Situated in northern Michigan’s lower peninsula, around nine miles from the small town of Roscommon, Forest Dunes Golf Club began operation at the start of the new millennium as a private facility, with members playing an 18-hole layout designed by Tom Weiskopf. Acquired by Arkansan businessmen Lew Thompson and Sam Mathias in 2011, the golf facility is now fully open to the public.
The original Weiskopf course was joined in 2016 by a new 18-hole layout that came straight from the drawing boards of Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design Company. Called The Loop, it’s the realisation of a long-held “dream concept” project for the architect, featuring eighteen distinct fairways and greens that are fully reversible, allowing golfers to play the same course in two different directions on consecutive days.
“This is a concept I have thought about for 30 years,” Doak said. “You need the right site and the right client to understand the appeal of it. At Forest Dunes we finally have both. The appeal of a reversible course is people would want to play it both ways. You are getting two golf courses in one.” The clockwise routing is called the Black Course with the anti-clockwise routing called the Red Course. Both play to a par of 70 with five par threes on each scorecard.
The property was perfectly suited for such a unique project because of the gently undulating nature of the landscape, with no dramatic changes in elevation, and this allowed Brian Slawnik, one of Doak’s senior associates, to develop the course in one direction whilst he designed the other.
The Black is said to be the more difficult of the two 18-hole layouts, with the right doglegged par four 12th earmarked as a potential “signature hole”. The par four 6th on the Red doglegs left to a raised green and it’s also a hole that’s worth looking out for when you play the layout in reverse.
Hidden in the wilderness of north central Michigan (Lower Peninsula) is the most unique and intriguing golf course setup in the world. This is not a new discovery; it opened for public play in 2016 and has been on my radar to visit ever since. In early June I drove 209 miles north (three hours) from Detroit to the village of Roscommon (population 1,100) and the Forest Dunes golf resort.
I was here in 2012 to play the highly-regarded Tom Weiskopf-designed Dunes Course (opened 2002). The return visit was to play The Loop, a Tom Doak Renaissance Golf Design team effort (including Don Placek and Brian Slawnik) that created two courses in one; that is, a reversible 18 with clockwise play on Black 18 in odd number days and Red 18 counterclockwise on even number days. 18 fairways and 18 greens played in different directions!
After playing both courses I was thoroughly impressed by Doak’s brilliance in routing the holes and then creating superb green complexes. It must have been a complicated design exercise. Tom took about a month to work out a viable plan, and the finished product is a seamless routing with greens and surrounds fitting in nicely with their gradual and subtle movement.
How did Doak create two courses of equal challenge and pleasure? After returning home I spent hours trying to decipher what he did and how he did it. I used Google Satellite to map the courses and taped together five separate pieces of paper. Then I drew lines for the routing and marked each tee and green (like pictured Black 11 which was also Red 7). Then I studied the approach angle to each green for each course.
This research helped me understand the mathematical formula for knowing the companion hole number with the hole currently being played. The fairway formula is based on 19. Playing 1 Black means you are on 18 Red. Playing on the Black 9 fairway you are on the fairway for Red 10. The formula for greens is based on number 18. It is an out-and-back routing with the 9thgreen the same for both courses and at the furthest point from the first tee. The 18th green is the same number for both courses. When you are on Black green 1 you are on Red green 17.
An obvious question is whether one course is better than the other. If pressed, I am 50.1% Black and 49.9% Red. Just do not ask me why. Maybe it was because I played Black first. All I know is that after playing Black I was salivating to play Red, also a home run.
Successful trucking businessman Lew Thompson became the third owner of Forest Dunes in 2011, and in 2014 he decided to build a second course to create an overnight stay-and-play option. The proposed site for the course was nothing special for an outstanding conventional course. However, it was ideal for Doak’s 30-year desire to build a reversible course, a concept originating from the St. Andrews Old course, which has been played backward on rare occasions.
The proposed land was relatively flat (25-feet elevation change) with no natural hazards like streams or lakes. Another positive was its sand base. Finally, the original owners of Forest Dunes had removed thousands of trees back in the year 2000 for the anticipated second course. All these elements encouraged the construction of The Loop for just $3.5 million.
Both courses are par 70. The Black is 34 out and 36 in; Red is 36 out and 34 in. The Black measures 6,704 yards from the back tees while the Red is 101 yards longer at 6,805 yards.
Discussing tee markers is a first for The Odyssey. When I asked the starter on the Black first tee to take the photo below, I did not appreciate its full relevance. In the picture is 25-year friend Brian Lewis who played with me both days. He is in the golf book publishing and printing business and has been involved with Tom Doak’s many books over the years. At The Loop, being able to see a tee marker is key to getting players from one green to the next tee. There are not a lot of formal looking tee boxes. Some of the tees on one day are part of the playing surface the next day. Thus, many are at ground level and not obvious. To the left of Brian is a low flying small pennant flag. That is the only type of tee marker for every tee.
