Transported by nine holes of preserved history at Wawashkamo
Words by Tom CoynePhotos by Christian Hafer
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The soft tones of my GPS sang to me: “You have arrived.” Three words that rang volumes of affirmation and hope, reminding me that I had planned well and that I wasn’t a wandering vagabond. It was daily proof of my sanity and sagacity, announced through car speakers. Destination. Arrival. Itinerary upheld. But I was supposed to be looking at a golf course. And this looked more like Lake Huron.
I had been growing suspicious of my app’s ability to find this first tee. The usual markers of an impending golf course—distant flags, service roads, receding homes and storefronts—were nowhere to be found. Instead, the street was getting busier with T-shirt shops and motels and seafood shacks until I was at the end of it, with my rental car pointed at a vast expanse of dark blue.
To my left, a long line of tourists in tank tops and sunglasses stood between ropes, waiting for something—and there it was, steaming toward us across the water: a ferry. I waved down a woman with a nametag who appeared to be directing traffic and called to her from my front seat.
“Wawa-what?” She could barely hear me as the ferry’s engines roared into reverse.
“Wawashkamo! The golf course!” I called.
The mention of golf seemed an easy excuse for her to disengage. She shook her head and turned away, pointing a colleague my way. His name was Jerry.
“I’m looking for the golf course. My GPS stopped here.”
Jerry smiled. “It’s on the island. You need to take the ferry.”
What a quaint wrinkle, I thought. I had not envisioned any ferry rides on this cross-country odyssey, but this would be a welcome addition to the narrative, a little time for reflection upon one of our Great Lakes as I golfed my way around all 50 states. I had ferried my car all over Scotland, where these island-hoppers had become my favorite conveyance.
“Where is the car line for the ferry?” I asked.
“It’s not a car ferry. There are no cars on the island. You have to drive back to the lot and park.”
What a shitty wrinkle, I thought. I had budgeted enough time for a quick nine holes around an obscure golf club that I knew nothing about other than it was at the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and nobody seemed to have heard of it. I had come for a quick golf curiosity. And now I was about to board a shuttle bus from a parking lot to a ferry port to a car-less island where somewhere there existed a golf course with a name I could not pronounce.
I bought a ticket and waited in line. I was the only one carrying golf clubs.
Michael Dousman’s farm on the northern end of Mackinac Island was no bucolic agrarian spread. His tract of Michigan forest was the site of battle and bloodshed, and its history is the stuff of treason and tribunals. Dousman came to this island in 1796 on the heels of American troops, who had been sent to claim their fort following the end of the Revolutionary War. But Dousman was a complicated character: Wealthy from the fur trade and savvy land purchases, he staked a controversial claim for his farm on land said to belong to Fort Mackinac, portraying him as a profiteer eager to sell the Army’s own timber back to them. Before the dispute could be settled, war was back underway in America; Dousman’s timber would become less controversial than the road he had cut through the island, a road on which I would later find myself wandering lost with golf clubs slung across my shoulders.
A crewman on the ferry had spotted my clubs and nodded as I boarded. “The course is just a five-minute walk up the road,” he assured me. “I play it once a week. You’ll love it.”
With my concerns about finding the course sans automobile alleviated, I left the ferry dock and headed up a hill—the island had the shape of a turtle’s back—and after a few minutes of dodging bicycles and horse-drawn taxis, I arrived at a pro shop and congratulated myself for having boarded that ship and set forth across unknown waters in search of a golf hole. But as I eyed the merchandise, nowhere did I find the name Wawashkamo. And I wasn’t coming this far and leaving without a hat.
“That’s the other course on the island,” the pro behind the counter told me. “Nine holes. You’re going the right way. It’s a few more miles up the road.”
Dousman built this road to make life easier for the island’s farmers, but as it was used also as a handy thruway for invading British soldiers, hindsight questions his motives. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Dousman had been sent to check on the intentions of British and Native American forces gathering off the coast of Mackinac. He was told an invasion was imminent, but when he failed to alert the U.S. soldiers on Mackinac, he was branded a conspirator. When the British won the fort and Dousman took to supplying their forces from his farm and recruiting locals for their army, his reputation did not improve, but some handy backpedaling after America eventually retook the island kept him out of the noose. Not only did he not go on trial for treason, but he added to his coffers and held on to the land that I was now crossing with a new set of Titleist irons on my back, thighs burning as I searched for the elusive peak of this turtle’s shell.
