Golf on Mackinac Island – Play 2 Idyllic Courses Born in the Gilded Age

Nestled in the heart of the Great Lakes, Mackinac Island unfolds a magnificent tapestry of historic charm interwoven with the timeless allure of golf. Emerging from the late 19th century, golf carved out its place on this idyllic island, evolving beyond just a game to become entwined with the Island’s soul. This intricate journey leads us through the origins of golf on Mackinac Island to the establishing of premier golf courses and clubs that have shaped its present. Simultaneously, it unveils the profound impact of the sport on the island’s cultural fabric, socio-economic landscape, and its blossoming tourism industry.

Origins of Golf on Mackinac Island

The Golfing Beginnings on Mackinac Island

Did you know that there are around 15,000 golf courses in the United States? But there is only one golf course that offers a unique experience of a scenic horse-drawn carriage ride between nines. This golf course is also historically significant as it is laid out on a battlefield where American soldiers lost their lives while trying to gain control of the Great Lakes from the British.

The first game of golf was introduced on Mackinac Island around the end of the 19th century— a time when the pursuit of leisure pastimes had started gaining prominence in American society. The island’s oceanic climatic charm, clubbed with the calm rustic allure, made it an ideal setting for the game. It was a different pace altogether, where horses and bicycles replaced cars. This old-world appeal proved to be an alluring factor for wealthy families from the surrounding regions who were in search of recreational escapades.

Influences of the Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel Mackinac Island

One of the most influential entities in the history of golf on Mackinac Island would undoubtedly be The Grand Hotel. As it opened in 1887, the concept of a grand summer vacation by flocks of affluent families was popularized. These families, many from Chicago and Detroit, would boat over to find an escape in the cool island breeze and indulge themselves in golfing. It created an environment that encouraged and nurtured golfing as an elite sport.

The Birth of the First Golf Course: Wawashkamo

The initial golf course to be established on Mackinac Island was the Wawashkamo Golf Club. Wadsworth, known on the island as “Wawa,” reached out to Alex Smith, a renowned Scottish golf architect, and implored him to design the course, which Smith did, keeping in mind the Battle of Mackinaw Island in 1814 that unfolded in the fields where the course was built. Alex Smith ingeniously incorporated certain features from the battlefield into the course design, including the “British line,” which today acts as a unique element of the game on this course. Hence, Wawashkamo breathes the history of golf and the island’s rich past.

Forming The Jewel of a Golf Course

The turn of the 20th century marked further expansion of golf on the island, with an additional course route added to the Grand Hotel. The novel section was dubbed the original “Grand Nine” and was designed by golf course architect Tom Bendelow in 1901.

In 1994, renowned links architect Jerry Matthews designed the “Woods Nine” in the heart of Mackinac Island and offers stunning views of the Mackinac Bridge and the Upper Peninsula. The Woods Nine and another historic golf course were merged to create “The Jewel,” an even more exceptional golf course that stands out in Northern Michigan and the United States. “The Jewel.” This 18-hole golf course, with facing waters, tree lines, and uphill challenges, is known for its picturesque appeal and unique carriage rides between back and front nines— a sentimental nod to the island’s legacy of prohibiting motorized vehicles.

The history of golf on Mackinac Island is as rich and deep as the island’s own heritage, molded by the ebb and flow of time just like the surrounding tides. The island’s two renowned golf courses, Wawashkamo and The Jewel, stand as proud reminders of this past, providing modern golfers with a window into the sport’s affluent history in this unique location.

Development of Golf Courses and Clubs on the Island

Alex Smith 1906 – George Grantham Bain Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Birth of Golf on Mackinac Island

Golfing on Mackinac Island, situated in Michigan, has its roots firmly planted in the late 19th century when interest in golf rapidly grew across America. The island’s first golf course, Wawashkamo Golf Club, was forged in 1898 by a group of summer residents led by businessman P.F. Murphy. With the help of Scottish golf professional Alex Smith, they transformed an 1814 Battle of Mackinac battlefield into a traditional natural-links style golf course. It featured a challenging set-up of 9 holes, with punishing roughs, deep sand bunkers, and treacherous greens.

