Forest Dunes: Destination evolution

  • F Dunes
    Forest Dunes

    The third (foreground), fourth and eighth greens on Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb’s new short course layout at Forest Dunes

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    Forest Dunes

    Firm fescue and severe ground contour invites creative shot-making, as seen here at the 100-yard second

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    Forest Dunes

    Forest Dunes also has an 18-hole layout by Tom Weiskopf and the reversible Loop course (pictured) by Tom Doak

Vaughn Halyard
By Vaughn Halyard

Michigan golfers are spoiled. Ask if they played XYZ course in ABC state, and there is a likelihood the answer will be: “No… but I have heard it is very nice.” They are inundated with an abundance of excellent golf, so they find it hard to justify leaving their state. The completion of the Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb-designed short course at Forest Dunes is sure to compound the Michigan golfer’s chronic ‘homerism’.

The short course adds another compelling option to the Forest Dunes menu. The resort started with the original Forest Dunes, a parkland course set in the sand barren and dunes, designed by Tom Weiskopf. In 2016, it added a fascinating reversible course, the Loop, conceived and designed by Tom Doak. From a timing perspective, you are playing the equivalent of two courses, but it is unequivocally a single 36-hole course and should be played as such over two days.

The Rhebb and Riley ten-holer plays up into a treed dune, meanders back down a hill through a gully, then crosses an adjacent dune, on the perpendicular. The fescue is firmly planted on the packed sand and the course invites the requisite creativity and wagering. Our host, golf industry PR veteran and fierce golf stick Kevin Frisch, regularly demonstrated his genius with a putter from as far as 160 yards. His precise thump off the tee with the flat stick will undoubtedly require a loft adjustment. This is illustrative of the enjoyment built into the design. The same group included some using the land and features to hone their short game on tight lies and some keeping serious score. Others were playing a call-a-club challenge on each hole where each shot was celebrated by laughter. The features and bunkers were fully formed as a championship approach, yet the routing invited equal parts shotmaking and whimsy. That is not an easy task to accomplish and R&R delivered a course for true ‘R&R’. I found myself wanting for more: “That’s it? Ten holes is not enough.”

More on golf in Michigan. During one of several enjoyable conversations with Michigan golf writers John Retzer and Tom Lang, I learned that Michigan has between 650 and 850 public golf courses. (That figure includes a number of nine-hole courses often left out of the tally).

Sand is omnipresent at Forest Dunes. Guests are able to choose their favourite playing surface. Interestingly, this is part of a trip planning protocol for some. The closer to the resort, the more prominent is the sand. Next to the road, under the high-tension power lines, the quicksand-like country roads down which I was routed by my Waze were all sand. The houses and cottages at the resort were all set on sand. So, I assumed that the original course would be on sand.

For the first-time visitor expecting sandy links-style golf, the first tee of the namesake Forest Dunes course will surprise. It is a fairly lush parkland. It is very well routed, enjoyable. It is an interesting juxtaposition, sand barren and dune immediately adjacent the verdant mow lines and rough.

Pure sandcapped by soil and green grass laid in the dunes might be a bit of a ponder but understandable given the period the course was built. Fairways are moist but greens are hard packed directly on sand and roll true. More importantly, it has many fans and guests who love it and keep coming back. “My dad loves this course,” makes this a destination where there is something for everyone.

Michigan is ‘golf is for the people’. The explosion in golf was driven not only by the elite, but also by the blue collar and line workers of the auto industry’s United Auto Workers (UAW). During the Detroit, (Flint, Cadillac, Grand Rapids) auto heyday, when the shift ended, there was no work to take home and the pay was excellent. A coupling of disposable income with a brutal winter climate, the UAW community took full advantage of summer warmth and 10pm sunsets. Golf became both an afterwork passion and a place to park money for those not connected to investment advisors of the wealthy country club set. Retzer says: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Michigan is either first or second in number of registered boats, depending on the source. Boats and cabins near lakes and golf courses.” Destination golf became an intra-state industry.

Jump to the present, the competition for the Michigan golf dollar is heated. The industry welcomes customers from in and out of state. Golf figures prominently in the state of Michigan’s extensive economic development and tourism ad campaign, simply titled ‘Pure Michigan’. Historically, Forest Dunes was envisioned as a private club/real estate destination. The bubble bursting pivot forced upon all industries drove their switch from private, to a public destination resort. That pivot also informed a decision to become a multi-course facility. Frisch says: “The Forest Dunes course was a perennial favourite, but the resort also needed to entice people to stay overnight. The Loop has transformed the resort’s business into multi-day destination.”

With the addition of the short course, it becomes a very sticky overnight. The evolution of destination golf demanded a second course at Forest Dunes. Michigan resident Tom Doak completed the Loop in 2016. It is a festival of thumpy fescue on sand. The routing clandestinely delivers two courses on the same land. This ingenuity becomes increasingly evident the deeper into the round in the opposite direction. It was likely a shock to the system for the Forest Dunes regulars, but a links lover will find the Loop an outstanding destination to prep for a trip to Scotland or Ireland. The conditions are stellar and the resort decision to allow carts has proven a marketing advantage. The Loop is a single 36-hole course. It is an enlightening experience. A round should not be considered complete if only played one way. It is a piece of golf art akin to Beethoven’s ninth or Prince’s Lovesexy album, where songs don’t have individual indexes. Our group was treated to a surprise visit from Loop architect, Tom Doak. After sending an email to alert him of our arrival and inquire what he was up to, he responded, “with interstate travel limited, not much, why?” He hopped in his car for the 1.5-hour trip and graciously joined us for 18 holes of the Loop and riveting nineteenth hole conversation.

With the addition of the Rhebb and Riley short course – starting and finishing by the bar, which has outdoor seating, delivering a gallery effect on the finishing holes – as a destination, Forest Dunes is an interesting combination of something for everybody. My dad would have done laps on the Weiskopf: green, excellently conditioned but moist and pretty with fantastic putting surfaces. I could lap the Loop all day and we would all meet at the short course for a settling of bets followed by a putt off on the putting course. Everybody wins and that is hard to do when some favour opposite conditions.

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.