It would be hard to find a community claiming to love golf more than tiny Port Austin at the very northern tip of Michigan’s “Thumb.”
After all, it was the local Monday night men’s golf league that put the words ‘for the love of the game’ into full-blown action.
Their access to golf only once a week on the local 9-hole private course just didn’t sit well.
“A group of guys got together drinking beer one night and just said, ‘what the heck can we do, can we build our own course?’” said then ringleader and U.S. Navy veteran Paul Heinrich, now age 76.
That was in the late 1980s.
By the summer of 1990, Bird Creek Golf Club opened to the public as an enjoyable, attractive and playable 18-hole layout designed by Bruce Matthews III.
But it wasn’t easy.
Everyone pitched in.
The huge undertaking truly became a rallying point for people to add fun and value to their community. It still is today, making golf yet another recreational attraction for vacationers to the Thumb with an excellent marina, kayaking, hiking, two historic lighthouses, gorgeous Lake Huron shoreline and more activities – providing a unique experience of Michigan’s natural resources without the longer drive Up North.
“It’s one of the most memorable projects I’ve ever been involved in,” Matthews said recently. “You had this group of volunteers that stuck it out for two-and-a-half years, building their own course.
“When I first heard the idea I said this wasn’t going to happen – it won’t get done. But every time I hit the site there were 10 volunteers around me asking, ‘what do we do next? We’re ready, let’s go.’ It really was fun and I still smile today when I think about it.
“They all got it done when nobody thought they could. Everyone was just go, go, go, and they went, went, went,” Matthews said with a chuckle.
Heinrich expressed a similar sentiment.
“This place had an unbelievable amount of turnout from the public, people who bought into it and wanted a golf course, then stuck around and made sure we had one,” he said. “Anybody that didn’t have anything to do in the evenings went to the golf course and worked. I think it was the friendship of the people that made it happen.”
Friendship, desire, drive, determination – and beer for the weary workers.
“People who were older and couldn’t work with us would bring us a case of beer and after we were done working we’d sit around and drink it,” Heinrich said. “It really was a working party.”
Shares to Bird Creek Golf Club were sold at $2,000 each, limit one per family. In all, Heinrich said the shares sold and some borrowed funds covered the roughly $700,000 in costs for materials and a couple paid professionals who guided the throng of volunteers.
Playing Bird Creek:
Bird Creek itself is the main natural water feature that winds throughout the entire property and Matthews used it as the backbone for the overall design. The creek fronts both the 9th and 18th greens as a visual aid and hazard to cross safely to reach the respective putting surfaces. Bird Creek additionally comes directly into play on Holes 4, 7 and 8 on the front nine, plus Holes 14, 15 and 17 on the back, for a total of eight times crossing the watershed.
Five ponds add beauty and challenge on additional holes throughout the layout. At least four holes on the course require strategy off the tee for golfers to decide to lay up or try blasting over water hazards.
The surrounding land has a nice, gentle flow to it where fingers of low areas drain water toward the creek. The rolling topography on course gives contrast to the flat farmers’ fields further away from the creek.
Matthews designed subtle shaping along the edge of many fairways, but it’s not overdone. Green complexes are straightforward and challenging, with moderately undulating putting surfaces, while avoiding any golf design curse of being tricked up.
The most interesting holes to me are:
- 6 with its two ponds angled to fit the dogleg shape approach to navigate reaching the green in regulation.
- 8, a dogleg right par 4 that allows the big hitters to try clearing the trees and driving the hidden green.
- 17 as it goes along the creek off the tee before turning left to reach the green on the dogleg par 4.
- 18, a tough closing hole. The par 5 requires two nice hits to still be short of the creek before popping over it to the green.
The surrounding countryside is loaded with DTE Energy wind farms, so that’s an in-your-face clue that wind speed and direction, coming off Lake Huron or Saginaw Bay, can have a huge effect on play and course strategy. Thousands of trees on the property add beauty and some wind protection but there is a reason all those modernized windmills are located in the Thumb.
Bird Creek Golf Club is located on Van Dyke Road just south of Port Austin and the Lake Huron shoreline – the same Van Dyke Road that begins in Detroit.
It’s a drive north well-worth exploring.