A Long Golf Weekend in Michigan

By Graylyn Loomis

My first visit to Michigan was a master class in course architecture in which I helped to rebuild one course, played another with the designer, and stayed at a third with the team that had built it. I made the trip to Canal Shores, Forest Dunes, and Stoatin Brae with LINKS contributor Tony Dear, and we both found ourselves in awe of the knowledge and talent of everyone we encountered.

My short trip only scratched the surface of what Michigan has to offer in golf. Rest assured, I’ll be back to see more.

Day 1: Canal Shores

We actually started in Evanston, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago, at Canal Shores, a 100-plus-year-old community course. Like so many small municipals, it fell into disrepair over decades of neglect and lack of direction. A local golfer named Jason Way came to its rescue, restoring the tree-lined parkland course one bunker, one hole, and one brush-clearing session at a time. Way’s passion for the course has attracted volunteers who help with the projects, a group that now includes me. Just before I got there, two bunkers had been dug out next to the 14th green; we added wood sleepers to a greenside bank and re-sodded what was once cart path next to the green. I didn’t get to play the course, but at $26 for 18 holes next time I’ll bring my clubs as well as my shovel.

From Canal Shores we drove six hours to northern Michigan for a late-evening meeting with Tom Doak at Forest Dunes.

Day 2: Forest Dunes — The Loop

The Loop at Forest Dunes is a reversible course, meaning golfers can play it from hole 1 through 18, as well as from 18 back to 1. The routing switches directions every day between the Red Course, which goes one way, to the other, the Black. For most golfers, it’s necessary to spend two days at The Loop to experience both courses: Unfortunately, we only had one day; fortunately, we had Doak to show us around the opposite routing the night before.

The course is an honors thesis in thoughtful design. The green complexes make perfect sense approaching from either direction and, most importantly, there’s no point in the round where you stand on a tee confused about where to go next. All 36 holes appear meant to be there, which Doak attributes to the site and an owner willing to take a chance. The land couldn’t be too hilly or too dramatic: It simply had to be a canvas on which the team could build two courses in one. Doak built massive fairways and used bunkers to create optimal angles into the greens. You won’t miss many fairways or lose many balls, but if you aren’t in the proper position, it can be exponentially harder to score. As a sometimes wild driver, I loved it. The course was fun, not overly penal, and bewilderingly clever.

Day 3: Stoatin Brae

Stoatin Brae is the sixth course at Gull Lake View Golf Club and Resort in Augusta, Mich., located almost equidistant from Chicago and Detroit, about two-and-a-half hours from each. When Stoatin Brae—“grand hill” in Gaelic—was first being planned, the family that owns the resort contacted Doak, wondering if he’d be interested. Having just started on The Loop, he passed but recommended his team of associates from Renaissance Golf Design. It was the first time they’d designed a course without Tom’s input, but the owners of Gull Lake View, who’d built the other five designs themselves, were happy to take a chance.

The treeless course is laid out across an exposed hill that is one of the highest points in the county, so long views frame many of the holes. The fairway bunkering and greens feel decidedly Doak, with lots of short grass and opportunities to run the ball along the ground. The back nine is the hillier side, making it more visually impressive, particularly from its three memorable par threes.

Tony and I played Stoatin Brae twice, once with Doak, and we also talked at length with the Renaissance team about what they did and why. I was most impressed with how they turned the flatter front nine into a strategic challenge using well-placed bunkers and raised greens. Every shot required making a conscious decision, so the round was as mentally taxing as it was physical. I played very differently the second time around, using what I’d learned on the first loop to make more educated decisions. As with the best designs in golf, Stoatin Brae is more enjoyable the more you play and understand it—and something rarely seen on a resort course.