After playing Black I was curious to know who receives credit for suggesting these distinctive and necessary tee marker flags. Here is Doak’s response: “The greenkeeper came up with the tee flags to keep things as simple as possible for his crew; setting up the course in reverse every day is pretty confusing. (We had to call the holes by the Red numbers during construction or guys would go to the wrong hole by accident.) I did a hole location chart (zones 1,2,3) that would work regardless of the direction of play - which took a while to figure out, since some greens are approached at right angles from the other direction.”
While playing either course there is no “wow” factor from the tees or approach shots. The fescue grass fairways average about 50 yards in width. For fairly level terrain, the fairways have a lot of movement with undulations, slopes, nobs, and humps. When I asked Tom about this, he said: “The superintendent did the clearing work based on our flags, and removed enough soil while getting all the tree roots that we had to reshape fairways to tie back into the higher edges of the clearing. It created a lot of extra work we had not expected. That is why the fairway undulations are so good.”
Many of the fairways are partially bordered by modest-size pine and birch trees. Some actually pinch a drive. There are even a couple of goal post-type obstacles on tee shots. All this means some necessary pinpoint accuracy. There are about 30 fairway bunkers with a couple in the middle. Some of these bunkers are unkempt-looking on purpose and have little or no sand. They are played as waste areas, so you can ground your club.
There are only about 30 greenside bunkers, a design feature that provides plenty of opportunity for run-in shots. Because most of the greens are slightly raised and were shaped in place, no fill was required. Bottom line: No special eye appeal so far.
As a layman, I was imagining approaching each green on the Black one way and then the Red greens in an opposite 180-degree direction. Wrong. For most of the holes, the approach angle is 90 degrees to the previous day’s play. When you get to the greens and realize they are designed to be approached at different angles, the wow alarm goes off in spades.
In corresponding with Doak about The Loop, he said the following “…the part of the plan that you liked best was something that I kind of stumbled into -- in needing to make the course longer, I turned to follow the contours after Red #6, and only then did I figure out that all those holes would be more interesting if the angle of approach was 90 degrees different, instead of 180.” Not only do I love playing great courses, but I am totally intrigued by how they were created. So, a tidbit like this is right down my alley.
Doak is famous (or infamous) for building some wild greens. There is a hint of that here, but he was somewhat restrained by his desire for normal-size greens in the 6,000 square feet range. They actually came out a little larger at 7,713 square feet. The biggest at 10,324 square feet is Black #13 (par-3 at 222 yards)/Red #5 (par-4 at 467 yards).
The bent grass green contours include a lot of internal slopes along with false fronts, sides, and backs, and can easily lose control of your ball due to these sharp falloffs. The rule of thumb is to be short on your approach shots to avoid really tough recovery shots. Movement in the greens also comes from humps, shoulders, ridges, and valleys.
The picture below features the 11th green on Black and the 7th green on Red (11 + 7 =18). It is the smallest green at 5,940 square feet. Black #11 is a par-4 at 414 yards and Red #7 is a par 4 at 362 yards. Playing the Black, the green has a depth of only 18 yards and a huge width of almost 36 yards. Playing the Red at a 90-degree angle from the Black, the dimensions are reversed to very deep and narrow. There is a noticeable valley in the middle of the green, and the pot bunker fronting the green on the Black approach is a real factor because of the shallow shape of the green. This green complex has a totally different look and playing characteristics depending on the day of play.
Being early June, the grass growing season was just getting started. In addition, there had been some recent heavy rain. Despite these negatives, the course played reasonably firm and fast. The greens were smooth and stimped satisfactorily in the 9 area thanks to Superintendent Rob Falconer. The Loop is eminently walkable and definitely offers a fascinating and fun two days in remote and peaceful surroundings.
Doak is truly a genius. He’s made a terrific contribution to golf course architecture generally and with The Loop particularly. It’s a must play specifically for anyone interested in golf course architecture and generally for players of all abilities. Even long hitters, who might look with disdain at its 6,800-yard length, will find their approach game tested to the highest degree in terms of accuracy and distance control. You will certainly need a good short game.
The golf course rating community is faced with a dilemma concerning The Loop: Does one rate Black and Red separately or as one course called “The Loop”? Although each course is very good on its own, it is the combined experience that makes the total experience special — the proverbial 1 + 1 = 3. After thinking about this conundrum, I favor The Loop and place it in my U.S. Top 100 because of its uniqueness.
