal gateway.

TimberStone Golf Course measures from 5,060 yards to 6,938 yards, with six teeing options for players of all calibers. The Jerry Matthews design meanders up, around, and down the resort’s namesake Pine Mountain. It was listed as one of America’s best courses in 2109 by Golf Digest, and has been ranked as the 6th-best course in the state by Golfweek. Upon opening in the thick of the “golf boom” in 1998, TimberStone was ranked as 3rd-best “New Upscale Public” course in America, also by Golf Digest.

Matthews, who passed away at age 88 just days after I visited TimberStone, was known as the Johnny Appleseed of Michigan golf. He is single-handedly responsible for designing nearly 100 of those 650 public Michigan courses and over 200 courses nationwide. No one understood Michigan topography, soil, and climate like Matthews. This deep understanding of the Great Lakes State’s golf terroir allowed him to lay out courses atop the land. He was not a sculptor, as many golf course architects are described, but rather a papier mâché artist, contouring layers of fairways and greens across the frame that Mother Nature had provided for him.  

TimberStone Golf Course is considered by many to be one of his finest works, as every hole feels like it “fits” into the rugged landscape seamlessly, as if it had always been there – from time immemorial, when dragons did prowl Iron Mountain.

Playing TimberStone Golf Course

In a 2003 interview with Matthews, I asked whom he had in mind when he designed courses, and his answer was clear: “I design courses with 70 percent or more of players in mind. I’m not trying to test the pros in my designs.” But this doesn’t mean his courses are pushovers. The slope rating from the tips at TimberStone is a whopping 150. Again, the land dictates the layout and the strategy involved for navigating each hole.

The 359-yard, par-4 1st is the proverbial “gentle handshake,” as it plays downhill and doglegs left to right slightly off the tee and to the green, accommodating recreational players’ predominant shot shape. But then the 434-yard, par-4 2nd greets you with its narrow tree-lined fairway that slopes sharply to the left into bunkers and woods.

TimberStone, Hole 2 tee shot

Matthews was known for seeking out spots for elevated tees and greens. He understood how much recreational players enjoy hitting driver and watching their shots fly majestically down toward the fairways. He preferred to avoid lay-ups off the tee and blind landing areas. Nevertheless, when the land dictated strategic play and prudent club choices, that’s what you get. For example, on the 501-yard, par-5 5th, water lurking close off the tee on the left may force longer hitters with less control to take less than driver to ensure they stay dry. The same goes for the 414-yard 6th, the number-one handicap hole, with water all left and a “peninsular” fairway that calls for precise aim and power. Players from more forward tees might be wise to club down in order to find the fat part of the peninsula.

TimberStone, Hole 5
TimberStone, Hole 6 approach

On the back nine, several more elevated tees will delight players on both short and long holes. The one-two punch of the 215-yard 17th and 625-yard 18th – both memorable downhill tee shots – promise to cap off this prototypical Northern Michigan round. The trisected 18th fairway in particular requires not just power, but also planning and execution to plot out your path from each section of fairway to the next, avoiding ditches and water along the way.

TimberStone, Hole 17 — Choose your club wisely, as the elevation takes at least thirty yards off the shot. And do NOT go right!
TimberStone, Hole 18 — The fairway tumbles down over several rock ledges.

The verdict

TimberStone Golf Course is a quintessential Northern Michigan experience: wilderness, elevation changes, flawless playing conditions. Another typical Michigan aspect of TimberStone is value. The highest peak-season green fee is $129 with cart. That works out to about $7.17 per hole. There’s not a single hole here that doesn’t warrant at least that price, from any set of tees. Matthews was committed to ensuring all his courses delivered enjoyment and challenge from every tee box, for all players. He will be greatly missed, but his contribution to Michigan golf will live on for decades to come.

Logistics, Victuals, and Libations

Of course Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort is a logical place to stay right in Iron Mountain. If you are thinking of widening your range, though, consider exploring the UP from the Island Resort and Casino in Harris, which is only about 30 minutes from TimberStone. The resort’s “Perfect Foursome” stay-and-play package includes rounds at TimberStone, both Island Resort Courses (Sweetgrass and Sage Run), and the stunning Mike DeVries layout, Greywalls in Marquette.

The drive from Chicago to Iron Mountain is only about 5 hours, shorter actually than from Detroit, which is about 6.5. The closest airport is in Escanaba (45 min), and Marquette (1.5 hrs) and Green Bay (2 hrs) are also within reach.

