Sweetgrass Golf Club, one of two splendid courses at the Island Resort & Casino, more than lives up to its accolades
ESCANABA, Michigan – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is full of golfing surprises, but none might be more than Sweetgrass Golf Club, a course that looks and feels like a links, despite its location miles from the nearest body of water. Given that the layout is also part of the Island Resort & Casino (again, the property is nowhere near water), one might reach an initial conclusion that Sweetgrass is – as we say in Texas – all hat and no cattle.
But after a round at Sweetgrass, golfers will find that the track, designed by Michigander Paul Albanese for the Potawatomi Tribe’s Hannahville Indian Community, more than lives up to its moniker. This is, indeed, a sweet place to play.
Sweetgrass, the 2022 National Golf Course of the Year, is one of two tracks at the Island, along with Sage Run, also designed by Albanese. Sweetgrass plays host to the EPSON Tour’s Island Resort Championship.
The name Sweetgrass refers to an aromatic herb and sacred plant employed in the tribe’s peace and healing rituals. In its native form, sweet grass is used as one of four traditional Potawatomi medicines (along with cedar, tobacco and sage). The plant is found along the course where it serves as knee-high rough – one of the local Native American-culture references used by Albanese. Each hole at Sweetgrass is named after, and pays tribute to, Indian legend.
Albanese also had a hand in the design of TimberStone Golf Club in nearby Iron Mountain, where he worked on a completely different type of project as the lead architect for Jerry Matthews.
At Sweetgrass, there were many options – the course occupies more than 300 acres – and was unbound by the rocky and rolling landscape where TimberStone was routed.
The results at Sweetgrass are an amazing contrast, and truly illustrate Albanese’s prowess as a golf architect and adaptability to a specific piece of ground.
“We wanted to adhere to two important goals at Sweetgrass,” Albanese said. “The golf course has to be fun and good experience for those who came out here to play it and it had to truly reflect the Native American values and principals of the Potawatomi. There is no doubt that we achieved those objectives.”
Nominal earthmoving was employed on the relatively flat site and native prairie grasses were nurtured to accentuate the course’s unity with nature. Albanese also rescued a half-dozen old railway bridges from the Michigan Department of Transportation to use as cart paths and to cross wetlands, giving a historic feel to the course, which opened in 2008.
Many demands at Sweetgrass
Don’t be lulled into thinking Sweetgrass is going to be easy; from the back set of five tees, the par-72 track is plenty hard for even the best players.
The prairie, meadow and cedar forest on the property allowed Albanese to build strategy and shot values into every hole on the 7,275-yard layout. Golfers will find mostly expansive fairways (some 80 yards wide!) and ultra-smooth and fast putting surfaces. It’s crucial to find the correct portion of a green or cope with long and tricky lag putts. Tee shots on several holes offer risk-reward opportunities, while bunkers and water hazards are strategically positioned to defend par.
Because of its flatness and the surrounding areas, winds can buffet Sweetgrass and add a new dimension. Sweetgrass looks like a links course and plays like a links course, but it’s obviously not a true links course. It’s very playable with very generous fairways.
There are 47 acres of fairway turf at Sweetgrass. On a typical golf course, there are about 28 to 30 acres of fairway, so there’s almost 50 percent more fairway space here than your average course. That means you have a great chance to get a good drive out there and put yourself in a good position.
The design allows golfers to get off to a good start no matter on each side, as the first (at 320 yards) and 10th (372 yards) holes are par-4s that can be attacked.
Elsewhere, there are three massive two-shotters: the 469-yard fourth plays from one of the highest points on the course and winds gently left to right over a ridge and past a huge bunker on the starboard side; the 489-yard 13th is a hard dogleg-left with two deep bunkers at the turn and two more right-front of the green; and the 479-yard 16th curls around a huge tree before heading uphill to the right and into the forest.
Sweetgrass has received a lot of attention for two of its par-3s. No. 12 plays 214 yards from the tips and has a 60-yard-long Biarritz-style green that’s a veritable rollercoaster. If the cup is cut on the back-top shelf and the tee shot is short, a three-putt (or more) is likely.
Although mid-length at 168 yards, the 15th features an island green in a lake. Both the putting surface, which jibes with the casino’s name, and the turtle (the Potawatomi hold the turtle and its wisdom in high esteem) abide the course’s thematic elements.
The ninth (547 yards) and 18th (550 yards) share a green, with each hole playing past a huge pond with a series of stepped waterfalls. No. 9 ascends to the landing area before heading further uphill past a huge bunker in mid-fairway to an elevated green. The closing hole is more wide open, with a series of pot-bunkers at the end of the fairway near the green.
In its first year of eligibility, Sweetgrass Golf Club was named No. 20 in Golfweek’s 2009 “Best Courses You Can Play” and one of “America’s Best New Courses” by Golf Digest. Since then it was listed consistently as one of the “Best Casino Courses” and “Best Courses You Can Play” in Michigan.
Sweetgrass Golf Club is on the western side of Michigan’s UP about 13 miles west of Escanaba and 40 miles east of Iron Mountain. It serves as the centerpiece of a casino-resort complex that boasts a variety of accommodations, a full-scale casino, various dining options, an indoor pool and small gym, along with meeting, event and entertainment venues.
A new tower, connected to the south end of the resort’s Palm Tower, features 138 guest rooms and suites, with some special attention for golfers who visit – fresh, expansive golf suites. The spacious 675-square-foot suites are complete with a king, double queen, and common area, all with breathtaking fall color views of the Sweetgrass Golf Course and Northern Michigan – perfect for foursomes seeking added space and a fun environment.
Horizons Steakhouse, the new high-end dining venue located on the top floor, features some of the region’s best fall-color viewing.
Whether it’s a buddy trip or couple’s golf getaway, fully customizable fall packages can be booked featuring 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-night lodging options with up to four rounds of golf.
Albanese and the Potawatomi have done their share in making his small hamlet a golf destination; now it’s up to golfers to make the trek to Sweetgrass to see just how good the place really is.