Forest Dunes Golf Club started out at the beginning of the 21st century as a private club with a Tom Weiskopf-designed 18-hole course but that operational scenario changed in 2011 when Arkansan businessmen Lew Thompson and Sam Mathias purchased the business and transformed it into a public pay-and-play facility.
Five years later, the club unveiled a rather unusual complementary layout named The Loop, a totally reversible course with eighteen greens and fairways that can be played in completely opposite directions. When played clockwise, this track is called the Black course with its anticlockwise counterpart known as the Red course.
The gently undulating nature of the property is such that there are no pronounced elevation changes, making it the perfect place for Tom Doak of Renaissance Golf Design to fulfil a career-long wish to design and build a layout that could be played in one direction or the other, depending on how a golf club wishes to set it up on any particular day.
Our regular contributor Paul Rudovsky visited Forest Dunes in June 2018 and blogged as follows:
“This was my second visit to this resort. I was here in July 2014 to play the original course by Tom Weiskopf (opened in 2002), which I really liked. The land at Forest Dunes has had some rather interesting owners through the years, including William Durant, one of the founders of GM, the Detroit Partnership and the Michigan Carpenters Pension Fund.
After years of losses, the Pension Fund sold the property in 2011 to Lew Thompson, an entrepreneur who made a fortune in the long haul trucking business. Thompson first built a nice lodge on the property (Forest Dunes is located in a fairly remote part of northern Michigan) then he went looking for various ways to expand its golf offerings.
Tom Doak has long been interested in building a “reversible” course and Thompson gave him the opportunity five years ago. By 2016 “The Loop” at Forest Dunes had opened, featuring the counter-clockwise Red Course and clockwise Black Course. The advantages are obvious…offering customers two very different courses on one piece of land with the maintenance of one course.
Naturally, only one course can be opened at a time so Forest Dunes plays the property as the Red on days 1, 3, 5 etc. and as the Black on days 2, 4, 6 etc. Guests no longer arrive at Forest Dunes for a one day visit; they now tend to stay for 2-4 days to play all three courses. Mike Keiser’s theorem proved again.
So on this day I played the Red and enjoyed it a lot. Fairways and tees are fescue which, if you have the right climate, is the best firm and fast playing surface. Fairways are wonderful wide corridors but players need to hit to a particular area off the tee or the shot to the green becomes very hard.
The best hole in my opinion is #12 and hardest is the par five 9th (at least for me). Greens are very interesting but not “crazy” putting surfaces… they are difficult to read, important to understand but playable. It’s a very easy property to walk, one that really challenges players, and the land is rumpled, with a fair number of greens sloped front to back (which almost has to be the case on a reversible course).
One interesting question that needs to be sorted out in future years is whether The Loop gets rated as two separate courses or one?
Several reversible courses and partially reversible courses have been built – look out for more in the future. It requires the right land form and a very bright creative architect to make it work…it does here at Forest Dunes, and the next day I played it clockwise.”
We asked Tom Doak for his thoughts on whether or not the Black and Red configurations at The Loop should be ranked separately and this was his response:
“When the course opened all of the magazines asked if it should be rated as one course or two; my feeling was that it is one course with a lot more variety than most! Rating the two independently strips both of their essential being, since the whole point is to play both ways and contrast them.
I knew that it would be difficult to decide how to rank the course… You are free to do whatever you want, but if you think of the rankings' purpose as to help identify which courses you'd like to visit, I think most people would consider them together rather than separately.”
After lengthy deliberation we finally decided to separately list each course. Largely because you have to pay and play twice to experience the Black and Red. You can't play both courses on the same day, although Tom told us that; “on months with the 31st they've been having a better-ball event where you play one way in the morning and then the other after lunch.”
The club markets both courses separately and each is individually named and contrasting in look, feel and strategy. The only common denominator is the ground on which they both play. So we figure they are two separate courses.
We therefore made a mistake by not listing both courses in our 2018 Best In State rankings for Michigan. So we've added the Red course as a GEM until we re-rank Michigan in 2020. In the meanwhile, if you've played both courses which one do you believe is best?
According to Tom: “I really don't feel there is much between them. The Black has a hard start and gentler finish; the Red the more conventional softer start and tough finishing holes. The Black's #4 and #12 make better use of certain features than their counterparts, but you could say the same for #4 and #8 and #11 and 12 Red. When they first opened I asked the pro shop to keep track of people's preference, not between Red and Black, but between their first round or the second in the opposite direction. A large majority prefer the course they played second, whichever it was.”
The Loop Red
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, but will do my best to be objective. 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:
One is a short welcoming par 4. There is a waste area left. A decent drive should give you a flip wedge to an elevated green. The par 5 2nd is a slight dogleg right. Favor the right off the tee. With the runout two drives went through the fairway and into the gunch. Another good birdie oppty. The 4th is the first par 3, mid-length with the green tilting hard left. Aim right of the flag. Hopefully, you have gotten off to a good start as things get a little hairier on the long par 4 5th. This is also one of the toughest greens with a lot of undulation. The short par 3 6th looks innocuous, but the green runs away. Every tee shot landed on and ended up being long. The 7th is a short reachable par 4. Limited downside risk, so go for it. The long par 4 8th on the other hand is a beast. The long par 5 9th is much more intimidating on the card than in real life. From the middle tees it is listed as 576. I hit a decent drive, decent 5 wood and flip wedge to the green. An example of them playing fast and hard.
The back starts with a long par four, number two handicap hole. The 11th is a 200+yard par 3 two tiered green that is well protected with bunkers. The 12th is a good risk reward hole. Big hitters can reach it, but the greenside bunkers will make them think twice. If you miss left, it will be a tough up and down. The 13th is a reachable par five. There is a large oak tree on the right side about 100 yards out from the green. Favor the left side off the tee to give yourself the best chance. The par 4s 15 and 16 are tough holes. Off the tee, favor the left on 15 and the right on 16. The number 18 handicap par 3 17th plays much shorter. Everyone of us were long and I do not think it was because we were getting stronger. The 18th is a good finishing hole. To par you need to hit two good shots.
I was really looking forward to playing The Loop. Disappointed in the Red course, but I applaud the creativity. I would encourage avid golfers to give it a test drive, but I will not be going back.
I was dismayed when Golfweek rated the Red & Black loops as one course in their 2018 Modern Top 100. This self-confessed box ticker felt he’d played two courses not one and I’ve got the dent in the bank balance to prove it.
Having read the reviews for the Black course, my feeling is that the Red edges the Balck but both are enough fun and different. Tom Doak may see both courses as one, but I don’t. Each greensite is very distinct depending on the direction you play and only on a reversible course will you approach the same green from its backside and frontside depending on route. My opinion is that the Red is the best course at Forest Dunes but only just, all three are good but not great courses when compared to the conventional offerings at Bandon, Streamsong and Sand Valley.
It’s a clever trick to construct two courses from one piece of land, but I think just concentrating on one circuit could have created a much better single course. There’s something a bit contrived about having closely mown areas at the front and back of the greensites, so there’s no harsh penalty for being long and most greensites feel as though they are trying hard to be good enough from two directions and miss the point. Trying too be too clever can result in gimmick and that’s what I think has happened here.