In a 1919 letter to his Chicago friends, famed author Ernest Hemingway urged them to follow him to northern Michigan where hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits were in abundance. He described the primary paved road as “pretty good,” so that they could make the trip “in less than three days.”

And boy, did they and others follow him. By the early ‘20s, more than a million Illinois and Indiana residents traveled to west and northern Michigan by way of the coastal highway known as the West Michigan Pike. Although the area was long accessed by rail and ferry lines, it didn’t reach widespread tourist appeal until the opening of The Pike in 1914. By then, one could travel by auto from the northern Indiana border to Mackinaw City — 633 miles — without being mired in sand and mud.

Adding to the area’s magnetism were the openings of Michigan State Parks in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Hart, Interlochen, Glen Arbor and Mackinaw City. Affordable camping sites accelerated the popularity of the state among tourists and families. And the Midwest’s increasing infatuation with golf was whetted by a number of new golf courses along The Pike. Many of these were designed by the game’s leading architects with roots often in Scotland and England — names like Tom Bendelow, Harry Collis, David Foulis, Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross and Willie Watson.

Belvedere Golf Club, Charlevoix
Credit: Courtesy of Belvedere Golf Club

One hundred years have passed since the opening of the West Michigan Pike, that ribbon of paved road curling pass Benton Harbor, Grand Haven and Traverse City. Today, each of these communities proudly boasts of a championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, an iconic figure in the game.

American Dunes Golf Club

Joining The Bear in Traverse City and Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor will be American Dunes Golf Club, a massive and magnificent renovation of the former Grand Haven Golf Club by Nicklaus.

Without hyperbole, American Dunes will be the most talked about golf course in America in May of 2021. First, the name of Nicklaus carries considerable heft in golf. As in the case of Harbor Shores and The Bear, his signature courses invariably transform the local community in which they reside. Both of these courses have hosted major golf championships bringing added buzz to not only to the layout, but also to the area. Expect American Dunes to follow suit.

Harbor Shores, Benton Harbor
Credit: Courtesy of Harbor Shores

As importantly, American Dunes will draw special attention due to its link to the Folds of Honor. Founded by Major Dan Rooney at Grand Haven Golf Club in 2007, Folds of Honor is dedicated to serving the families of fallen and disabled service members. To date, the effort has awarded nearly 29,000 educational scholarships to those families. Fittingly, American Dunes will use displays, exhibits and memorials to tell the special mission of the charity. As Doug Bell, the general manager of American Dunes, said, “People will come here for the golf, but they’ll leave emotionally touched by the Folds of Honor story.”

It will also celebrate the life and legacy of Jack Nicklaus whose stellar career has earned him worldwide acclaim. In fact, he’s one of just six athletes and only the third golfer to receive the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal. Nicklaus memorabilia will be prominently displayed throughout the clubhouse and property. In a succinct quote by Rooney, “American Dunes will be reverent to God, country and Jack Nicklaus.”

And the course will be spectacular. More than 75 acres of trees were removed, and every fairway and green were redesigned and rebuilt to create a stunning new look to the previous tree-lined layout. Topsoil was removed to expose the underlying sand and dunes so common to the lakeshore area. It will remain a walkable layout with a variety of open-front greens, varying from postage stamp-size to one over 12,000 square feet. And the fairways will be wide and generous. 

“It’s going to be a very special place,” Nicklaus said. “We’re very proud as an organization to be part of it.”

HawksHead Links, South Haven
Credit: Courtesy of HawksHead Links

And so American Dunes will continue the rich tradition of golf along the West Michigan Pike, drawing visitors to the area from far and wide. It all started a century ago with a string of lakeshore and surrounding courses complementing the area’s swimming, fishing, hunting and camping assets, like the ones at the aptly named Golfmore Hotel in Grand Beach; Spring Lake Country Club; Manistee Golf and Country Club; Petoskey-Bay View Country Club; Harbor Point Golf Club; and yes, even on Mackinac Island at Wawashkamo Golf Club.

They all contributed to the area’s allure and why the Chicago Tribune in 1925 touted the eastern shore of Lake Michigan as “Chicago’s Riviera!”

Along with the aforementioned trio of Nicklaus designs, celebrated courses today like Arcadia Bluffs, Harbor Shores, Boyne Highlands and Forest Dunes all command similar regional and national attention. Golf-bound travelers nowadays speed north on the concrete highways and expressways of I-196 and US-31 while relishing the picturesque shoreline and countryside.

But it all started with The Pike, that paved artery at the heart of west and northern Michigan.

Article written by Terry Moore