After your round, be sure to stop into Famer’s Restaurant at the Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort. It’s a rather magnificent round-barn-like space packed full with UP sports memorabilia, from Izzo and Mariucci to numerous Olympians and dozens of professional and college athletes with connections to the UP.

Greywalls in Marquette, Michigan: Nothing like you’ve ever seen

Lake Superior is so large and deep that it could contain all of the other Great Lakes plus three more the size of Lake Eerie. As immortalized in the classic Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Lake Superior can be unforgiving, with 100-foot walls of icy gray water pounding ships and shore during winter storms.

On the shores of Lake Superior lies Greywalls, a golf course that matches the natural splendor – and some of the dread – of the lake itself. This 6,828-yard Mike DeVries masterpiece traverses the craggiest, roughest terrain you will find on any golf course east of The Rockies. Just driving a golf cart on some of sections of the paved path feels like an extreme sport. The only flat lie I can remember from my round was my third shot on the par-5 18th hole – and I remember every shot at Greywalls because it is one of the most memorable courses I’ve ever experienced.

The sun sets behind the 9th green at Greywalls, and beyond the waters of Lake Superior (courtesy Brian Walters)

Playing Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club

Greywalls is the second course at the Marquette Golf Club in Marquette, on the north shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or UP). The original “Heritage” course at Marquette Golf Club dates back to 1926. This Langford and Gill classic was so popular amongst the golf-crazed and summer-starved denizens of the UP and throngs of summer visitors that the club enlisted DeVries to lay out a course on an adjacent 153-acre plot in 2002 – a course that could never have even been imagined in 1926, when oxen and a solitary steam shovel were the earth-moving tools.

In 2005, the new 18 holes opened to the public under the moniker of Greywalls, so-named because of the many sheer limestone walls that the course weaves through, vaults over, and tumbles down.

From the clubhouse, it’s quite a drive ever-upward to the first tee, which overlooks Lake Superior. On a clear day, you can see over 50 miles away to the Pictured Rocks in Munising. The course is laid out in two loops, with 1st and 10th tees and 9th and 18th greens at the highest point of the property, along with a well-stocked half-way house. The elevation here is such that you might not realize that the crystalline lake water is not just a continuation of the equally blue sky.

There’s an old golf cliché about the first hole of a course being “a gentle handshake.” At Greywalls, the 579-yard, par-5 1st is the number-one handicap hole – it’s a powerful slap right in the chops. It requires a long carry off the tee to a rollercoaster of a fairway. I found the short grass with my drive, but between two eight-foot “waves” in the fairway where I was unable to see beyond five feet in front of me. It was like a turfgrass version of “the perfect storm.”  

At the 425-yard, par-4 2nd – the number-three handicap hole – you get another sharp smack in the face. The fairway slopes left to right, and disappears altogether on the right as you approach the green. Basically anything right from tee to green is dead. After these first two holes, you’re wide awake, no matter how early your tee time.

Greywalls, Hole 1 — Those wave in the fairway are at least 7 feet high
Greywalls, Hole 2 — the right rough is NOT the place to try to come into the green from.

At the 312-yard, par-4 5th, the name “Greywalls” is really driven home, as the green is surrounded by exposed rock cliffs. And the 188-yard 6th hole looks more like 288 yards from the tees; there should be a photo of it in the dictionary under the word “daunting.”

Tee shot at the short par-4 5th of Greywalls (aim at that lone tall tree in the middle)
Navigate the tee shot on the 5th, and this is your approach. As you exit past the grey wall on the right, ring the bell to let the group behind know you’ve cleared the green.
Greywalls, Hole 6 — one of the most daunting par 3 tee shots in recent memory (looks a lot longer than 188 yards!)

The back nine is no less exhilarating. The 336-yard, par-4 10th presents players with a decision to go left or right – or so you think. I blasted a good drive up the right side to the top of a steep hill. When I arrived at where I thought my ball was, I discovered that it had rolled some 85 yards down and backwards to the left edge of the fairway. The 491-yard 12th is a real big-boy par 4 whose downhill routing is counteracted by the prevailing cold wind off Lake Superior, and the fairway is full of bunkers to boot. (Speaking of which, you’ll much rather be in the sand than in the fescue “eyelashes” encircling all the bunkers.)

The 533-yard, par-5 18th is simply a bonkers closer, with a blind landing area in a mogul-riddled ravine. Your second shot is to a landing area as wide as a football field and as flat – again, this is literally the first level lie I found on the entire course.

