Road Trip: Detroit is worth a closer look

 

Question: what’s the closest large city to Toronto?

The answer is, of course, Detroit.

But for many people living in the GTA, Detroit wouldn’t be top of mind when selecting a destination for their next road trip. And for golfers, maybe even less so.

So what do we really know about the Motor City? For one thing, it’s the home of the dreaded Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, two teams that have been a thorn in the side of Toronto sports fans for decades.

Who can forget the 1987 season when the Blue Jays led the American League East by 3 ½ games over Detroit with just a week left to play. All Toronto needed was one measly win but they dropped their last seven games, including their final four in a sweep by the Tigers at Tiger Stadium, to lose the division by two games. Some things you never forget.

I won’t even go into the Leafs’ history with the Red Wings since our 50 year Stanley Cup drought persists but Detroit has contributed to our downfall on many occasions. Stealing coach Mike Babcock might be partial payback, especially if he can get our team playing into June.

For many years, Detroit got a bad rap when it came to tourism. The perception here was that downtown Detroit was a place to avoid. And apart from being the home of the Big 3 automakers and Motown Records, Detroit wasn’t exactly putting itself on the map in a positive way.

All that was running through my head as I made the short trek down the 401 to Windsor, then across the Ambassador Bridge to the American side and a few minutes later pulled up in front of the MGM Grand Detroit, a huge casino resort hotel right in the heart of downtown. Total travel time was just under four hours.

MGM Grand Detroit

The MGM Grand was first opened in 1999 and added the permanent casino in 2007. Interestingly, it was the first luxury casino resort hotel in a major metropolitan area in the United States outside of Las Vegas but more importantly perhaps, it was one of the key elements in Detroit’s downtown revitalization plan, which had added casino gambling as a major tourist attraction. https://www.mgmgranddetroit.com/en.html

Today, in addition to the MGM Grand, there are two other casinos in the city: the MotorCity Casino Hotel and the Greektown Casino. More on Greektown shortly.

The MGM is certainly grand and apart from the distinctive automotive decor, it would fit right in on the Strip in Vegas, right down to the clanging and ringing of slot machines and the steady parade of gamblers, shoppers and sightseers. I’m with a small group of media folks and our host, Kevin Frisch, who handles PR for a number of golf destinations in the US Midwest.

The plan is for a quick bite in one of the casino’s several eateries, then off to Comerica Park to take in a game between the Tigers and Boston Red Sox. Comerica Park is an open air stadium just a few blocks away in the downtown core and debuted in 2000 after they thankfully tore down Tiger Stadium with all of its haunting memories.

On this night though, it’s pouring rain, so we’re not sure whether the game will proceed. Somehow we find ourselves sharing a Reserved Table with a professional gambler named Marvin, eating pizza, drinking beer and listening to Marvin regale us with tales of large sums of money made and lost over his thirty year career. Marvin supports nine kids with six different women, which he says is one of the reasons he keeps gambling. He wants all of them to go to college so they can have a better life than him. Who says you don’t meet interesting people on golf trips?

Too soon it’s time for Marvin to return to the tables – he’s playing in a big Texas Hold‘em tournament – but when we take stock of the weather and the time, it’s far too late to go to the ball park. I guess Comerica Park will have to wait for another time.

The following day dawns sunny and warm and we’re off to a course called Shepherd’s Hollow that’s 45 minutes northwest of downtown in Oakland County. It’s a straight shot along I75 into rolling countryside dotted with horse farms and big estates, then just a couple of minutes off the highway to the entrance.

Shepherd’s Hollow No. 18

The long driveway offers glimpses of the magnificent 18th hole, which wraps around a lake, and then the clubhouse, a sprawling white Southern style building with lots of covered porches and patios, all nestled in a gorgeous forest setting.

Shepherd’s Hollow is one of those courses that will knock your socks off. The 27-holes are spread out over 350 acres and the elevation changes alone are stunning but the routing of holes through valleys and woodlands and across creeks and ponds is brilliant and could easily be a nature walk.

The course was designed by Steve Forrest and Arthur Hills and opened in 2000. It has consistently been ranked among the Top 100 Public Courses in the United States and it’s easy to see why. The land offers so many options that no two holes are remotely alike. The greens especially are spectacular, with some severe slopes and contours that are challenging but just a treat to putt on.

It’s certainly a “must play” for any serious golfer visiting Detroit and I added it to my “must return” list. There were some holes where a little local knowledge would go a long way and I definitely want another crack at it. Best of all, the green fees are surprisingly low for this calibre of golf course. Rates are $75 on weekdays and $85 on weekends with even better fees for twilight.

