Pilgrim’s Run Golf Course Review

The fifth at Pilgrim's Run is a 429 yard par 4.
The fifth at Pilgrim’s Run is a 429 yard par 4.

Pilgrim’s Run Golf Course Review

Pilgrim’s Run Golf Course
Pierson / Grand Rapids, Michigan

Grade: A
Teacher’s Comments: A Michigan must-play.

Pilgrim’s Run Golf Course is a challenging and beautiful course that ranks among the best I have played.

Much about the course is unusual, beginning with its design.

The course was built by Robert and Judy Van Kampen, who founded the investment banking firm Van Kampen Merrit. According to story, the Van Kampens randomly chose six of their firm’s employees—none of whom was a golf architect—to design three holes each for the course. Golf Architects Mike DeVries and Kris Schumacker were hired to oversee the project.

Having also played Greywalls, another DeVries course, I think that more of the architect’s influence than legend would suggest. Both Pilgrim’s Run and Greywalls have that “found the holes in the wilderness” feel, that take full advantage of topography.

I found the entire course challenging, but eminently fair. And fun. The views are generally spectacular and each hole isolated from the rest. I’d love to play the course three or four more times.

Pilgrim's Run's eleventh is a 549 yard par five
Pilgrim’s Run’s eleventh is a 549 yard par five

One byproduct of its unusual design is that Pilgrims Run is a par 73. It has just three par three holes. From the back tees, Pilgrim’s Run stretches to 7,093 yards. It plays to a 74.3/138 from the tips. The blues measure 6,471 and play to a 70/9/128. From the whites it plays to 5,737 abd is a 67.4/122.

Also unusual: Each of the holes on the course is named for a passage in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: Pleasant Arbor, Difficulty, Slough of Despond, Deception, Sleepy Temptation, Vainglory, Bottomless Pit, Error Hill, House Beautiful, Wicket Gate, Giant Despair, By-Path Meadows, Dark Valley, Straight Way, High Mountain, Valley of Humility, Narrow Way and Entice.

Very interesting, indeed.

The ninth at Pilgrim's Run is a 372 yard par 4.
The ninth at Pilgrim’s Run is a 372 yard par 4.

It turns out that Robert Van Kampen was—like many in Western Michigan—a religious conservative (West Michigan is a center of the Dutch Reformed Church). He authored three books on “eschatology,” the theology of the end times. Van Kampen also owned one of the largest collections of bibles in private hands. You can read more about Van Kampen in his New York Times obituary.

Also interesting, but perhaps not surprising: no alcohol is allowed on the course. I saw no notices to that effect when I visited, but it has been noted in further reading that I’ve done on Pilgrim’s Run.

Conditions on the day I played Pilgrim’s Run were excellent. The course is neat and well cared-for. A couple of the greens were showing the signs of damage from the past winter, but as that was a once-in-a-century spell, I think that likely the exception.

The aura of quality begins with the spacious and gorgeous clubhouse. Tee times are spaced ten minutes apart. You get a bucket of complementary balls to warm up on the huge range (which is very conveniently located near the first tee). A neat brick building serves as the starter’s perch.

The eighteenth at Pilgrim's Run is a 305 yard par 4.
The eighteenth at Pilgrim’s Run is a 305 yard par 4.

My favorite hole at Pilgrim’s Run is also the one that gets the most press: the 358 yard par 4 eighteenth (above). The hole is a dogleg right that wraps around a lake, and entices players to try to cut over the water to the green. Risk-Reward at its finest. There’s plenty of space on the left, so conservative players can avoid the lake entirely with two mid length shots. But driver-wedge over the lake is so terribly tempting. It is aptly named “entice.”

Another that I really liked was the par four fifth, Sleepy Temptation (top). Measuring 393 from the blues, it starts on an elevated tee, doglegs left and then rises uphill again to the green.

Truth be told, though, I liked every hole at Pilgrim’s Run but for one: the par four third—Slough of Despond. That 388 yard par four ran past a swamp and through overhanging trees. It was tight, and somewhat messy, and not at all in character with the rest of the course.

The greens are worth of special note. They are tricky and often were multi-tiered. It is important to know the pin placements and choose your clubs accordingly. Talk to the starter before setting out. My starter was incredibly friendly, and gave me all sorts of tips on conditions, holes and general play. He also recommended a couple of other courses in the area.

Pilgrim’s Run was a terrific experience and one that I recommend if you’re in the Grand Rapids area. Pilgrim’s Run is in Pierson, which is located about thirty minutes northeast of Grand Rapids.

More photos of Pilgrims’s Run below:

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