Stoatin Brae is the sixth 18-hole course to open at Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort in 2017. Designed by a team of senior associates from Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design company, the layout is built to play firm and fast.
The resort first opened for business in 1963, with the unveiling of the West course, followed a decade later by the East. Both layouts were designed by the Scott family, the property owners. After acquiring more land two and a half miles further to the east, the Scotts built the 18-hole South and North Stonehenge courses in 1988 and 1995, respectively.
They also purchased the older, William Mitchell-designed Bedford Valley course in 1988 so, until the arrival of Stoatin Brae, Gull Lake View was a 90-hole golf facility. This latest addition to the portfolio offers fabulous views of the Kalamazoo River Valley and the windy nature of the course’s exposed location places a premium on good ground game skills when playing here.
Stoatin Brae is a victim of its circumstances unfortunately a solid course made to play fast and firm that the owner/resort don’t let play fast and firm. It’s a shame I think the course could be really good but after two loops here in separate years I left the course feeling “what if” the course is open with rolling hills and fescue gives you vibes of a smaller Erin Hills with better green complexes. Unfortunately the greens have been slowed to a pace that I find Almost unbearable, left a straight downhill 10’ birdie putt 5’ short and yelled in frustration. It’s never going to be one of the very best in Michigan but could be Better if made to play the way it was designed.
After playing the Warren course at Notre Dame in the morning and needing to get to Columbus, Ohio that evening, I made a hasty decision on Friday, July 31, 2020 to detour to Stoatin Brae, one of many golf courses under the Gull Lake View Resort umbrella.
I was told the fairways and greens were firm and fast. While there was a bit of roll-out on the fairways, the greens reminded me very much of the greens at Ballyneal: somewhat quick on the steeper downhill slopes but one needs to hit it a bit harder going uphill. This is because at both courses the type of grass used is not really conducive to mowing it tight during the heat of the summer. Unlike Ballyneal, where the greens can get patchy due to much higher temperatures in the summers in the Chop Hills of Colorado, the greens at Stoatin Brae are in very good condition, including the green surrounds. The greens also reminded me of Ballyneal in the number of false fronts and the shaping, although missing the much bigger undulations that are a feature of Ballyneal. That should be no surprise, given that it the team of Renaissance Golf Design under Tom Doak, that did both. Mr. Doak served only as a consultant here, as his team led by Erik Iverson, Don Placek, Brian Schneider and Brian Slawnik did the actual design and building.
The bunkering here is very different from Ballyneal – nothing really wild or large and certainly not as many bunkers. That is to be expected given this is a public golf course. Still, given the vastness and expansiveness of the course, one wishes the bunkering was both more frequent, better placed, and more interesting.
There is a sense of solitude here, playing atop a hill with the best view coming from the clubhouse. I recall only a few times hearing any noise from cars off in the distance and once from an overhead plane. I did like that aspect to the course.
There are a few blind shots similar to Ballyneal or Barnbougle Dunes on the holes farthest from the clubhouse where the land rolls a lot more. That is a nice addition to those holes because they do suffer from a lack of length. That is perhaps my biggest issue with the course is the lack of longer, more interesting par 4’s., particularly on the inward nine. It certainly felt that the land was available to lengthen the weakest holes on the course, but the designers made a different decision.
The highlight of the course are the par 3’s both from a visual and playing perspective. None of them will blow one away, but they are holes offering interest and requiring a well-executed shot. As would be expected, they also have the better green complexes. The par 4’s are a bit uneven while the par 5’s are too forgiving.
It is a well-balanced course with the outward nine offering the more difficult holes while the inward nine offers the most fun and the scoring holes.
Stoatin Brae is a very playable golf course, with generous fairways and accessible greens. However, one can lose balls here as the rough is tall, thick grass.
The course measures 6742 yards from the Gold tees, par 71 rated 71.5/122. The Black tees are 6271 yards rated 69.2/119. I started on the Gold tees for seven holes but then joined a group of three guys who were playing the Black tees. The yardage of the nines is unbalanced. From the Gold tees the yardage is 3622-3120 while from the Black tees the yardage is 3351-2920. There are two sets of shorter tees.
1 – par 4 359/326. The weakest hole on the golf course goes straight out with a large green. There is a single fairway bunker on the left which should be carried from the either tee if one goes down the left side. But there is no real reason to go down the left given the width of the fairway. The green has no bunkers, merely a fall-off at the rear. The hole needs more bunkering given its length.
2 – par 3 225/215. Although this hole is not visually interesting, I did like it because the large green is set at a left to right angle. This angle brings the left rear bunker into play as there is a fall-off to the right of the green that people will play away from. However, one has a good chance of recovery from any spot should they miss the green. The left side of the hole offers higher ground making the green set in sort of a half-bowl.
