Reader’s Trip Report: Mackinac Island, Michigan

IMG_20130804_104132Jim Doherty, a reader in Chicago, wrote to me toward the end of the summer about a family vacation he had taken to Mackinac Island, Michigan—which is in Lake Huron all the way up next to Canada. (Mackinac, incidentally, is pronounced Mackinaw.) Jim is one of the guys in the photo above; the other is his brother-in-law, Mike. Because male golfers are essentially interchangeable, it doesn’t matter which is which. Here’s what the island looks like from the air.

Mackinac

Jim wrote:

Mackinac Island doesn’t allow any motorized vehicles. You ferry over with bikes, and there are horses and carriages that you can use to get around as well. The island had some military importance way back in 1812 and is now a beautiful spot to visit. There are a lot of fudge shops, for some reason. Anyway, even though our wives had chosen this non-golf-hotspot for our vacation, Mike and I brought our sticks on the theory that at some point our families would be equally sick of us (seven-hour drive) and be happy to see us exit to a golf course for a while.

Mackinac has two courses. One belongs to the Grand Hotel, where Jim, Mike, and their families were staying. It’s made up of two non-contiguous nines, called the Jewel and the Woods, and golfers are transported from one to the other by horse-drawn carriage. According to the hotel’s website, “The leisurely 15-minute ride includes parts of the island unseen by many visitors.” That sounds mildly interesting, but I think Jim and Mike were right to skip it. Jim wrote, “I try to avoid non-golf resorts that have a course. I find that they are usually full of very slow, non-regular golfers who are just trying to kill time, theirs and mine.” (The hotel and its golf course are visible in the photo above, in the lower part of the island.)

Instead, Jim and Mike played a nine-hole course called Wawashkamo Golf Club, which you can see, sort of, in the clearing in the woods near the runway at the top of the photo of the island. Here’s what the club’s front gate looks like:

Wawashkamo

Jim continued:

Remember, there are no motorized vehicles, so we rode our bikes, with our bags on our backs, up to the course. The inclines early in the ride were steep enough that we needed to walk the bikes, but it was worth it. Wawashkamo is a gem. No irrigation in the fairways or rough. Fescue-lined holes. Tiny hand-mowed greens in great shape, and tees that are literally about twenty square feet. I guarantee that the area rug under your dining-room table is bigger.

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Wawashkamo was laid out in 1898 by a Scotsman (from Carnoustie!) named Alex Smith. The club’s first pro was Frank Dufina, a Chippewa Indian, who played in the 1911 Western Open. He was fourteen years old when he went to work at Wawashkamo, and eighty-four when he retired, in 1968. Among the course’s unique features is its third green:

IMG_20130804_092803The putting surface (as you can see in the photo above) is surrounded by a thick fescue collar, which is called a Circus Ring. Its purpose is explained in the sign in the photo below:

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Jim continued:

Wawashkamo has two sets of tees, which change the length and angle of the holes a bit. It’s an easy walk: ninety minutes, max, for nine holes, then back on the bikes for the downhill ride to our families. The club’s pro, Chuck Olson, invited us to leave our clubs overnight and return to play the next morning, to ease our bike ride. We got the idea, from talking to him and a member, that the club’s budget is nil.

Here’s the clubhouse:

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And here are two of the amenities, which are available to visitors as well as to members:

IMG_20130804_104341Wawashkamo is closed for the season (I’m pretty sure, based on the website), but it will be open again in early May. Fifty dollars for eighteen holes, walking. Let’s go!

Tour Players Lead Lives of Quiet Desperation

In 2003, I played in the pro-am at the Western Open, at Cog Hill, near Chicago. The pro on my team was J. P. Hayes, whom I wouldn’t necessarily have recognized if his name hadn’t been printed in huge letters on his golf bag. Nevertheless, I was excited. For a golf fan, playing in a pro-am is a fantasy come true. It’s a chance to spend five hours getting on the nerves of a real tour player, and it provides numerous opportunities to obtain personalized mementoes that can later be sold on eBay.

The excitement felt by the amateurs in any pro-am is almost exactly offset by the dread felt by the professionals, most of whom would prefer to be mowing their lawn, if not their neighbor’s lawn. But the tour requires even the top pros to take part, mainly because pro-ams generate favorable p.r. and make tournament sponsors happy.

My team, without even one useful contribution from me, finished sort of in the middle of the pack. The next day—the first day of the real tournament—I decided to lend comradely support to Hayes by following him in his round. His tee time was 1:09, exactly the same as Tiger Woods’s, although Hayes was assigned to the first tee (along with Justin Leonard and Stuart Appleby) while Woods was assigned to the tenth (along with Chris Smith and Cameron Beckman). Woods, who ended up winning the tournament, influences golf spectators the way a black hole influences cosmic dust: when he emerged from the driving range, at about 12:45, what appeared to be the entire human population of northeastern Illinois began to drift inexorably toward him.

Over on hole No. 1, in contrast, the crowd of spectators quickly reduced itself to a handful of friends, relatives, and stubborn contrarians. I walked with Hayes’s completely charming wife, Laura, who was pregnant with their second child; Amanda Leonard (also pregnant); Ashley Appleby; and a few of Hayes’s relatives, who were visiting from Wisconsin—about the same turnout you would expect for the final round of a club championship.

Non-golfers joke about how boring golf looks on television, but TV actually makes tournaments seem more exciting than they are, because it focuses on leaders and stars, and because the camera doesn’t linger once a shot has been hit. If you’ve ever attended a Tour event in person, you know that most of it consists of absolutely nothing—like a fireworks display at which the rockets go off ten minutes apart. Even if you’re following one of the superstars, you have more than enough time between strokes to read the newspaper, get caught up on your bills, or work out any lingering difficulties in your marriage.

It’s the pros who lead lives of quiet desperation—not regular golfers like us. If a pro hits a ball out of bounds, the other guys in his foursome never say, “Aw, forget it, just drop one up by the tree.” And nobody ever hooks them in the crotch from behind with a two-iron as they’re getting ready to play a shot. They have to hit practice balls and lift weights and take vitamins and live in hotels and worry about telling their wives they’ve been demoted to the Hooters Tour.They sacrifice the best years of their lives to entertain and inspire us, and how do we repay them? By hounding them for autographs, and calling them chokers when they lose, and nodding smugly when Johnny Miller says their swing looks a little laid-off. Then, to top it off, we ruin their Wednesdays with pro-ams.

We have a lot to atone for. And as I walked along with Laura Hayes I thought of a way to do that: by inaugurating a national program of amateur-professional events—“am-pros”—which will be just like pro-ams, except opposite. Rather than imposing ourselves on the pros at the very moment they’re trying to pull themselves together to compete, we’ll invite them to join us at our own clubs, and let them see, for a change, how real golf is played. Any pro who misses the cut at any tournament can simply show up that weekend at any participating club and play for free. We’ll give him a handicap of plus-five or plus-six, and we’ll choose teams the way we usually do, by throwing balls or pulling numbered poker chips out of a hat, and we’ll work him into our regular Saturday or Sunday games. Lunch, too. Want in?

Hacker (real name) counting the skins money at my club this past Sunday. J. P. Hayes and Tiger Woods: this life could be yours.