Greywalls, Hole 12
Greaywalls, Hole 18 — the end of a wild, wild ride

The Verdict

According to Marc Gilmore, Head Golf Professional at Greywalls, there are about 600 members at Greywalls, and most are local. If I lived in Marquette, I would be one, and I would play here daily – and I guarantee I would never have the same shot twice. “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you” is the Michigan state motto. The Greywalls motto should be, “If you seek a flat lie, good luck with that.”

Despite the stout challenge, Greywalls is an unmitigated pleasure to play – and a thrilling pleasure at that. Peak season green fees are $180, which comes out to $10 a hole. There is not one single hole on the course that is not worth $10, as there is not a single hole here like any you have played before.

Logistics, Victuals, and Libations

Marquette has its own airport, so if you’re thinking about staying local, it’s an obvious choice. There are numerous restaurants and other attractions in the UP’s largest city to keep you busy. The Vierling is perhaps the city’s most popular restaurant and watering hole, so make a reservation. For a sampling of local brews, check out Ore Dock Brewing Co., which is just a couple blocks from The Vierling. Ore Dock doesn’t serve food, but there will likely be a food truck nearby, so you can order grub while sipping a beer or two outside or inside.

If you’re thinking of expanding your range, though, consider exploring the UP from the Island Resort and Casino in Harris, which is only about a 1.5 hour drive from Greywalls. The resort’s “Perfect Foursome” stay-and-play package includes rounds at Greywalls, both Island Resort Courses (Sweetgrass and Sage Run), and TimberStone Golf Course in Iron Mountain .

Tee UP: Island Resort and Casino’s Sweetgrass and Sage Run Golf Courses

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.”

Island Resort and Casino (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)

 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.

Sweetgrass Golf Club, 9th Hole, with resort in the distance

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.

Sweetgrass Golf Club, 12th tee
Sweetgrass Golf Club, Hole 15 island green (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)
Sweetgrass, Hole 18 — Stay left all the way back to the double green that is shared with Hole 9.

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, Hole 9 (courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)

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!

Sage Run, Hole 3 — a blind green, even standing just short of it
Sage Run, Hole 4 — Players can’t see the green from the fairway on this long par 4.
Sage Run, Hole 12 — Bunkering, elevation, and an occluded green all add to the difficulty of this approach

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.

Sage Run, Hole 13 — One of the few holes that is fully visible from the tee.
Sage Run, Hole 18 — A brilliant, demanding closing hole

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!”

Eagles — gno, in Potawatomi — carved from the trees at Sweetgrass

Island Resort and Casino is a Sure Bet for Golf in Michigan’s UP

“Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circum spice” is Michigan’s state motto. If you don’t happen to read Latin, the English translation is, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” And a more apt state motto you will not find. No matter where you are standing in Michigan, you’re on a peninsula. The lower peninsula is the “mitten” most people picture when they think of Michigan. The upper peninsula, aka The UP (usually pronounced “Da Yu-Pee”), is a rugged spike connected to the lower peninsula by the Mackinac Bridge (the 5th-longest suspension bridge in the world) and to Wisconsin by land. The UP shares many characteristics with the lower peninsula, but also has an atmosphere and ethos all its own. One characteristic it shares with the rest of the Great Lakes State is spectacular golf.

Golfers unfamiliar with the Great Lakes region may be intimidated by visions of winter blizzards, but the five months from May through September—with maybe a couple bonus weeks on either end—are prime golf season. And because Michigan is on the bleeding edge of the Eastern time zone, mid-summer light hangs on until nearly 11pm.

The UP offers topography unique in the Eastern U.S.: dramatic elevation, sheer rock cliffs, vistas across hardwood forests and over the seemingly endless expanses of the Great Lakes. For golfers in the know – or those curious about a new destination – there is one obvious choice for a home base in the UP: Island Resort and Casino. Located in Harris, Island Resort and Casino actually lies on the line between Eastern and Central time zones, and the resort vibe is equally Januslike. Island is one of the largest casino, golf, and entertainment resorts in the Midwest, with every amenity imaginable: Drift Spa, indoor waterpark, golf, exhaustive gaming options, fine dining, convention center, national headliner entertainment. With the addition of the North Tower, opened in 2022, the resort now has over 450 guest rooms, including new golf suites.

Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino
Horizons Steakhouse (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)
Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino

At the same time, there is a deep history here, and a local, family atmosphere deriving from the resort’s full ownership by the Hannahville Indian Community. The Potawatomi community, established in the early 1830s by Peter and Hannah Marksman for Potawatomi people who had escaped the forced marches of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, has remained strong and proud ever since. Potawatomi means “Keepers of the Fire,” and the casino resort is a shining symbol of that fire, their resolve to not just survive, but to thrive.

Golf at Island Resort and Casino

Island Resort and Casino boasts two 18-hole championship golf courses, both of which were recently ranked among the top 50 casino courses in American by Golfweek. Both courses were designed by Paul Albanese, but nevertheless contrast sharply in feel and philosophy.

Sweetgrass Golf Club opened in 2007 and has been ranked by multiple golf publications as one of the top-ten courses in the golf-rich state of Michigan, including inclusion among Golf Digest’s Best New Public Golf Courses in 2009. Many of the holes pay homage to classic golf course architectural features, including Redan, Biarritz, island, and double green complexes. At the same time, holes are named after traditional Potawatomi clans, villages, medicines, and symbols. Sweetgrass, itself named after a traditional medicinal herb that is planted throughout the course, hosts the EPSON Tour’s Island Resort Championship, one of the major events on the Road to the LPGA.

asino)Sweetgrass Golf Club (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and C

Sage Run opened in 2018 and was also ranked by Golf Digest as one of the Best New Courses in America. Located just five minutes away from the main resort property, Sage Run has a more rugged feel, with fescue-lined fairways pocked with massive flash-faced bunkers that rise and tumble through hardwood forests. Sage Run hosts the Island Resort Collegiate Championship annually, which draws a dozen of the best college teams and players in the nation.

Sage Run Golf Course (Courtesy Brian Walters/Island Resort and Casino)

The Perfect Foursome

Island Resort and Casino has partnered with two other legendary UP golf courses, Greywalls in Marquette and TimberStone Golf Course in Iron Mountain. Both of these breathtaking layouts have been ranked in the top-10 courses in the state, and fully customizable stay-and-play packages are available. At Greywalls, players will marvel at panoramic views of Lake Superior and maybe fear a little for their lives as they traverse the jagged, heaving landscape. At Timberstone, players will find one dramatic tee shot after another as the course wends its way up and back down Iron Mountain. Depending on options and season, prices for this supremely memorable golf experience range from $95-$758, and it’s a steal at either end of that range.

As someone who began seriously playing golf at age 30 in Michigan, I feel like the state motto could just as aptly be “If you seek a pleasant fairway, look around you.” There are over 650 public golf courses in the state alone (not counting a myriad private clubs). The four bundled in Island Resort’s “Perfect Foursome” are honestly among the very best.

Logistics, Victuals, and Libations

The drive from Chicago to Island Resort and Casino is only about 5.5 hours, shorter actually than from Detroit, which is about 6. The closest airport is in Escanaba (15 min), and Marquette (1.5 hrs) and Green Bay (2.5 hrs) are also within reach.

Be sure to book at least one dinner at Horizon’s Steakhouse in the resort’s new North Tower. The crab cakes are a highly-recommended appetizer. Off-property, Stonehouse Restaurant in Escanaba is a local favorite—and wildly popular, so it would be wise to make a reservation.

The Forge at Palmer Hills: The family that putts together has fun together

The Quad Cities of Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, offer bountiful golf. Nearby Silvis, Illinois, even hosts a PGA Tour Event, The John Deere Classic, at the spectacular TPC at Deere Run. But the area’s courses don’t just cater to the core golf demographic. There are also plenty of opportunities for novices, juniors, seniors, and the “golf-curious” to explore and experience beautiful facilities without investing hours of time or hundreds of dollars.

Most people don’t realize that St. Andrew’s Links in Scotland is a massive municipal facility. Similarly, the Quad Cities’ municipal courses epitomize the best of America’s daily fee, public-access, community-owned golf, carrying on the long history of accessible, affordable golf. Palmer Hills in Bettendorf is one of the best examples in the nation of a municipal facility that feels and looks like a country club. With the addition of The Forge, its new 18-hole putting course, Palmer Hills seeks to engage even a wider swath of the golf-curious public.

The Forge at Palmer Hills is an 18-hole putting course laid out over four enormous bentgrass greens.

