This article originally appeared in Fairways Magazine in July 2022. It has been updated.
It really started to hit me after the Masters – almost two years of travel restrictions, COVID warnings and precautions had left me with a huge pent-up demand to explore, to get out of town, to experience something beyond my proverbial backyard. So, I was particularly excited to receive an invitation to visit Gaylord, Michigan.
I wouldn’t say that Gaylord was on my Bucket List, but I’ve long held a curiosity about the place because enough news and stories have leaked out over the years to make it a destination I wanted to check out. New courses that were making Best New Course lists by architects like Jones and Fazio and Smith; amenities that tickled the imagination; and maybe most of all, a couple of colleagues that lived in the area and always spoke positively about it – not with ridiculous over-the-top superlatives, which is the way golf travel is too often presented these days, more like, “it’s really good and you won’t be disappointed.”
Hidden gem is an overused phrase in golf travel, so I won’t use it here, but Gaylord may be unknown to many golfers in Southern Ontario because their season pretty much parallels ours and local golfers often aren’t inclined to travel during our short golf season, preferring to save their discretionary trips for sexy destinations in warmer climates that look and feel different. Michigan is right next door, and the Gaylord area is very similar to Muskoka – no mountains, no ocean, no desert – just miles and miles of rolling hills, dense forests and spectacular lakes and rivers that are perfect for outdoor adventure and challenging golf courses.
For the past 35 years, Gaylord has billed itself as the ‘Gaylord Golf Mecca’ and in 2022, that co-operative marketing group includes 17 golf courses and 21 lodging partners. Our trip gave us more than a taste – eight courses in five days – and two nights each at Treetops Resort and Otsego Resort.
Every visitor to Gaylord will likely have their own ideas on where to start based on past experience or what they read online. From my experience, it doesn’t matter. Each course we played was a delight and all offered more than a few surprises. As it turned out, we had a group of eight golf writers arriving from several states and Canada, by plane and car, all at different times, so our itinerary had us start late in the day on Treetops award winning par-3 course called Threetops.
Noted for its unique design and dramatic elevation changes, Threetops is often cited as one of the Top 10 short courses in the United States. On a couple of holes, the ball seems to defy gravity as it hangs in the air for an interminable length of time before plunging to the green below. The longest hole tops out at 219 yards but most only require a wedge or short iron – up a hill here, down a hill there – with sloping contoured greens that will really test your putting skill. Our round took about 90 minutes and was a super appetizer to the bigger courses to come. Threetops could easily be added to any itinerary as a second round of the day and after you play it, you’ll definitely want another crack at it.
Treetops has four championship courses, one each designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and Tom Fazio and two by Rick Smith. The Signature is Smith’s best work and often ranks among the Top 10 Courses in Michigan. Much like the short course, Treetops is cut out of dense forest and is extremely hilly. The fairways are generous enough – this is a resort course after all – but the green complexes feature deep bunkers flashed into the slopes and the putting surfaces are undulating and I thought pretty tricky. It probably didn’t help that my putter and I were on the outs.
Another highlight of the Gaylord Golf Mecca is Black Lake Golf Club, about 40 minutes north of town in Onaway. It’s owned by the UAW, which makes a lot of sense when you remember that it’s just a few hours north of Motor City (Detroit). Black Lake was designed by Rees Jones and each hole had to be cut from dense forest. While not particularly hilly, the course has more than enough lakes and wetlands to make you pay attention and be mindful of which tees you choose to play. Course conditions were near perfect the day we played, and I suspect they almost always are.
Otsego Resort has two courses and is just minutes from Treetops on the edge of Gaylord. The Tribute Course is built on, around and through the ski area so you should be able to imagine some of the elevation changes it features. I don’t ever hit 300-yard drives, but I managed one on a par five that trundles endlessly downhill. Even though you also have to play uphill sometimes, many of the holes are cut through canyons with greens perched on the side of a hill or tucked around a corner. A very solid golf course with a good dose of thrill added.
The other courses in the Mecca didn’t get near the billing that the first four did but that doesn’t mean they were any less enjoyable. Each was unique in its own way. Indian River is in cottage country and has a distinct laid-back style that is easy-going and fun and would be easily walkable; The Pines at Michaywe was probably the most forgiving and ultimately suitable for our three-person scramble; and The Natural, a Jerry Matthews design, cut through white birch and pine forests, is like a nature walk
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the Trip was the Gaylord Golf Club, established in 1924 and relocated to its current site in 1975. This is a classic parkland style course with fairly small greens, tight tree-lined fairways and just enough elevation and water to make sure you’re paying attention. It’s the kind of course you walk away from and think, “Damn, I want to play that again!”
There are nine other courses in the Gaylord Golf Mecca including three more at Treetops and four at Garland Resort. More to discover on a future trip.
As noted, we stayed at Treetops for two nights and Otsego for two. My accommodation at Treetops Resort was in the main lodge – a large suite with king bed, sitting area, dining table and kitchen, right next to the spa and indoor pool. We toured an area where condos are being converted to large two and three-bedroom suites that are suitable for golf and ski groups. Rates vary but based on my experience, they seem quite reasonable.
At Otsego Resort, we were in a gorgeous wooden lodge consisting of eight rooms surrounding a large common area with a massive stone fireplace, wet bar and dining table. Each room had its own kitchen and was decorated in a charming rustic style befitting a country retreat. Perfect for golf or ski groups and again the package rates seemed quite reasonable.
Wining and dining golf writers is a serious business and the folks at the Gaylord Tourist Bureau made sure we had a decent sampling. On a couple of days when we were playing 36 a day, box lunches prepared by one of the courses was all we had time for, but they were more than adequate. A sit-down lunch at the Indian River club featuring fresh fish was particularly noteworthy.
Dinners tended to be a time to unwind, trade lies about our golf and gush about some of our exploits. Our group often expanded to include our hosts from the Tourism Bureau and the Resorts, who expertly guided us through local delicacies, favourites and some absolutely must have dishes that certainly didn’t disappoint. When I travel, I tend to favour fish and stay away from too much beef. Whitefish is a local special in Gaylord, but pickerel (walleye) and trout were also on the menus.
Bennethum’s, a cozy rustic restaurant, featured an eclectic fine dining menu with lots of selection. We were urged to sample a caramel, chocolate ice cream dessert that was a house specialty. Glad we did. At the Big Buck Brewery, I had to have some beef – how could you not? A half rack of their signature ribs did the trick. Big Buck is renowned for its wide-ranging selection of craft beers, and I did my best to get a decent sampling. Unfortunately, not enough time (or personal capacity) to try them all but surely plenty of material for a future R&D mission. The Alpine Tavern (fish tacos and some local ales) was a last-minute addition for a cancelled white-water rafting expedition. I was good with that.
Our final night included a spectacular cook-out at the Otsego Resort with rich desserts and plenty of libations. Nobody has ever starved to death on a golf writer’s trip.
The Town of Gaylord
Apart from being the hub of the Gaylord Golf Mecca, the town is also a thriving centre for all sorts of outdoor activities. Hiking, canoeing and camping in the summer months – there are 90 inland lakes in the region – and skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. There’s even a place in town where you can gaze at herds of elk.
Gaylord bills itself as “the Alpine Village” and its alpine themed architecture on main street is part of the charm. So too is the Alpine Haus Chocolate Shop. Try the chocolate covered potato chips!
Getting to Gaylord is pretty easy. There are flights from Toronto that go through Detroit or Chicago and put you into Traverse City, about an hour away. From Toronto’s Lester B. Person Airport, Gaylord is a six-hour drive. If you live north of Toronto, as I do, you can also choose the northern route that takes you through some beautiful parts of Northern Ontario before you cross into the States at Sault Ste. Marie. Then it’s a straight shot south on I75 to Gaylord. Total travel time on the northern route is just over seven hours, depending how many stops you make to take pictures.
One final note about golf in Gaylord – it’s pretty budget friendly. And as my colleagues say, you won’t be disappointed.
For more information on the Gaylord Golf Mecca and its various courses and packages, click HERE.