Growing up in the Midwest, I’d heard of friends vacationing to this tiny island paradise in the middle of Lake Huron, but it wasn’t until I was grown up with a family of my own that I’d ever actually get to experience it: Mackinac Island.
Mackinac Island is unlike any other island in the world. It’s a trip back in time where there are no cars and the only forms of transportation are by foot, bicycle or horse. It’s a magical vacation experience highlighted by the world-renowned Grand Hotel, and the opportunity to experience one of the most unique golf courses anywhere: The Jewel.
While Mackinac Island may not be best known for its golf, as the course name suggests The Jewel is certainly a hidden gem and one to add to any golf enthusiast’s rotation of must-plays when in Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula.
The Grand Hotel
The iconic Grand Hotel dominates the island and is a must-see in person. While you do not have to stay at the hotel to play the course, it is something that everyone should try to experience at least once in their lifetime.
Stepping onto the Grand Hotel Property is like being transported to the glory days of the early 20th century. The ambiance of the hotel is unique with its decor, Grand Porch and 5-star service, and you will immediately begin to feel the affects of the “Island time” locals swear by.
This time keeping is a way of explaining to visitors the need to slow down, enjoy their journey and, for God’s sakes, leave your schedule at home.
Before reading anything I have to say about the Jewel, be sure to watch the brief video I put together on it to better understand the golf experience and overall magic of the island:
The Grand Nine
The Grand Nine was built in 1901 and is located directly across from the Grand Hotel. Set against a backdrop of the Straits of Mackinac, the Grand Nine offers some challenging holes and unique terrain. The Grand Nine was redesigned in 1987 by golf course architect Jerry Matthews at which time the Woods Nine was also built in the interior of the island to create the 18-hole Jewel Course as it’s known today. This par 67, 5,000-yard course may seem short by today’s standards, but what it lacks in distance is made up for in the need for strategic tee shots, well-guarded greens and tiered putting surfaces.
As you begin your round on the Grand Nine the sounds of horse-drawn carriages rolling by will remind you that you are truly a world away. I have never felt more relaxed and on “Island time” than when I played The Jewel.
The first nine holes will ultimately challenge you with the need for shot placement off the tee and putting skill to avoid dreaded three-putts.
The first two holes on the Grand Nine present what I would consider to be executive style par fours. Due to obvious size constraints having been developed on an island, Jerry had to be creative in adding challenge to holes in ways other than raw distance. The water hazards, bunkers and tiered greens present throughout the opening holes come together to force strategic shot-making off the tee and on approaches.
One of my favorite holes on the entire course is number two. This short par four crosses water twice, features several styles of bunkers and a tricky green, to boot. The wild hillside backdrop of the green further provides a picturesque approach and makes you forget about the ball or two you may have just lost.
The next stretch of holes will really test your accuracy with a long uphill par three followed by two short fours that all require long irons from the tee. Shot placement is key to ensure a chance at hitting these greens in regulation. You will be tempted to pull out the driver throughout your round, thinking you can cut off distance and have easy shots at the green but trust me, leave it in the bag. The best strategy on this course is to play safe, hit solid approaches and earn birdies with your putter.
Never will you find a pair of more opposite holes back-to-back than these next par threes. Hole six is a short one-shot hole that finally allows you a bit of relaxation on the tee. The best part of this hole, however, is the noise. Located right next to the road, the clomping of horses and rattle of wagon wheels is something you won’t soon forget. You also may not have noticed, but the past several holes have slowly increased in elevation, and walking on to the sixth green you will be greeted with an amazing view of the course, lake and part of town.
Hole number seven is such an oddity to me against the scheme of the rest of the Grand Nine. This downhill par three is over 240 yards, played to a green surrounded by water. For a front nine with so many short par fours, this hole really stands out as it will probably be one of the longest par threes you will ever play. I have honestly never seen a longer fairway on a par three in all my years of playing golf. The right way to play this hole, in my opinion, is to lay up and try to get up and down for your par. If you walk away from this hole with your original ball and anything less than a double, call it a victory.