3 – par 436/405. My favorite hole on the course because it has better bunkering and a nicely shaped green. There is a bunker short right off the green placed there to force you to hit left. Farther up is a cross-bunker, more in play for the longer hitters off the tee. The green has flanking front bunkers and a slight false front. Although I double bogeyed the hole due to a lost ball, I enjoyed the hole.
4 – par 4 475/423. This is the number one index both for its length as well as it is a narrower fairway ringed by taller grass. There is a large fairway bunker on the right followed by another on the right about 30 yards short of the raised green. A final bunker is front left. The green is set off just a bit to the right. It is the best hole on the golf course as it has one of the better greens but the previous hole caught my eye a bit more.
5 – par 4 437/383. This dogleg left is another fine hole with a small bunker on the right off the tee not in play but a larger one on the inner corner that is in play. At the green are two bunkers on the right. The green could be more interesting. This completes the most difficult stretch of golf on the course and the finest three consecutive holes.
6 – par 5 564/520. There is not much going on with this straight hole other than a fairway bunker on the right about 180 yards from the green and a large bunker front left. The fairway has a few rolls and dips to it but one has a level lie. The green is large and has decent inner contouring. The hole requires more defense and definition. With the land being relatively boring, a straight hole like this requires more bunkers. I also felt that the green should have been placed off to the right to provide more complexity as there is room before the next tee but the designers routed it straight to have the trees as a backdrop.
7 – par 3 217/204. This hole plays a bit longer as it is uphill. There are two unnecessary cross bunkers 70-50 yards short of the green. The green has a single bunker left with a definite spine in it. It is a nice par 3, slightly better than the second hole.
8 – par 4 343/316. The short par 4’s begin here. There is a cross bunker and another bunker right that one can carry from the tee. This is followed by a bunker right twenty yards short of the green and one middle right. The fairway is wide after the cross bunker. The green is set off to the right with a chipping area surrounding it. There is a lot of land behind the tee to perhaps lengthen the hole by up to 100 yards and I am surprised the routing did not do this given the number of shorter par 4’s that come later.
9 – par 5 566/559. This is the best par 5 on the golf course offering a narrower driving lane offset by tall grass on either side (two of my playing companions lost balls on the left), There is a large bunker on the right forcing one to aim left off the tee. Further up on the left is a bunker that does come into play as it sits atop a rise in the land. The hole continues to rise to the green where a bunker cuts into the green on the right leaving a tricky back right pin position. I wish the three other par 5’s were at least as good as this.
There is a delightful halfway house built into the side of the hill.
The tenth hole through the fifteenth is on the land with the biggest changes in elevation/terrain.
10 – par 4 336/313. This is a blind tee shot uphill over a rise leading to a valley and finishing uphill. What one cannot see from the tee is how wide the fairway is to the left which provides the best angle to the green. A center-line bunker is 40 yards short of the green with a fronting bunker and two on the right side. The green is two tiered and slanted substantially back to front. It is a nice hole.
11 – par 3 167/161. For me this is the weakest par 3 on the golf course with a meaningless bunker 25 yards short of the green and two bunkers off to the left. The hole plays uphill over a valley. There are no interesting green surrounds.
12 – par 4 382/359. Playing from a very elevated tee with another blind tee shot, one hits over a valley to a hill which is followed by a very steep downhill to the green. Big hitters can easily reach this green perhaps even with a 3 hybrid. There are two bunkers short off the tee that I did not understand their purpose as well as one placed well to the right. There is a series of shelves as the ball tumbles down to the green which has no bunkers. The green slopes away from you slightly with run-offs on all sides. It is a fun hole but one I felt should be 70 yards longer. There seemed to be room to do so although it would require tree removal.
13 – par 4 459/433. Easily the best hole on the back nine as it plays uphill as a dogleg left. There is a bunker left that should be easily carried and two small bunkers on the right that are more in play as the fairway tilts to the right. The green is nestled in a dell near the top of the hill with a knob hiding much of it. The knob definitely stops balls from going onto the green. The green has good inner contouring.
You get close again to the halfway house before proceeding to the cutest hole on the course.
14 – par 3 144/130. This slightly downhill par 3 is splendid with a valley fronting it leading to a false front. There is a center front bunker and two bunkers at the back to a green that is sloped back to front with a sizeable thumbprint in the front middle sending balls off the front if they have too much speed. The bunker shapes are more interesting on this hole.
15 – par 4 374/364. This is another blind tee shot where one should favor the right side of the generous fairway to have a look at the green. The left side of the fairway is on lower ground with a single bunker where one cannot see the green for their approach. There is a bunker 15 yards short right of the green which sits on a plateau. It’s an okay hole but one that again could have been improved with removal of some of those trees on the left and moving the tee to the left and back another 15 yards.
