The Forest Dunes gate marks where golf heaven begins, and the rest of the world ends.
Every once in a while, you pass through the entrance to a golf course or resort, and something suddenly changes. You feel the buzz and hum of the world die out behind you, and the destination envelops you in peacefulness. Erin Hills in Wisconsin is one of those places. I imagine Bandon Dunes in Oregon is, too.
In the Great Lakes Sate, there are hundreds of beautiful courses, and dozens of luxurious golf resorts, but of all the ones I’ve visited, Forest Dunes has, more than any other, the magical feel of complete and total golf nirvana. Mike Keiser, progenitor of Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley, once famously said something to the effect of, “One golf course is just a golf course. Two golf courses make a destination.” Forest Dunes is now a full-fledged golf destination. And as the facilities keep expanding, it is arguably the best “pure golf” destination in “Pure Michigan.”
Forest Dunes opened in 2002 as a private club, but has been fully public since 2011, when it was purchased by Arkansas trucking magnate Lew Thompson. The layout, which Tom Weiskopf has described as “one of my top-five all-time designs,” can be played at five different lengths, from 7,116 yards all the way down to 4,993 yards. For purists, one of the most welcome aspects of the course is that – unlike most Northern Michigan tracks – it’s extremely walkable. Forest Dunes doesn’t have the lake views of Arcadia Bluffs, but the layout has been voted as the best in the state by multiple publications and is perennially ranked as one of the top 25 public courses in the nation.
In 2017, a second course opened at Forest Dunes—well technically, a second AND a third. The Loop debuted as the first, and only, fully reversable 18-hole championship course in the U.S. After playing this brilliant design, I would wager that several similar courses will be opening very soon, though, as it allows operators to maintain just one set of holes while offering two very different courses.
The bunkers on The Loop feel and play identical to Scottish links bunkers.
With the addition of The Loop, Forest Dunes is a full-fledged destination. Luxurious accommodations are provided in the AuSable Lodge and golfers’ villas (more on these later), and the food in the clubhouse ranks as some of the best I’ve ever tasted in Northern Michigan (more on that later, too). In 2020, a new par-3 course will open on the property as well. But let’s begin with The Loop.
The Loop Red
Forest Dunes owner Lew Thompson long wanted a second course that would entice golfers to stay on the property longer – á la the golf destinations mentioned above. He also wanted a course concept that would “wow” him. World-famous golf course architect and Michigan native Tom Doak delivered a plan for a fully reversible course.
Many of the greens on The Loop are perched above the fairways and look impossible to hold.
“The appeal of a reversible course is people would want to play it both ways. You are getting two golf courses in one,” Doak said in a press release from August 4, 2014.
According to the press release, Doak said the idea of reversible course is not as revolutionary as it sounds. Many Scottish links, including The Old Course at St. Andrews, were played in reverse in winter to spread out the wear and tear of divots.
The term “one-of-a-kind” has been applied to countless golf resorts, but given the top-ranked status of Forest Dunes, and the uniqueness of The Loop, this one is fully deserving of the description.
Teeing grounds on The Loop consist of little flags stuck into the ground in seemingly random spots.
The Loop switches playing directions every other day, and, amazingly, for the most part, it feels like you are playing two completely different courses. It is very difficult to identify fairways and greens from one day to the next. Only the 18th green is same playing both directions. On the Red Course, it’s wide and shallow, with a pot bunker in the back. On the Black Course, it’s deep and narrow, with the pot bunker on the left.
Your short game will need to be sharp on The Loop.
The Loop has a strong caddie corps, and players would be very wise to hire one, especially their first couple times around each “course.” This design is like nothing I, or you, have played. It feels, sounds, and plays like a seaside links course, but it’s here in the woods of Northern Michigan. The lines off the tees – which are simply three small flags stuck in the ground for each hole – are not at all obvious. Our caddie, Marcelo, told us where to aim. Sometimes we missed those lines badly and though we had lost our balls for sure. But Marcelo would almost always say, “You’re fine there!” How he found those balls, I have no idea. It was uncanny.
