GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. —This is no secret: Michigan has been a golf hot spot for, well – almost forever. The state has over 850 public courses, more than any other state in the nation.
Grand Rapids is part of the state’s rich golf mix. The city in the western part of the state has a population of just under 200,000. It also has its share of golf courses well worth playing, but there’s much more in Grand Rapids.
Beer, in particular.
There are about 40 breweries in the immediate Grand Rapids area and over 80 show up on the well-mapped Beer City Ale Trail provided for visitors. That’s why Grand Rapids has earned the designation of Beer City USA in a nationwide poll started by a home brewer named Charlie Papazian. USA Todayreaders picked up the torch and Grand Rapids was chosen the Best Beer Scene in both 2016 and 2017, and finished second to St. Louis in 2018.
So Grand Rapids is a golf and beer destination — or vice versa. Either way, you come out all right.
Let’s hold off for a while on the golf part, though. After all, it’s November and time to start hunkering down for the winter months, so golf will soon be taking a brief hiatus.
An Englishman opened the first brewery in Grand Rapids in 1836, and the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. – the oldest of those still in existence – dates back to 1893.
Brewery Vivant has the most interesting location. It’s housed in a refurbished funeral home.
Founders is the most prominent brewery in Grand Rapids. The staff puts on a most informative in-house tour for those interested in more than just how a beer tastes. Also, for the last six years, Founders has held ArtPrize – an art competition that results in the winners getting their designs on the beer cans that Founders produces.
Golf packages play an important promotional role for golf communities and resorts. Well, some of the hotels in Grand Rapids have a takeoff on that concept — they offer Beer Tour packages. Pub crawls are regular attractions and beer trolleys run most every day. That’s a good thing for those who opt to sample more than they should.
Beer drinkers’ hot spots are numerous and varied, but two of the best are The Knickerbocker, known for its pinwheel appetizers and beer offerings, and City Built Brewing Company, which has a unique selection of beers to go with its Puerto Rico-inspired food menu.
As for the golf, the courses aren’t nearly as well-seasoned as the breweries, but they have their charm, too.
One of the best is Pilgrim’s Run, located in the outlying town of Pierson. It has an interesting history. The Chicago-based Van Kampen family bought land for the course and had family members and friends design the holes. That was a start before Mike DeVries, a well-respected architect from Traverse City, Mich., stepped in.
DeVries previously worked with such nationally known designers as Tom Doak and Tom Fazio before tackling Pilgrim’s Run. Teaming with superintendent Kris Schumacker, DeVries routed the course and designed the greens. Since the course’s opening as an 18-holer in 1998, Pilgrim’s Run has been one of Michigan’s most popular public courses.
The most notable hole is the short par-4 18th — one of the best finishing holes in the state. A great risk-reward hole with water protecting the green, No. 18 can play anywhere from 221 to 358 yards. It’s a thought-provoking, fun way to finish a round on a course that can play as long as 7,093 yards.
DeVries’ design credits in Michigan also include The Mines Golf Course, Greywalls Golf Course and the Kingsley Club. The Mines, located near Grand Rapids’ beer drinking establishments, has a history worth noting.
The Mines was built about 150 feet above gypsum mines that had been utilized as early as the 1860s and throughout the 1900s. Some features of those mines were incorporated into the course’s construction. The No. 8 hole is located where a natural sand pit was used for the mining operation. Directional signs were also made with wooden timbers from the mining process.
Another unusual feature of The Mines is that it has back-to-back par-3 holes — Nos. 7 and 8. The course plays to par 70 with a pair of tough par 5s, the longest being the 607-yard fifth. The only problem with this layout is its blind shots. There are a few too many.
The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe isn’t bad, either. The locals appear to like this Bill Newcomb design that opened in 1997. It’s located along the Thornapple River on Interstate 96 near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
Newcomb’s stature in Michigan golf course architecture started earlier than DeVries’. Newcomb, who attended the University of Michigan, was a nationally-ranked amateur golfer with wins in both the Michigan Amateur and Indiana Open and a competitive appearance in the Masters.
If a 30-mile drive from downtown Grand Rapids isn’t too taxing, there’s another good track — the Arnold Palmer-designed Ravines Golf Club in Saugatuck. Ravines has only three sets of tees, but lots of forced carries. The most eye-catching features are the tall pines that dramatize the longest hole — the 626-yard 14th —and the Orchestra Pit at the par-3 17th. A deep dropoff in front of the green at No.17 accentuates the putting surface as a stage and gives the hole its name.
Playing those courses might give you a thirst to try more of the area golf layouts, but in Grand Rapids it might be more enticing to find more beer drinkers’ hot spots instead – and there’s plenty of them around.
The Knickerbocker | New Holland Brewing
Location: Grand Rapids, Mich.
Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is in his ninth year as golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website.