After a half-hour hiking Dousman’s road, past the cottages and stables and bike racks, through silent woods that opened into wide fields of waving grasses, I spied a white building hiding behind dark evergreens. I found a path between them, and then a small gathering of low buildings with worn roofs and white siding. I had either found the golf club or stumbled onto the base camp of a covert island cult. A statue of a golfer in knickers assured me of yet another arrival, and I opened the screen door beside him.
No racks of golf balls for sale. No computers behind a counter. But there was a short desk with a book of what might be tee times, upon which I dripped sweat as I looked for my name. Eventually a man with a moustache came through a doorway and introduced himself as Chuck Olson, the head pro. Then he told me they had been expecting me hours ago. Still sucking for air from the hike, I informed him that I had no idea that there was a ferry involved, or that I would be walking here. He saw the red in my face and had mercy.
“Yeah. It’s a little different up here,” Chuck said. “Well, you made it. Congratulations. You’ve found the toughest golf course in the world to find.”
Dousman’s land would pass to his son and then trade hands between local farmers until some Chicagoans who summered on Mackinac went searching for land suitable for this new craze from Scotland. They hired a Scotsman to design them a golf course on Dousman’s farm: Alex “Miss ’em Quick” Smith of Carnoustie, who came to America and won two U.S. Opens before settling into a prosperous life as a club professional. But first he came to Mackinac and sketched out nine holes of golf in 1898.
The head (and only) pro at Wawashkamo, Chuck told me the course remained unchanged from its original routing and distances, making it beloved by hickory players who swooned at the box of sand by the first tee, placed there for constructing tees of dirt as golf’s forefathers did. Hickories were available for rent, he explained, and the short yardages on the scorecard tempted me to grab a sack of old clubs from the Spartan locker room—just a few wooden doors with some nails on the wall in a dark room next door, with the same toilet Alex Smith may have used—but I couldn’t stomach the idea of hauling 14 clubs over on a boat, then leaving them beside the pro shop.
I had shown up on the afternoon of the club’s annual summer party, thus the concern about my late arrival. Chuck was dressed in jacket and tie, and was worried no one would be here to welcome me. “All the members will be over in the tent next door, so you should have the course to yourself,” he said. He gave me a hundred years’ worth of course history in 10 minutes and showed me around the unorthodox clubhouse; it had a small parlor with a piano and fireplace, a porch outside—much more house than club. Chuck lived in the small quarters on the other side of the bike rack. On car-less Mackinac, it was useful to live close to work. He handed me a copy of the club’s centennial book, Walk a Crooked Trail, for my research, and hurried off to the festivities. I wasn’t looking forward to carrying the book back to the docks, but I was glad for the chance to learn what “Wawashkamo” actually meant.
I headed for the tee, where the first remnant of the battle Chuck told me about awaited: a black cannon pointed toward the fairway, recalling the British soldiers who stood on this very ridge in the Battle of Mackinac Island, awaiting the American advance as the Yanks attempted to reclaim it. While the Americans would ultimately claim victory in the War of 1812, Mackinac was a decisive British victory, aided by local Native American forces. Chuck said that the remains of American soldiers killed by Menominee warriors were still on the course, buried in the rough between the fifth and sixth fairways.
I found a marker pointing to an approximate burial site and discovered plenty of other plaques as well. For a nine-hole course spread across just a handful of acres, Wawashkamo was bursting with intrigue. Flat land had been made interesting by cross-bunkering and, as the signs explained, chocolate drops and a circus ring. I had never heard of either on any golf-architecture podcast, but the chocolate drops were piles of rocks meant to serve as hazards; without equipment to move stones very far, they were left as mounds in the rough. And the circus ring made an otherwise short and sleepy par 4 into a treasure. A simple ring of knee-high grass encircled a small green, harkening back to, as the plaque explained, a time when lifting one’s ball off the ground presented golfers a unique challenge. I felt like I was playing through a museum, with appropriate signage to accompany the exhibits. As I played past storm shelters that looked like tiny New England churches, Chuck’s welcome took on new meaning: This wasn’t the hardest golf course to find in the world because of the ferry and the ban on motorized vehicles. I had golfed much of the planet, and I had never played a place like this. And that, for me, was the hardest golf course to find of them all.
The club’s history book explained how “Wawashkamo” came from a Chippewa phrase for “crooked trail,” which is how local Native Americans described the curiosity of watching golfers wander across the new golf holes at the turn of the last century. A local chief known as Eagle Eye was credited with giving the course its name when he described the golfers’ left-to-right wanderings as that of those who “walk a crooked path.” Had straighter hitters been playing Wawashkamo in its early days, I wonder what the course may have been christened.
