Golf Update: Seeing Double In Michigan

Forest Dunes Golf Club

In a remote part of the state, Forest Dunes Golf Club has done what no American course has done before: opened 18 holes that can be played in two directions.

For two decades, architect Tom Doak of Renaissance Golf Design has introduced his new courses to friends, clients, and the media through a match-play tournament called the Renaissance Cup. The grillroom conversations on architecture are often more intense than the competition itself, and that was certainly the case last fall, when Doak unveiled his most unusual design yet: The Loop, at Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, Michigan, a three-hour drive north of Detroit.

The Loop is America’s first fully reversible golf course, meaning that the same hole corridors can be traversed by starting from neighboring first tees and setting off along its circular routing in either a clockwise (known as the Black course) or counterclockwise direction (the Red). The two-for-one design feels innovative because Renaissance executed it so well, drawing out enough quirky and conventionally great holes to justify playing both routings.

The concept, however, is almost as old as the game itself. For the first 350-odd years of its existence, the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland was a narrow network of trails through the gorse and whins. The smaller playing area (half the size of the links we know today) meant less ability to spread wear and tear, so resourceful locals took to playing a left-hand, or reverse, course to allow divots time to heal. By the time Doak arrived in St. Andrews in 1982 on a Cornell University postgraduate scholarship, the practice of playing the reverse Old Course had long since faded. But he was inspired by English designer Tom Simpson, who wrote in 1929 that reversibility represented the best antidote to the repetition of “stock devices” in design.

At The Loop, it’s easy to see why: In terms of how it both looks and plays, it’s often a few degrees off-kilter, to pleasing effect. Doak decided early on not to employ the enormous double greens that enable the Old Course’s reversibility, reasoning that normal-sized greens would be sufficient if reversibility was built into the design from day one. Whereas a traditional green arranges its related hazards—and the slopes of the putting surface itself—to maximize challenge and/or strategic value in a single direction, The Loop’s needed to function in two. Doak achieved this by placing short grass around the putting surfaces and by orienting the lines of play on a series of oblique angles, rather than approaching the greens along a simple north-south axis.

The result is fascinating—if occasionally disorienting—golf. A bunker that’s all-important one day might be irrelevant the next. On the Black course’s par-4 fourth hole, a pair of mounds resembling a half-pipe defends the narrow entrance to the green. If the drive is properly placed, a player can flip a wedge into the gap and feed the ball toward the hole. But when this green is approached from its companion hole, the Red’s par-3 14th, the mounds are just backstops. As for the tee-to-green elements, Doak cleverly positioned The Loop’s fairway bunkering in such a way that it’s rare to see—much less blindly hit into—a hazard that was intended for the other routing. Adding yet another ingredient to this complex brew, the Loop’s greens are maintained on the firm side.

Forest Dunes hopes The Loop will compel travelers to stick around longer. Given the resort’s short season and remote location, this is no small thing. Those who expect conventional shots on a conventional course may come away nonplussed. (They should opt for Forest Dunes’ Tom Weiskopf course.) But for those keen to explore new frontiers, The Loop will be a touchstone experience.