For more than two decades they came, with their bulldozers and blueprints, backhoes and big names, ready to transform the Midwestern landscape into some kind of golfer’s summertime paradise. We’ve seen courses by Nicklaus and Palmer. Weiskopf, Dye, and Fazio. Coore and Crenshaw. By both Jones (Rees) and Jones (Junior). They’ve all been here, and plenty others, during the “Golden Age” of golf course construction, when resorts and developers didn’t bat an eye at seven-figure fees or rising costs. That, of course, was then.
Since the slowdown in golf in the early 2000s, new course openings have been few and far between across the country, particularly in the Midwest. Nationally, existing courses have been closing and new construction has come to a standstill in recent years. According to the National Golf Foundation, 2015 saw just 17 new course openings nationwide, sharply contrasted with the 177 course closings. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or the NGF) to see the best building days in golf are likely behind us.
Just don’t tell that to Tom Doak.
Doak and his architecture company, Renaissance Golf Design, are opening two three fantastic new layouts in his home state of Michigan this year, creating a one-company building boom and bucking the recent trends in the golf business. Indeed, in an era where new courses are as rare as new ideas, Doak’s brought plenty of both home with him this year.
Renaissance Golf Design is busy putting the finishing touches on the stunning new Stoatin Brae, an 18-hole championship track destined to be the sixth course at Gull Lake View Golf Resort in Augusta, Michigan. And Doak himself has lent his name to an exceedingly clever course — or courses — in The Loop, maybe the world’s first truly “reversible” course at Forest Dunes Golf Resort in Roscommon.
The Loop opened to very limited play in late June, while Stoatin Brae will have a soft opening of at least nine holes this summer, followed by a grand opening in spring of 2017. We took a look at each this spring, and it’s safe to say that the two courses bear striking similarities, and will help herald a new dawn in the Midwest golf scene, one where quality trumps quantity.
TO INFINITY & BEYOND
It’s a cool, sunny spring day as we head into the Jack pine-filled forests of Roscommon, a sandy, secluded getaway in the heart of Northern Michigan. Home to the endangered Kirtland Warbler, Roscommon’s pines are now home to something even rarer: one of the world’s only reversible golf courses.
Rumor has it Doak had the plans scribbled on paper for 20 years, stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere. He showed to Lew Thompson, a trucking magnate and owner of Forest Dunes Golf Club, who wanted Doak to build him something special. Something different.
The Loop, as it is so aptly named, is a brilliant and ballsy beauty (or beauties) that is so cleverly executed you wonder why no one’s done it since that wily Old Tom Morris put an end to it at the Old Course in St Andrews. The Loop’s two loops, the Black and the Red, will be played one direction one day, and the other the next. The Black routing will play clockwise, while the Red runs counterclockwise. Both courses bear the signature “minimalist” architectural style Doak has become famous for, with wide, naturally rolling fairways, scraggly waste bunkering and green complexes built to test both strategy as well as skill.
Doak, who lives in Traverse City, about 90 minutes to the northwest of Roscommon, might’ve put a bit more into the project simply due to proximity, but also due to the seas of his schedule parting perfectly, Thomson said.
“We got the best of Tom, and I don’ t say that to offend people who have used Tom in the past, but we got Tom at a time when he didn’t have so many projects going,” Thompson explained. “And with this one (near his home) he was able to devote much more of his time to this project and it is really showing.”
Amazingly, what isn’t showing, is the other course while walking either loop. Doak and his design team of Brian Slawnick, Brian Schneider and Eric Iverson, collaborated on the layouts, which required some mental gymnastics and literally 360-degree thinking. The trickiest part, Doak said, was to maintain a balance between the loops.
“We just had to make sure that the best of the holes are distributed relatively equally between the two loops, so that one version of the course doesn’t trump the other,” he said. “I’m really pleased with it. Whichever way you’re playing, it never feels like you are going the wrong way.”
Both loops offer plenty of excitement along the way, too. Two of the best holes, according to Doak, are the sixth and seventh playing in the counterclockwise direction. “The sixth is a very short par-3 with a wide and shallow green, and the seventh is a short par-4 with a long and narrow green that has a dip in the middle of it. But those are also two of the best holes playing clockwise.”