The Emergence of Grandeur

Hot on the heels of Wawashkamo, The Grand Hotel, a focal point of the island, joined the golf landscape and added a new dimension to the island’s golfing history. The development of The Jewel Golf Course was gradual, initiated with the creation of the Grand nine in 1901, followed by the Woods nine in 1994. Combined, the 18-hole course, with its tree-lined fairways and spectacular views of the Straits of Mackinac, was the vision of prominent golf architects Jerry Matthews and Jason Payne.

Hallmarks of Historicity

Core to Mackinac Island’s golfing appeal is its richly historic courses. Wawashkamo, for instance, still holds markers denoting where American and British soldiers fell during the Battle of Mackinac Island in 1814. Meanwhile, The Jewel incorporates elements of the grandeur and elegance seen throughout the Grand Hotel. From horse-drawn carriage rides between its two halves to the flowering gardens and panoramic views flanking its fairways, golfing at The Jewel is a striking fusion of high-end leisure and sporting activity.

Prominent Figures and Tournaments

Connected to the island’s golfing history are prominent figures like Alex Smith. As one of the first golf pros in the United States, Smith brought his expertise to the Wawashkamo course, employing native elements to craft deceptively challenging holes that still intimidate players today. As for tournaments, the noteworthy “Battle Day Tournament” held at Wawashkamo every August is more of a celebration than a cutthroat competition. The event embodies the spirit of Mackinac Island golf: one part nod to historical roots, one part love for the simplicity of the sport, proving that golf on Mackinac Island remains a timeless attraction.

Famous Golfers At Mackinac

Walter Hagen – George Grantham Bain Collection

Mackinac Island, a gem in Michigan’s crown, has a rich history that extends to the world of golf. One of the island’s oldest golf courses, Wawashkamo, designed in 1898, has seen its fair share of golf legends. A notable visit occurred in the summer of 1919 when Walter Hagen, one of the most successful and popular golfers of the early 20th century, graced the island course. Hagen had just won his second U.S. Open championship and was part of a Detroit business delegation that arrived on the steamship City of Detroit III. The group included other prominent figures like George W. Cushing of Hudson Motor Car Company and Edgar Guest from the Detroit Free Press.

The visit was a whirlwind affair, lasting just a day, but it left an indelible mark on Mackinac’s golf history. No scorecard was kept, but the event is forever recorded in Wawashkamo’s Visitor’s Register, now part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks archival collection. This visit not only added a layer of prestige to Wawashkamo but also showcased Mackinac Island as a destination for golf enthusiasts. Whether you’re a history buff or an avid golfer, a round at Wawashkamo offers a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of golf legends.

For more details on this historic visit, you can read the full article on Mackinac Parks.

President Gerald Ford’s Golfing Experience on Mackinac Island

President Ford Golfs the Grand Nine – David Hume Kennerly , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mackinac Island has been a cherished destination for many, including President Gerald Ford. His fondness for the island dates back to his youth in the 1920s when he served as an Eagle Scout at the Mackinac Island State Park Commission’s Scout Service Camp. Over the years, President Ford returned to the island frequently, not just for its historical significance but also for its recreational offerings. One of his favorite activities was playing golf on the Grand Nine, a part of The Jewel golf course.

The Jewel is renowned for offering a “Grand” golf experience and has hosted several sports champions and notable figures, including Scott Simpson, the winner of the 1987 U.S. Open Championship, and sports announcer Jim Nantz. President Ford’s rounds on the Grand Nine added a presidential touch to the course’s history. Whether he was sampling fresh candy at Mary’s Fudge, touring Fort Mackinac, or swinging his golf club on the Grand Nine, President Ford’s visits enriched the island’s tapestry of memories.

For those interested in experiencing a round of golf steeped in history, the Grand Nine at The Jewel is a must-visit.

Preserving the Spirit of Traditional Golf

The golf clubs and courses on Mackinac Island today proudly celebrate their captivating histories whilst seamlessly incorporating modern golf trends. Though upgrades have enhanced aspects of the courses over time – such as better irrigation systems and meticulously maintained greens – the ghost of golf’s golden era can still be felt within the traditional layouts of the island. In this way, Mackinac Island offers a distinctive fusion of golf’s past and present, creating an unparalleled golfing experience.

