A look at Tom Doak’s brilliant reversible design, The Loop at Forest Dunes Golf Club
“Golf is a science, the study of a lifetime, in which you can exhaust yourself but never your subject.” – David Forgan
A golf course that can be readily grasped after a single round is not likely to ever be considered one of the game’s greats. The best courses require repeat play, and perhaps even a bit of study, to master—much like golf itself. The Old Course at St. Andrews ideally embodies this truth. The answers to the questions posed by the links are not printed on the scorecard. They are revealed to patient and persistent players over time, many of whom did not find themselves enthralled after their first loop. Those who are fortunate enough to experience The Old Course more than once almost invariably fall in love, as their initial confusion gives way to a curious desire to explore ever deeper its mysteries.
No modern architect has made a more thorough study of the links of the British Isles than Tom Doak. He wrote in his book Anatomy of a Golf Course, “Yet to truly understand the enduring popularity of golf and the essentials of good golf courses, it is imperative to become familiar with the British links over which the game evolved five centuries ago. The importance of studying the links is summarized by two facts: These are the courses over which the game itself was invented, and they have endured despite tremendous changes in all other aspects of the game.”
By the time the opportunity arose to return to Northern Michigan to build again, Doak and his team at Renaissance Golf had been successfully applying the lessons from the links to produce renowned courses such as Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, Streamsong Blue and many others. However, it would be at Forest Dunes Golf Club that he would finally be given the chance to draw fully upon the inspiration of The Old Course in bringing to life a reversible course with eighteen greens – The Loop.
In the 1921 British Open, Bobby Jones famously picked his ball up and quit after repeated unsuccessful attempts to extricate himself from a bunker on the 11th at St. Andrews. Suffice it to say that the Old Course’s charms were lost on him. It is equally well known that as time went on, his appreciation for the links grew to become an abiding love. Those who are not immediately enamored with The Loop from a single play can take heart to find themselves in a similar position to the younger Jones. They ought further be consoled to know that the architect himself, the resort owner, club staff and scores of players have been on a long-term journey with The Loop marked by moments when light bulbs flip on to shed progressively more light on the brilliance of this design.
The concept for a reversible course had been rattling around in Tom Doak’s brain for decades. He believed that if he could just find the right client with the right piece of land, the concept could become a reality. Enter Lew Thompson, owner of Forest Dunes Golf Club, who wanted to entice visitors to stay and play longer at the resort by offering a second course that would wow them. In Thompson, Doak saw his chance. He set about studying the land and collaborating with his associates on a reversible routing.
Twenty years of mulling it over, and it was still a tall task to figure out how to make the concept work. In an interview with Matt Ginella, Doak described the routing process. “Early on, I was thinking that the more we just make (the course) a big ‘C’ shape, the better off we’re going to be. But as I started to draw it…it’s more interesting to not just play into the same green from 180 degrees opposite. When you’re changing directions, you have a chance to play around with things…I think that’s the fascinating thing about the concept…Sometimes the orientation of the green is so much different that it doesn’t look familiar to you at all.”
After many hours of headache-inducing deliberation, the Renaissance team had their design ready to present to Thompson. The story goes that Doak showed his client the routing for one direction and the reaction was, “Nice looking course, but I’m not wowed.” Out came the course map for the other direction and it took Thompson a few minutes to realize what he was looking at. Same corridors, same greens, playing in the reverse direction. The response, “Wow.” Doak was not just giving Lew Thompson a second course. He was throwing in a third.
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Robert Falconer (@LoopSuper) is now the Superintendent at The Loop, but at the time construction was getting underway, he was working for a contractor. Falconer had a sneak peek at the plans and was not immediately impressed. “I thought that it looked goofy in some spots,” he recalled. “I commented that certain features seemed out of place. My boss asked, ‘Which way is the hole going?’” That question was one that he never had to stop and consider before and it took him aback. Like Thompson, the realization came that this was a different and special project.
The opening of The Loop was highly anticipated among architecture geeks, Doak fans and the media. As the fanfare of those early rounds dissipated, the course proved successful in its purpose of giving players a reason to stay longer at the resort. However, some felt that it lacked the same level of pizzazz as Weiskopf’s Forest Dunes course or others at comparable facilities. That impression is not entirely unfair. It is indeed simple and subtle at first glance. But those reviews speak more to the surface-oriented perspective of modern golfers than to the quality of the design. The Loop is not merely a single golf course, or even two. It is more than that. It is a work of architectural art that offers a glimpse into a genius golf mind at depths that cannot possibly be fully comprehended with one play.
Elliott Oscar is the PGA Professional at Forest Dunes who, like Robert Falconer, enthusiastically evangelizes the course. “The first time I played it, I thought it had a nice set of greens,” Oscar shared. “After more plays, I realized how much the green surrounds influenced play. Fifty plus plays in each direction later and I understand that every contour and feature is purposefully done. I like to go out late in the evening, play a few holes and then turn around to play in the other direction.” The Loop is not just a golf course. It is an experience.
My Journey with The Loop
When the announcement of the reversible course at Forest Dunes was made, I was tremendously excited. Like a good geek, I studied the course map and was convinced that I understood how incredible the courses could be. I was wrong. During construction, I had the privilege of going out with a small group led by Tom Doak to play dirt golf in both directions on several holes. Although disoriented at first, I got my bearings and concluded, “Now I get it.” Wrong again. As I played the finished course this season, pausing periodically to look back and find a different hole in the reverse direction, I sensed another light bulb flickering on for me. But this time, I was not fooled into thinking that I got it. Quite the opposite.
Talking to those who have been around the course numerous times, and who continue to make discoveries, I can see that I am at the beginning of my journey with The Loop. It promises to illuminate light bulbs for me with each round. That is the good news that Lew Thompson and Tom Doak want to share with every visitor to Forest Dunes, especially those who might have had a Jones-at-St-Andrews reaction. The greatest courses reveal themselves over time. They are a reminder that if we can open and properly orient our minds, we will find in brilliant designs like The Loop an inexhaustible supply of challenge and joy.
Special thanks to Evan Schiller for contributing his gorgeous photos. More from Evan on his website (https://www.evanschillerphotography.com/), on Twitter (@EvanSchiller) and on Instagram (@evan_schiller_photography).
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf