ROSCOMMON, Mich. -- I played The Loop six times in one day to raise money for the Midnight Golf Program, a charity that benefits the inner-city children of Detroit. But a Hundred Hole Hike was also the perfect way to get to know a new and revolutionary course designed by Tom Doak.
On land normally used for one course—in this case, 200 acres—Doak and his team provided owner Lew Thompson with two distinctive new tracks at Forest Dunes.
To recap: The Loop has 18 greens, each of which can be played from various angles of attack. One day you'll play to those 18 greens in a clockwise routing (the Black Course) and the next day, from an entirely different set of tees, in a counter-clockwise routing (the Red Course).
I played each routing three times on a long Michigan day in late June. I was joined by Jim Colton, founder of the Hundred Hole Hike, which, by way of avid golfers playing over 100 hundred holes in one day, has raised $2.5 million for 190 charities. Ashley Mayo, a friend and former colleague at Golf Digest, also participated in the fundraiser. And there was Doak, the ultimate guide to how he realized his 20-year vision of a reversible routing.
Our foursome took on The Loop for its opening day of preview play, with an official opening scheduled for 2017. The Loop is walking-only (caddies are available). And you must stay on property to get one of the preview-play tee times. Green fees are $99.
Sunrise to sunset at The Loop
We started at 5:32 a.m. and finished our 108th hole at 9:00 p.m. It was all a bit of a blur—a wide variety of swings and scores. I managed more birdies than blisters. But more to the point, I was blown away by what Doak has done. Not only as an architectural achievement, but as a remarkable addition to Thompson's remote Midwestern destination.
Thompson bought Forest Dunes in 2011 for $3.85 million. The transaction gave him 1,320 acres of the Huron National Forest, a popular Tom Weiskopf design that opened in 2000, 250 empty lots, and a $4 million clubhouse. Although he got quite the deal, Thompson, a successful trucker from Arkansas, had a long road to get people to make the trek to the middle of Michigan and stay for more than one round of golf.
Doak's Loop has converted Thompson's one-course curiosity into a three-course destination.
"The thing I stressed to Tom is that whatever he did," Thompson said. "I wanted it to be different than what I already had. Well, he delivered that and a lot more. You walk across the street and it's like you're on a totally different trip."
Given Weiskopf's style of more traditional parkland golf and Doak's style of modern minimalism, plus the variation of the land and vegetation between the two courses, a contrast seemed inevitable.
"It's one of the things I'm most proud of," Doak said. "We gave Lew what he asked for. We took a fairly bland piece of land and we made it compelling."
That's an understatement.
Doak seems set on having The Loop rated as one course. I don't think that's possible. Yes, it's 18 greens. But it's two very different courses. Rating it as one course discredits the work Doak and his team did to make it look and play like two different courses.
"Our biggest fear is that people like one course a lot more than the other course," said Doak. "I'm very happy with what we've done. There are a few of the best holes on both courses. I think people will enjoy both of them, and that was a hard thing to do."
I stayed at Forest Dunes for a few more days, watching and talking to more preview players who also sampled both routings. The good news for Doak—and especially Thompson—is that there were passionate votes for Black and Red. Not unlike what you get at Bandon Dunes: Trails or Old Mac? Or at Streamsong: Red or Blue?
Those debates aren't just popular, they're healthy. Especially over drinks around a fire pit, just prior to stumbling back to your cottage.
Forest Dunes moves up buddies trip pecking order
In my years of tracking the expectations of the alpha planners of annual buddies trips, it's clear, certainly in the U.S., groups of more than four would rather stay-and-play than play-and-drive. It's no secret that quality time with each other rolling dice is far more valuable and memorable than time in an undersized rental car second-guessing a recently updated version of GPS.
Now, staying and playing for several days is an option at Forest Dunes, which is four hours from Detroit and a long hour from Traverse City. Thompson suddenly goes 2-up on Arcadia Bluffs, his Michigan competition, which has Lake Michigan views but only one course. And it puts Forest Dunes in the conversation with the American Club, which has four courses and is the most prominent and decorated Midwestern golf destination. Mike Keiser's Sand Valley in Wisconsin, which will open a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw course to preview play this fall, and a David McLay Kidd-designed course to preview play next summer, will also be a Midwestern heavyweight.
But Thompson isn't done at Forest Dunes. On the short list of his priorities: a short course. Mike Devries, Rick Smith and Doak have all been mentioned as possible architects.
"I want it to be someone local," Thompson said. "Saves you lots of money. "
He's also adding a much-needed cell tower, more cottages (he'll soon have 125 beds) and another restaurant, which will have more of a pub menu than what he has now.
Just more good news for the avid golfer: Popular architects continue to get the good jobs and make the most out of their opportunities. Developers with deep pockets are hiring thoughtful architects to make smart additions or changes to their portfolio.
As for the idea a reversible routing becoming a trend in American golf architecture?
"I think The Loop is an extreme case of how to make 18 holes reversible," said Doak. "I don't think in 10 years there will be five guys building reversible courses. But I think it frees us up to keep thinking about what's possible."
Highlights from The Loop
I realize it's too early for this, but let the debates about The Loop begin!
Red or Black: The Black is a harder course, but easier on my eyes. If I had to choose a 10-round itinerary, I might play Black six times and Red four times. And if you include Forest Dunes, which I love, I'd play four at the Weiskopf design, three on Black and three on Red.
Favorite holes: Red's 8th is a big, sweeping par 4, dogleg left, with a power kick over the rise of the fairway and native brush between the landing point and an elevated green.
Black's 12th is a fun par 4, dogleg right with a power slot between staggered bunkers that will kick the ball toward a small and tricky green.
Least favorite hole: Red's 12th, especially with a back pin placement. I'd have a better chance of holding a bar-room shuffleboard table. And I don't love the Red's second hole, a choppy par 5 with an extremely penal green. It's the only one hole that still feels like a work in progress.
Favorite green:The Black's 12th, which is also the Red's 6th. Both holes are among my favorites in either direction.
Best Finish: With the exception of the zany back of the green on 12, Red has a fun and fascinating build to a big 18th.
Better Collection of par 3s: Tie. Both routings are par 70s and have five par 3s. Black and Red both have par 3s under 140 yards and over 200 yards with a wide variety of looks and green complexes.