How did Marcelo find this ball for my son? Uncanny!
The same goes for the approaches to the greens. Most of the time, Marcelo advised us to take less club than the yardage would indicate, given the course’s firm, linksy character. Shots bounce and run quite a bit, and run-up shots to the amazingly contoured greens are preferred.
We played The Red Course first, from the 6,054-yard middle tees (back = 6,805, front = 5,006) and already at the green of the 551-yard, par-5 2nd hole, I was hooked. “This is the hardest green on the course,” Marcelo said, as we gazed upon the putting surface, which is bisected by a deep trench I had to putt down into and back out of.
The greens of The Loop are the wildest I’ve ever seen: the aforementioned trench, yawning bunkers all around, crazy but mostly natural humps and mounds – and these various carnivalesque features appear in both directions, but provide utterly different experiences from one day to the next.
How does one pick out highlights on a course whose holes change from day to day? On the Red Course, the 125-yard 6th was maybe the most fun, with its benign distance but malignant bunkering. The 442-yard 8th is a cool dogleg downhill and back up to a green that seems to be floating in the air. And the green of the 185-yard 14th is perhaps the craziest green I’ve ever seen anywhere, yet somehow avoids feeling tricked up.
The 6th and 8th Hole on the Red Course of The Loop (above) were two favorites.
The mounding on the left side of the 14th green of The Red Course on The Loop was recognizable on The Black Course, too, coming from the left side in through/over those mounds.
I guess my highlights were the three birdies my son had during his round, the first of which came right after he said, “I don’t think I like links golf.” His opinion soon began to change. I ended up only beating him by 5 strokes, and tomorrow was another day (and a different course, sort of).
The Loop Black
“Good morning!” said Marcelo, whom we also engaged for our second round on The Loop. We could not imagine figuring out where to go and how to play the holes in the other direction without his skilled guidance. He kept asking, “Does it look like the Red Course? Do you recognize where you are?” My son and I just kept shaking our heads dumbly. With the exception of a couple of greens, it truly felt like we were on a completely different links. Doak has pulled off some incredible alchemy here. In a different era, they may have burned him as a witch.
The 2nd Hole on The Black Course of The Loop already felt like a brand new course compared to The Red.
My favorite two holes might have been the 414-yard 11th, which Marcelo described as “not long,” although it plays uphill and was directly into the wind. A single sentinel pine and a deep pot bunker make for a difficult approach. The 381-yard 12th features the prettiest approach on the course, which is a downhill shot to a three-tiered green, with bunkers like mortar craters dotting the fairway and greenside.
The approach on the 11th Hole of The Black Course (above left) must avoid both the sentinel pine and a deep bunker. The approach on the downhill 12th Hole (above right) is one of the most fun either direction.
From there, the back nine of the Black Course takes an evil turn two brutish long par-3s (#13, 222 yards; #15, 195 yards) bookend the 489-yard, par-4 14th. My son and I played these three holes in a combined 11-over, but you know what? We still had a blast.
Practice your bunker play if you want to score on The Loop.
The Black Course plays at 4,982 yards, 6,078 yards, and 6,704 yards from the front, middle, and back tees, respectively. Although modern-day recreational golfers might think a course of ~6,000 yards will be too easy, I recommend sticking with the middle tees for both the Red and Black. There are plenty of challenges and plenty of places to bomb a drive, no matter the yardage. Doak is a genius, and you will never feel bored or untested.
Forest Dunes might be in Tom Weiskopf’s Top 5 of his own designs, but it is far and away #1 in my book. The design is characterized by generous landing areas, each portion of which poses subtly different challenges and angles toward the large, rumpled greens. The approaches into the greens are multifarious, and the greens themselves rank as some of the smoothest and purest I have ever been privileged to putt on. Tee boxes allow players to choose from five different yardages, ranging from 7,116 yards down to 4,993 yards. My 15-year-old son and I chose the II tees (6,550), but numbers reported here reflect the yardage from the tips.
