Treetops really is the tops

Five unique courses – each a delight

By Paul Knowles

The two guys at the golf tournament looked at me with pure, unadulterated envy in their eyes. “You’re going to play Treetops?” they exclaimed! “Man, we played there once, and can’t wait to go back.” And they then launched into a litany of praise and wonder that only a golfer would appreciate.
And, it turns out, they were right.
Along with three buddies, I spent three days and two nights at Treetops; we managed to play four of the five superb courses at the resort. And we, too, have become converts, eager to return.
Treetops Resort is located in Gaylord, Michigan. It’s one of several golf resorts in this area often described as a mecca for golfers, but one of the members our foursome has played in the area before, and he now ranks Treetops at the top of that local list.
We drove from southern Ontario, leaving early to allow for 18 afternoon-early evening holes. We then played two 18’s the following day, and finished up with an early-morning nine on the legendary Par 3 “Threetops” course.
Our initial 18 was by far the toughest Treetops course – the original course at the resort, the Masterpiece, Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s  final design. Barry Owens has been General Manager of Treetops for about four years; he acknowledges that the Masterpiece is a tough course: “The owner here at the time told RTJ Sr., ‘I want the toughest course in Michigan’ – that was back in the 80’s when hard was good – and he gave him what he wanted.”
Jones’ Masterpiece is indeed very challenging – an stunningly beautiful. It is laid out amid an astonishing landscape of valleys, ravines (sheer drops abutting the fairways), and plains, takes full advantage of water (including a unique island tee on the 9th) and is rife with sand traps. The signature hole of the entire Treetops enterprise is the Par 3 Number 6, featuring a vertical drop of 120 feet, tee to green.
Owens says the the original owner of Treetops, the late Harry Melling (he who demanded that this be the hardest course in the state), was standing on the 6th tee with designer Jones during the development process, when Jones said, “That’s what you should call this place – ‘Treetops’ – because that’s all you can see from up here.” And Treetops it became.
Hole 1 on the Masterpiece is a Par 5, 524 from the blacks, 430 from the whites, and it will introduce you to everything great and hated about the Masterpiece course – and Treetops in general. There is water in play,two fairway bunkers (one on either side, to be fair), and more water and bunkers guarding the green. Welcome to Treetops.
We wondered if we were crazy to tackle the Masterpiece as our introduction to the resort, but considering our schedule – two 18s on the next day – it was the smart thing to do. Play the Masterpiece, absolutely, but I wouldn’t recommend coupling it with a second 18. You'll need well-refreshed recovery time.
The other four courses are a short drive from the resort itself, all centred on an excellent club house with a nice casual restaurant. There are three restaurants at the resort, itself – a sports bar, a casual diner, and, on weekends, a fine dining establishment. Gaylord also offers several good places to eat, only minutes away. You won’t starve or go thirsty – if your golfing schedule leaves you time to eat and drink!
We played the two Rick Smith-designed 18s on our 36-hole day. The one course we didn’t visit was the Premier, the only golf course in Michigan designed by Tom Fazio. Next time!
We started our day on Smith’s “Tradition” course.  It varies from all the other courses by having fewer dramatic changes in elevations; in fact, it’s the only course designed to be “walkable”. Smith also incorporated many elements of links style courses to produce a unique course. What Tradition does have in common with the other Treetops courses is sand – plenty of bunkers, and well protected greens. Some among us believe the bunkers are equipped with ball magnets; what is clearly factual is that the Treetops sand traps have wonderful, light, loose sand that, when the ball is descending from the elevations common on the course, bury the ball to its very tip. Taking two to escape a hard-struck trap is not rare.
Personally, I played my lowest-scoring game of the weekend on Tradition, including a very satisfactory front nine. That may say more about my fluctuating skill level than about the course, however.
And let’s be clear – these are all amazing courses. Tradition has received four and a half stars from Golf Digest;  Masterpiece was named among the Top 121 Golf Resorts in the World by Condé Nast Traveler; Signature made the “Top 100 Resort Course” list of Golfweek; and Threetops is the number one Par 3 course in the USA.
The afternoon saw us tee off at Signature, also designed by Rick Smith (one of either owners at Treetops, and a course design colleague of Phil Mickelson). Barry Owens points out that Signature is all about changes in elevation. And the design is beyond clever: “On the Rick Smith Signature, of the 18 holes – there are only two that are uphill. When you’re done, you drive back to the tee box. Even the ones that are uphill are very subtle, and you don’t realize it until you’re 15 yards short.”
It’s true, and this design feature means that virtually every tee shot is into a breath-taking view.
That view, inevitably, includes a lot of sand. A quick tally from the scorecard map suggests there are over 130 bunkers on the Signature – including some sneaky little pot bunkers that are dotted about some of the holes. Between the four of us, we may have visited the majority of the traps. It’s a good thing we are all so adept at extricating ourselves from the sand.
Our final morning at Treetops saw a 7:45 tee time on the Par 3 course, “Threetops”. After the previous three 18s, this was going to be a piece of cake. Or… not so much. Threetops takes all of the challenges of Treetops – immense changes in elevation, woodland, sand, water – and compresses them into nine short and very challenging holes.
This is where Mickleson won about $230,000 in a Par Three tournament; this is where Lee Trevino won over a million for a hole in one in Number 7 (he donated half of it to charity). Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Fred Couples have competed here.
It’s an astounding golfing experience, wildly challenging, every shot a risk-reward opportunity. All of the emotions of golf are compressed here, too – frustration, delight, and the realization there is no place you would rather be.
Owens told me that the concept of the Golf Channel helping to revive at Pro Par Three tournament is back in play. He says, “Rick Smith has had multiple conversations with the Golf Channel. There is a time in the calendar that works for us – just after the 4th of July. Improvements need to take place, and then we need to find somebody with three or four million bucks to sponsor it. Golf Channel is excited about it. We’re got to get some things straightened out here. Hopefully we’ll put some shovels in the ground next year.”
Having the pros on site can make so much difference for the fans of a place like Treetops. Owens shared one of his favourite stories: “One year the par three was here and Arnold Palmer played in it. The parking lot was packed. We’re shuttling people. Arnie ends up parking way in the back. The shuttle has two staff on it, it’s full, there are no seats left. So the kid that’s in the passenger seat hops off and says, ‘Hey Mr. Palmer, you hop on here and I’ll hoof it back.’ Arnie looks at him and says, ‘Why don’t we just both walk up and talk.’”
Owens was recruited to head up Treetops four years ago, after working for 23 years at a rival resort in the Gaylord area. After the tough times the resort went through during the economic down times around 2008, he faced a number of challenges.
He’s met a lot of them, already. Attendance has increased dramatically, to the point where Treetops is now hosting an optimal number of rounds annual – about 96,000 last year, “kind of right where we want to be.”
The owners have invested $3 million in improving the courses and upgrading the fleet of golf carts, and now Treetops has just finished an infrastructure study. Next to come will be improvements to sidewalks, roadways, water systems, and lodging. The rooms are comfortable and roomy, but could probably use some sprucing-up, so a good place is just going to get better.
One element of Treetops that will need no improvement is customer service. From front desk at the resort to golf bag handlers, the service is superb. Owens has made that a focus from his first day – every staff member carries a card outlining customer service “non-negotiables” – and it has worked.
The Treetops experience is terrific. The welcome is warm, the courses are unique and spectacular, the scenery is astonishing, and the scores… well, did I mention that the scenery is astonishing?
​You’re gonna love it. We totally did.

