The Alpena City Open: Majestic in Its Simplicity
The author is returning to his roots to tee it up in the Alpena City Open, and there’s no place he’d rather be
By Ryan French
August 5, 2022
ALPENA, Mich. — The Alpena City Open is about as far away from traditional tournament golf as can be. And I love it. There are no pin sheets or rules packets. There isn’t a one-ball rule, but there will be cutoff jean shorts. The early morning tee times won’t deter many from packing the cart with whatever six-pack the clubhouse has on special, and one cigarette after another will be lit. The parking lot will be filled with mostly pickup trucks. Among those who could vie for the title are a fishing guide, the owner of a pawn shop (called Fast Cash and Guns), a used car salesman and a pool installer. It’s a who’s who of who you don’t want to get into a bar fight with, and for the first time in years, I’m in the field.
To understand the City Open, you have to understand the area. Alpena (pop. 9,987) sits 99 miles from the Mackinac Bridge, on the coast of Lake Huron in northeast Michigan. It is more than four hours from a major airport and more than two hours from a bigger city. A large portion of the population has never lived elsewhere. It is small-town America, a blue-collar burg where some of the industries that helped build the city have struggled. The traffic lights blink red at 9 o’clock every night, barbers still only accept cash for a $14 trim, and the townspeople aren’t shy about knocking on a neighbor’s door to borrow a stick of butter.
Alpena can be perfectly summed up by a visit my family and I made to the grocery store the week after we moved back home this summer. A woman saw our Illinois license plate and approached us. She told us the best restaurants, where the farmers market was, and the places to avoid. She could not have been nicer. Her 9mm handgun was holstered on her hip. She shared her political views and welcomed us back before going on her way. That is Alpena. “It’s majestic in its simplicity,” my wife, Stephanie, says.
The City Open is a two-day event, always played the first weekend in August. About 20 players typically compete in the championship flight. The women’s championship flight will feature about 10 players. Dozens more will compete in various flights. It is contested at the Alpena Golf Club the first day and then Rivers Edge, a now-public course about 10 miles outside of town. (It was the “Country Club” when I grew up.) This is the 55th year of the tournament.
The Alpena Golf Club is where I grew up and played thousands of rounds. We lived on the 3rd hole. For the first time in years, I recently played a round there and was saddened to see our old home in disrepair. That bothered me for a minute. But then memories of my dad and me walking out of the garage with our bags slung over our shoulders brought a smile to my face. Dad would race home from work; we would grab our clubs, start on the 4th hole, and end on the 3rd, often finishing our nine-hole round in just over an hour. Mom would have a late dinner ready for us. We would repeat this routine five days a week, from the time I was 7 until I left for college.
The course is exactly what you would expect in a scrappy town like this. The opening hole is a 475-yard par-5, and if you cut the corner just right, you can have 90 yards for your second shot. Tipped out at 6,600 yards, Alpena is a perfect quirky muni. (The par-4 4th hole, for example, requires a 7-iron, 9-iron combo). You can walk 18 holes for $37. Playing it last week made me realize how much I missed the place. The old gas carts, the attachable-handle pull carts for rent, and the guy in the concert T-shirt hitting three balls off the 1st — I love everything about it.
The Country Club (I’ll always call it that) is an excellent course that sadly struggles to get play. An annual membership runs $1,100. In a city without a lot of expendable income, the price tag and the location affect the number of rounds it gets. It has just over 100 members, and the green fee is $50. The 18th hole is a great risk/reward par-5 that requires a long iron over water if you want a chance at a finishing eagle. The 18th has created some drama in past playings of the City Open.
Since my return home, I have played every Wednesday in a group at the Country Club. And I have been welcomed with open arms. (The guys are undoubtedly happy to have another $20 in the pot.) It’s the kind of group that always enjoys a post-round Bud Light or two. (I haven’t had the heart to tell them I hate beer, but I hold one for show.) One of my favorite things about the Wednesday group is that the cell-phone reception at the Country Club is horrible, although you can maybe steal a signal on the elevated 15th tee. No one so much as looks at their phone. It’s just 15 or so guys trying to win a $5 skin.
The first time I played in the group, we all gathered in the clubhouse to compare cards and distribute the cash. I needed to make a phone call, so I inquired if there was wi-fi. Everyone had been a member of the club for years, yet no one knew if it has wi-fi. (It does, but it never works.) I didn’t make the call, and everyone sat around telling stories, not a cell phone in sight. Majestic in its simplicity.
I have played in the City Open maybe 15 times, with my best finish a runner-up circa 1999 (above). But this will be the first time Dad won’t be on the bag for me. His dementia has gotten progressively worse. The other day he came over to the house when my mom went to get her nails done and wandered around asking where Mom was. I miss him, especially on weekends like the City Open. But I often remind myself how lucky I was to have him on the bag those 15 times. Mark Baldwin flew in from Arizona and will carry for me. I guarantee he will be the first tour professional to caddie in the City Open. (That Mark asked me to caddie for him at Pebble Beach in February and is now returning the favor at a muni track makes me laugh.)
The first time I was in contention at the City Open, I was 14. I had shot about a 74 on the first day. That earned me a tee time in the lead group on the second day. Bill Peterson was leading; he was always leading. Peterson, who owns a bar called the 19th hole, has won 15 City Opens, most of them in a runaway.
Peterson ( below left, after his win in ’79) was always nice, gave me lessons and talked about strategy with me, but to say he was intimidating would be an understatement. He was built precisely how you would expect for a guy who owned a bar in a small blue-collar town. He outweighed me by probably 200 pounds. He hit the ball a mile and had a short game to match. He also had a temper.
On the 1st green, Bill missed a putt, and in his signature move, he slammed his putter into the bottom of his shoe and screamed “Fuck!” To say I was overmatched would be an understatement. The term “shit my pants” is overused. But 14-year-old me Shit. My. Pants. I started double-double-double, and I’ll never forget what happened next. Bill approached me as we walked up the 4th fairway, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Relax, you can play. You will learn from this.” That is Alpena. In the middle of chasing down the city championship, the bar owner found time to encourage the kid, who was basically in the way. His gesture relaxed me. I righted the ship and shot something like 81.
Bill doesn’t get out much anymore. He’s in his mid-60s, and he’s limited by a bad back. Now, 30 years later, I will try to win the City Open by competing against Bill’s son, Erik, who, carrying on the Peterson tradition, is the best player in town. There will be Butts, the car salesman who earned the nickname from smoking a lot; Dave, the pawn shop owner; and Benny, the pool installer.
On Saturday morning, we’ll go off the 10th tee at Alpena Golf Club. (“The women bitched we were getting the best tee times both days, so they changed it to the 10th tee years ago,” one competitor told me. “It’s bullshit.”) The weekend will take me back to my teenage years.
I’ll probably shoot 82-84, but I’m going to love every second of it. I can’t wait.