Some of my golf friends who have played many of the world’s finest courses on multiple continents have been discussing what will be the next direction of golf course design. During the building of so many courses in 1970-1990 by the likes of Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, etc., there was a premium based on building courses that were difficult. Many of these courses came with the tag line of “championship” in order to sell houses in a new housing development where “championship” implied they could host a significant tournament or only really “good” golfers were members there due to their difficulty.
Coinciding with the publication of Tom Doak’s “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses” where Mr. Doak praised the classic courses and criticized many of the newly built courses, the minimalist design began to take form with the heights reached by Sand Hills, the courses at Bandon Dunes, Ballyneal, Tara Iti, Friars Head, Barnbougle Dunes, etc. These courses included design features that one often found on the great courses in the British Isles – wide fairways, uneven/ragged/raised bunkers, uneven lies in fairways, and contoured greens with humps and swales instead of slopes. There is a near absence of trees as a line of defense relying instead on bunkers, tall grass and the weather/wind. Parkland courses in the USA responded with tree removal programs and restoration efforts at courses such as Merion East, Oakmont, Sleepy Hollow, etc. Even Pine Valley removed trees to provide “infinity” views and better sight lines to the greens.
In the more recent ranking of courses we see a return of courses designed by the golden era of golf from Seth Raynor, Charles Blair Macdonald, H.S. Colt, A.W. Tillinghast, William Flynn, Willie Park, Jr., Herbert Fowler, and Alastair Mackenzie. While many of these courses never left the top 100 lists, they have moved up while courses built by Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio have moved down and even off the lists. Template holes have become more fashionable with golfers debating their favorite ones and ranking them by the course they are on.
Many of the “new” designs by Tom Doak, Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, David Maclay Kidd, and Gil Hanse have entered the rankings. A new course being built by one of them is eagerly waited to see if it will be good enough to crack the top 100 list. The two new public courses to be built near Tara Iti are a prime example. Somehow all of these highly rated designs by the minimalists found exceptional land. A winning formula has been made by putting exceptional land in the hands of a gifted designer who is sponsored by an owner or club with the funding to both build and sustain it, environmental approval, and the commitment to see it through.
But are the “new” minimalist/natural designs becoming too formulaic? Are fairways on these courses too wide and therefore too easy? Are greens too large and overly undulated? Has challenge (in the absence of wind) and strategy been removed from these new courses on too many holes in order to create “eye candy” only and fun. In other words, has skill and decision making been removed from the new designs at the expense of “hit it as hard and as far as you can” or “watch this putt go up and down.”
Make no mistake, I greatly admire and appreciate 9 out of 10 courses from these new designers, including Hurzdan, Fry and Devries.
Yet my friends and I think about which direction golf will go next in terms of design? We felt that Mike Strantz was likely leading course design in a new direction prior to his early passing. Mr. Strantz created holes that were unique and offered a “surprise” in having not seen holes built like them anywhere else. Tobacco Road is probably the best example.
One of my well-traveled golf friends recently played the revamped Meadowbrook Golf Club in Northville, Michigan. He liked it so much he went back and played it a second time. He praised the course and said it has a chance to be in the top 100 in the USA. It currently sits #25 in the state of Michigan according to Golf Digest and #12 in top100golfcourses.com. However, both of these rankings reflect the previous course prior to Andy Staples arrival to rebuild and re-route the course.
I played at Barton Hills the previous day to playing at Meadowbrook. Both of my member hosts at Barton Hills told me they preferred the previous version of Meadowbrook when it was tree-lined and had more traditional greens. They thought the new greens to be overly done. So I went to play Meadowbrook with mixed expectations.
After playing it, I agree more with my friend. I loved it.
I also think it could be the answer to the question of the direction that golf is heading. Meadowbrook is a course that anyone can play, you will rarely lose a ball, and you can either score well or score poorly but you will have fun while having to make decisions on the tee and the approach shot. It offers tremendous views that inspire you. The fairways are not overly wide nor is the rough overly penal. There are several blind shots but they rarely put one in a position where they do not offer options to recover. It offers unique green complexes that can reward you or be penal. It balances challenge and scoring opportunities. It is fun.
First, a brief history of Meadowbrook. It was founded in 1916 by 23 members on 125 acres with an initial six holes built by Willie Park, Jr. and the clubhouse a building that was 6 feet by eight feet. Willie Park, Jr. was a talented designer (Sunningdale Old, Olympia Fields North, or Notts), ultimately building nearly 220 different golf courses in the UK, Europe, USA, and Canada. Mr. Park, Jr. built large, undulating greens. He also stressed the importance of positioning a ball with the tee shot. In 1919, an additional three holes were added as the club added another 55 acres. At the time, 180 acres was a tremendous amount of land for a golf course given the Old course at St. Andrews only occupies 95 acres.
