Celebrating the guilty-pleasure golf course

In our current era of neoclassicism and nuance in design, novel concepts of previous decades remain popular.
Enjoy the ride on the Alpine Course at Boyne Mountain, which heads downhill from start to finish.

BOYNE CITY, Mich. — Once again, I'm looking down at the fairway.

I'm on another elevated tee on the Alpine Course at Boyne Mountain, an unsung yet highly fun and scenic resort course in Northern Michigan. To reach the first tee of the Alpine, it's a long drive from the mountain's base (712 feet above sea level according to Google Earth) all the way up to the summit at 1,141.

Do the simple math. To get home, more shots will head downhill than up. And adding to the vertical drop, the routing by Bill Newcomb places quite a few tees a few feet higher than the previous green. I suppose a more balanced golf course would have holes that go both uphill and down.

But have you ever grown sick of watching your ball soar in the sky an extra couple heartbeats?

The 21st century has been a boon for strategic, neo-classic and oftentimes nuanced or layered architecture that seem to be getting the bulk of new gigs and honors.

And yet on the flip side it's a trip to experience a relatively simple and satisfying resort concept from the 70s. Northern Michigan earned its national golf reputation decades ago with gorgeous, front-page worthy pictures of elevated tee shots at resorts like Boyne, Shanty Creek and Treetops. The state's newest works, meanwhile, pay homage to Seth Raynor (Arcadia Bluffs South) and the reversibility of the Old Course in St. Andrews (The Loop at Forest Dunes).

Boyne's Alpine was built and opened in 1971 during the so-called "dark ages of golf course architecture." These days, few Top 100 panelists probably even consider a stopover at it when they're in this golf-rich mecca, perhaps opting for the gentle, 1920s-era, Willie Watson-designed Belvedere Golf Club just up the road in Charlevoix or the reclamation feat that is 27-hole Bay Harbor beside Little Traverse Bay. But the Alpine remains a popular course in the Boyne Resorts umbrella and a course golf-mad Michiganders always love to chat about. Traditionalists would appreciate the Alpine's walkable routing (after the initial cart drive) and it hosts the yearly Tournament of Champions.

But make no mistake, the unapologetic appeal of The Alpine to golf travelers is that with only one notable exception, the meaty par-5 5th, it just keeps trickling down.

Maybe the ultimate golf trip itinerary tickles both sides of the golfing brain: Play some traditional or neoclassic designs as well as a course or two with novelty. You're on vacation, after all. It's okay to act like a tourist.

I'm reminded of a few other guilty-pleasure concepts in golf course design:

The calendar golf course

The par-5 fifth at Wolf Creek Golf Club flies off an elevated tee box then climbs to the green.

Mesquite's Wolf Creek outside Las Vegas is a course I've yet to experience, but one of those courses that I'm always hearing about. The comments are always strong opinions in both directions about this bold desert layout full of elevated tee shots and fairways wedged through canyons. There isn't much subtly here. "Wolf Creek is not for the faint of heart," summarized Local Golf Advisor BrandonWebb.

The portfolios of architects Jim Engh and the late Mike Strantz feature a lot of courses where imagination and aesthetics trump the traditional.

The out-of-place golf course

Getting inside the gates at Shadow Creek reveals Tom Fazio's amazing creation in Las Vegas.

Some golf courses strive to blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. Others aim to stand out from them, transporting golfers to somewhere else than where they came to. The obvious example is Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. It's pretty remarkable what you can do with an unlimited budget and the vision of a Vegas marketer. Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn crafted a lush oasis out of a North Las Vegas industrial zone to attract the city's whales. Even the Top 100 panelists have tipped their cap to the audacious Shadow Creek, placing it high on most U.S. lists.

Importing trees like the Pacific-inspired Bali Hai Golf Club is another way to go. And while the modern desert courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale celebrate desert surroundings, many of the earlier layouts strive for something lusher with a wall-to-wall parkland vibe, like the historic Adobe Course at Arizona Biltmore or Wigwam Gold.

