As the founder of Lew Thompson Trucking walked off the ninth green of the vaunted par-3 course at Pinehurst — for the second time in less than two hours — and as he made his way to the modified wooden drink station overlooking the short-course shenanigans, the long and lanky owner of Forest Dunes in Michigan took a draw from a cigarette, and in an Arkansas drawl, said to his playing partners, "Well, hell. That right there is going to cost me a lot of money. We’ve got to have one of these."
In gin the card game, and as it relates to a discard, my dad always says, "See one, play one." In Thompson's case, he saw one, a short course, played one, and had so much fun that he played it again.
Now he’s going to build one.
Well, I take that back. Although he built a fortune from hauling one truck of turkeys in 1985 and turning it into a company that now has 180 trucks hauling millions of chickens and turkeys all over the country, Thompson won’t actually build himself a par-3 course to go with Forest Dunes, a Tom Weiskopf design, and The Loop, Tom Doak’s reversible routing.
Thompson has hired Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns to build 10 holes, none less than 55 yards and none more than 155 yards, which will be wedged between the clubhouse, two drink pavilions, a driving range, a 100,000-square-foot putting course, and the two 18-hole routings. In other words, smack dab in the middle.
Which is also where Rhebb and Johns find themselves as the tsunami of short courses washes over golf in America.
“It’s unbelievable how lucky we’ve been,” says Johns. “We’re going to have fun with this one.”
Not long ago, the two young architects (they both prefer the term artists) were renovating Winter Park Golf Club, which is literally in the middle of the city. To much acclaim, as they not only resuscitated the golf, but the bottom line as well, Rhebb, 38, and Johns, 35, have literally and figuratively shaped their way into the fabric of golf’s brightest future: short, playable and walkable for all ages, sexes and skill sets.
“When Lew called us and said he wanted a course he could play with his grandkids,” says Rhebb, “We were all in.”
It’s that simple. The owner of a golf destination wants a course he can enjoy with his favorite playing partners.
“My grandsons are 8 and 11, and it’s tough to put them out on a big course with another 180 players,” says Thompson. “I’m just as excited as they are that we’re getting a short course.”
It’s not like space is an issue. Thompson has 1,300 acres in Roscommon, Michigan, which neighbors the Huron National Forest and is intersected by the Au Sable River, which provides world-class fly fishing. He has a clubhouse, lodging options, 300 lots and has plenty of traditional golf, even though Doak’s reversible routing is anything but traditional.
Which is to say, in two “courses,” he actually has 54 holes. And if he has learned anything since buying Forest Dunes in 2011 and adding The Loop in 2016, he has learned that a majority of his clientele can’t play 36 big holes of golf every day. Certainly not more than possibly one day. And yet the average stay per golfer at Forest Dunes is a little over three days.
"I learned early on," says Thompson, "I’m not in the golf course business, I’m in the hospitality business. This course will be good for my customer who wants to walk around, hit some short shots and have fun. There’s only so much time you can spend around a fire pit."
Which is why, as of June 1, Rhebb and Johns have been removing trees and moving dirt on what will be 15 acres of more roars, bets, fist-bumps, aces and big bar bills.
“I still can’t believe how quickly the puzzle pieces came together,” says Rhebb, who got the first call from Thompson on April 25. “We know how big this is.”
Johns is enjoying his second professional break at the same resort. His first job working for Doak was in 2013, where he spent his first week scouting the potential of what would become The Loop at Forest Dunes.
“I was here before the clearing of what became Tom’s routing,” says Johns. “I would cruise the property on an ATV by day, looking for interesting features Tom could use in his design, and I’d play Forest Dunes in the evening.”
Rhebb has worked for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw for 13 years, most recently at Big Cedar Lodge’s Ozarks National in Ridgedale, Missouri, a resort which, oh by the way, has two par-3 courses. And both Rhebb and Johns have spent the last few months helping Coore and Crenshaw update the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui.
Prior to Ozarks National, Rhebb and Johns met while working for Coore and Crenshaw at Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia in 2014. And although they admired each other’s work and work ethic, they had never talked about collaborating until Rhebb got the call about the job at Winter Park 9.
“You look at yourself and assess your own talents and limitations,” says Rhebb. “And then you look for someone who complements your strengths and weaknesses. Riley is a talent, someone fun to be around, to collaborate with. Egos don’t get in the way of making smart decisions.”
And so they’re off in Roscommon, playing in the sand, having fun as they create fun for so many more than just Thompson and his two grandsons, Jace and Jaegeer. But all three will remain the focus throughout.
“We like to ask ourselves,” says Rhebb, “Who’s this for? We’re not here to make a design statement, we’re here to build something that makes sense. Staying true to that mission keeps us from getting off track and building something that no one will enjoy.”
Meanwhile, going forward, Coore and Crenshaw might be down a few sets of creative eyes in the field.
“We told them to go get this,” says Coore. “It couldn’t happen to two more talented and deserving guys. So many don’t get an opportunity like this, but when they do, the work speaks for itself. Keith and Riley are ready.”
Although Thompson once considered Coore and Crenshaw for another 18-hole course and the short course being built now, he assumed Bill and Ben were too busy. So Thompson talked to Gil Hanse, who would’ve been able to do the job(s) at the same time he renovates Oakland Hills, which is also in Michigan and starts in the spring of 2020. But Thompson wanted to start this year. So he spoke to David McLay Kidd, who flew out and spent several days routing an 18-hole course and a par-3 course. And there were others who called or came by, but ultimately Thompson decided to prioritize the par-3 course and hired Rhebb and Johns, who grasped Thompson’s concept and were available to start immediately.
“I told Lew he hired the right guys for the job,” says Kidd. "This is right in their wheel house and they’re going to build something great."
Big picture on the latest addition of little golf in America is that an owner of an already elite destination is making an addition based on the wants and demands of the avid amateur. And in doing so, he hired the next generation of architects (see also: artists) who give him more for less.
“Everybody deserves an opportunity," says Thompson. “Keith and Riley have been working for the best in the business for the last 12 to 15 years. They understand what I want and they’re going to give me everything they’ve got.”
Shaping of the ten holes, which will include a crisscrossing of the first and last holes, will continue through June. Irrigation and clean up phase will be in July, with the grassing of the course scheduled for August. It won’t open until next summer, but when it does, Thompson will allow eightsomes, music and bare feet.
"Grab a few clubs, a few drinks, and let’s go,” says Thompson. “If you come to Forest Dunes, we want you to enjoy yourself."
Thompson is considering green fees of $29 during the week, $39 on weekends. Kids, and anyone who has already played 18 that day, plays the par-3 for free.
Johns couldn’t help but laugh as he retold the story of Thompson’s first words after the contract was signed. Again, in the Arkansas drawl: “Boys,” said Thompson, “here’s the deal: If this is good, I’m going to take all the credit. And if it’s bad, you’re going under the bus.”
Johns laughed again. “We told him, ‘We’re on the same page, Lew. We’re here to make you look good. That’s the real deal.’ “
Notable short and putting courses added recently
Pinehurst Resort: Par-3 and putting course
Big Cedar Lodge: Par-3 course
Sea Island Resort: Putting Course
Sand Valley: Par-3 course
Erin Hills - Putting Course
Silvies Valley Ranch: Par-3 and putting course
The Prairie Club: Putting course
Gamble Sands Putting course
Streamsong Resort: putting course and 7-hole practice course
The Greenbrier: Short course
Goat Hill Park: Kid's Course
Ak-Chin Southern Dnes: Flexible driving range with par-3 course
Mountain Shadows: Par-3 Course
Cabot Links: Par-3 and putting course under construction