Soon after, Harry Collis and Jack Daray designed the second nine. Their most famous designs are Flossmoor and Phoenix CC.
Donald Ross remodeled two holes in 1933 making the long twelfth and rebuilding two greens. Mr. Ross likely needed the money at the time due to the Great Depression.
Arthur Hills rebuilt holes 14-16 in 1972.
During the 1940’s Meadowbrook hosted The Meadowbrook Invitational, consisting of the best amateurs. The Motor City Open was staged four times (1948, 1949, 1954 and 1959) by the PGA. The first tournament was won by Ben Hogan, who holed out on his approach shots into eighteen twice consecutively in the same tournament. The PGA was held in 1955 and won by Doug Ford. This was a course highly regarded.
The course was maintained very well yet the greens suffered from drainage problems and poa annua resulting in higher maintenance costs.
More recently, the course also was impacted by the pesticide Imprelis, produced by DuPont, which lead to the death of hundreds of trees on the property. After lengthy negotiations, a sizeable settlement was reached between the club and DuPont of which the funds were earmarked to improve/restore/renovate the golf course. It was at this point that the club decided to put a stake in the ground and form a plan to create a course for the next century.
The club interviewed many candidates for restoring the golf course and selected Andy Staples.
Mr. Staples took a small group of members to the UK to see the work of Willie Park, Jr. at his other designs, including Huntercombe. Following this visit, it was agreed that Mr. Park, Jr.’s remaining five original greens should be maintained and the new course should have a link to Mr. Park’s design philosophy. Those original greens were GPS surveyed and recorded on a five feet grid. While some of the grades were adjusted slightly for modern day green speeds, their style remains. The new greens built resemble those from Huntercombe and provide players an opportunity to see a type of green they may never see unless they were to travel to the UK. The inner contours of the greens in many cases are dramatic but are not silly. They expertly combine mounding, slope, humps and swales as one does not feel as if a putt is going to be impossible. The greens are often squared off. There are false fronts, greens sloped back to front or front to back. There are “bumpers” that propel balls to the middle. There are raised edges making it difficult to get onto the green but then difficult to stop the ball once on. Scott Clem, the shaper, deserves much of the credit for this.
Much like the modernist designers of today, Mr. Staples emphasized recovery from near the green. Other than a bad break if one ends up in the corner of a bunker, I certainly felt as if I had the opportunity to get a ball onto the green within a distance where I had a reasonable chance of saving par. There is short grass/chipping/putting areas near many of the greens, sometimes in the front, several times in the rear, and sometimes off to the side to provide players with multiple options. When I compare them to similar short grass areas built by the modernists/naturalists, these are simply better at putting doubt and opportunity from those various positions in one’s mind.
I did not play the old course prior to the restoration but my two member hosts told me about the previous course. One of the members won the “C” flight championship earlier that day while the other member was very involved with Mr. Staples as he sits on the board of the club. He is an equally fine player who if he putts well, is likely to be near par for his round. Several times the board member said he looked at the plans from Mr. Staples and thought that it wouldn’t work, only to go out and stand on the ground and see the improved vistas from better tee and green locations. The new routing brought existing ponds more into play as well as a pond added improved the visual look of a par 3.
As for the land….it is exceptional. It rolls up and down but never so overly done that you gasp for breadth, feel you have a shot you cannot pull off or are guessing too much. While there are a couple of blind shots, it is obvious as to the general direction one should play. This is some of the best land I have seen for a golf course of this type. The course sits on essentially the same block of land as the previous course, but it is an almost entirely different routing. Mr. Staples and the greens committee decided that many of the holes should be re-routed yet have a connection to the design philosophy of Mr. Park, Jr. As part of the redesign, Mr. Staples and the club decided to expand the footprint of the holes to maximize the land values. Holes five, six, seven, eleven and twelve were slightly re-routed.
Even though Meadowbrook lost hundreds of trees from Imprelis, under Mr. Staples they decided to take out even more. It is no longer a tree-lined course. The views of the course have opened up even though a few trees remain, more so on the back nine. Trees still line the outer boundaries of the course.
The bunkers were given a grass look to go along with the sand at the bottom.