Mystical Golf: three unique, marvellous golf courses… and a bargain, to boot!

​By Paul Knowles

 A travel journalist is supposed to bring an objective, unbiased eye to his experiences. So when I arrived at the first of the three Mystical Golf courses we were going to play in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I was looking for the good and the bad.

The problem is, there is plenty of good, and almost nothing from the other category.

We all know that Myrtle Beach is considered a popular but down-scale destination.

But the only thing downscale about the three Mystical golf courses is the cost for a buddy trip. It’s very inexpensive. More detail about that later.

The golf at the three courses – The Wizard, the Witch and Man O’ War – is superb. That’s high praise, but entirely deserved. If friends have told you that golf in Myrtle Beach is mediocre, or uninspiring – well, they clearly haven’t played these courses.

These are golf courses designed for golfers. The layouts are visionary. The clubhouses are just what you need – a place for a quick lunch, a beer, a bathroom break, or some course-specific shopping. The clubhouses are whimsical – each themed to its particular course (a wizard’s castle, a witch’s house, and a fishing shack built right over the water at Man O’ War), but the investment has primarily gone into the courses, themselves. That’s as it should be.

There are no weddings or receptions here – owner Claude Pardue is adamant that his business is “golf”, and nothing but the golf. He claims to have set out to create the ultimate golf experience, building three entirely unique courses, each completely unlike the others. You’re skeptical, of course – until you play them. As you play, you tend to wonder if Pardue is a golfing genius. By the time you have holed out on the 18th of the third course, you have stopped wondering.

Our first round was on The Wizard. Unless you have been welled prepped in advance, this course is going to be a huge surprise – because it is a links style course, the kind of golf experienced in Scotland.

All three courses were designed by golf course architect Dan Maples, although it’s pretty clear that Pardue knew what he wanted before any plans were drawn. He had searched for years for the right locations for his three courses – and his patience certainly produced results.