Palmer Hills Golf Course is a William J. Spear design that opened in 1974. The par-71 layout stretches to just over 6,500 yards from the back tees, and has served as the venue for multiple local and state championships. It’s the home course for local high school teams, as well as the training ground of one of last year’s Drive, Chip, and Putt competitors, who competed in the finals at Augusta National. About 14 years ago, the clubhouse was completely redone, and the Palmer Grill draws large crowds of non-golfers for its lunch and brunch specials. Conditions rival those of any course in the area, including private clubs. Nevertheless, green fees max out at just $46 (with cart) on weekends.

Head Greenkeeper, Brian Hickey, has a degree in turf management from Iowa State and has earned awards from national greenkeepers’ associations for his stellar work at Palmer Hills. Under his watch, the course has expanded the driving range and practice facilities as well as added The Forge.

The Forge itself consists of 4 separate greens, the second of which measures 30,000 square yards. Each green contains at least a couple of the 18 holes, which are routed out and back. Tee stands and holes are placed daily in new positions to reduce wear, and tee markers are designed with extremely useful drink holders. (A putting course is ideally suited for pairing libations and competition, after all.) The pristine bentgrass greens run at the same speed as the main course, right around 11 on the Stimp meter.

Custom-made tee markers at The Forge also provide handy places to hold your drinks.

There is no par on any hole – the scores just are whatever they are, harkening back again to the roots of golf when par didn’t exist. The flexible routings at The Forge bring to mind The Loop, the reversible Tom Doak course in Roscommon, Michigan, which plays in both directions, alternating from day to day. Tee boxes there are also just sort of positioned in the ground daily at various spots.

At just $8 for adults and $5 for kids, the tournament-quality putting course is competitively priced with and far more enjoyable than your standard “putt-putt” golf courses. There can be some severe breaks, but nothing is tricked up – players of The Forge will get a feel for what it’s like to putt on a REAL golf course, and might just catch the bug to get out and try the full-sized course. The lovely views from parts of The Forge onto the championship course are also quite enticing.

From The Forge, the view of the 14th tee of the main course provides the golf-curious with a taste of the beauty of Palmer Hills.

“Golf” means different things to different people. But golf should NOT mean exclusivity or inaccessibility to anyone. Municipal courses like Palmer Hills stand as exemplars of what golf can mean to everyone: accessible family fun in a beautiful, sustainable environment. The main course has instituted a new teeing system that allows for enormous flexibility in teeing forward, allowing for a more pleasant and competitive experience for seniors and beginners. And The Forge serves as a gateway for anyone—golfer or not—to experience this jewel of the Bettendorf Parks system.

The future is bright for Kokopelli Golf Club in Marion, IL

(Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

Kokopelli Golf Club in Marion has seen its share of ups and downs over the past 25 years. The Steve Smyers design has seen multiple changes in ownership since its founding, including a group that included Smyers himself. The most recent owners are Rodney Cabaness and Shad Zimbro, local businessmen who have been at the helm for nearly two years. And they are revamping, reinvigorating, and reimagining everything from the restaurant to stay-and-play packages to bunkers and tees to the course’s social media presence – top to bottom, soup to nuts.

Opened in 1996 to great acclaim and anticipation, Kokopelli Golf Club takes full advantage of the 210-acre property. A former coal strip-mine, the land heaves and falls, and a gaping ravine grabs wayward shots on a number of holes.

The unique topography, along with the difficult grass-growing climate and soil type, however, engendered problems early on. There were also man-made faults in the course construction, which worsened over time. For example, many of the 98 original bunkers were not fitted with proper drains, and the silty clay soil beneath the sand and clogged them, creating gloppy messes every time it rained.

There are still 76 bunkers dotting Kokopelli’s rolling landscape.

Although some of these issues were addressed over the years by previous owners, Cabaness and Zimbro – owners of a local Harley-Davidson dealership, Rent One minor-league baseball park adjacent the course, and several other businesses – are committing impressive resources and as much time as necessary to address the remaining ones. Some of the problematic bunkers have been or are being removed or repositioned (there are now 76), and all are being rebuilt with the Billy Bunker System. Tees have been stretched out on several holes, and priority has been given to maintenance, with a new fleet of mowers and associated equipment. Smyers doesn’t believe in water on golf courses unless it is a natural feature of the land, so the original layout had none, aside from the quarry lake that hugs the 5th green. The new team is finding low spots on the course – such as between the tee and the fairway on 12 – and digging out some water features, too.