In his design work, Mr. Staples is focused on sustainability to lower maintenance costs and the use of water. Fairways were widened with water and fertilizer focused on the main playing areas, as the areas of rough were reduced although still very much in play. A quarter of the property is now dedicated to low-maintenance native grass and other landscape features. This allows the playing corridors in blend in with its natural surroundings.
Finally, the course built tees that match swing speeds of seniors and junior/beginning golfers. Yardages start at 4008 yards going all the way to 7026 yards.
In summary, other than those original greens and the routing to those greens, most of Meadowbrook is a new course. The course that several other designers touched is now gone. This is an Andy Staples design and no real credit should not be attributed to previous designers other than for Willie Park, Jr.
From the Red tees the course plays 7026 yards, par 72, rated 74.3/142. We played the Black tees at 6610 yards, rated 72.3/140. There are a total of nine rated teeing options. The routing has a good mixture of longer and shorter holes across all pars. Due to the quality of the land, there are multiple options to play downhill or uphill either on the tee shot or the approach shot.
1. Par 4 – 372/348. The starting hole seemingly offers an easy start, but one needs to find the fairway. This hole plays downhill and then equally uphill, which is a characteristic of several holes to follow. A bunker sits off to the left that bigger hitters easily carry but if they go too far left there is a pond awaiting them. There is a stream channel down the right but only the longer hitters can reach it. Fronting the green are two large, deep bunkers about five yards short of the green. Behind the green is a stone wall representing out-of-bounds. The green slopes steeply back to front after a swale in the front middle. I left my approach shot slightly short of the green and was lucky to make a downhill eight feet putt to save bogey as I did a poor job on judging the pace on the first two putts.
2. Par 5 – 573/548. Spring Lane represents out-of-bounds down the left side of this fairway. This hole offers a chance to have your ball roll out an extra fifty yards if you catch the downhill slope into a valley. I missed the slope by a yard. There is a large bunker on the left pinching into the fairway but it should be easily cleared off the tee. Farther up as the land rises to the green there are two bunkers right, one shaped like half of a rectangle followed immediately by one that comes into a third of the fairway. These bunkers need to be avoided due to their depth. The green has been softened by raising the front of it, which results in a green that is more easily putted, but the false front has been enhanced. The green is also two tiered, long and fairly large and despite the change in grade, is still very quick back to front. The green has a deep bunker on either side. I pulled my approach shot into a lie near the back edge of the left bunker leaving a shot with one leg in and one leg bent and out. I like this hole for the visuals from the tee shot and then the rise to the green. I regret very much turning a simple par into a double bogey.
3. Par 4 – 369/351. This hole plays slightly downhill and one can get their ball to roll out. There is a single “j” shaped bunker on the right. There is a deep grass bunker on the right fronting the green. This is followed by the Huntercombe 4th hole-inspired green which sits to the right fronted by a short grass area. This “separate” green is like a punchbowl sitting five feet below the main section of the green to its left. There are two bunkers behind the green which would leave a difficult recovery. We had a middle left pin position so I did not get to experience the Huntercombe section but I thought it to be fantastic.
4. Par 5 – 536/518. The tee area has been brought to the right reducing the amount of dogleg in this hole and providing a better tee shot. The tee shot plays from an elevated tee and one must avoid the thick trees down the left. A long pond comes into play on the left side for the second shot and third shot as the pond continues to the left side of the green. There are scattered trees and higher land down the right side on the side of a hill. Near the green about 50 yards short is a small center-line bunker as well as a larger one off to the right. The green has a significant false front and falls away to the left side down to the pond with a single bunker on the front left. Another greenside bunker hooks around the back right corner. The green is crowned with a depression in the back right. This is a very nice golf hole ending in a terrific green.
5. Par 4 – 460/417. This dogleg right has a blind tee shot uphill with the best line being down the right side. The left side of the fairway offers higher ground. The hole has no bunkers. The hole then plays downhill into a punchbowl-like squared-off green. Trees are scattered on both sides of the fairway. There is a stream crossing the fairway 30 yards short of the green. The green has substantial “banks” on three sides with a slight rise at the front. One can play these banks and have their balls come back onto the green. The right side of the green is higher than the left. I thought I hit a good recovery shot but got stopped by the rise fronting the green. There were two aspects to this hole that I really liked. After one crests the hill, there is a striking view of the green complex nestled in the side of another hill behind it. I also really liked the fun aspect of the “bumpers” surrounding the green.