Shepherd’s Hollow also has two sister courses, Pine Trace and Cherry Creek, that are in the same general vicinity and form part of a stay-and-play package with accommodations. www.shepherdshollow.com

Day 2 had us back on another Interstate, this time about an hour west to Ann Arbor and the historic University of Michigan course. I was intrigued to see this course because it was designed by British architect Alister MacKenzie (of Augusta National fame) and Perry Maxwell, another noted golf course architect of his time.

The UM course opened in 1931, a few years before MacKenzie died. It was among the last of his more than 50 courses worldwide that included three that are perennially listed as the best in the world: Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne.

University of Michigan Golf Course No.6

On the day we played, construction was underway on a new clubhouse that will open later this summer, so we began the round on top of a hill that overlooks the entire course and the University of Michigan campus. Directly across the street, in fact, is The Big House, the UM stadium that is home to the Wolverines, with a seating capacity of 110, 000 for NCAA football. On January 1st, 2014, it also set a record for the largest crowd to ever watch an NHL game when 105,000 people watched the Toronto Maple Leafs defeat the Detroit Red Winds 3-2 in the NHL Winter Classic. Yay!

The golf course was every bit as good as you could imagine. Largely built on a massive hill, the holes rise and fall with the elevation, making club selection difficult. It’s not overly long at 6,731 years (6,200 from our tees) but it seems to play a lot longer, with dog-leg holes that zig-zag up the hills and fairways framed by tall fescue and deep bunkers. The course was built just before Augusta National and you can see elements of similar design, especially some of the raised green sites

The putting surfaces are simply amazing. Every one is different, with mounds and multiple tiers, slopes and roll off areas. Finding the right level is the first order of business and keeping it there the second. If you end up on another level, then finding a path to the hole on the slick surfaces is frustratingly entertaining. On some holes we swore you could stand there all day with a bucket of balls and never sink a putt. I happen to love greens like that. Good putting should be part of the game, don’t you think?

The golf course is listed as private but is “accessible” to unaffiliated guests. Green fees for students, faculty and alumni are ridiculously low for a course of this calibre ($36-$43), while others will pay $120-$145. Regardless, it’s absolutely worth playing! http://umgolfcourse.umich.edu/

A while back I mentioned Greektown. It’s part of the downtown core close to the MGM and the ball park, that was originally populated by Greek immigrants but today is a very multi-cultural area that boasts restaurants, coffee shops and entertainment venues of every culture and style. Naturally, the Greektown Casino is there.

Following our return from Ann Arbor, we spent a delightful evening in Greektown sampling various foods and beverages and surprisingly, more beverages. Even on a Monday evening, it seems that Greektown is the place to be for Detroiters of all ages.

The final leg of our Detroit golf fantasy had us in nearby Dearborn at TPC Michigan. It’s a classic Jack Nicklaus design with a distinct style – long, fairly tight holes, bordered by fescue and wetlands, punctuated with lots of forced carries and small oddly shaped greens.

The course is in something of an industrial area and features a view of Ford’s World Headquarters. Surprisingly though, not much else can be seen of the surrounding civilization. It’s a very scenic course and one of the first Audubon Sanctuary courses in the state, due in large part to the vast wetlands.

It’s a demanding course and rather unforgiving if you’re not hitting it straight. But like most Nicklaus courses, if you can figure out his strategy, then you can chart your way around quite successfully. It’s certainly more target oriented than the others we played.

TPC Michigan

The Ford Senior Championship was played there for many years but now TPC Michigan is primarily a corporate course with a 28,000 square foot clubhouse and all the amenities. It’s owned by ClubCorp and accessible to reciprocal play for most private club members and their guests. http://www.clubcorp.com/Clubs/TPC-Michigan/

Before departing the Dearborn area we made one final stop at the Henry Ford Museum, an absolute must see for any car buff or even anyone remotely interested in transportation and its history. The massive building houses artefacts as diverse as the original model T’s, the Mustang, Edsel and Batman’s 2-seater Lincoln convertible. The bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (a key incident in U.S. civil rights history) is there along with the limousines that carried every U.S. President from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. There’s tons more too. We had a few hours to enjoy it but I could easily have spent a few days. https://www.thehenryford.org/

Overall, I’d have to say that visiting Detroit was a real eye-opener and a very nice surprise. Knowing that it’s so close and has so much to offer, I plan to go back soon. Maybe I’ll even take in a baseball game.

For further information about Detroit including more golf courses: https://visitdetroit.com/ ,

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