UPPER PENINSULA, Michigan – Ask anyone who’s familiar with golf in Michigan where you can find the best courses in the state, and you may be surprised at the answers you get. Gaylord is always near the top of the list as is Kalamazoo – home to Gull Lakeview Resort and its six courses. Benton Harbor has the Jack Nicklaus-designed Harbor Shores Golf Club. But if you really want to play the best Michigan has to offer, you’ll have to go north, past Gaylord and Traverse City, over the Mackinac Bridge. Once you go over the bridge, take Route 2 West until you hit Harris, MI. Follow the signs to Island Resort & Casino and you’re at the home of two golf courses you won’t soon forget: Sweetgrass and Sage Run.
Island Resort and Casino is part of the Hannahville Indian Community. Both Sweetgrass and Sage Run were designed by Michigan native Paul Albanese and are constantly ranked among Golfweek’s Best Courses and recognized by GOLF Magazine and Golf Digest as a part of their Best in State ranking. In 2021, Sweetgrass was named Michigan’s Golf Course of the Year by the Michigan Golf Course Association.
If Sweetgrass was located on the ocean, it could be considered a links course. Since there is no significant amount of water nearby, we’ll call it a parkland-style layout. The course is as visually stunning as it is challenging. Beautifully manicured tee boxes and fairways lead to well-undulated greens. A lot of the long rough is wispy fescue grass; easy to find your ball but tricky to hit out of.
Water or marshland comes into play on ten holes and four holes are tree-lined although the trees only come into play on one or two of them — 16 and maybe 17.
All of the holes at Sweetgrass are named, and as you play your way around the layout, you may learn something! The names are part of the rich history of the Hannahville Indian Community and come from traditional Potawatomi clans, villages, allies, medicines, and symbols.
The practice facility at Sweetgrass is located just a short walk from the first tee. There’s a full-length driving range where you can hit every club in your bag and a large practice green that offers a lot of different breaks and gets you ready for what you’re about to encounter.
Most greens are surrounded by bunkers and rough; many times, the shape and contours of these greens make hitting the ball close seemingly impossible.
Two of my favorite holes at Sweetgrass are Numbers 15 and 17. Number 15 is undoubtedly the signature hole. It’s a short par 3 that plays 141 yards from the White Tees over water to an island green that is a lot wider than it is deep. Rocks front the left side of the green. it’s about the same length as #17 at Sawgrass with no bunker but lots of rocks around the front of the green. Par is a good score here.
Number 17 is named “Wisdom,” and if you use a little bit, you can score well! It’s another pretty hole at Sweetgrass, and from the White, Blue, and Black Tees, you’ll play over a marshland. Avoid the ornamental rock and fairway bunkers on either side of the landing area and you’re well on your way. A tee shot down the right side and left of the large fairway bunker will leave a short pitch shot into the green which is very elevated with a couple of bunkers front left.
The other Island Resort and Casino course is Sage Run which is located less than 10 miles from the main property. Sage Run offers a contrast in style and design to its sister course, Sweetgrass. Whereas Sweetgrass is characterized by soft, flowing terrain populated with wispy fescue grasses, well-manicured areas, and a lot of water, Sage Run is more rugged and raw, with rough-looking bunkers and large native waste areas. The course is consistently ranked among Golf Digest’s Places to Play.
The primary feature of the land at Sage Run is a natural drumlin – an elongated hill or ridge formed by glacial ice. The drumlin at Sage Run runs through the center of the 300-acre property and reaches heights of 200 feet in some places. A number of holes work their way on, off, and around the drumlin offering a variety of scenic views and creating a roller coaster ride for golfers. Elevation changes vary from hole to hole and range from rolling terrain to dramatic drops and rises.
Although most of the holes are considered tree-lined, you have to be well wide of the fairway for them to come into play. The course typically plays firm and fast, something to remember when you hit those approach shots, but it’s the greens that make the course stand out. Most are gently raised and average in size. They roll quick and smooth with modest undulation.
That’s not to say you’ll find many straight putts; they just aren’t there. It takes a skilled greens reader to master the subtle breaks. Another interesting feature of Sage Run is that there is only one tee marker on each hole, giving you a lot of options for placing your ball. Sage Run aims to help directionally challenged golfers by placing a painted rock behind the bunker which can be used as an aiming point on the 2nd hole.
My favorite holes at Sage Run make full use of the drumlin. Number 5 is a 156-yard par 3 that plays considerably longer than its stated yardage of 156 yards and is handicapped #5 on the layout. For most players, it takes at least two extra clubs to get up the hill. The greenside slope on the right-side funnels balls back to the green and the slope behind acts as a backstop. It’s a fun and interesting tee shot!
Number 14 is a behemoth par 3 that would play 201 yards if it were on flat ground. Unfortunately, it plays dramatically uphill and considerably longer. You tee off over wetlands towards what is the largest green on the course, although you can’t tell from the tee box! I hit 3-wood because as I looked over the prospect of being short, I realized I was not part mountain goat, which is necessary to navigate the hilly terrain. The next time I play the hole, I’ll remember the large collection area around the green.
Number 16 is a 298-yard par 4 that proves holes don’t need to be long to be a tough par. It too plays up a steep hill and a good drive that finds the fairways at the top of the hill will leave a short pitch shot into the green. This is where things get interesting because what Number 16 lacks in length it makes up for with a green that slopes front to back, lots of undulation, and a crown that runs through the middle.
Island Resort & Casino property features a variety of accommodations and dining opportunities and a full-scale casino. When you’re not busy exercising your index finger pushing buttons on the slot machine, you can exercise at the indoor pool and gym. Island Resort & Casino is also a great place to hold a business meeting or small event.
Island Resort and Casino had already made a name for itself with the opening of Sweetgrass Golf Course, which is located directly behind the casino and hotel. With the opening of Sage Run in 2019, Islands has established itself as a premiere golf destination for those looking for a great golf experience. They offer incredible stay-and-play packages that also include two other stellar Upper Peninsula courses – TimberStone and Greywalls.