The remarkable thing about the Loop is how distinct both directions feel, with bunkering and shot options completely different depending on which way you’re playing — and without feeling forced.
“There’s no gimmick to it,” said Elliott Oscar, the head golf professional at Forest Dunes, who came over from Lawsonia last winter to be a part of something special. “I think what people will see is there’s no gimmick to it. They think the reversible part is the attraction, but if it was just a standalone golf course in either direction, those would both stand on their own in their own right. So we have a great golf course here in the (Tom) Weiskopf course, and essentially two new Doak courses that can stand on their own two feet.”
REACHING FOR THE TOP
Three hours south of the Loop, in the rolling hillside of southwest Michigan, is the stunning sixth jewel in the Scott family crown at Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort. Named after the picturesque plateau it sits upon, Stoatin Brae (Gaelic for “The Grand Hill,”) is unquestionably grand. With 20-mile views and rolling, wind-whipped acreage of a former apple orchard, Stoatin Brae’s landscape was perfect for the minimalist style Doak’s design team brought to the table.
“There is a point on the golf course where you should be able to see 15 flag sticks by looking around you,” said Renaissance Golf Design’s Eric Iverson, who led the project along with Brian Slawnick, Don Placek and Brian Schneider. “And most of the course is exposed to the wind. A little breeze always adds to the interest of a golf course.”
While Doak himself wasn’t directly involved, his thumbprint is easy to spot everywhere at Stoatin Brae, having instilled his design philosophy and aesthetics in his crew after years of working together. The course has all the elements of classic Doak design — from the bunkering to the green complexes and plenty in between.
The new course will play to par 71 over 6,800 yards, draped over one of the highest spots in Kalamazoo County. A spectacular new clubhouse and restaurant sits at the peak of that hill, overlooking the Kalamazoo River Valley and the rest of the beautiful Gull Lake area.
Stoatin Brae’s new head golf professional, Matt Hudson, knows this land well, having grown up just a few miles away, and even remembers picking apples here as a kid, when it was Hillcrest Orchards Cider Mill. After moving away to work as a golf professional at TPC at Sugerloaf in Atlanta, TPC at Scottsdale, and El Conquistador Golf Club in Tucson, Arizona, Hudson returned to join something very special in his hometown. And he said the excitement is palpable.
“Everybody’s asking about it,” Hudson said. “They’re excited about it. There’s not a lot of golf being built in the United States right now, and we’ve got one of two in the state. People are excited to see it. In a time in our economy when golf is closing, we are expanding, and that’s really exciting.”
Stoatin Brae joins Gull Lake View’s five stellar courses, four of which were built and designed by the Scott family, who started the resort and continue to run it today through Jon Scott, grandson of the resort founder Darl Scott.
Hudson said he’s come home to help Stoatin Brae take the resort to another level — both literally and figuratively.
“Jon Scott has done a fantastic job of getting this place going and promoting growth, which is what this is all about,” Hudson said. “It’s kind of a homecoming, of sorts. I couldn’t have had better experiences. I’ve gotten to be inside the ropes on close to a dozen PGA Tour events. pro. I’ve learned so much about how to run an upscale facility. And hopefully I can bring a lot of that experience and knowledge here and really make this place what we want it to be.”
Even on this sunny, late-spring day, with the meat of the growing season still ahead, it’s clear Stoatin Brae is already well on its way. From the heavy stone and timber clubhouse, to the brilliant bunker-style halfway house built into the hillside and out of view, the Scott family is building on a legacy that’s made it a fan-favorite for more than 50 years.
“We’re in a really good spot,” Hudson said. “We’ve got five other golf courses that are going full-bore. We’ve got 60 villas that are full this weekend. We’re operating at 100 percent capacity. It’s pretty awesome. We’ve got all these people that are coming here from Detroit and Chicago and Indianapolis and Cincinnati and Canada. They’re coming here to play our golf courses and stay with us, and we have groups that’ve been coming here for 30-plus-years. And the golf’s great and the conditions are always good and it’s in a beautiful part of the country, sure, but really I think it’s a testament to how we treat people. And we treat people the right way.”
In an era of golf course contraction, any construction is a thing worth celebrating. But with two projects like these in Michigan this year, it’s clear golfers in the Midwest are being treated to something truly special.