6. Par 3 – 176/158. Playing homage to Willie Park, Jr., the green has three bunkers with the first of two on the left in the shape of a “J” while the green is in the shape of a “r.” There is another bunker front right. The beginning of the green is very narrow with a bank on the right side to bring balls onto the green. Above this bank is a plateau of short grass. I missed left into the “J” bunker and tried to use the bank but ended up on the plateau leaving a slick downhill putt down the bank that also broke about five feet. Somehow I managed a bogey. The better play actually was to not to try to use the right bank and let the smaller bank on the left bring my ball to the hole. The back right of this green is its own plateau but the back actually slopes away from you like a redan. The entirety of the back half of the green acts like a second tier. I found the green complex to be genius.
7. Par 4 – 418/387. This elevated tee has been moved to the right to bring the pond into play. It is a relatively easy carry over the pond but the key is to be able to hit it far enough to get up the hill after the pond. If one does not, then they have a blind shot into the green. If one pulls their tee shot too far left there are three horizontal bunkers awaiting them. The green is long but relatively narrow with a drop in front of it. The green has an internal swale bisecting the middle. The green slopes front to back with three deep bunkers on the left. I made an unnecessary bogey here because I did not quite realize the line into the green with my blind approach shot leaving a putt of too much length.
8. Par 3 – 206/186. This tee has been moved to the left with a pond added on the right to bookend an existing pond on the left. Neither pond should be in play as they are well short of the green. You play across a valley to a green that is surrounded by four bunkers with the two in the back preceded by short grass. There is a substantial false front. The green is steeply tilted back to front with various interior slopes. The “miss” on this hole is short as being long or in a bunker will lead to a recovery shot that needs to navigate the mounds, plateaus, and slants on this green. The variations in the green are not overly done, but they are difficult to judge correctly. It is another hole with a beautiful view from the tee.
9. Par 4 – 338/324. As beautiful as some of the holes have been beginning with the first hole, the ninth is likely the most beautiful on the course. From another elevated tee you play downhill. On the right side is a small stream, heather and three bunkers that are easily cleared by longer hitters but the final one captured my ball close to its steep face leading to a shot where getting out was the goal. About 25 yards short of the green on the left is another bunker. There is a central front bunker at the green and one placed front right and back left. The green has a false front and is built into higher ground behind it. The green is angled to the right and relatively thin with two tiers and slopes. The second tier acts as a backstop with a steep downhill putt going to the left. From the tee, one sees all of the sand on the fairway to the green, the eighteenth green, first hole and first tee, the clubhouse, and the starting barn. I made a mental mistake on the hole by not looking at the scorecard to get the yardage as the hole looks much longer from the tee. If I had I would have made the obvious play out to the left which would have still left a difficult, but manageable short shot into the green instead of playing right to bring all of the trouble into play. It is a very good short par 4 where one can make multiple decisions on the tee and into the green.
10. Par 4 – 372/354. This is the only hole I do not rave about on the golf course. It reminded me a bit of #2 at National Golf Links although that hole has a windmill. The blind tee shot to the fairway ultimately ends at a green that sits below you. The tee shot offers a single bunker on the right that narrows the fairway. There is another bunker left of the very large green that slopes away from you. There is a definite swale on the back right of the green making any ball that goes off the back a difficult recovery if the pin is at the back. You should try to land your ball short of this green much like National.
11. Par 3 – 215/194. Playing from another elevated tee this hole at least a club shorter. It is beautiful from the tee. There is a stream channel that curves its way well short of the green followed by two central bunkers, a long bunker shaped as a shoe curving around the front left and down the left and a single bunker at the rear. The rear bunker is also preceded by short grass. This hole has another swale on the middle right creating two plateaus. The real genius of the green complex is the short grass placed down the right side of the green presenting many options for recovery – chip, pitch, putt, hybrid…..but other than the swale you will have to navigate sharp, raised mounds along that right side. The front left of the green will propel a ball forward and towards the middle of the green due to the kick to the right. One has multiple decisions how to play this hole regardless of pin position.
12. Par 5 – 575/540. I really like this par 5 playing up over a hill where the ball will get additional rollout. There is a single bunker placed near the crest of the hill on the left. There is a bunker 80 yards short of the green on the left. A bunker flanks both sides at the front of the green. The green has a rise in its front leading to a sharp fall-off behind it as well as on the right side. The putting surface is squared off and has two tiers and a slope to the left. If one misses long, they will roll off into short grass as much as twenty yards, perhaps even onto the thirteenth tee.
13. Par 3 – 189/168. This seemingly easy hole resulted in the only hole that none of us made par. The green is in the shape of a hot-air balloon, narrow at the front and widening to the rear. There are two bunkers to either side. The green is fairly level although with a slight tilt to the left and back. Visually this hole did not quite grab my attention so I paid for it with my bogey.
