Simple pleasures and fond memories lie at the heart of one of American golf’s great Northern outposts. Wheel into the parking lot of Belvedere Golf Club and you know right away that this place is not into pretense or status. The modest white-clapboard clubhouse sits at the far end of the lot. At the other end is a compact pro shop, the squeak of its screen door announcing the arrival of every member and visitor.
Though open to guest play at certain hours, this 80-year-old institution is so low-key as to be nearly anonymous. But to scores of vacationers who return to the Northern Michigan town of Charlevoix each summer, it’s the kind of place that captures the heart and never lets go. Steve Braun, for example, played in the 1964 Michigan Amateur Championship at Belvedere and loved it so much he became the club’s head professional in 1997.
Belvedere’s story begins in 1925, when members of the Charlevoix Summer Resort Association decided their existing social club needed a golf component. They called on Scotsman Willie Watson, who was working across town as head pro of the Chicago Club. Although a part-time course architect, his resume included Interlachen and the Olympic Club. At Belvedere he used five teams of horses and 150 men to build 18 holes through a pair of breezy valleys just south of town.
Opened in 1927, the course soon became a respected tournament venue, most notably as a regular host of the Michigan Amateur—39 times in all. Watson’s layout, at 6,713 yards with fast fescue fairways, isn’t long by modern standards. The greatest examination comes around the greens, which are generally small and full of subtle, undulations, ridges and slopes that fall off to chipping areas.
In 2003 the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) brought the Amateur back to Belvedere, along with dozens of past champions and finalists. Almost to a man, they recalled the event as their favorite week of the year, thanks to the classic course and the charms of “Charlevoix the Beautiful,” with its petunia-lined streets and downtown drawbridge, which offers passage from Lake Michigan onto tiny Round Lake and, farther on, 56-mile-long Lake Charlevoix.
Like Michigan’s leading amateur competitors, Charlevoix summer residents look forward to returning year after year, to escape the heat of St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati and Nashville. Vacation homes and club memberships remain in families for generations.
One frequent summer guest was Tom Watson, who grew up vacationing with his family at nearby Walloon Lake. “I love that country up there,” says the five-time British Open champion. “We’d go for two weeks, then three and then a month. I went up every summer through college.” An honorary member, Watson still shows up nearly every summer.Of Belvedere’s “18 honest holes,” as Braun describes the layout, Watson singles out the 16th, calling it “one of the best short par 4s in golf.” This seductive 346-yarder is driveable, with a ridge along the left that kicks well-struck tee balls toward a long, narrow plateau green. But the delicate putting surface slopes hard from left to right and funnels careless putts down to a fall-off area that’s difficult to recover from.
No. 16 is part of a strong closing sequence that begins with the 465-yard 15th, a reachable par 5 swinging 90 degrees from an elevated fairway to a second fairway and landing area 20 feet below. No. 17 is an uphill par 3 to a green notched into a hillside. The routing concludes with a 431-yard par 4 guarded by the highway on the right and a large maple on the left.
“It’s just a fun old golf course and a simple, unpretentious club,” Braun says. Following the 2003 Michigan Amateur, GAM executive director David Graham said, “It really provides all the traditional elements of a great golf course. I think there’s no question the Amateur will return to Belvedere.”
No doubt so will the legions of devotees who have been captivated by this charming club over the years.
Year founded: 1925
Architect: William Watson