Simple pleasures and fond memories lie at the heart of one of American golf’s great Northern outposts

From LINKS – The Best Of Golf, September/October 2005

Wheel into the parking lot of Belvedere Golf Club and you know right away, this place is not into pretense or status. The club’s modest white-clapboard clubhouse sits at the far end of the lot, overlooking tree-lined fairways. At the other end is a compact pro shop, the squeak of its screen door announcing the arrival of every member and visitor. The only cart paths on the property are narrow strips of asphalt that run parallel to teeing areas, and riding is neither mandatory nor necessary — many players choose to walk, their longest hole-to-hole trip being the one from No. 9 green across a highway to No. 10 tee.

“People come here for the first time and ask, ‘Do you have a GPS system?'” says Dennis Joy, Belvedere’s assistant pro. “I tell them, ‘We don’t even have a yardage book.’ You just go out there, get a number off a sprinkler head and hit it.”

Hit it, find it and hit it again — that’s what Belvedere is about. 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, one of 39 times the event has been staged there. Braun, the club’s head professional since 1997, says he “absolutely fell in love with the whole area, including the golf course. I knew I wanted to live here one day.”

Belvedere’s story begins in 1925, when members of the Charlevoix Summer Resort Association, a neighborhood of lakeside vacation cottages, decided their existing social club need a golf component. For the design job, they called on Scotsman Willie Watson, who was working across town as head pro of the Chicago Club (then an 18-holer, still open today as a nine-hole muni). Though Watson was only a part-time course architect, his resume included Minneapolis’ Interlachen and San Francisco’s Olympic Club and Harding Park. 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.

Officially opened in 1927, the course soon became a respected tournament venue, most notably as a regular host of the Michigan Amateur. Chuck Kocsis, who would become a three-time Walker Cup player, won his first of three Amateurs at Belvedere (among six overall) in 1930. Future tour players Dan Pohl (1975 and ’77) and John Morse (1979) also won Amateurs at BGC, and Tommy Armour and Walter Hagen battled one another in the 1934 Great Lakes Open here.

Watson’s layout, at 6,713 back-tee yards with fast fescue fairways, isn’t long by modern-day standards. The greatest examination comes around the greens, which are generally smallish and full of subtle, Pinehurst-like undulations, ridges and slopes that fall off to shaved-down chipping areas. A variety of mature hardwoods and evergreens gives Belvedere a tranquil, park-like atmosphere, but the holes never feel claustrophobic. The only residence on the course sits next to the par-4 seventh hole and is occupied by hardworking superintendent Rick Grunch.

“It’s a very peaceful-feeling golf course,” says Braun. “It’s not so difficult that Aunt Tilly can’t play it, but if we get the rough up and the greens fast, it’s all players can handle in the Michigan Amateur.”

Beginning in 1963, Belvedere hosted the Amateur for 26 consecutive years. In 2003 the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) brought the Amateur back to BGC, 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 golf 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.

“When [the Amateur] was at Belvedere it was really special,” four-time champion Pete Green wrote in the 2003 tournament’s commemorative program. “Coming to the same beautiful area where each year new experiences were discovered, going out to dinner at area restaurants and bumping into other players and their families, having townspeople come out in large numbers to watch, playing this wonderful course with its small, undulating greens. It was just a week my family and I looked forward to.”

Adds Braun, who finished runner-up to Green in the 1979 Amateur: “You didn’t go home as soon as you were knocked out [of match play], and that made the event special. Players brought their families and stayed at the same cottages year after year, forming friendships that have lasted for decades. I’ve met so many nice people over the years, and that’s been the most special thing about the place.”

And long-time Michigan golf writer Jack Berry put it this way: “Belvedere had a cachet like Pebble Beach, home of the California Amateur. Each June Belvedere was Michigan’s golf capital.”

The course, says Braun, is ideal for a match-play event like the Amateur because its short-game challenges level the playing field. “It’s a great match-play course, especially when it’s playing firm and fast,” he says. “We’ll get some of those areas aroung the greens mowed down so it gets a little brown — and brown is good — and it gives the guys who aren’t so long a chance to win a few holes with their short games and frustrate the long hitters. Match play is a lot of fun on this golf course when it gets quick.”

Like Michigan’s leading amateur competitors, Charlevoix summer residents look forward to returning year after year, heading north to escape the heat of Midwestern and Southern locales such as St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati and Nashville. Vacation homes and club memberships remain in families for generations. Braun recalls one member who played nearly every day when he was 100. Joy, 35, grew up in Charlevoix and played Belvedere often as a youth; now he serves as pro to children of members he looked up to in those days. “I know them all by name, and most of their families, too,” he says.

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 of BGC, Watson still shows up for a round nearly every summer, playing alone and reliving those days of youth.

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 the 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 secong 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 Amateur Championship at Belvedere, GAM executive director David Graham called Belvedere “extraordinary,” telling the Petoskey News, “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.