Review for Forest Dunes (The Loop - Black)

Reviewer Score:


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 Odyssey

Date: March 29, 2021

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