Looks hard, plays fun

A few years ago, architect David McLay Kidd went through a professional rebrand, eschewing a brief phase of his career where he built tough courses. Now, on his latest layouts, golfers tend to brag about career rounds thanks to width off the tee, backstops on greens and firm turf that lends itself to a few extra yards of rollout. You'll still see big bunkers and bold features, it's just that they're typically avoidable if you choose. Two of his recent efforts, Gamble Sands in Washington and Mammoth Dunes in Wisconsin, are super wide and yield happy players. A recent tweet from DMK speaks to the philosophy of his designs:

FROM $197 (USD)
BREWSTER, WA | Enjoy 3 nights' accommodations at The Inn at Gamble Sands and 3 rounds of golf at Gamble Sands - Sands Course and the new QuickSands Short Course.

The longest, toughest course in town

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick features deep bunkers, skinny fairways and long views.

Practically every destination has one. The course that is 7,500-plus from the tips or has an eye-popping slope-rating. Some even have names like "The Brute" or "The Nightmare."

Others have broken the 8,000-yard barrier like the Dye Course at French Lick in Indiana. A course in Myrtle Beach, Eagle Nest, recently announced a Superhero tee of 8,100 yards. Has anyone who is not a professional dared playing them?

Playing the tips on a tough course once in awhile can be fun as long as your swing is in good shape and no one in your group is back there against their will.

The faux links

Few golfers can afford the trip overseas to play golf in Scotland. So paying homage to the game's roots back home has been a popular concept. It can be trickier to pull off when there is landlocked heat and spongy turf. Fescue doesn't thrive on the continent like it does in the British Isles. But clear some trees, build a few pot bunkers, St. Andrews-esque double greens (or a cobblestone bridge) and grow out the native areas, like the Gailes Course at Lakewood Shores in Michigan or the New Course at Grand Cypress in Florida, and you can offer up a little taste. Royal Links in Las Vegas replicates famous holes from The Open rota. Which leads me to ...

The Replica course

No. 7: Amen Corner at Augusta National is replicated at Tour 18 Houston, right down to the stone bridges.

This may be the ultimate guilty-pleasure golf course. They sprouted up in the 1980s and 90s as ways for the commoner to play holes from the TV. World Tour in Myrtle Beach showcases holes from legendary courses around the world. Jack Nicklaus has TWO replica courses inspired by his portfolio's best holes: Bear's Best in Las Vegas and in Atlanta. The Donald Ross Memorial at Boyne Highlands features the best holes from Ross' portfolio and Tour 18 in Houston is one of many courses that seek to replicate the un-replicable Amen Corner of Augusta National. Did I feel I was truly playing Amen Corner on a generally flat piece of land in Humble, Texas? Hardly, but I still let the mind dream a bit while playing it.

The replica concept hasn't gone away so much as it's been re-imagined. Template holes from classic designs pepper many new layouts, and Tiger Woods' revamp of the Peter Hay Par-3 Course at Pebble Beach feature a replica of Pebble's famous 7th.

Reversible courses?

Currently, reversible courses are a hot concept, like Silvies Valley Ranch, The Loop and the nine-hole Bobby Jones Golf Course near Atlanta. Others are on the way. They receive a lot of praise for their efficient use of land and architectural complexity. After all, it's hard to design greens that can be receptive from two sides. But some grumble they're confusing, and if both directions aren't equally popular, what's the point? The jury is still out on how well they will ultimately be received. Are they a longstanding answer to growing cost of land and resources? Or will they be rendered too confusing by the masses?

Novelty layouts typically don't fare well in Top 100s, but they're always popular courses for buddies trips. Do you have a favorite you've played in your travels? Let me know in the comments below:

4 Min Read
July 7, 2015
Considering playing one of the many replica golf courses out there on your next vacation? Here's why you might want to think again, and what to do instead.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
15 Comments
Commented on