14. Par 4 – 362/338. The lions-mouth green awaits you after a blind drive uphill with the center of the fairway sitting about eight feet lower than the fairway on either side creating the effect of a channel. Longer hitters easily crest the hill leaving a short pitch into a very large green bisected at the front by a bunker (the lion’s mouth) with bunkers on either side. The green has multiple tiers to it due to a horizontal ridge line and if one is on the wrong side, then a three putt is a strong possibility. I really liked the blind tee shot as well as the approach into the green. There is a pegboard near the tee to show the pin location for the day.
15. Par 4 – 471/447. One of the hardest holes on the course, this slightly downhill hole bends a bit to the right whereas previously the green was set off to the left closer to the clubhouse. There is a small bunker on the right that is easily cleared followed by two more off to the right. At the green is a single bunker to the back left which is in play as the green slopes front to back. The green is one of the flatter ones on the course in the shape of a rectangle.
16. Par 4 – 432/414. This hole plays uphill with the left side of the fairway offering more roll-out on the tee shot. The two bunkers on the right side of fifteen are now in play on the right side of this hole with a collection of trees opposite them on the left. Near the green are three bunkers that begin about thirty yards short of the green. There are two bunkers placed behind the green which is angled a bit to the right. In terms of difficulty, the last two holes I thought played the hardest on the golf course.
17. Par 5 – 522/501. This is a fabulous golf hole. There is a single “rough” bunker off to the left. The longer hitters can easily reach this green in two despite the raised green. The average hitters will need to decide whether they should lay up before the “eyebrow” bunkers that are 40 yards short of the green. The eyebrow bunkers are raised, nearly vertical, and likely lead to a blind shot to the green. Following these bunkers is a “Biarritz” area before you get to the green. To either side after the eyebrow bunkers is a bunker opposite the Biarritz area. At the green there is a single deep bunker on the right side of the green. There are options to putt or pitch from the left side of the green due to the extensive short grass. The green is squared but crowned so balls do have the possibility of going off the green even if the center of the green is hit. Visually this hole is terrific from 150 yards out. My only slight quibble is that the eyebrow bunkers perhaps should have been moved forward another 20 yards. However, that is because it fits my game. For longer players trying to reach the green, the eyebrow bunkers are perfectly placed. The green complexes at the third, sixth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, fourteenth, and seventeenth are about as good as it gets.
18. Par 4 – 440/417. After a walk back to the tee somewhat similar in length for the walk from seven to eight tee, you play slightly uphill as a blind tee shot. There is a bunker on the right in play for the shorter hitters while a rough bunker with an interior island is on the left for the longer hitters. Following the left bunker the land drops down to a green that is built into the side of a hill, leaving a sizeable rise on the front and right side of the green should one miss it there. However, one should try not to miss it there given two deep bunkers on the right front. The left side offers a long, thin bunker. The green has a diagonal swale in it and is sloped steeply back to front and to the left. The club tried to recreate the green that was once there, even if the green is in a new location. If you can hit it straight off the tee, you will receive a long roll-out that could leave as little as a 7-9 iron in your hands for the approach shot. It is a fine finishing hole.
Where would I rank Meadowbrook in the state of Michigan? There remain seven courses I want to play including: Franklin Hills, Indianwood Old, Orchard Lake, Plum Hollow, CC of Detroit, The Loop and Marquette at Greywalls. Yet when I look at the list of top courses I have played in Michigan I could place it as high as fourth. It is not in the same league as Crystal Downs and Oakland Hills South. It does not have the dramatic and beautiful setting of Arcadia Bluffs along Lake Michigan. But I would rather play at Meadowbrook than Lost Dunes, Kingsley Club, Point O’ Woods, and Barton Hills. I like and admire all of these courses, but Meadowbrook has both better land, a better routing, good variety of holes, and more interesting green complexes. It should easily move into the top ten in the state, and in my mind likely within the top five. As for whether it is a top 100 course in the USA, I somewhat doubt it because I feel some raters might not like it given my discussion with the two members from Barton Hills. I could see it near the bottom of the top 100.
I do hope more designs are built like this. I think Mr. Staples has possibly led the way in the future of designs. The best of the newest courses of the past five years that I have played are Cape Wickham and Tara Iti. Meadowbrook falls just below those two but that is high praise given their seaside locations. Those courses offer interesting green complexes as well, but they are not quite as much fun as what has been built here.
Date: August 29, 2020