As summer turns to fall and daylight hours begin to wane, sometimes a young person’s heart and, often, a not-so-young person’s heart – especially when the person’s not at The Big House or glued to a TV screen watching football – turns to the sweet feel of an eight-iron connecting plushly and wafting a perfect approach shot onto the green. If that happens to be the turn of your heart, count yourself fortunate. The University of Michigan boasts the finest pair of university golf courses anywhere in the world. Amidst dozens of outstanding, indeed, mind-boggling university courses – Yale, Ohio State, Stanford and the University of St. Andrews come to a duly boggled mind – only U-M has a dynamic duo. I first played them in the early 1970s as a fledgling member of the U-M Golf Team. Now, years later, I am a rank, broken and pathetic duffer, but at least I can offer readers an update on these remarkable gems.
The U-M Golf Course
The first thing you’ll notice at the “U-Course,” on Stadium Boulevard across from Crisler Arena, is that the original 1950 clubhouse is gone. I loved that elegant Prairie School design by Ann Arbor architect Douglas D. Loree. In its place stands the sleek, new clubhouse, which opened just this spring. Capacious and inviting, it features natural lighting from floor-to-ceiling windows, an expanded Golf Shop, and a ballroom on the second floor to host weddings, golf outings and other events.
Built on the highest and hilliest land on campus in 1931, the U-Course is humongously undulating and brutal to walk. Alister MacKenzie, called by Sports Illustrated, “Golf’s Greatest Course Architect” credited his work in camouflage during WWI as the key to his success and you see it in his incomparable use of contour, shade and elevation. Today, the course is harder, prettier and far more finely manicured than it has ever been. Lush rough and soft fairways result in little roll, whether going uphill or down (might be the longest 6,700-yard course you’ll ever play). The greens are massive and sloping – secret local knowledge: almost all putts break toward State Street. One important addition is the introduction of a heather, bristly knee-high rough to catch especially wayward shots. Heather doesn’t need watering – it holds rainwater in the ground – and it’s aesthetically delightful as long as you don’t land in it. The heather will be cut down for football parking to grow back in the spring, so if you’re prone to hooks and slices, you might want to book your tee-time for fall. The course is open to all students and faculty of any U-M campus, M-Club members, alumni and guests. Good luck, enjoy, and see why Golf Digest rated it the third finest university course in America.
On Geddes Road, a mile east of US-23, Radrick Farms is arguably even better than the U-Course, but it doesn’t show up on university course ratings because it was originally designed as the “faculty course,” not normally open to students. The land and financing were donated by the immortal Regent Fred Matthaei, Sr., part of his gift to the university that included Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
Radrick was named after Regent Mattaei’s sons, Konrad and Frederick, and their charming family home is now the clubhouse. The alt-magnanimous Regent Matthaei knew the students had a superb course and he wanted the “university community” to have one, too. That meant that all staff – from custodians and cafeteria workers to tenured professors and renowned researchers on any U-M campus – should have the chance to play their own exceptional track. The course opened in 1965, the first major project by prestigious course designer, Pete Dye, whose venues host more PGA tournaments and major championships than any other architect.
Radrick is a brilliant 7,000-yard layout on an expansive, rolling, hardwood-treed terrain. Regent Matthaei, an ardent environmentalist, had Radrick named an “Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.” You can see wild turkeys crossing the fairways, deer munching grass and eagles soaring. Wildflowers and sunflowers are pollinator patches for beehives maintained by the U-M School of Natural Resources. On the par-3, 187-yard 15th hole, you shoot off a cliff, watch your ball float into the clouds, say a prayer and wait to see where it lands. If it’s in the heather near the green, declare it unplayable. I’ve seen a rattlesnake there with my own eyes. Yikes! The course is open to faculty and staff, alumni members, donors and guests. Go Blue!