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.
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