Impact and Significance of Golf on Mackinac Island

The Love for Golf on Mackinac Island

The culture of golf is entrenched in the fabric of life on Mackinac Island. Residents and tourists alike appreciate the distinctive charm of the island’s historic golf courses. The island’s locale, surrounded by the sparkling waters of Lake Huron and adorned with vibrant wildflowers, elevates the golfing experience.

Historic Golf Courses on Mackinac Island

The island’s two popular golf courses – The Jewel and Wawashkamo Golf Club – exist rich narratives of historic significance. Wawashkamo, in particular, maintains traditional golfing norms with native roughs and historical features that echo the inception of golf.

Moreover, the Grand Hotel’s golf course, The Jewel, offers an impressive view of the Straits of Mackinac, divided into two separate nine-hole courses. The Grand Nine is located across from the hotel, while the Woods Nine, located in the island’s interior, provides a more challenging terrain.

Golf Tournaments on Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island’s golf courses are unique and draw interest from golf tourism. Attracting golf enthusiasts from across the world, tournaments held on the island, two signature courses, and associated hospitality amenities contribute significantly to the island’s revenue.

The National Hickory Stick Classic Tournament is a golf tournament at the Wawashkamo Golf Club. Hickory golf is played with antique wooden shafted clubs or reproduction wooden shaft clubs. The club heads must date from 1935 or earlier.  Players dress in knickers and tams and use actual pre-1930 hickory sticks.  The tournament is played on regulation courses at appropriate distances for hickory clubs. 

For over 20 years, golf tournaments such as the annual Jewel at Mackinac Golf Tournament bring together avid golfers from every corner of the state and stimulate the local economy. These events cause an influx of tourists during golfing season, benefiting the businesses reliant on the influx of visitors.

Miniature Golf On Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island boasts two exceptional miniature golf courses. One is The Greens of Mackinac, which has 18 natural grass-putting greens right by the water at Mission Point Resort. The course has a relaxed atmosphere and allows you to carry a beverage with you during your round. In addition, it offers glow-in-the-dark balls for playing after dark.

At Grand Hotel’s Woodlands Activity Center on Mackinac Island, visitors can enjoy a game of miniature golf at The Gem course, which winds seamlessly through the resort’s wooded grounds.

Recognition Of Mackinac Courses in the Golf Community

Mackinac Island boasts several golf courses that have gained recognition within the golf community. Among these, Wawashkamo Golf Club stands out as Michigan’s oldest continuously played golf course. In 1996, Golf Digest recognized it as one of America’s Historic Golf Landmarks, making Wawashkamo the only nine-hole course among the dozen in the United States to receive this designation.

Equally, The Jewel showcases some of the most scenic golfing landscapes in the Midwest, further enhancing Mackinac Island’s reputation and appeal to the golfing community. This has resulted in repeated features in golfing magazines and online blogs that have consequently increased awareness and interest.

Are Golf Carts Allowed on Mackinac Island?

Despite cars not being allowed on Mackinac Island, golf carts are the exception. Golf carts are available at the Wawashkamo Golf Club and the Jewel. See the Wawashkamo Rate Card for details.

Video: Wawashkamo G.C. (Mackinac Island) with 1890s Gutty Golf Clubs 

Final Thoughts About Golf On Mackinac Island

The culture, economy, and tourism industry of Mackinac Island are deeply intertwined with golf, creating a unique blend of heritage, sport, and natural beauty that continues to draw golfers worldwide.

Whether it’s to revel in the picturesque landscapes of the golf courses, delve into the sport’s rich history on the island, or test one’s mettle in its iconic tournaments, golf on Mackinac Island offers a unique blend of heritage and activity. The game has become an indelible part of the Island’s identity, bringing in both local and global recognition. With each swing, putt, and scorecard, the legacy and influence of golf on Mackinac Island continues to evolve, poised to inspire and captivate future generations of golf enthusiasts.

Paul Austin

Paul is a noted freelance writer with hundreds of articles online and in print. His most recent project is cataloging unique events in Michigan History. You can find more of his work at Michigan 4 You.

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