The Dunes Club is located near the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan. The tiny, sandy 60-acre plot was reputably bought by Mike Keiser to stop other developers building on the site. Keiser – who made his fortune in recycled greeting cards – is also the man who founded Bandon Dunes in Oregon so the Dunes theme actually started here in Michigan, seven years before the burgeoning Beaver State resort opened for play.
Dubbed as the “Pine Valley of the Midwest” and “the best nine-hole course anywhere”, the Dunes Club is certainly one of the world’s finest nine-holers, designed by Chicago-based architect Dick Nugent in 1992. With Pine Valley-like waste areas, stunning tee to green conditioning and dramatic bunkering, the “walking only” Dunes Club is an American rarity.
The 513-yard 8th is rightly regarded as the best hole on the scorecard but, in truth, there is not a weak hole on a course where all the par fours are less than 400 yards in length. Such is the informality at the Dunes Club, there are no markers on any of the tee boxes so golfers are given the freedom of choosing the length of tee shot that best suits their own individual game.
In the book The Finest Nines by Anthony Pioppi, the author introduces the Dunes Club chapter thus:
“When the Dunes Club opened in 1990, not far from the shore of Lake Michigan, there was barely a ripple in the golf course architecture world even though what Dick Nugent designed was easily the best nine-hole layout built in the modern era.
“Back then, though, the owner of the course had not changed the world of golf. That would not occur until 1999, the year that Mike Keiser’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the southern coast of Oregon with the David McLay Kidd design opened.
“As more eyes turned toward Bandon, The Dunes Club was finally recognized and given its due as one of the finest nine-hole golf courses in North America. The course remained relatively unchanged until 2016 when Jim Urbina made substantial modifications to the layout, especially on and around the greens.
“Urbina said his focus for the renovation was to add some variety to the greens, as four of the originals had two tiers with the back always the higher one. He also reworked fill pads and green surrounds, removing severe features so the ground game became more of an option.
“Fairway and approach mowing lines were altered, and Urbina called for the removal of trees and undergrowth to increase sunlight and airflow throughout the nine holes (and he) performed alterations on nearly every one of the holes.”
What is the best nine-hole golf course in the world? Is it one of the 85 nine-hole courses in Ireland such as Cruit Island, Mulranny, Spanish Point, or Castlegregorry? Is it Canterbury in Australia, Royal Worlington & Newmarket in England, ,Kambaku Komatipoort in South Africa, or La Valliere (Morfontaine) in France?
Putting aside nine-hole courses that are par 3’s only, for many years there were only two nine-hole courses in the USA worth noting: the Dunes Club and Whitinsville. Recently, the discussion in the USA has been joined by Sweetens Cove. Some might mention Hooper in New Hampshire, but it needs to be refreshed. (I have not played these three).
I do not know why there is a bias against nine-hole courses but many people stay clear of them. I do have an affinity for playing them as two nine-hole courses were the only public golf courses close to me when I was just beginning to play. In the USA the members of the Dunes Club are blessed as they have a special and unique place. The nine holes at the Dunes Club are likely better than 95% of all eighteen hole courses.
The Dunes Club has a wonderful sand-base to it being close to Lake Michigan. It is one of the more natural courses one will ever play and certainly does bring to mind images of Pine Valley. Playing it you hear very little except birds and nature. It is a place where one can completely relax whether on the course on inside the tiny clubhouse.
A couple of times I have played the Dunes Club I got very “lucky” with the weather. One time it was threatening to rain and I had a two-hour window before a thunderstorm arrived. Another time it had rained for four days straight with flooding in the area and more rain on the way. Yet again there was a two-hour window of clouds only. Both of these times I was able to get around the course twice (18 holes) while staying dry. My point in telling this is that it is a very easy (only one hill) course to walk and a quick round is expected.
The course looks like something the minimalist designers of today would build with wild, raised, blown-out bunkers, rippling wide fairways, large and undulating greens, fall-offs surrounding the greens complexes, and the appropriate number of trees to consider. There are raised greens, hidden greens, heroic carries, run-up opportunities, and always very cleverly contoured greens. There are straight holes and doglegs. They are preferred sides of the fairways depending on pin placement.
As noted in other reviews, one of the nice features of the Dunes Club is that one can play from different tees, particularly on the two par 3’s which make those holes look, feel and play very differently. Instead of a forced carry over a bunker, you can play between the bunkers. Instead of a 150-yard shot, you can have a tee shot of 200+ yards. These multiple teeing areas show the different contours of the greens and you realize you need to hit a different section of the green from these different angles in order to get close. It is brilliant.
As also noted in Fergal O’Leary’s review, the fifth hole does seem a bit out of character due to the pond hard against the front of the green with very little space between the front edge and the water. I do not feel as strongly that is out of place given the excellent green waiting at the end. For me, every hole is a delight on the Dunes Club course.
There are now a couple of par 4’s that play longer than 400 yards as they added some new back tees.
On one of my rounds the course superintendent was my caddie and he shared with my the changes made through the years to the course including some of his actual work on the course working with the designers such as adding a new slope to a section of a green, or the slight re-location or enlargement of a bunker. The result is excellent bunkering and use of sand throughout the nine holes while maintaining the cleverly shaped greens.
Both of the par 5’s are excellent. Big hitters can reach the third hole in two but it takes two excellent shots as the fairway narrows a bit. The eighth hole is the signature hole with the tree on the left side blocking a clear view of a green hidden by a dune. I felt the fourth hole to have perhaps the best green with six, seven and nine are also being very good greens.
There is not enough room to add another nine holes as my understanding is that there are only approximately 30 acres adjacent. Ideas discussed included building a nine-hole par 3 course which I am certain would be outstanding given the setting. But if they decided to add more golf, I think they should just build as many holes as they can in a similar style to what is there. If that means they end up with 12-14 holes, then so be it. Why should anyone care if one gets to play as many good holes as is possible. Then there would not be a debate: the Dunes Club would be the finest golf course in the world with 12-14 holes.
Mark, are you seriously suggesting Canterbury in Sydney is a world class 9 holer? Very basic course, one green side bunker, flat. Wouldn't make top 50 courses in Sydney which is not renowned for its' courses. I assume you mean another one??
Easily the best nine hole course in the country. Dunes Club is comprised of 8 amazing holes and one good hole. Multiple sets of tees and changes in pin positions allow an ‘’18’’ hole round. This place is very very special.