In January 2021, Thompson sold Forest Dunes to Rich Mack and Tom Sunnarborg. Both men were responsible for the three-course development at Streamsong in Florida while at The Mosaic Company. It looks like there will be a third course 18-hole course at Forest Dunes in the not too distant future.
The Loop at Forest Dunes is a marvel of golf architecture. The fact that Tom Doak could think to build a course that plays both ways as two different courses is Mind Blowing and that he actually did it truly shows his genius. That being said the Loop is the second best course at the awesome Forest Dunes facility. With the new addition of the Par 3 and the Hilltop putting course Forest Dunes will become a can’t miss public option for buddies trips. The Loop is all about the Greens and is tons of fun. You will got some of the longest drives of your life of you get a down wind and hit the speed slot with the fescue fairways your ball will roll for days. The course plays harder than its slope and would be a great warmup for a trip to Bandon or the UK. Although it’s not my favorite it is a must play and should be respected as a one of a kind masterpiece in the golf industry.
The addition of the two Loop courses has elevated Forest Dunes Golf Club on so many levels. To think that The Loop exists just a few hundred yards from the original course is somewhat mind blowing. The playing conditions, the visuals and the experience are completely different. When you walk across the car park, it’s like you’re at a different golf club. The whole place is very special and will only continue to attract eager golfers of all levels looking for outstanding golf, great value and exceptional onsite dining / accommodations.
The Black course starts off with one of its many long difficult par 4s. Until you walk a few holes looking forwards and backwards, you don’t really get the reversible concept, but you very quickly understand its genius. You must buy a stroke-saver book and study it very well to see what you’re doing on two consecutive days. The second is a par 3 and you begin to see where the teeing grounds are positioned on any given day. There are no signs, no manicured tee boxes – just random open areas with little black/white/red flags to suggest where you play from. It’s you against the elements and the course guides you on a journey to the end of the property and back.
There is a strong sense of the Old Course at St. Andrews in certain places as you walk the grounds with hidden bunkers and the massive emphasize on playing the ball along the very hard ground. We often wondered if the ground would soften (a little) over time. It’s certainly the most “out and back” experience I’ve had playing in America and can’t wait to go back to this gorgeous part of Michigan.
This course takes huge amounts of shot-making imagination, especially in windy conditions. A couple of the holes on each nine (and on both loops) have a very wide-open flat feel to them, and almost play like connector holes to the next batch of excitement. We did find that a few too many greens were unfairly shaped on a given day especially if you hit a good approach shot that might get rejected and then leave you with an impossible chip based on the angle you face – especially into those Biarritz shaped greens. On a few occasions, you’d rather be way out of position with your approach shot than just off the green to have any chance of hitting your next shot close. Some pins are simply not possible (or fair) on each course based on the shaping – but it’s all a challenge so do your best and accept the outcome. I did love the mown areas around the greens that connected with the next teeing area which really helped the flow of your game.
We liked the movement of the course as it traverses the more interesting stretches of land that rise and fall and provide endless options for play. I even said to my playing partner that the next time I play the course, I might change the composition of the 14 clubs I have in my bag to allow for different shots.
It is eye opening how many bunkers on one day are completely irrelevant, and then the next day they wreak havoc with your mind. It’s sometimes hard to describe the holes because they change configuration so quickly, but other than a few flatter par 4s, there is so much stimulation with the colourful vegetation (almost heathland like) and greens that command respect.
I absolutely commend Tom Doak for the creation of the two loops, and my group concluded that we preferred the Black loop due to the challenge it presents and the more stimulating design from the direction we were playing in.
An extremely fun, fast and firm course. Wide corriders that are entirely fairway edged by native sandy scruff, allow for aggressive play off of the tee. Very challenging shots into greens, as with multiple approach angles required, greens are more evenly sloped instead of the traditional back to front. This along with the firm conditions require thoughtful approach play and challenging club and target landing spot selection. A great collection of short Par 4's (4, 7, 12) and long Par 4's (1, 3, 9, 14) can lead to pars that feel like both birdies and bogies.
The Loop Black
I will start off by saying that Doak had an audacious goal by designing a course that could be played clockwise and counter clockwise. Supposedly, this vision was fueled by the Old Course where up until the 19th century it was played both ways. Ultimately, people voted with their wallets and more showed up to play when it had the counter clockwise configuration. Hence, this is the design we are most familiar with. I will preface that I liked the Black configuration better. Both play hard and fast, if you are planning a trip to Scotland, this is a great place to play before your trip. Also, you will have to work really hard to hit a tree. It is wide open. This makes sense when one thinks about greens having to be accessible from two different directions. While it is open, there are still ample opportunities to lose balls in the heather. The tee boxes are identified by a single small flag and you can tee it up on either side. This is necessary as the next day the “tee box” will be considered fairway.
