Island Resort & Casino From Sweet To Sage
By E. Nolan
Bucket List Golf has exploded across the Midwest the past few years, with Wisconsin and Michigan leading the way. Who exactly is winning the development battle between Wisconsin and Michigan? Well, that answer might not be so black and white, thanks to the emergence… rather the “resurgence”… of a quiet golf giant in the Upper Peninsula in a setting that is technically in Michigan, but geographically just north of Wisconsin. So, the nod would have to go to… BOTH, because the true winner is the Midwest golfer that can drive to Island Resort and Casino from Michigan, anywhere in Wisconsin, and even from Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa easily in a day.
Island Resort & Casino in Harris, Michigan doesn’t just have a BRAND NEW course at Sage Run (opening in full this Spring), and it doesn’t just have another course that’s an annual contender for “Best in State” at Sweetgrass. Through their “Perfect 4-Some Golf Package” they offer golfers Stay & Play access to a 3rd and a 4th championship course. And to the vacationer…to the gambler, thrill-and-spa-seekers… they offer even more. But the real focus right now should be on the $8 million expansion of the resort – specifically the NEW golf course, Sage Run, a Paul Albanese creation many of you may have never heard of. And do you know why that golf course merits your undivided attention and travel calendar reservation? What in particular makes it so unique to Wisconsin and the Midwest that you have to see it to really believe it? The drumlin.
Sage Run was built on a drumlin. Not a drumstick. Not a gremlin. Not a synchronized line of drummers – that’s a drumline. The drumlin is a remarkable land formation – an elongated hill shaped like an inverted spoon, formed by glacial movement across moraines and taken from the Irish word droimnin. This geological marvel, and one of the most famous courses in all of the world, inspired Paul Albanese to build a “rough around the edges” rollercoaster in Michigan’s U.P.
Drumlins come in all shapes and sizes, and finding a drumlin like this up here… well, some would equate it to finding a massive bed of sand in a northern Midwest state – a veritable jackpot for golf architects. And design talents like Paul Albanese, when presented with a piece of land like this, just shake their head, thank their lucky stars and get to work.
Before I tell you all about the brand new Sage Run course, let me tell you more about its host. Island Resort & Casino sits just outside the lovely little Lake Michigan town of Escanaba. With over 300 guest rooms, some pretty stellar suites and a 42-site RV Park, the resort doubles as one of the Midwest’s premier gaming establishments. Featuring 6 delicious dining options (including 5 Bridges Steak and Seafood House, 5 Bridges Pub, Firekeepers Restaurant, T. McC’s Sports Bar and more), infinite slot machines, a poker room, an ice cream shop, a bakery, a 1,300+ seat showroom, convention center, and convenient location, the Hannahville Indian Community has come a LONG way in the past 11 years – with award-winning golf as its centerpiece.
11 years ago, the Tribal Chairman and resort General Manager brought Paul Albanese on to build and open their first course – Sweetgrass Golf Club. Sweetgrass turned out to be lightning in a bottle, a relatively remote course that garnered crazy attention across the Midwest. People came from all over and the acclaim rained down on the resort as Sweetgrass raced up the regional charts. And then we got distracted. Time to refocus.
It had to be somewhat amusing and bewildering to the Hannahville Indian Community and Tribal Chairman Ken Meshigaud. I imagine him sitting down with Resort General Manager Tony Mancilla and saying, “What can we do to reward the loyal customer base while at the same time really shake up the golf world?” And, after some head scratching, I can see one of them saying, “Well, you know…we do have that drumlin.”
That’s right. They have that drumlin. Paul Albanese was the mastermind behind the resort’s original creation – Sweetgrass. Packed with plenty of fun and drama, including two nine-hole closers at 9 and 18 that chase up the hill alongside waterfalls to a magnificent shared green, the course itself features two distinctly different nines. It’s easy to see why so many fell in love with the original. But it’s just as easy, if not easier, to see why so many will love Sage Run even more. Paul Albanese was brought back to build Sage Run and when it opens for full play in May of 2019 it will blow plenty of minds.
The most distinguishing comparison between the two courses is how very different they are for how close they are to each other. You don’t get 30-mile views at Sweetgrass – maybe a mile from the hill behind the 18th green. You get 30-mile views from the top of the drumlin at Sage Run. General Manager Tony Mancilla couldn’t be more thrilled of the end result. “Sage Run is exactly what we wanted, something different from the other courses in the region. It was inspired by a trip Paul and I took to Royal County Down.” Having stood atop the hill on #9 at Royal County Down (last year) and atop the drumlin at Sage Run (the year before) I can certainly see the inspiration. What Paul pulled off here is a sight to be seen for sure.
Golf holes meander on, off, up, down and around the drumlin, offering a variety of odd and even lies throughout, providing plenty of thrilling shots to golfers. “Golfers will experience great holes through the trees, some in open areas, and just a lot of variety in terms of landscape and feel,” Paul says. “It has a very rough and tumble feel to it.” To put it mildly.
The name Sage Run pays tribute to one of the Potawatomi tribe’s four traditional medicines, and the course is merely one component of a massive $8 million splurge by Island Resort, paired with the addition of a full-service spa, a bingo hall renovation and a brand new sports bar. “Both courses will now host championship caliber golf,” Tony Mancilla adds, “with the annual Symetra Tour event (June 21-23) and a new college event coming to Sage Run in the fall.”
“Paul Albanese is an architect who lets the land dictate what the course will be,” Mancilla continues. “Sweetgrass has been everything we hoped it would be and Sage Run is 180 degrees in contrast – 75 percent of it through trees, dramatically running up and down with great long holes going down and great short holes going up; they’re so different.”
Island Resort & Casino is only a 3.5 hour drive north of Milwaukee and a 5.5 hour drive from the Twin Cities. (I’ve done the round trip twice.) They offer many different Stay & Play packages, loaded with golf value, particularly when you take advantage of their “Perfect 4-Some” that gives you rounds at Sweetgrass, Sage Run, Timberstone AND Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club. It’s to your benefit to make the trip up, and even more to your benefit to stay as long as you can and play as much golf as you can handle. Don’t get so distracted by all the other great golf in the area that you miss this remarkable getaway destination – a place that started Sweet 11 years ago, and has only gotten sweeter since.