The par-3 9th Hole at Forest Dunes plays completely over water. Always take an extra club.
On the tee of the 403-yard par-4 1st hole, the first-time visitor is presented with a classic resort-course opener: easy bogey, reasonable par, if the correct club and line are chosen for the sharp left-to-right dogleg. The 451-yard par-4 2nd is rated as the #1 handicap hole on the course, but is not all that difficult, as long as your drive moves a little right to left around the corner of a stand of pines.
By the 605-yard, par-5 5th hole, it becomes apparent why they named the course “Forest Dunes”—the moniker is not as contradictory as you may have imagined before arriving. The equally picturesque par-5 7th (dubbed “Goalposts”) has all the bucolic charm of a par 3, with its green nestled into trees and ferns and sand.
The 5th and 7th Holes (above) reveal to first-time visitors just how “dunesy” Forest Dunes really is.
Forest Dunes is one of those rare courses that just keeps getting better on every hole. The 443-yard 8th may offer the prettiest approach on the course, with a marsh left, bunkers right, and the clubhouse and lodge behind the green.
The approach on the 8th Hole of Forest Dunes might be the
After the turn, things just keep getting more interesting. The 439-yard 10th hole (named “Decision”), with its forked fairway and forked green, might be the most memorable, as its disorienting and delightful all at once.
The 16th and 17th at Forest Dunes (shown above) boast more sand than many ocean-side courses.
A hallmark of Forest Dunes Golf Club is ever-present waste areas, from which the course derives its name. You see, just below the turf lie acre upon acre of sand, deposited millennia ago by receding glaciers. Not only does this mean the course drains beautifully, it also allowed Weiskopf to expose vast stretches of it create natural hazards. Just wait until you get to the 233-yard, par-3 16th and the drivable, risk-reward, 302-yard, par-4 17th—the type of hole Weiskopf became famous for. There is so much sand from tee to green on these holes, you’ll feel like you’re on some ocean-side course in Florida rather than deep in the Michigan woods.
The closing hole on the Forest Dunes’ Tom Weiskopf design ends just a few steps from a refreshing beverage.
Lake AuSable Lodge, Villas, and Cottages
Forest Dunes has evolved into an idyllic golf destination. The original course and The Loop provide three top-notch rounds. There is also the gorgeously manicured, 2-acre HillTop Putting Course, which is free to play. (Great for settling bets after dinner!) And a par-3 course, designed by Reily Johns and Keith Rhebb, will be opening summer 2020. Owner Lew Thompson vows to allow bare feet, music, and eightsomes on the par-3, if that’s what it takes to make golf more accessible and fun for everyone.
In short, Forest Dunes represents a veritable golf theme park for golfers of all skill levels. Lake AuSable Lodge stands just 35 yards from the first tee of the original course, and the clubhouse restaurant offers excellent food and drink (the gourmet mac-n-cheese and the Forest Dunes burger are highly recommended, and the made-to-order breakfast sandwich is a pre-round must). Prices are surprisingly reasonable as well, considering the virtual monopoly they have. The back patio is one of the most peaceful post-round spots you’ll find on any course, anywhere, so eat outside if the weather allows.
The view from the Forest Dunes restaurant patio has been shown to lower blood pressure and anxiety.
The Villas consist of 2- and 4-bedroom condos, ideal for buddy or family trips. My son and I frankly did not want to leave, we had grown so comfortable after just two nights in the princely digs. If you want even more space, or to spend extended time in this golf haven, there are 7 cottages (i.e., full-fledged houses) on site, which sleep from 4 to 8 people in total luxury. My son is already imagining buddy trips when he gets older, and this is now his ideal destination.
The Forest Dunes Villas are ideal for buddy trips.
Indeed, there are few golf destinations as peaceful as Forest Dunes. As soon as you enter the grounds, the world melts away and you are enveloped in world-class golf. There is a rumor a third 18-hole course is in the planning stages. If true, there are some people—like me and my son—who will never want to go anywhere else.