The par-3 5th Hole at Kokopelli Golf Club

Player experience is also being enhanced in other ways. There’s a fleet of new electric chrome-wheeled golf carts with GPS and integrated Bluetooth – you can take phone calls and play music right through your cart. In the clubhouse, players find craft cocktails and a completely new gourmet menu in The Turn. When you convince a local chef to close down his restaurant and take over your restaurant, you signal a real commitment to providing a first-class dining experience.

Literally everywhere you look on the course—and beyond it—you will find improvements in progress or in planning. Kaitlyn McCurdy, Kokopelli’s golf and social media/marketing manager, describes the continuous work as “Mind-blowing and exciting.” Says McCurdy, “We are planning and working towards making Kokopelli Golf Course your oasis and ‘The Destination of Southern Illinois.’”

Playing Kokopelli

Kokopelli Golf Club plays to a par of 71, and from the championship tees, it stretches to 6,992 yards. But this could change. Iterative tinkering has necessitated several rounds of new ratings and scorecards. As a result, the GPS in the carts needs to be updated, as some holes were about 10 yards off. That GPS is indispensable, too, as Smyers plays with your depth perception throughout the course. Just about every approach looks longer (and occasionally shorter) than it really is. I cannot recall any course that was not designed by Pete Dye that messes with your eyes as much.

On the front side, the strip mine pit comes into play quite picturesquely on the 426-yard 4th, where, depending on which tee box you choose, you might need to carry a large portion of the yawning morass. At present, the fairway is occluded by brush and trees growing up from the pit, but the plan is to shave them down so players can see most of the fairway, even form the tips. Even so, keeping everything well right of the pit is critical here, as it runs from tee to green.

The par-4 4th Hole at Kokopelli is pretty but dangerous any time of the day. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

The picturesque 146-yard 5th is about as daunting as a short par-3 can be, as the green is 40 feet below the tees and the putting surface is framed by water front, left, and some of the back. Club selection is critical. (Pro tip from McCurdy, a Marion HS golf stand-out: Use the US flag at the house on the hill behind the green rather than the flagstick to check the wind.)

Locals know to try to go low on the front side, as the back is considerably harder. The stretch of holes from 11-13, in particular, serve up one tricky tee shot after another, in terms of club selection, line, blind landing areas, and hazards. In fact, there are a good five or six mostly blind tee shots throughout the course, so again, that GPS is very handy.

The 9th green ends the “easier” part of Kokopelli. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)
And the 19th green is where the back-nine adventure begins.

The 525-yard par-5 closing hole is one of those blind shots, playing uphill over some fairway bunkers. A good drive sets you up for an eagle chance, but unless you’re knowledgeable or lucky, chances are you’ll be laying up from left of the fairway to the mounded, undulating green.

The best opportunities for birdies at Kokopelli are the four par 3s, which rank 15-18 in terms of their handicaps, yet there are always plenty of risks. The 204-yard 17th, the postcard hole on the back side, plays a bit downhill but is encircled with bunkers and mounding. Missing the green in the wrong spot makes for a tough bogey, not to mention par.

The par-3 17th at Kokopelli is as artistic as it is challenging.

Upgrading everything

As mentioned, the new owners are working and investing continuously in upgrading every aspect of the player’s experience. Three houses behind the 4th green have been purchased and are being renovated to accommodate groups of 6-8 right on the property.

The Turn restaurant offers pub fair to fine dining options, and plans are in place to expand and grow to allow for bigger groups, with more room for patrons to enjoy the best dining experience in town.

The Bacon Jam Burger at The Turn — with pickle fries! — hits the spot after a round.

Because Marion is so far south, most winters are warm enough to get out at least now and then all year. The owners are installing Turf Hound Product hitting mats at the practice range (which is also being expanded to resemble a circular stadium-style range) that will be open year-round, and there is a simulator in the Koko Simulator Suite in the clubhouse for cold snaps and rainy days.

The Koko Simulator Suite in the Kokopelli clubhouse is great for rainy days. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)

The verdict

From day one, Kokopelli Golf Club has had enormous potential. It has hosted numerous regional and state championships over the years. Now, though, its full potential is being realized. At present, rates are just $49 with cart on weekdays and $59 on weekends, which is a bargain. Once all the improvements have come to fruition, rates may go up, but the extent of the upgrades will almost certainly be worth the price of admission, whatever the rate.

Kokopelli Golf Club has its sights on becoming THE Southern Illinois Golf Destination. (Credit: Kaitlyn McCurdy)