ROSCOMMON, Mich. – The most interesting large-scale experiment in modern course design can be found in the wilds of north-central Michigan. The Loop at Forest Dunes, a fully reversible 18-hole golf course – or put another way, two 18-hole golf courses occupying the same ground, on alternate days – can be found 200 miles north of Detroit and 65 miles east of Traverse City. It’s worth the journey, even if you have to spend an extra day to figure it out. One trip around each layout isn’t enough.
Architect Tom Doak occupies an amazing niche in the history of golf architecture. He’s something of a savant – in the best sense of that Romanticist term. Now 56 years old, he’s never entirely shed the reputation of being the “enfant terrible” who stormed into a staid, buttoned-down industry in the late 1980s and turned it sideways, if not topsy-turvy.
Armed with an ability to write acerbically and a more recently cultivated flair for promotion that has garnered a following of acolytes on social media, Doak championed a classically oriented, low-impact design approach. Among his chief literary contributions have been a “Confidential Guide,” first issued in 1986 and subsequently expanded, most recently in a five-volume set, along with the 1992 volume, “The Anatomy of a Golf Course,” that remains the clearest exploration of the craft.
The idea of a reversible course had been with Doak for more than 30 years, ever since he read the appendix of the classic 1929 volume, “The Architectural Side of Golf” by H.N. Wethered and Tom Simpson. The inspiration comes from The Old Course at St. Andrews, which regularly was played in reverse through the 19th century, and occasionally even today. But finding the right tract of land to make it work was difficult. As Wethered and Simpson wrote, “marked or bold inequalities of surface are not prima facie suitable for the purpose we are discussing.”
Save for the climatically limited golf season, Roscommon provides an ideal site. Forest Dunes Golf Club sprawls over 1,300 acres of sandy soil that was heavily overgrown with trees. Back in the 1920s this was the playpen (and burial dumping ground) for Detroit’s notorious bootlegging Purple Gang. The land has since been tamed, first by Tom Weiskopf’s Forest Dunes Course in 2003. Then Doak went to work, selecting a long, twisting swatch of land with no more than 40 feet of fall from high point to low point.
Getting a course to work in both directions is no simple matter – not if you’re going to stick to a program that utilizes only 18 greens. Conventionally tiered greens won’t work; gently domed ones will, as do greens with side slope that allow for diagonally offset approaches, which are a lot more compelling than just approaching from 180-degrees apart.
It makes for a monumental puzzle. Doak focused on the routing in one direction (he won’t say which); lead associate Brian Slawnik focused on the reversible side. Two other members of the team, Eric Iverson and Brian Schneider, shaped the greens. With 85 acres of fairway – two to three times what’s normal for an 18-hole course – they had plenty of width and angles for the two sets of corridors they were creating. The one concession to a purely reversible course is that instead of relying upon one set of tees, they deployed two completely different sets.
The result is an amazing experience and widespread discussion among guests as to which course folks prefer. Red is the counterclockwise routing; it starts easy and gets harder at the end. Black is the clockwise loop; it starts really hard and eases up coming in. The courses are set up on alternative days and are played as walking only, without interference of carts or cart paths – which would have been impossible to hide.
The early sentiment for a course that opened only a year ago is that folks seem to prefer the routing they play second, not first. My advice: Play it three days in a row to find out.
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“Loop” makes it sound too neat. More like the connect-the-stars of a constellation that tells an entirely different epoch tale when traced in reverse. Symmetry of courses extends to pars of each hole corridor in opposite direction. Thus a 3-4-5 sequence one way plays 5-4-3 the other.
Quality of shaping: 9
In dramatic counterpoint to the original, modernist Forest Dunes course, The Loop is scruffed out, fuzzy on the edges, sepia-toned, as if it fell from the pages of that Wethered & Simpson book that inspired it.
Overall land plan: 7
Modern and Retro working out of the same golf resort, readily accessible once you’ve found your way here, with everything you need, including large practice greens, expansive range, a bye hole and contemporary rusticana.
Greens and surrounds: 9
Amazingly, they work, sometimes barely holding on for dear life – or not, as with Red 12/Black 6, a top hat without a proper brim. But overall, it’s astonishing to have slopes like this functioning in two directions, let alone one. Favorites include a Biarritz (2 Red/16 Black) and a wild pile of potato chips (Red 6/Black 12) that accepts shots at 90 degrees. Greens are necessarily large, averaging 8,500 square feet, and are push-up native sand with hybrid Bentgrass surfaces. They have lots of contour and roll-off around the edges – enough to make you play defensively the first few times around.
Variety and memorability of par 3s: 9
Two short (9-iron/wedge) and three longer (4-/5-woods) holes per course. Red sixth, at 125 yards, looks like a Salvador Dali green sliding off the hill. Black 15th, at 193 yards, feels right out of Pinehurst.
Variety and memorability of par 4s: 9
Amazing variety of length, turn and delicacy vs. brawn. Black fourth, at 328 yards, looks wide open off the tee, but is really only accessible via a funnel up front from the left. Red eighth, at 442 yards, calls for a bold right-to-left drive and one of the few approaches on The Loop across the broken ground of interrupted fairway.
Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7
The psychological effect of treading the long holes in opposite directions is enchanting. Very careful attention has been paid to making the last 50-100 yards interesting and varied, as per hole location.
Tree and landscape management: 8
Wide corridors in interesting, non-linear shapes, with vast swaths of native roughs – woody plants, bluestem, false heather and fescues.
Conditioning and ecology: 5
It’ll mature in time, but right now fescue turf cover down the fairways is not quite to the point where you get secure lies for full iron shots. Nor can you play the full array of ground-game shots you need to hold these greens. Putting from long distances is dicey. Unpredictable, stony lies in sandy waste areas are fine to deal with, while similar conditions in defined bunkers makes them, as the rule book states, “hazards” indeed.
“Walk in the park” test: 10
The whole time you’re looking backwards, trying to recognize the hole you played yesterday or are going to play tomorrow. Have never seen such a gyroscopic experience; makes for an endlessly fascinating time.
Just an amazing aesthetic treat to see two compelling landscapes on the same piece of ground. Might also be a smart business model, because you only need half as many customers as does a normal course to succeed. A very serious Top-100 contender. Some might argue it’s two different courses. I’d make the case for one amazing layout.
Forest Dunes Golf Club
6376 Forest Dunes Drive,
Roscommon, Mich. 48653
The Loop – Black
Par 70, 6,704 yards
71.7 slope/125 rating
Walking only; caddies available
The Loop – Red
Par 70, 6,805 yards
71.9 slope/124 rating
GREEN FEE: $69-$149
(Note: This story originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Golfweek.)