At The Wizard, Maples and Pardue have created an authentic links course, a layout that should upset the expectations of anyone with a preconceived notion of golf in South Carolina. There are hills covered with shrubs, tall grasses, and dense plantings of gorgeous “knock-out” roses that bloom for half the year.

There is water – let me tell you about the water. Pardue located The Wizard and its neighbor, Man O’ War, on a site with no lakes or rivers – but he had identified a high water table. He describes the process of building the courses as akin to that of a sculptor beginning in a block of stone. The sculptor adds nothing – he or she simply takes away the unwanted stone.

That’s what Pardue and Maples did at these two courses – they dug out the land they didn’t want to create the hills on The Wizard, leaving behind behind pristine lakes and water features, now filled with water-loving birds, turtles, and fish. Water comes into play on 13 holes in The Wizard – mostly as streams bisecting a fairway, but on four holes – 1, 16, 17, and 18 – creating spectacular water features. Hole 17 is a par three with an island green; par four 18 is situated on two islands, from tee to green.

And despite all the water, it’s the rough and the hills that are the real challenge, because they border almost every hole. And – just as in Scotland – it’s not difficult to lose a ball. Or three.

But The Wizard is well worth the investment of a few golf balls. It’s an authentic, links-style experience (and no, for the purist, it does not run down to an ocean, but that matters not one bit.)

We then took on The Witch. It’s located a few miles from the other two courses – and the locale was one scouted by Pardue for several years before he settled on the 500 acres – yes, 500 – of environmentally protected land that surround the course. The 18 holes are carefully laid out on the  bits of land that weren’t so designated. Pardue is very proud that, although he was granted an exemption, allowing him to use a small portion of the protected land, he did no such thing. Everything protected stayed protected – and the 4,000 feet of wooden bridgework winding through the course attest to that.

And that is entirely evident has you play this purely magical course. It is unlike any course I have ever played – the fairways bordered by wetland, including open water well populated by ‘gators. Birdsong is everywhere. Gnarled trees are festooned with Spanish moss. You stay out of the woods, because lurking in those trees may be various snakes, as well as wild boar, deer and bears. Yes, bears. The pros assured us that if golfers leave them alone, and avoid their habitat, they return the favour. That held true, in our case.

The natural setting is used to wonderful effect in the design of the course – the wetlands, the woods and natural growth areas.

This is one golf course where, no matter how well – or badly – you play, your strongest memory will be of the course, itself.

Our third game was on Man O’ War. I mentioned that the hills and dunes of The Wizard were built from soil removed from another part of the property? Well, much of it came from the Man O’ War, as Pardue and Maples tapped the high water table to create a gorgeous course where water is in play on… wait for it… all 18 holes, including the ninth, which is entirely on an island, except for the three sets of back tees, the twelfth, with it’s daunting island green, and the fifteen, where you tee from one island to a green on another.

It’s a beautiful course, and surprisingly less difficult than any honest description will make it sound. It stretches over 6900 yards from the back tees; just over 5000 yards from the most forgiving.

Compared to the other two courses, Man O’ War was much more like many of the courses Canadians play – a parkland style. Except, where on most Canadian courses, there would be rough stretching away from the fairways, here, there’s a bit of rough, and then water, water, water.

If you struggle with your golf clubs, take out your camera for a few minutes, and celebrate the beauty of the course. That’ll calm you down, and you’ll be ready for yet another water challenge.

There are many fine golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area – and more than enough poorer ones. I promise you will have trouble finding three finer, more challenging, more creative, and utterly unique courses, anywhere. And as mentioned above, the price is definitely right.  In fact, Golf Magazine named Mystical “Best Bargain” and “Best Value in America,” even while Golf Digest was awarding the three courses ratings ranging from 4 to 4 ½.

Costs change throughout the seasons, but it’s always a bargain. For instance, one package includes three days, three nights accommodation at the Mystical Resort Golf Villas (where four golfers share a three-bedroom condo with four beds), with three rounds of golf (one on each course) with cart, lunch and two free beers with each round, range balls, free breakfast each day, one free steak dinner, and an extra complimentary round of golf. All of $267US per person.

According to my calculator – that’s a ridiculously good price. To play – did I mention this? – three of the finest and most interesting courses anywhere.

For Mystical Golf information:, 843.282.2977.
Getting There
The Witch, Man-O-War and The Wizard are in the heart of Myrtle Beach and within 15 minutes of Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR), beaches, accommodations, restaurants and other attractions. A short distance from I-95 and other major thoroughfares, Mystical Golf courses are easily accessible.  More than two dozen cities – including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York and Washington – offer direct flights. 

