On and Beyond the Fairway

5 Golfing Gems of the Midwest

Daris Brown, Writer
Reading Time: 10 minutes
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What comes to mind when you think of the Midwest? Farms and barns? Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch? Or maybe it reminds you of the time Dorothy decided to follow the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz?

While not wrong, you might be surprised to find out that you are just as likely to run into someone sporting Rory McIlroy’s Nike Dri-FIT golf polo and khakis as you are someone in a John Deere hat and overalls.

For every lost tourist in search of a national monument, there is someone pumping his fist like Tiger Woods … or throwing a club like Sergio Garcia. And just as you will find an abundance of cows and barns, you can easily run into your share of cigars and clubhouses. Truth be told, when you think of the Midwest, you can add one word synonymous with the middle U.S. states: golf.

Yes, you read that correctly — golf.

From Cows to Birdies

While many avid golfers may think of Florida, California, Arizona or South Carolina, the true center for golf in America sits closer to America’s Heartland.

“More people play golf in Minnesota per capita than any other state in the union,” Golf.com reported. The website also revealed, “Approximately one resident of every five in the Gopher State hits the links each year.”

Head east from Minnesota to Michigan and you’ll find more than 850 public golf courses, more than any other state in the country. Travel four hours south and you can pay homage to the home of America’s first 18-hole course, Downers Grove Golf Club. Interestingly, the club reverted to a nine-hole course shortly after the original course, The Chicago Golf Club, relocated 20 minutes north to Wheaton, IL. Nevertheless, it’s flowing in history and worth the trip. There you will discover for yourself why Golfweek prominently stated, “It doesn't get any better than Chicago golf.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the great Midwestern club was one of the five clubs that founded the United States Golf Association (USGA) in 1894. This predates two of the three other famous Chicago sports franchises, the Bulls and the Bears. (The Cubs were founded a few years prior, 1876.) It’s only fitting that the lineage of golf in America can be traced all the way back to such a great sports town.

But there is more to golf than big cities and historic names. What truly makes a golf vacation in the Midwest worth taking are all the great courses, clubhouses and overall crazy adventures you will find in cities you might have never heard of. Each city, each course, each clubhouse is its own unique adventure. If you didn’t know the Midwest was synonymous with golf, then you probably didn’t know about all the fun you were missing. We have collected the five best gems, on and beyond the fairway that the Midwest has to offer.

The Loop: The World’s First 18-Hole Reversible Course

Forest Dunes Golf Club — Roscommon, MI

Forest Dunes Golf Club

History in the making. That is what it will be like every time you tee off from the newest tracks at the Forest Dunes Golf Course. This new course, created by renowned designer Tom Doak, is set to make history as the world’s first reversible 18-hole golf course. Yes, that’s right, the course can be played backwards.

While it may sound like a marketing ploy, it is a practice that is already in play — sort of. Typically reserved for courses with space limitations, a handful of nine-hole courses already exist, but nobody has been able to create this masterpiece with a full 18 holes until now.

The course was designed so that every single hole will feel comfortable to play in both directions, as it will be played clockwise one day and counterclockwise the next. This creates two distinct layouts on one course for you to enjoy.

Forest Dunes annually receives positive reviews from Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golfweek, so its innovative second course won’t be kept a secret for long. It is not a must-play — it is a must-experience.

The Perfect Combination of Fun and Affordability

Bear Slide — Cicero, IN

Bear Slide Golf Course

Scan the rolling hills as your eyes navigate the long fairways and perfectly placed bunkers and you will quickly discover why Bear Slide is consistently ranked as one of the top courses in all of Indiana. Rated 4.5 stars out of 5 by Golf Digest and as one of the top 75 most affordable courses in the nation, Bear Slide is the perfect combination of fun and affordability.

While the course gets its name from Bear Slide Creek that drifts down the back nine, its charm comes from the split-link design that features two unusual styles: Scottish links on the front nine and a traditional tree-lined course on the back nine. This cool style mixed with the amazing scenery makes Bear Slide a favorite of John Maloney, Northeast director of Atlas Roofing. Maloney has traveled the country and played many of the best courses, but finds something special about Bear Slide Creek.

“This place is sweet, and it seems like no one really knows about it,” said Maloney.

With low fares and the challenge of a split course, it is surprising that more golfers haven’t taken advantage of this premier Midwest public golf course.

Fore! I See Dead People

Snow Hill Country Club — New Vienna, OH

Snow Hill Country Club

When’s the last time you sat down and enjoyed a good meal … with a ghost? Perfect for the believer and non-believer alike, you can pencil in a good time with the Dinner with a Ghost event at Snow Hill Country Club.

