Come to the Sault Ste. Marie area for the locks, stay for the links
A glacially slow-moving bulk carrier with thousands of tons of iron ore in its hold is making the passage from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. To hop between the Great Lakes hopping, big ships often pass through the Soo Locks – an engineering and marine traffic marvel which fills or up and drains more than 10,000 times a year to allow big daddy freighters to pass on through.
Cameras click away as the Algolake, a 40-year-old self-unloading bulk carrier built by Collingwood Shipyards, uses its 1,000-horsepower bow thruster to get into position to enter the Soo Locks
The lock-lookers are out in force. Some boat nerds are even armed with binoculars to spy on every little detail aboard this seafaring behemoth, which spans the length of two football fields. The glass double decker observation deck sees plenty of action all day long, and the arrival of incoming ships is announced in the adjacent Locks Visitor Center.
While many visit the Michigan side of the Soo just to gawk at giant ships – and I did my fair share too – I also came to also partake in the region’s other outsized obsession: golf. The U.S. side of the Sault Ste. Marie area boasts a few excellent courses, and they offer quirk and laid-back charm that you won’t find as easily in more famous golf destinations. Here are a few favourites.
Mike Dojc / Billy
The Soo Locks
These days it’s rare you get the opportunity to rehash your round with the course owner in the pro shop or quibble about a tree you’d like to see shorn of a few branches to improve your score the next time out.
But you can do just that at Tanglewood Marsh. Owner/manager Scott Shackelton’s father-in-law built the course in 1994, and Shackelton took it over from him 12 years ago. He jovially greets golfers right as they come in the clubhouse and is more than happy to hear their feedback.
“The people who golf here are friendly and laid-back, and the people that work here are too,” Shackelton says. “There are a lot of golf courses who act like they’re doing you a favour letting you play. We don’t look at it that way. We understand that you’re the customer and we’re glad you decided to come play. It’s a different mentality that you get from a small, family-owned business.”
As for the friendliness of the course itself, Tanglewood Marsh is a short 5,181-yarder track with its namesake marsh coming into play right from the first tee. It proceeds to play a starring role, giving golfers plenty of pause-worthy risk/reward conundrums.
Often the smartest decision is to lay up to the marsh rather than trying to muster the He-Man swing you’ll need to clear the forced carries. There’s water to some extent on 11 of the 18 holes, and if you find your score running up a little on the front nine (the blind doglegs on No. 3 and No. 6 can cause some difficulties), breathe easy: The course softens up considerably on the back.
“A lot of golf courses act like they’re doing you a favour letting you play. We don’t look at it that way.”
“We’re not the longest course but it’s a course,” Shackleton says. “A lot of people really enjoy it because you need to place your ball, and do some course management. It’s not a grip it and rip it course.”
Mike Dojc / Billy
Tanglewood is a fine-looking course
You’ll notice the wood-etched ace wall in the clubhouse is quite lengthy for a course of its age, but that’s because there are a couple short par-threes on the back that are highly flushable. (I had to shoot a second ball on each of these despite landing just a couple feet from the hole on my first attempts.)
Sault Country Club
The century-old Sault Ste. Marie Country Club is another local mom-and-pop golf course. It had gone downhill in recent years until Fred Benoit, a Soo restaurateur, who had retired to Florida, returned home and stepped up to the plate paying $450,000 in cash to rescue it from receivership.
Fred and his wife Linda, both former longtime members, spiffed up the course, bought all new carts and markedly transformed the clubhouse’s previously humdrum culinary offerings (the Grill Room 1901 serves the tastiest whitefish in town).
Situated right downtown, just under three miles from the Soo locks, you can see freighters making their way down the St. Mary’s river on a couple of holes. Watching massive boats while trying to make birdies is cool, though the odd wail of a foghorn can be disconcerting midway through your takeaway.
In all, this is a highly walkable, well-maintained course – and keep an eye out for apple trees. (My playing partner thwacked one with his nine-iron to knock down some healthful mid-round nourishment.)
Mike Dojc / Billy
Grabbing a quick snack at the Sault Country Club
Wild Bluff and The Rock
Another port of call is Bay Mills Resort & Casinos’ Wild Bluff, on the banks of Waiska Bay. Raising the ante on the gaming vibe, the practice facility sports a pair of putting greens, a chipping green, and a double-tee driving range with targets in the shape of playing card suits. Dice for tee box markers continues the theme out on the course.
The 7,022-yard Mike Husby design is a fun but challenging resort course with very few straight-up-and-straight-ahead holes. The key to scoring well at Wild Bluff is you gotta know when to place’em. If you have trouble reading a hole – which can be the case on a couple dog-legged ones – landing in the elbow will keep you in great shape, generally speaking. The big visual jackpots are a pair of steep and scenic tee-to-green doozies that plunge 100 feet on the back nine’s closing stanza.
Mike Dojc / Billy
Teeing off at Wild Bluff
Finally, it’s well worth adding an extra day to your itinerary to play Drummond Island Resort’s The Rock. Drive aboard the ferry from DeTour Village (an hour’s drive from Sault St. Marie). It makes hourly crossings onto the island, which Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan put on the map in the 1980s. It’s a huge course, prawling over 162 hectares (400 acres – the same size as Toronto’s High Park). The 1.9 kilometre (1.2-mile) drive from the clubhouse to the first tee gives you a sense of the massive scope. There’s hardwood framing each isolated fairway, and plenty of Bambi sightings to be had.