In a globetrotting career that has seen him design one memorable golf course after another in faraway places like New Zealand and Australia, Traverse City resident and golf course architect Tom Doak has had two goals that always seemed out of reach.
One was getting a job near his home, where he needed a car but not his passport to get to work. The other was to finally put in the ground an ambitious, unorthodox golf course concept he has been sketching and refining for years. Now both dreams are coming alive on rolling, sandy land at the Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, just south of Grayling.
The endeavor is Doak’s first golf project in Michigan since 1999, when he designed the Lost Dunes Golf Club in Bridgman, south of Benton Harbor. He says it’s also the most daunting challenge of his career. With his Traverse City-based Renaissance Golf Design team, Doak is producing a reversible course — it consists of two distinct layouts that play to the same 18 greens, with play going clockwise one way, and counterclockwise the other.
At age 54, and with his name already on some of the top-rated golf courses in the world, Doak has the résumé and chops to tackle what is shaping up to be the most anticipated new golf course model in the country.
“I’ve doodled with the concept several times over 20-plus years, so I think I have a good head start on what will work and what won’t,” Doak says. “If I wasn’t sure it would work well, I wouldn’t have proposed it to a client.”
The client in this case is Lew Thompson, a Huntsville, Ark.-based trucking company owner with a penchant for investing in distressed golf properties. Nearly four years ago he bought Forest Dunes, a 1,300-acre golf-residential complex with seven luxury cottages, a 23,000-square-foot clubhouse, and a nationally acclaimed golf course.
The property struggled ever since its opening in 2002. It went in and out of bankruptcy, even though its original course — designed by former British Open champion Tom Weiskopf — is one of the most decorated in Michigan, ranking among the nation’s Top 100 courses. Under Thompson’s stewardship, his management team upgraded the dining options, added a 14-room inn to attract overnight golfers, and watched the course’s annual number of rounds played increase from 13,000 to 21,000 in less than four years.
Last year Thompson decided he needed to add a second golf course to make Forest Dunes an international destination. With major competition from other resort golf courses across northern Michigan, Thompson stressed the new design would have to stand out to attract golfers not only from the Midwest, but from all over the world.
“I told Tom when I first met him that if it’s just another very good golf course, it’s not going to do Forest Dunes or me any good,” Thompson says. “I said, you will have to ‘wow’ me. To be a ‘wow,’ it’s got to be something special.”
Seizing the opportunity, Doak pulled out his sketches of a reversible layout and showed Thompson a preliminary drawing of how the course would work. “He wowed me,” Thompson says. “We have to have something special for people to drive up to Roscommon, in the middle of nowhere, and stay with us and play with us. Building another pasture course today would have been a disaster.”
Thompson pointed out that despite forecasts predicting golf’s demise, the more prestigious golf clubs around the country are doing very well. “We already have a Top 100 golf course. Now, if we offer something else that’s special, if we offer a nice place to stay with amenities, and if we have great service, people will come and stay here,” he says.
Discerning golfers making the trip could also take advantage of the chance to play another Doak course just 45 minutes away. Black Forest, at the Wilderness Valley Golf Club in Gaylord, opened in 1991 and was the third course of Doak’s career. It is recognized as one of the best in Michigan — and nationally, as well.
According to industry experts, there is only one other 18-hole course in the country built in a similar flip-flop style. Teton Reserve Golf Course in Idaho, designed by Senior Tour champion Hale Irwin, is a reversible course, but it’s played only in one direction. Continued on page 63
Last summer, workers at Forest Dunes cleared most of the 200-acre site, and then Doak and his team went to work in the fall.
“We shaped in the first four and last four holes of the golf course,” Doak says. “The idea is that we’ll work from the one end to the other so that by the end of the year, or early in 2016, the first few holes that we planted will be playable (and customers) can preview-play the first three or four holes out and the last few back, and get used to the idea of doing it in the opposite directions. That will give people a chance to see what it’s going to be like.”
Doak says the construction of the course is going to be on a fast schedule, weather-permitting, with an expected soft opening in late August 2016 and a full schedule anticipated for the 2017 season.
“We’ve got six holes roughed in and we need to do a little bit more work on them this spring before we put irrigation into the ground,” he says. “We’re trying to get the golf course all built and seeded by Labor Day, and with the head start we had last fall, we should be able to do
that — but it’s a pretty quick schedule. We have to have the first hole seeded the first of May and get the last hole seeded the first of September.”
Todd Campbell, general manager of Forest Dunes, says news of the Doak reversible course created a loud buzz this past winter at all the major golf shows he attended in cities across the Midwest.