Great list of courses you have mentioned. Wolf Creek is a must play. I teed off about 545 am during July and it was blazing. Great course and well worth the visit.
I must disagree about the Gailes Course at Lakeshore. I completed the Golf Digest 03-04 Top 100 Courses You Can Play list and thought that was the most over rated course on the list. Just moving a little dirt and growing high grass did not make me feel like I was in Scotland. Disappointing at best.
I played the Dye Course in French Lick and really enjoyed it although I was expecting something different. There are some tough side hill lies and paired with the Ross Course makes for a good day.
As for reversible courses, I just played the Loop and while it is a nice course i was not a fan of the tee areas and am still working out an evaluation for the course in my head. I did, however, love Forest Dunes, an excellent Tom Weiskopf design.
At Boyne, I played the RTJ Sr., Heather course and thought it was an excellent layout and Old School tough.
My recommendations after my summer golf trip are yes to Bedford Omni Springs Resort Pa, Latrobe CC, Warren Course @ND, Forest Dunes, Grand Travers Resort, Lockenheath, Heather, Greywalls, both at Giants Ridge, Wilderness at Fortune Bay, Troy Burne, both at Sand Valley, all at Kohler, Erin Hills, both at French Lick, Old White at Greenbrier, and al three at Turning Stone, Colgate U, Pinehills Nicklaus, Lake of Isles and Bethpage red.

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Great insight, thanks for sharing!

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Wolf Creek is a majestic layout, which puts a premium on shot placement. The views are spectacular, so have your camera handy on all 18 holes.

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Renditions in Md is a decent replica and is better than Tour 18 in Houston since it's on some natural rolling farmland.

Royal New Kent is a great Stranz courses that has been rebuilt in the past two years. Much like Tobacco Road it is a visual mind bender. You will end up in spots where you just can't get out. Stonehouse also rebuilt nearby and is a worthy 36 hole day in the Williamsburg, VA area.

Commented on

Royal Links is a fun track. I love the concept of playing holes that look like the real thing. Especially if the real thing is completely out of reach for 99.9999% of golfers out there (Augusta National) or merely thousands of miles away and would cost thousands of $$$ to travel to/from and play there. (British Open courses).

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I highly recommend Wolf Creek. I played there 4 times and hope to go back next year. Actually played in a sandstorm on the last 3 holes one time. I have their Wolf Headcover. Tobacco Road was also incredible.

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Mr. Tucker, go play Wolf Creek. Bring a camera.

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Wolf Creek is fantastic. Its playable,and lots of fun with 360* views,just like Gamble Sands,which also comes as advertised .Both may end up in any players all time list. For extreme mountain golf with "new style" architecture , try the Canadian Rockies at Canmore Alberta with the challenging Silvertip and the playable Stewart Creek.

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Mt Airy Lodge in the Pocono Mountains in Eastern PA was originally supposed to be a "Best Of" course when designed. But it quickly was on the end of numerous lawsuits for trademark infringement. So late in the game they had to redesign the course.

From the website they still make reference to its beginnings - "Designed after Sports Illustrated “Best 18 Holes in Golf”, each hole is modeled after golf’s most legendary holes from Championship course’s in America. Golf Course Architect Hal Purdy reinterpreted famous holes from such dynamic courses as; Pebble Beach, Oakland Hills, Merion, and Augusta National to name a few.

So if you squint really hard, and know the holes that inspired the course you can sort of get the idea. And for 18th you play Pebble Beach backwards in the opposite direction.

Commented on

Stuart,
I find the objective view you've taken about what happened to Mt. Airy Lodge well articulated and very interesting.

For my part, I would argue against those who brought lawsuits against Mount Airy for several reasons:
A) The so-called "copies" will never be true replicas of the originals, and it's unlikely, given different turf and other factors, that they would ever really play like them.
B) The look of any replica hole I've ever encountered (or seen in these pictures) is hardly convincing, e.g., only Augusta National truly 'looks like' Augusta National.
C) Do those filing the lawsuits really believe that those who are going to play Mount Airy are playing there because they actually think it's a substitute for the real thing(s)?
I can't believe that's possible. The whole spirit of the thing is about fun, not an actual substitution. Copyright infringement seems to me to be based on the concept of getting a substitute item for nearly equal or equal value to the original. So to me, such lawsuits are frivolous and downright silly.

My interpretation is that those bringing suit were just plain greedy and seized an opportunity. What a surprise!

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Wolf Creek was a blast!

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Tobacco Road in Sanford North Carolina is incredibly fun. Architect Mike Strantz designed a visually challenging and beautiful course where you stand on a tee and say “Man, I can’t hit it anywhere on this shot”. Then when you look back at the tee from the fairway you say “Man, I could have hit it anywhere on that shot, there’s tons of room”. It is a fair layout where good shots are rewarded and bad shots get what they deserve.

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Celebrating the guilty-pleasure golf course