16 – par 5 540/500. There are thick trees down the left side and another center line bunker that can be reached from the tee. 50 yards ahead of it is another bunker that I did not understand its placement. 20 yards short of the green is a bunker on the right. The green has run-offs and some inner depressions but overall is not interesting. The hole deserves better bunkering and a more interesting green.
17 – par 3 170/135. The most bunkered par 3 is next with a bunker 10 yards short on the front and then two left and a small one on the right of this raised green. It is a decent par 3 although the 135 tee makes the green a bit too large for the length of the hole.
18 – par 5 548/525 . This dogleg left is an okay finishing hole with a fairway bunker left that cuts off half of the fairway. It is placed there for the longer hitters but one should aim away from it. Another bunker sits on the right 50 yards ahead of it serving merely as “eye candy.” Nearer the green is a bunker left about 75 yards short of the green and then one front left. The green is raised with a significant false front, odd-shaped with run-offs. While I liked the hole, I did not understand the placement of the bunkers.
Stoatin Brae is an interesting course, sort of one that meets the needs of its intended audience which is resort guests or the daily fee player looking for fun and enjoyment. For golfers who want a more serious course, This falls slightly short of the mark. However, most of the elements are there as the course could reach a higher level given the land. In a sense it is a course of unfulfilled potential where better placement, more interesting shaping of bunkers, as well as perhaps adding twenty additional bunkers would substantially improve the course. The greens are fine with the exception of three. However, the green surrounds could be made much more interesting. Obviously adding additional bunkers and increasing their size would add to the annual cost of maintenance. The routing could be improved with additional tree removal and a new placement for the sixth green.
Of the six courses at Gull Lake View Resort, this is definitely worth playing. I am very glad I made the two hour driving detour and the slightly less than four hours to play it. If I were in the area I would seek it out.
Originally Tom Doak looked to be the architect for the course but when matters firmed up at Forest Dunes with Doak's involvement for The Loop it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Doak's talented associates were the ones who eventually took on the assignment.
Stoatin Brae is unlike the other five courses at Gull Lake View Golf Club. The course is situated on a high plateau with little tree involvement. Translated from the Gaelic it means -- "Grand Hill." Originally, an apple orchard operated through the previous owners, however, the Scott family had plans to turn the location into a housing development but that never panned out. Thank heavens for that as the additional golf option clearly differentiates itself from the other courses at the facility.
The goal was to create a truly "firm and fast" presentation so that the bounce of the ball is clearly incorporated into the play. It also helps matters that given the location the daily wind pattern can play a major role in most instances.
The major drawback at this moment is the need to get turf to optimally firm and fast conditions. When I played the course this past August the fairways had sufficient grass but the bounce of the ball was fairly limited and not as engaging as it should be. Stoatin Brae has plenty of elements that can only come alive fully when the air and ground games are truly engaged. Right now -- the aerial game predominates.
The course starts with what appears to be a gentle opener. The tee shot is blind over a rise to a green slightly elevated with fall-offs. The 1st, like many of the hole at Stoatin Brae is very generous in terms of its width. The key is securing the best angle for the approach.
The 2nd, is the first of five par-3's at the course, and it's clearly first rate. The green runs away from the tee so marrying the appropriate flight and bounce of the ball is a critical dimension. There is a shoulder on the left side that players can use to their advantage if played properly. Often times, architects eschew having par-3 holes come early in the round. The collective nature of all the par-3 holes is a key strength of the course.
On the flip side the four par-5 holes are a major anchor against the course. The design differentiation is not robust for variety and overall challenge. The long 6th and 9th holes respectively, go in the same direction and are both dull. The only saving grace is the back portion of the green at the 9th is done well. The two other par-5's come on two of the last three holes and while the topography and center- placed fairway bunker at the 16th is quite good -- the overall nature of what the holes present is just not that compelling. The 18th provides a final scoring opportunity for birdie but it fails to stir the blood emotionally as a closing hole should do.
The outward side is clearly the more difficult. When you leave the 1st green the series of holes that follow will push players to play at a consistently high level. Frankly, the disparity in length between the front and back nines exceeds 500+ yards.
Among the more noted holes on the front side is the short par-4 8th. The green is elevated and angled. When you find the generous fairway is only the start of the challenge encountered. The pitch shot one needs to play must be done with the highest degree of dexterity because the slightest pull or push will have you struggling mightily to escape with a par.
Stoatin Brae is a work in progress. If the overall firmness can be achieved on a daily basis then the slew of architectural elements will only be magnified. But, if what I experienced becomes the norm then the layout will merely be good rather than exceptional. The 2020 golf season will be interesting to see what unfolds.
M. James Ward