“I’d say nine out of every 10 people we talked to were excited and curious about the concept,” he says. “Our preseason bookings are up 31 percent over last year and, amazingly, we’re getting our advertised rate. We aren’t discounting the rates to get people in the door.”
That sets Forest Dunes up for a potentially banner year. “In 2013 we had our best year ever in rounds of golf played and in revenue,” Campbell says. “Last year, with the bad weather in the spring and a cool, rainy summer, our rounds were down. Everybody in northern Michigan lost a number of rounds to weather cancellations. But every revenue center we have — the pro shop, our restaurant, food and beverage — it was all up.”
New for this year, the resort tweaked its sales program and hired a sales manager responsible for tee times and booking accommodations. Campbell says last year’s opening of the 14-room inn, just yards away from the first hole of the Weiskopf course, was a barometer of what’s possible for Forest Dunes.
“The hotel changed our life,” he says. “Having golfers stay overnight drove up our revenue. Most significant was that just over 40 percent of our rounds were played by golfers from out of state.”
In anticipation of the new course opening in 2017, Thompson is investing another $2.5 million in a cluster of condominium villas that will be built within walking distance of the clubhouse overlooking the first and 18th greens of the new course.
Construction has begun on the first of five duplex-style buildings that will offer two-bedroom/two-and-a-half-bath units and four-bedroom/four-and-a-half-bath units. Modifications are also being made to the interior of the Adirondack-style clubhouse to accommodate traffic they hope the new course will generate.
“We’re taking out some walls and opening up some areas,” Campbell says. “We’re enlarging the golf shop to make it more user-friendly and we’re creating a new front desk area to better serve our visitors.”
â€‹Doak says the idea of a reversible course isn’t as radical a concept as it sounds. The Holy Grail of golf, the Old Course at The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland, was designed as a reversible course — “left-handed” and “right-handed,” as the locals refer to it. It’s still played that way occasionally, to give particularly nasty divots time to heal.
In a bit of good fortune, Doak was able to study the nuances of St. Andrews up close when he worked there as a caddie for three months in the 1980s, after graduating from Cornel University’s golf architecture program. Despite all the tinkering he did with the reversible concept over the years, he was pleasantly surprised to find several advancements.
“When I started, I thought to myself, ‘We’re building greens that you have to approach from the front going one way, and from the back coming the other way, and there are only certain kinds of greens (those without severe slopes) that will work in that format,’ ” he says.
When he walked the ground at Forest Dunes, however, he saw features in the middle part of the future course that he wanted to incorporate into the routing. Instead of having the course flow in one direction and then the other way, he saw approaches to the greens that would have players come in from different directions.
“We have some greens where you’re coming in from the north one way, and you’re coming into them from the west the other way,” he says. “You’re playing one way and you have a long, skinny green, but when you’re playing the course from the other direction, it’s a wide, shallow green. It will be like playing an altogether different green. And as it turns out, we have as many places on the course where we do that as we have playing into the front and back. I think those are among the most interesting holes.”
To make all the changes in directions work, Doak and his crew built extra tees. “That doesn’t affect the budget at all because you have to build a certain number of tees to take all (the different player skill levels into consideration), so we just have to divide it up differently,” he says. “If you’re not using the same tee for going in both directions, it doesn’t have to be so big. Some tees you might use going in one direction, but when going the other way you’re going from a different place entirely.”
Unlike the existing course, which has very large double greens that would be expensive to build today, Doak says his new course will have average-sized greens that work well from all different directions. Another wrinkle Doak incorporated into the design is the use of fescue grass
instead of the bentgrass that’s commonly used on most courses. While not usually as lush and green-looking as bentgrass, fescue — which is popular on British courses — is hardier, makes the ball roll faster, and is much less expensive to maintain.
Since he founded Renaissance Golf Design in 1989, Doak and his design team have created numerous courses in 27 different states, and 29 golf courses abroad. This summer, one of his teams will begin work on a resort course he’s designing on the north shore of the Dominican Republic.
In a ranking of the 50 greatest golf courses built in the world in the past 50 years, Golf magazine cited three Doak designs — Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Resort at Bandon, Ore., Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia — among the top five courses. Two other Doak courses were in the top 24 on the list. Few golf architects have similar recognition.
Industry observers are anxious to critique the Forest Dunes venture once it’s ready for play.
“I’m sure there will be many people who say it’s just a gimmick, or decide that one way around it is better, so the other is a waste of time,” Doak says, matter-of-factly. “The concept requires a really open mind. However, a new course only has to find a big enough audience to stay busy, and with this concept, we only need half as many true believers to keep it full.” db