History, creativity and quality

All the reasons to get away to Ireland's Mount Juliet

By Paul Knowles

Perhaps we can call it the “St. Andrews Syndrome”. But however we might label the impact, there is no doubt that the chance to play a course that has also been played by the greats of golf has enormous appeal.

​In truth, as you sit in the President’s Bar after playing 18 at Mount Juliet, the very fact that there is a plaque beside your table bearing the names Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods ­– all of whom have won tournaments here – makes your efforts seem better by the moment. The pints don’t hurt, either.

Mount Juliet certainly has a significant golfing tradition going for it, even though it only opened in 1991. It may not be venerable, but it’s certainly wonderful. A lot of that is due to its legendary designer – Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear himself, who also played the course at the officially opening, paired with Christy O’Connor Sr.

Mount Juliet, at Thomastown in County Kilkenny, was Nicklaus’ first effort at course design in Ireland – and he did it well. In fact, it is often called the best parkland golf course in the country – and not only by PR people representing Mount Juliet. It’s been praised by obvious experts in the field, including Padraig Harrington, who pointed to the “tremendous layout… one of the best conditioned courses in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland,” and Tiger Woods, who lauded the “perfect fairways… and the best greens we have putted all year.”

So playing Mount Juliet places you in the footsteps of golfing greatness. But history aside, it’s a terrific golf course, challenging but playable, a Par 72 (73 from the red, or ladies’, tees), with five tee options, ranging from 7,264 yards from the blues to 5554 yards from the reds. The course, overall, is pristine – well cared for, in great shape, a pleasure to play, even when your next shot is anything but pleasurable. 

Nicklaus proved his mastery at design by incorporating a lot of water, contoured greens, and about one Sahara-full of bunkers. Water figures prominently on many holes, with small lakes guarding greens, and lakes, ponds and rills bordering or criss-crossing fairways. And unlike many courses, where water hazards are eye-pleasing but often not germane to success, at Mount Juliet, they always seem to be in play.

Almost every green in guarded by one or, more usually, several bunkers. At some point as you traverse Mount Juliet, your sand wedge – and whatever club you use to escape a fairway bunker (I like a hybrid)– is going to come into play.

A reasonable supply of local knowledge will certainly help shave a few strokes off your score. That’s especially true because the scorecard gives you maps of the greens and pin positions for the door, but no layout of the whole course. So do a bit of homework, and ask the advice of the experts in the pro shop. Or, go the whole way and hire a caddie.

In our case, had we but known, it would have been wiser – although less adventurous – to play the Par 5 10th down the left side of the fairway, where it splits around trees. Playing the right, however, gave me the chance to experience – and successfully escape – the minefield of sand traps that Nicklaus constructed around the green. It’s as thought he had nightmares of crawling through the Gobi Desert the night before be concocted #10. You keep expecting to encounter a camel.

You get a taste of what lies before you from the very first hole. The Par 4 first begins with a tee shot over a stream that should not even be in play – unless you are an amateur golfer playing the course for the first time, and a bit awestruck by your surroundings. Then, all bets are off.

The tree-lined fairway is bordered by fairway bunkers; the green is protected by three more sand traps; and the back of the green is raised. It’s not the toughest hole on the course, by any means, but it does
offer an experiential menu of what is to come.

Mount Juliet fans always point to the 182-yard, Par 3 third hole, with its elevated tee and green protected by a stream and a lake. Precision is essential, here – and it is easy to be distracted because it is just so darned beautiful. Precision will help a lot all the way around the course, and you might be wise to choose clubs that promote accuracy over length, because going astray may involve trees, sand or, too often, snorkeling.

The Par 4, thirteenth hole also features a green fronted by a lake. The hole measures 433 yards (385 from green and yellow tees), so your second shot is risky, and local knowledge suggests moving up one club. We know that, now…

In truth, almost every hole is memorable, and all are in very fine condition.

We lamented and rejoiced in the way of all golfers over a well-served pint or two and a sandwich in the President’s Bar, a perfect end to an imperfect game.

Mont Juliet hosted the Irish Open, 1993-1995; the Shell Wonderful World of Golf (1998), and the WGC American Express Championship in 2002 and 2004.

Today, it hosts golfers who appreciate the quality, the creativity, and the challenge of this championship course.

And speaking of quality and creativity, golfers who take the opportunity buy a golfing package at this amazing country estate hotel will enjoy every aspect of Mount Juliet, from luxurious bedroom suites to rare brands of Irish whisky inthe very comfortable bar at the end of the day. It matches its course as one of
the finest places to stay in the country. For more on this, visit

From top, Man O' War, The Wizard and The Witch