Sweetgrass at Island Resort & Casino in Harris
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is full of golf surprises but none might be bolder and more diverse than the double shot of courses at the Island Resort & Casino in Harris, located on the western side of the region about 13 miles west of Escanaba and an hour and a half’s drive south of Marquette, the largest city in the Upper Peninsula.
The Island Resort & Casino is one of the Midwest’s largest golf, gaming and entertainment resort destinations. Its 36 holes of golf on two courses, Sweetgrass and Sage Run – both designed by Michigander Paul Albanese, help the resort stand above the other great courses in the Upper Peninsula and have assured that playing and staying here earn a spot on Travel Caddie’s must-plays in the Midwest.
Owned and operated by the Potawatomi Tribe’s Hannahville Band of Native Americans, the Island Resort & Casino has consistently upgraded and added to its amenities, allowing each trip to this very-out-of-the-way destination more than worth the effort.
Sweetgrass is a sweet place to tee it up
Sweetgrass Golf Club, opened in 2008, is a course that looks and feels like a links despite its location miles from the nearest body of water (in fact, the resort’s name is quite deceiving in that regard). But after a round at Sweetgrass, golfers will find that the track more than lives up to its moniker; this is a sweet place to play.
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 part of the knee-high rough.
At Sweetgrass, there were many options for Albanese on a site that occupies more than 300 acres. Nominal earthmoving was employed on the relatively flat property and native prairie grasses were nurtured to accentuate the course’s unity with nature. 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.
Albanese also rescued a half-dozen old railway bridges from the Michigan Department of Transportation to use on cart paths and to cross wetlands, giving a historic feel to the course.
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 the putting surface or you’ll 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 and plays like a links course, but it’s very playable with very generous fairways. The Band claims there are 47 acres of fairway turf at Sweetgrass, almost 50 percent more fairway space here than an average course. That means golfers have a great chance to get a good drive in play and put themselves in a good position to attack the greens complexes.
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 hole’s moniker, “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 and a strategic pond and are played past 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 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 by Golfweek as one of its “Best Casino Courses” and by Golf Magazine as No. 13 among the “Best Courses You Can Play” in Michigan.
Sweetgrass was named the National Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) in both 2021 and ’22 and is home to the Epson Tour’s Island Resort Championship, which just conducted its 12th annual rendition.
The course’s location adjacent to the hotel makes stepping up to the first tee convenient for golfers. The rooms in the upper floors of the tower provide a panoramic view of the ninth and 18th holes and the far horizon, maybe even the nearest body of water.
Sage Run is a rocky – and rockin’ – good time
The resort’s newest course, Sage Run, opened in 2018 and is a marked contrast to its older sister while obviously borrowing from the family tree. Albanese’s follow-up effort for the Potawatomi at the Island features a more rugged terrain with hardwoods, open areas and a massive ridge/drumlin and bunkers, all inspired by the “rough and rugged” appeal of Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down.
Sage Run begins atop of the ridge with scenic views and plays down to an open area with wide fairways and rugged fescue grasses set off by earth tones, browns and tans. The third hole, a strategic par 5 with rugged bunkers, sand areas and a small, elevated putting surface, places a premium on accuracy. The par 3 fifth is the first experience with the course’s prominent drumlin ridge; although a short hole, it requires a blind uphill shot to a large green.
Sage Run’s back nine features a variety of wonderful, short par 4 holes that demand decisive and well-executed approach shots. The 13th is an uphill two-shotter with strategic fairway bunkers that golfers can take on for a better angle to the elevated green that’s guarded by rugged bunkering at the left.
Players must be ready on the short 16th to attack a ridge and play the second shot uphill to an expansive putting surface that can’t be seen from the fairway. A straight drive up the right side leaves a short pitch to a large and undulating green.
The finish at Sage Run, including the short par-4 16th, offers a great chance to end things on the upswing. The par 3 17th is carded at just 125 yards and plays to a small green complex that rests on the edge of a ridge with a scraggly bunker guarding the right.
The par 5 closer is framed in the afternoon by the setting sun and sports scenic 30-mile views from an elevated tee downhill to a wide fairway. The second shot leaves a short iron into a small green that is made more challenging by ridges and hollows.
Sage Run was named to Golf Digest’s prestigious list of “Best New Courses” in 2019 and remains a compelling companion to the more-lauded Sweetgrass. Play both the courses to get the full “Island golf treatment.”
Great places to stay, play, luxuriate and dine, too
The Island Resort & Casino completed a $33 million hotel expansion in 2022 that pushed the property’s number of rooms to more than 450. The expansion included expansive Golf Suites that include a king-sized bed, double queen, sleeper sofas and a common area, all with breathtaking views of the Sweetgrass Golf Course and perfect for foursomes looking for added space and a fun environment.
The resort also offers a new spa and restaurant, plus a 408-000-square-foot casino with a sports book, 1,200-plus slot machines, a poker room, craps, blackjack, Spanish 21, three-card poker, let-it-ride, roulette and bingo.
The new Horizons Steakhouse, located on the top floor of the new tower, is a perfect gathering spot for golf groups after a satisfying day of golf.
Traveler, golfers and gamblers can fly from Detroit into nearby Escanaba or Marquette. Those a little more hearty can make the road trip north on I-75 across the scenic Mackinac Bridge and turn west on U.S. 2 for one of the Midwest’s prettiest drives, albeit a nearly seven-hour one.
Albanese and the Potawatomi have done their part in making this small hamlet a golf destination; now it’s up to golfers to make the trek to The Island Resort & Casino to see just how good the place really is.