TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- I had been anticipating my latest trip to Northern Michigan for quite some time because this was going to be my opportunity to play Tom Doak's reversible golf course, The Loop, at Forest Dunes in Roscommon, Mich. It's two golf courses in one – the Red and the Black – and it's a concept that's gaining some traction.
The Loop was a golf course project that certainly had its challenges, and I was anxious to see how Doak, who was inspired by the fact that the Old Course at St. Andrews has been played in reverse many times in its history, solved them. It would also be the first golf course -- or first two, if you look at it as two courses – that I would play on my recent Michigan trip. The rest of this adventure would include a round at one of my favorite spots, Bay Harbor in Petoskey, as well as a stay at the magnificent Inn at Bay Harbor, a round on the The Heather at Boyne Highlands; and a round each on The Wolverine and The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, where we also stayed. All-in-all, it was a pretty fair six days on the upper part of "The Mitten."
The Loop exceeds expectations
The Loop's Red Course at Forest Dunes (Mike Bailey/Golf Advisor)
I'm not sure reversible golf courses represent the future of golf, but they sure are intriguing. At the very least, The Loop is here to stay for a while and makes for a great addition to Forest Dunes Golf which also has the highly acclaimed Tom Weiskopf course.
Here's how the course works: On even numbered days the Black Course is played clockwise, but on odd days, it's played the opposite direction (the Red Course). There are two sets of tees, one set for each course, and the greens are done in such a way that they can accept shots from opposite directions. The idea with the reversible courses is to make Forest Dunes, which is sort of in the middle of nowhere, a destination unto itself with not just one or two golf courses, but essentially three different experiences. In fact, I found the most remarkable aspect of The Loop is that I felt like I was playing an entirely different golf course the next day. I had to work at it to recognize features from the previous day's round.
Of course, both greenside and fairway bunkers are challenging. You may be able to see certain bunkers from one direction and not the other, which means knowing the course, or paying attention to the yardage books at the very least, is crucial. A caddie can is most helpful in this regard.
The course uses the natural contours of the land, which was once covered with trees and used by the infamous Purple Gang bootleggers out of Detroit as a getaway location. There are still some trees, but for the most part they, don't block the line of play, but sprayed shots will find them. The natural vegetation is also a hazard and can crop up quickly swallowing up misplaced shots, so again, a caddie is helpful the first time around. It often pinches in.
As you might guess, neither the Red no the Black are easy golf courses. They play to a par 70 from about 6,800 yards from the tips.
Getting to the greens is just part of the battle, and again, a caddie can help tremendously in this quest. The caddie helps you figure out where to land your shots around and on these firm greens. Going at the flag, unless you're into the wind and coming in with a soft, spinning shot is usually not a good play.
Once you get to the greens, another adventure begins. Domed, they slope toward you and away from and seem to have infinite angles and possibilities. In other words, it's super easy to run off the back of a green. Pin positions are critical and can be difficult. Reading them is tricky (even the caddies seem confounded at times), and when the speed is up, two putts are a victory on each of them.
Still, this is golf played with everything you have – ball striking, putting and most of all, strategy. You want to come in at the right angles, make sure you miss to the correct side and most of all, stay patient. There are birdies to be made, but for the most part, you just have to let them happen.
Bay Harbor always a treat
Boyne Resort's Bay Harbor in Petoskey has been billed as the "Pebble Beach of the north," and the Arthur Hills-designed layout there certainly has plenty of stunning views around Lake Michigan, which can have more of an ocean look than a lake look because of its scope and size.
For me, it's always a treat to play Bay Harbor, especially the Links Nine (there are 27 holes), which sits above the water on bluffs that expose golfers to the wind and the elements. While I wouldn’t mind seeing a tweak or two on some of the holes, I find everything about this golf course intriguing and memorable. On this trip we played the Links and the Quarry courses, which couldn’t be more different. While the Links is largely along the coastline, the Quarry is dug out of an old cement and rock quarry, making for some nice vistas of its own.
