Tom Doak's reversible golf course is taking shape at Forest Dunes

ROSCOMMON, Mich. -- Bobby Fischer was a lot of things. Most notably, he is considered the greatest chess player of all time. So much so that in order to find a challenge he would compete against himself.

There is a passionate group of architecture enthusiasts who would argue that Tom Doak is the Bobby Fischer of his time. The creator of Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers Golf Course and many others all over the world has studied and restored the work of the best of the "Golden" and "Modern" eras. A disciple of Pete Dye, Doak has also published inflammatory critiques of every era in his "Confidential Guides to Golf Courses" books.

Simultaneously, the cerebral savant of sand and dirt continues to build an eclectic portfolio of memorable routings and greens. And now, 60 miles from his own backyard, the longtime Michigan resident has found the perfect scenario for what is literally shaping up to be a fascinating test of architect, owner, agronomist and golfer. There have been others in the past, but there is nothing like what Doak is building as the second -- and third course -- at Forest Dunes Golf & Country Club.

Quite simply, Doak is building 18 greens -- but 36 holes. By design, one day you will play starting at a first tee and finish on an 18th green. The next day, you will play an alternate first tee and out to the 17th green, then second tee to the 16th green and so on. The 18th green is used as 18 for both courses but played from two different directions.

Clockwise, counterclockwise. Out, back. Whatever the language they decide upon, it's confusing. But don't feel bad, Doak has had this idea for more than 20 years, loosely inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews, which was, and still is, played in both directions, and yet, even he can have the occasional glitch in his mental matrix as he tries to explain the new course(s) at Forest Dunes.

"We have a concept, and we're executing that concept," Doak said. "Only question is, will this be interesting?"

Having recently walked and played to five of the greens in one direction, and the same five greens in the opposite direction, the answer to that question seems obvious. Everyone will check the "interesting" box, but other questions will surface. Such as: Where's the next tee box?!

There will be lots of those to choose from, regardless of which direction you're going. And in its current state, which is still just a mix of sand, dirt, scattered trees and temporary pins, it's more confusing today than it will be on opening day, which should come sometime in the spring of 2017.

But what's clear is that Doak may be on to something.

In this evolving era of architecture in which the American game is being forced to address time, money, access and water, such an innovative and gutsy execution of outside-the-box thinking could become yet another solution to sociological and environmental concerns.

In the same space it takes to build one course, roughly 160 acres, Doak is giving Lew Thompson, the owner of Forest Dunes, two courses.

"Now that it's shaped, we know it's going to be interesting," Thompson said. "Which has relieved a lot of pressure off of my shoulders."

Doak take a swing on the site of Forest Dunes

The man behind Forest Dunes

Thompson, a 6-foot-5 native of Huntsville, Ark., is hauling around a little anxiety and a lot of anticipation on those shoulders. He owns Lew Thompson & Son Trucking, which started as one truck, making local deliveries, and has grown to more than 120 trucks serving a variety of outlets all over the country. (If you've ever seen a Butterball Turkey, it has been in one of Thompson's trucks.)

The multi-millionaire is a passionate 18-handicapper with a unique swing and a refreshing attitude on the world of golf. Having purchased Forest Dunes in 2011 for $3.25 million, he's close to tripling that investment on the further development of lodging and more golf to the remote but popular Michigan destination.

"I'm not in this for money," said Thompson. "Don't get me wrong, it's a business, but what I want to do is to build a place that people can come and enjoy."

Thompson comes to Forest Dunes on a regular basis, mixing, mingling, playing, drinking and smoking with his clientele. Not unlike Bandon's Mike Keiser, Thompson is of the people -- his people. But unlike a lot of wealthy developers who have had success in one industry, and thus, thrust their egos, attitudes and opinions into the world of golf, Thompson does a lot more listening than demanding. Which isn't to say he doesn't talk a lot.

In fact, Thompson is charismatic and cocky on the course, but when it comes to building and developing golf, he is leaving it to the experts -- in this case, Tom Doak and his team, which includes Eric Iverson, Brian Schneider and Brian Slawnik, three of Doak's longtime and trusted deputies. They have all been with him during and since building Cape Kidnappers, which opened in 2004.

An ideal property for a reversible course

Doak said he had a checklist of what he needed to try and execute the idea of building a course that can be played in both directions:

• A sand base, which simplifies a lot of things, most notably drainage.

• Not too many big trees, which often dictate specific angles and strategy to a hole.

• Relatively flat terrain, as fairways and green complexes need to make sense from both directions.

• A trusting owner who was willing to take a chance and not be consumed by rankings.

Certainly the ranking and success of the first course at Forest Dunes, built by Tom Weiskopf in 1998 and has always been considered one of the hidden gems of public golf in America, relieves some of Doak's pressure. Weiskopf considers Forest Dunes his best effort, and I've always agreed, listing it as one of my top 10 favorite public courses in the country.

If Doak were to build this as a property's first and second course, the concept and cost would be a sizable gamble.

But as a second and third course, having seen what I've seen, it's hard not to think Forest Dunes is only going to get better. Since Thompson's reign on what has been a dysfunctional and troubled past, he has added a lodge, which has 26 beds. One of five new golf villas is under construction and will ultimately add another 36 beds by the end of next summer.

The goal, between the lodge, villas and houses that will be in the rental pool, is 135 available beds by spring 2017. There is also talk of an additional clubhouse, restaurant and short course, but there's no specific timetable for those potential additions.

As for the new course -- both of them -- Doak said it will be fine fescue fairways and tees but bentgrass greens, keeping putting surfaces consistent with what's on the first course. There will be five par 3s and three par 5s, making two par 70s, with both playing as long as 6,800 yards.

"I like the idea of five par 3s," I said to Doak, as we hit shots to the roughly sculpted green complexes.

"Well, there's actually 10 of them," he said, carrying a leather bag, filled with old irons as he took swings in jeans and his work boots.

"Right -- 10 of them," I said, while shaking my head in amusement, which I did a lot throughout the tour.

Again, Mike Keiser claimed that in terms of golf courses, and as it relates to business, one plus one equals three. He says that one course is a curiosity, but two courses make a destination. What Thompson and Doak are doing is the intersection and literal interpretation of Keiser's equation and theory. At Forest Dunes, one plus one, in fact, equals three. And if two courses make a destination, so does three.

Back to Bobby Fischer for a moment: Doak says he is still working against himself to ensure both routings are considered equally interesting and arresting. "I won't tell you which one I think is better right now," he said.

And I bet we'll never know. Some things are best kept confidential. And that's for us to critique.

Tom Doak explains his reversible course on Morning Drive

Matt Ginella is Golf Advisor's Editor-at-Large and host of Golf Advisor Round Trip travel series on Golf Channel. Matt serves as resident buddy trip expert and captains a collection of VIP trips called Golf Advisor Getaways.
Commented on

I bet there are some existing courses, more traditional core routing ones, that could have tee boxes built in strategic locations that could allow you to get a reversible 9 holes out of an 18 hole course, or 18 reversible holes out of a 27 or 36 hole facility. This could create adventurous outings a change of pace, not as a core operating practice as Doak is doing from the get go.

Commented on

I heard about this 'reversible' concept at a local golf show.  what a BRILLIANT idea.  i think when other courses see the benefits of this layout (i.e.  36 holes of golf on a piece of land than typically only allowed for 18 holes), this concept/idea will become more prevalent.  I certainly hope that some day I get the opportunity to play here.

Creative minds are truly at work here.  Bravo.

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Commented on

If you have the chance to play FD, play it.  You won't be disappointed.  Well worth the money to play 18 and even better deal to play twilight.  Looking forward to our 1 night, 36 holes in August.  When the new course opens, we'll be staying 2 nights.  This is a true destination course.  It's refreshing to read that Lew Thompson doesn't sound like he's full of himself.  Appears like he's a regular guy who can hang out with my group who enjoy beers and cigars out on the course.

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Commented on

I played it last year on a buddies golf trip to Michigan and was very impressed with the layout, beauty, and amenities.  We stayed in the Au Sable lodge and the rooms were comfortable looking right out to the course.The best deal (if you're a senior) is to play consecutive days on a monday and tuesday at Forest Dunes and then Arcadia bluffs for around $80-$90 each!

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Tom Doak's reversible golf course is taking shape at Forest Dunes