HILLMAN, Michigan – The Thunder Bay Golf Resort in Hillman, Michigan is a unique piece of property; even if you don’t play golf, you won’t run out of things to do.
The entire resort encompasses about 400 acres including the 160-acre wooded Elk Preserve. The golf course was designed by property owner Jack Matthias who, by his own admission, knew nothing about building a golf course at the time. Needless to say, the course has survived since the front nine was built over 50 years ago (the back 9 was added in 1990 and the lodging in 1991), so he obviously did something right. From the Back Tees, the course plays 6,712 yards with a slope of 73.2 and a course rating of 131. Move up to the White Tees 6,346/71.5/127) and the distances are a lot more manageable. The golf course was cut from a mature pine forest and has Bluegrass and Rye fairways and tee boxes. As you make your way around this layout, you’ll see how picturesque it is. You’ll encounter some typical golf course hazards in the form of sand and water; surprisingly in Northern Michigan, water hazards seem to outnumber sand traps.
Several holes will stay in my memory bank for quite some time, starting with the first hole. This 352-yard (White Tees) par 4 starts with a semi-blind tee shot. It’s a soft dogleg left and if you push your tee shot right off the first tee, there are several trees to deal with. Left off the tee is no bargain either as there is a pond at the turn of the dogleg and a second just short of the green. A good drive down the right side of the fairway will leave a mid to short iron into a wide, shallow green that slopes back to front. Par is a great start.
Hole No. 9 can be interesting. The hole plays only 303 yards and calling it a “dogleg” is an understatement; it’s more like a left turn. For golfers not familiar with the course, you don’t want to hit your tee shot any longer than 165 yards. Any further and you’ll be in the pond. If you don’t know any better and hit driver, you may find what used to be the tennis courts or worse yet, bounce one off the clubhouse. According to my playing partner that day, Head Golf Professional John Kuzewski, that is a reality.
The par 3 holes at 3, 12, and 18 are relatively short – 134, 122, and 115 yards respectively – and play over or around water. The par 3, 6th hole is a completely different story. From the White Tees, the hole plays 194 yards, slightly uphill, to a green protected on the right side by a large oak tree. This par 3 will test your mettle.
The back-to-back par 5s at 10 and 11 can help propel you to a great start on the back nine if you play them well. Number 10 is a dogleg left that for many will take a driver out of your hand because of the bunker at the dogleg, about 225 yards from the White Tees. It’s pretty much tree-lined from tee to green. A good drive will still leave two well-struck shots into the green. Water surrounds about 75% of the green and only the front is open. It’s a great hole to start the back nine.
Hole No. 11 will allow you to air out your tee shot. It too is tree-lined and at 465 yards, fairly short. A good drive up the left side will leave the best angle into a green with water short and left. For pins set left of the center, add one club; right of the center hit one less.
Hole No. 14 is my favorite hole on the golf course. It’s a 388-yard par 4, dogleg left that plays uphill all the way. A good drive that carries the pond and trees on the left will leave a long to mid-iron into a two-tiered green protected on the right by sand. The difference between a front and back pin can be as many as three clubs.
Hole No. 17 probably has the most photographed approach shot on the course. It’s a 365-yard par 4 dogleg right so a good drive down the left side will reward you with a clear look into the green and the opportunity to snap a picture of your own. A good drive will leave a mid to short iron approach into an elevated green with a small pond and rock garden short of it. As I found out, you get a free drop from the rocks.
Not many courses end on a par 3, but it is a nice change. Number 18 plays 115 yards over a water-filled ravine. Choose your club wisely, hit the right level of this two-tiered green, and make a par (or better). Anything over the green is trouble.
Accommodations and lodging at Thunder Bay Resort are second to none. They offer 34 luxury and whirlpool suites, 2-bedroom golf villas, and 3-bedroom golf chalets with 1450 sq. ft. of space. All have nice views of the golf course. We stayed in one of the suites which was plenty big enough for a foursome. The front door (off the parking lot) opens to two double beds, much like a standard hotel room. Beyond that room is a separate “kitchen” area with a full-size coffee pot, kitchenware and utensils, microwave, and a mini-refrigerator. Behind that is a living room area complete with a pull-out couch, murphy bed, recliners, fireplace, flat-screen TV, and dining area. These are the perfect accommodations for a foursome! In case you have your own home with you, there is a small, full-service, RV Park just off the parking lot and only a few steps from the first tee.
Compared to other parts of the country, the golf season in Northern Michigan is relatively short. To compensate and keep a year-round cash flow, many Northern Michigan golf resorts make the transition to ski resorts as the weather changes. Being on the eastern side of the state presents several challenges. The majority of Northern Michigan golf and ski resorts are in Northwest Michigan – a natural snow belt. Much of this is lake effect snow off of Lake Michigan with prevailing winds from the west and north. While snow-making can now overcome this obstacle, the “Sunrise Side” lacks the terrain to do a successful downhill skiing facility in Northeast Michigan.
Desperate to find a solution and keep the business afloat, owner Jack Matthias and his staff came up with a unique solution: Elk Viewing! Thunder Bay’s Elk Viewing Package includes a sleigh/carriage ride (depending on snowfall), a gourmet dinner prepared by Jack’s son and a world-class chef in his own right, Spencer, and a wine tasting. The Elk Viewing Package began strictly as a winter sleigh ride event, but because of its wild success, is now offered from mid-May through the summer, fall and winter until late March. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the event.
Thunder Bay Resort has teamed up with a couple of other notable courses in the area including the Arthur Hills designed Red Hawk Golf Club and the Rees Jones designed UAW course Black Lake to create the Sunrise Challenge golf package.
When you combine a round of golf with elk viewing, a carriage ride, gourmet dinner, wine tasting, and a night’s lodging at the resort, you’ve got the most unique couples golf package available.