Although you may be in shock while standing on the tee box of this daunting hole, take a minute to soak it in. It’s not rated as one of the top holes in all of Michigan for no reason! The immense trees right off the tee box perfectly frame an incredible view of Mackinac -you will find no better view on the entire island. Enjoy that moment before trying to conquer this beast as it is only downhill from here (yes, pun intended!).
Finishing out the Grand Nine are two par fours. These holes finally allow you to pull the big stick out of your bag and play for some short wedge shots in to greens. The finishing views on the ninth are straight off a postcard, with the back of the green complex framed by the spectacular Grand Hotel.
You may wonder why there is a section dedicated to the turn between nines in this article. Well, The Jewel has something I promise you will not experience at any other golf property.
As soon as you finish your front nine the clubhouse will recommend grabbing a cold beverage while you wait for your carriage. No, this is not a play on words – a carriage literally comes to pick you up and transport you to the Woods Nine. The mile and a half separating the two sides is only traversable by way of this shuttle service and is a special treat.
The Woods Nine
The Woods Nine was completed in 1987 and this second set of holes is the perfect complement to the Grand Nine. Coming off your horse-drawn carriage you will arrive at the Woods Restaurant, which also serves as your starting area and provides you with a new cart to use during your inward nine. The Woods has more of a traditional golf course feel with lengthy holes, daunting doglegs and fast-running greens. The holes felt very Northwoods to me as they are seemingly carved through groves of pines.
The first hole on The Woods has one of the best views on the course, in my opinion. This mid-length par four has a narrow tee shot but opens up to a wide fairway and beautiful view of the surrounding bay. This is a hole you’ll want to attack in hopes of picking up a birdie as it only gets tougher from here.
Your drive to the second will have you understanding where the “Woods” title came from. This dog leg par four is cut through the forests of the island and provides a completely different feel than the rest of the holes played thus far. The hole is littered with bunkers and a narrow green that demands accuracy to avoid any tree sap on your ball.
The par three third presents an over-water shot to a large, inviting green. Take some time to look back at the tee box when you get to the putting surface – the framing offered by the back garden area makes for a terrific photo opportunity.
The fourth is another par four with a left dogleg. The fairway has some great terrain features including rocks and fescue grass. While driver off the tee shouldn’t be an issue, a mishit on your second shot could leave you with plenty of trouble.
Hole five is another dramatic par three replete with an elevated tee box and vistas of the water. At this point in your round you are probably both loving and hating these dramatic par threes. The fifth’s well-guarded green forces yet another accurate tee shot, but finding the putting surface will be just the start. This multi-tiered, heavily sloping green will have you feeling like a two-putt is a huge victory.
For big hitters the sixth may finally be your first opportunity to attack the property’s one and only par five. A good tee shot will entice you to go for it in two, but beware the elevated, narrow green that’s almost impossible to stick. I would recommend laying up and letting your wedge game earn that birdie.
Rounding out the final holes on the Woods Nine are a couple of par fours and a par three. Hole 7 features a tee shot with a tricky fairway. Sloping grades and unseen bunkers will penalize those who don’t hit it straight here. This is one of the longer par fours on The Jewel and features a tough approach shot into a well-guarded green. Walking away with a par on seven is a great score.
I like to call hole eight the airport hole. Running parallel to the island runway, this par three has some serious length, bunkers and plenty of distractions. It’s hard not to watch the planes as they taxi and take off, but be sure to focus on your shot, too, as even a small mishit will have you heading for a day at the beach earlier than planned.
The closing hole on the Woods Nine features a dogleg par four with a great water feature. An accurate drive on this hole will set you up with a reasonable approach distance, but beware of the water. More than a few balls I am sure have been sacrificed to the golfing gods on nine, but it’s certainly worth the adventure for the view back once you’ve reached the green.
An Unforgettable Experience
A round at The Jewel will surely be a treasured memory in your golf career. Its unique setting, one-of-a-kind layout and island vibe all contribute to a palpable magic that make the experience truly special.
Although you may not seek out Mackinac Island specifically for golf, take it from me that it’s well worth the trip to explore all the island has to offer, and a laidback round on The Jewel should certainly be on every player’s travel itinerary.