The club’s records detailed how “Wawashkamo” had a deeper meaning for Native American speakers: This “crooked path” also referred to a maze that led one to war, and was a phrase found in a Chippewa battle song:
Direct me as I thread the maze, and lead me to the fight. In sacred dreams within my lodge, while resting on the land. Bright omens of success arise, and nerve my warlike hand. Where’er I turn, where’er I go, there is a whispering sound, That tells me I shall crush the foe, and drive him from my ground.
Eagle Eye and others no doubt knew the bloody legacy of the land on which the course was laid, so their naming of Wawashkamo characterized not just its wayward golfers, but the warriors who indeed once crushed the foe there. That history felt both immediate and distant at Wawashkamo, where a path of placards memorialized the Battle of Mackinac, but those whispering sounds were very far away. As Chuck told me, “You have to enjoy the quiet here, because that’s why you come. The islanders say that the island chooses you, or it kicks you off. Once you’re here for a little while, out here isolated at night in the quiet, you understand what they mean.”
The island had chosen Chuck, who had been the head pro at Wawashkamo for eight years, living in the cottage beside the pro shop during the golf season, then returning to a home in Traverse City on the mainland in the winter. He had a bike—everybody on Mackinac did—which he used for grocery runs, but the challenges of island life didn’t end with trying to figure out how you were going to fit all your groceries into a bike basket.
“Everything transportation-related on Mackinac has to be planned, and you have to understand that it isn’t going to happen instantaneously,” Chuck said. “Let’s say you need a new refrigerator. First it has to come across on a freight boat, and then transported onto the dock, and then lifted onto a flatbed trailer, and two horses will bring it up the hill. And then it has to be unloaded by two or three people. There aren’t any forklifts to do that kind of stuff; there’s one at the dock, but once you get it to your house, you have to drag it in, take out the other one yourself. So everything that has to do with transportation, the horse is king here. And it has been for over 100 years.” With more than 600 horses on the island in the summertime, operating taxis and hauling freight, they outnumber the island’s 500 or so year-round residents. Snowmobiles are permitted in the winter when roads are impassable for bikes, but more essential on Mackinac than a bicycle or stirrups was a good towel.
“To live here, you have to know that if you’re going out to a five-star restaurant for dinner and it rains, you get wet,” Chuck explained. “You’re on your bike, so all of a sudden, you end up at dinner soaking wet. People have towels and rain gear in their bags all the time. The weather is a big part of life out here, and you have to be able to handle that. And that brings a certain type of person who likes to live here. The people here love the peace of the place, the quiet. Sometimes you get wet, but it’s worth the time and energy to live in a place like this. I don’t think there are too many places left on Earth, or certainly in America, that are like Mackinac.”
The same goes for its golf course. Essentially untouched by any designers after Alex Smith, it is golf through a time capsule, where never once has a digger or bulldozer broken the soil, and they never will, given the island’s ban on engines. I have been told that a great golf course should fit seamlessly with its setting, settling into its surroundings versus disrupting them, and with that as a criterion, Wawashkamo’s simple nine holes are truly great ones. Not only do they lie naturally across Dousman’s farm, but they also embody the island’s entire ethos. “Wawashkamo has been preserved just like everything on the island. The bluff houses and all the Victorian homes—if someone from 1910 visited, they would find the place hasn’t changed very much,” Chuck told me. “It just looks like something that has been lost in time, because, basically, it has.”
As I crossed Wawashkamo’s fairways that afternoon, I wasn’t thinking about Michael Dousman, the hustler and collaborator, nor was I considering the soldiers who stood post here, who fought and died over there in the rough. I wasn’t recalling the Native Americans who called it home for centuries and gave the place its name. I was trying to keep my drive out of the chocolate drops, and get my ball over the circus ring with enough spin to settle close. But as I awaited my taxi back to the dock—they mercifully called a carriage for me, no slog down the road this time—I eyed the cannon by the first tee, read the stories posted on the placards beside the members’ bicycles and wondered how I had arrived here. I knew the logistics of it—car, boat, walk; a crooked path indeed—but how was I really here, feet planted upon history I could not have fathomed meeting that morning when I plugged a course name into my GPS? It was because I enjoyed placing a white ball into a small hole in the ground. And as I boarded my carriage, I felt more keenly aware than ever that I loved this game not just because it transported us in geography, but because it tossed us around in time as well.
Twelve dollars later, I climbed down off my taxi with my clubs and headed for the line of that day’s island visitors, a long row of sunburns and ice cream. I had been gone a few hours, but it felt like years. Then someone called, “All aboard,” and the ferry’s engines roared to life.