Your great stay-and-play vacation will begin on the bent grass fairways of this semi-private course. Perfect for players of all experience levels, the Snow Hill Golf Course is a par-70 course with the captivating sequence of long and short holes, rolling hills and a myriad of elevation changes. Get ready to get lost in the fun and excitement of this beautiful parkland course.

After a couple of rounds on Snow Hill, players are welcomed to be the guests of hosts Kathleen Madison and Shelly Suittor. Former ghost tour guides of the Ohio State Reformatory, most notably the location where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed, Madison and Suittor have more than 20 years of experience finding ghosts and have made a career out of showing their findings to the world.

On the tour, Madison and Suittor bring guests up close and personal with the ghosts that occupy The Inn, the on-site residence for players who are looking to stay and play. But you don’t have to live vicariously through your hosts, as many guests have witnessed floating orbs (small flashes of light that are often thought to be lingering souls), observed objects mysteriously being moved and even held brief conversations with the little boy who also calls The Inn home.

Visitors, ghost hunters especially, travel from all across the country to experience the paranormal activities first hand. Jon Knecht, a paranormal researcher with Interface Death, said of his time at the Snow Hill Country Club: “This was an experience I'll never forget. Took some personal pictures out on the actual golf course at night and got amazing pictures of orbs. They almost look like a nucleus of energy, which I assume can allow us to differ them from dust or bugs.”

Everyone leaves with a story to tell, on and off the fairway, which makes this the perfect golf vacation getaway.

A Place You Won’t Soon Forget

Pilgrim’s Run — Pierson, MI

Pilgram's Run Golf Course

Some courses simply create a great golf experience time and time again. From the pro shop to the tee box to the 19th hole, everything just seems perfect. That is the essence of Pilgrim’s Run Golf Club.

The 400-acre course is beautifully nestled between pines and hardwoods, making this Central Michigan location a peaceful retreat. Despite its beauty, it never seems to be overpopulated with golfers, which only adds to its tranquility.

“This course leaves no chance for interruption,” said Jared Rose, Atlas regional sales manager. “As you enjoy the walk down the plush fairways of Pilgrim’s Run, you can take time to smell the pines and enjoy the beautiful views. And if you only get to play it once, it's a place you won't soon forget.”

For added interest, the club packages golf outings with fly-fishing trips, making Pilgrim’s Run the ultimate outdoor retreat.

Where Great Golf Comes Naturally

Hawktree Golf Club — Bismarck, ND

Hawktree Golf Club

When it was time to draw up the course design for the Hawktree Golf Club, golf course architect James Engh decided to use the natural landscape of Burnt Creek Valley as his guide. Natural grasses were used to surround the emerald-green fairways. Since white sand was unavailable, Engh used the remnants of burning coal (known as black slag) to fill the bunkers. North Dakota contains an estimated 25 billion tons of economically mineable coal, according to the North Dakota Geological Survey, so it was only fitting for Engh to put the coal waste to good use. Equally important to its selection was the notion that the black slag wouldn’t be blown away by the heavy winds that frequently slice through the course’s open, links-style design. Add in the unique aesthetic appeal of the rich blacks in contrast to the emerald greens of the irrigated turf grass and you have a breathtaking visual that would be tough to pass up.

Chuck Ruppert, head golf professional/GM at Hawktree Golf Club, knows that the course doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Midwest.

”When you think of North Dakota,” he said, “you think of flat prairie, not the elevation changes that we have out here.”

Much like all of Midwest golf, you go in with one expectation and discover something totally different. While his opinions of how great the course is may be a bit biased, Ruppert isn’t its only fan: Golf Advisor users voiced their approval by giving Hawktree a 4.7 out of 5 rating.

This course is more than just a beautiful cover shot for your Facebook or Twitter page. Imagine the panoramic view of the emerald-green layout highlighted by the black-coal bunkers. Or the long, uphill par-five 18th hole. It’s a subtle reminder that every hole offers its own distinct challenge. But that’s to be expected when playing a course crafted by Engh, the first recipient of Golf Digest’s “Architect of the Year” award. And since golf is all about testing your game through one hazard and the next, you will quickly find there’s no better way to spend your day than a long afternoon between the slag.

The Heart of Golf

The Midwest golfing scene often flies under the radar. There are no odes to any of its courses or New York Times Best Sellers describing the smells of its freshly cut grass. You won't even find a clever bumper sticker with a catchy Midwest golf-inspired tagline. And that's how it should be. Midwest golf isn't great because of all the national attention it receives; it's memorable because of the experiences it provides. Memorable, as in, put on your red shoes, grab a cowardly lion, brainless scarecrow and heartless tin man as you head on down the yellow brick road, memorable. Which makes it a perfect destination for your next golf getaway. So make sure you take a trip through America’s Heartland. With just one drive, you will discover why the Midwest truly is synonymous with golf.