To the course:
The first hole is tough. Long uphill par 4 with a bunker on the right that gobbled up a couple of our tee shots. You get a respite on the short par 3 2nd before the number one handicap long par 4 3rd hole. The green is protected by a bunker front and right. It also appears as if there is a large bunker behind the green. There is, but it is at least 50 yards back. The short par 4 4th is one of my favorites because I birdied it. Off the tee, the left side will give you a better approach, but the right side has much more real estate. The green is a bowl with a bunker on the front right. If the pin is up you definitely want to come in from the left. Tricky little hole. The par 3 5th is a also devious. Uphill, if you are short your ball will roll back down. If you are long, you are dead. I guess you just have to hit the right club. The 6th is a fairly benign par five. Big hitters can get home in two, but you should favor the left side off the tee. There is a long front right bunker that protects the green and forces approaches left. This is one of the trickier greens. The 7th is a good birdie oppty, short par 4. Very driveable par 4.The contour is hard left, aim well right of the flag. The 8th is a short green light par 3. I really liked nine. Yes, I am sure you know what I did. There are bunkers right off the tee so favor the left. On your approach the two bunkers on the left are not greenside. You have about 50 yards between them and the green.
The back starts off with a long par 5. Play it as a 3 shotter. The 12th is a short par 4 dogleg right. Our big hitters went for it and paid the price with bunker challenges. I think a better play is to lay up to your favorite wedge yardage. The par 3 13th is uphill and looks tougher than it is, commit to the yardage and go. The 14th is the number 2 handicap hole and it plays tough. Fortunately, the easiest hole the par 3 15th is next. The 16th is a dogleg right. Good driving hole you can and should cut the corner. The green is a Biarritz. We were fortunate as the pin was in the swale, but look out if it is back left or right. The par 5 17th is reachable in two and is defenseless. Go for it, there is no trouble. The 18th is a dogleg right and looks pretty easy off the tee. Unless, you hit your drive left into the fairway bunker that you cannot see.
I was really looking forward to playing The Loop. We all felt The Black was the better of the two. I would encourage avid golfers to give it a test drive, but I will not be going back.
I saw some pictures of the course and was debating playing because it didn't look spectacular. Boy was I wrong! I was blown away by the course.
With very wide fairways that play firm, it is welcoming to the high handicap golfer off the tee. However, the greens are the defense with severe undulations and they play fast and firm. I'd describe the course as difficult to double bogey because you can put from 30 feet in the fairway; however, it is tough to par any holes because the greens are difficult to hold if you fly it onto them. That is true links style, which we are not used to in the U.S., but it is a lot of fun!
Doak's design to make it reversible was architectural brilliance and a great contribution to this great era of golf architecture we are now in.
To correct the other review on here, caddies are not required and carts are now allowed. I prefer walking though and it is designed for walking.
Even though The Old Course at St. Andrews was originally conceived as a reversible layout it has been rarely used as such since 1914. The Loop has long been a passion of local Architect Tom Doak to create the only reversible golf course ever built in North America. Since it opened in 2016 it has become the most talked about and awarded golf course in the U.S. So much so that in 2017 Golf Digest named The Loop the “Best New Public Golf Course” and Golf Magazine called it the “Best New Golf Course You Can Play”.
It’s hard to fathom that one day you play clockwise where you are approaching a green that is wide and shallow with plenty of bunkers and the next day on the counter clockwise track you are faced with a skinny green with no visible danger. Doak was ingenious in laying out a minimalistic design using expansive fairways, gentle elevation changes and thorny evergreen gorse-like shrubs to re-create a Scottish heathlands-style course. The fairways and tee blocks are fescue grass so there are no carts allowed (walking only).
The first 150 yards off each tee are maintained since it serves as the approach on the next day. The large greens are hybrid bent grass that are firm and fast with big undulations. You will need to learn how to bump-and-run with a 7-iron since nothing holds on these crested putting surfaces. I’ll guarantee that you will putt off the green at least once. There are about 50 non-manicured bunkers and plenty of wasteland with sand that is deep and soft sourced on property and reportedly rated the best around.
A caddy is mandatory and costs $100 + $40 tip or $60 per person for a twosome plus $30 tip.
PS. A distance finder would be helpful since there are no yardage stakes on the fairway.
To read about more of Dave Finn's adventures visit www.golftravelandleisure.com
I've played almost annually since opening and a caddy has never been mandatory.