Complementing this experience was a stay at The Inn at Bay Harbor, an Autograph Collection Hotel affiliated with Marriott, which opened in 1998. A couple of roommates and I shared the Presidential Suite, perfect since each gets a separate bedroom and bath and expansive common areas. Although The Inn at Bay Harbor is just a few years old, this Victorian style property has old-world charm in a laid-back lazy summer atmosphere. Spending time on the porch or balcony taking in the summer breezes is a big part of the experience. Dining, especially at the Vintage Chophouse and Bar to enjoy a steak and vino while enjoying the magnificent sunsets over Little Traverse Bay, is also part of the highlights.
More fun at Boyne's Heather Course
Also on the agenda was a round at one of Boyne's older golf courses, The Heather Course at Boyne Highlands. Designed by Robert Trent Jones, this is still one of my favorite layouts in Michigan. From the tips, it's nearly 7,200 yards with plenty of doglegs, trees, bunkers and water, which means it's a great test.
The holes are memorable and conditions were outstanding. I still can't seem to solve the 18th hole, no matter what I do. Apparently, when the course was built that was a problem, too, because Jones didn't want to put a large lake at the end of the tee shot on this straightaway par 4, but the owners needed a large irrigation pond, so they did it anyway. The result is a hole that garners much discussion. And they tell you to hit more club on the approach, which can be 200 yards or longer depending on your tee shot, all over water, than you think you need. I never believe it, for some reason, and came up just short to ensure double bogey.
Boyne Highlands also has some new instructional toys at the Boyne Golf Academy. In its indoor hitting bays, the staff can hook you up to its new GEARS setup, which uses sensors on the body and club creates a complete avatar of the golfer's swing. And since it's indoors, you can do this year-round, even during a ski vacation.
Winding it up at Grand Traverse Resort
Our last destination was also an old favorite – Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, which has 54 holes of golf, restaurants, shopping and excellent dining. Located in Traverse City, one of Michigan's favorite summer destinations to be sure, the resort features its iconic towers, which afford views of the golf courses and beyond.
The first course we played was the Gary Player designed Wolverine Course, which is by far the most playable of the two layouts. This is true resort golf with wide fairways, areas around the greens to miss and a fairly straightforward layout, although there are a few forced carries depending on the tees you play. To give you an idea of the difference of the two courses, one member in our group, who is a fairly low handicap player, fired a 73 on The Wolverine, only to blow up to the high 80s the next day on The Bear.
So what is it about The Bear Course that makes it so difficult? Your first clue is that it was designed by the guy they named the course after -- the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus -- who doesn't produce any golf courses that are particularly easy, especially this one. That's not to say it isn't fair, but golf skills are necessary to navigate it.
Off the tee, there are all sorts of pitfalls – difficult bunkers, thick rough, pinched in fairways. That's followed by difficult approaches to greens that are often well-guarded by bunkers and water. Club selection off the tee is critical. Named among the 18 toughest golf courses in America by Golf Digest, it plays to a rating of 76.3 from the back tees at just over 7,100 yards.
It's also worth noting here that this is a place where you'll want to have lunch or dinner in The Grille in clubhouse. They get it right at Grand Traverse, realizing that if they pay attention to the food and beverage, golfers will want to stay at the course to eat. For that matter, the non-playing guests at Grand Traverse Resort should treat themselves to the menu at the clubhouse, which includes exceptional appetizers like the Bang Bang Shrimp and lettuce wraps, great soups, salads and steaks.
And finally, we ventured into town, where Traverse City has one of the best pub and restaurant scenes in the state. First, it was stop off at the Cherry Republic downtown, where you can get everything cherry – wines, sodas, chocolate, ice cream and even salsa and ketchup. Then it was off to the Seven Monks Taproom. The food is well above average, but even better are the beers and ales. With dozens of beers on tap, there's something to please everyone's tastes – stouts, lagers, porters and pilsners of every imaginable style and all unique to this part of the country. The hardest part was trying to narrow it down to two or three, so I'd be in good shape to tackle The Bear the next morning.